The Right Way to Learn-D&D Starter Set Review

Continuing its trend of inviting new players into the hobby, Wizards of the Coast has released the Basic Set for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. Included is everything needed to learn the rules of the game and start playing, with a substantially reduced cost as compared to even one of the core books. This boxed set with glossy paperback text contains five starter characters, a set of dice, basic rules sufficient to playing the game, and the Lost Mines of Phandelver, an adventure meant to introduce players and DMs into the concepts necessary to continue play. Note that there are no tiles or miniatures. This focuses on theater of the mind play, and your DM will have to describe the maps provided in the adventure. Given that many of them contain situational descriptions themselves, it is made much easier on his or her part.

The box is decent quality cardboard that keeps everything together well and is sure to hold up and look good on a shelf. There aren’t any special components for storage, but I get the sense that it is not meant to be reopened more than a few times. The cover sets the stage well, displaying a classic scene of adventure and combat in a unique location. It is vaguely reminiscent of the old Basic Set for those of you who have been around long enough to remember it.

The books are glossy paper stapled together, so needless to say they will not last very long. That said, the rules sections are available for free online and these are meant to be pure introduction. Most likely the quality was intended as a cost saving measure for components that, are only meant to last an introductory campaign. For myself, I prefer knowing what I pay for will stick around for a while, but with the advent of digital distribution the sting is slightly reduced.


The dice are…well, they’re dice. A nice single color set of moderately heavy plastic that, I have confirmed myself through quality testing, do in fact roll with some assistance. They pass the test of being dice, but do carry the issue that the single set provided will have to be passed around the group unless the other members get their own sets. Yes, dice are dirt cheap unless you insist on one of the special sets, but the fact remains that the starter set makes it strongly beneficial to make an additional purchase to get the best use out of it.

The rules for players are those outlined in the player’s handbook, albeit truncated so as to not make the core book redundant. Only a few races, classes, and backgrounds are featured, and advancement goes up to higher levels but only with one of the classes’ multiple archetypes. The spell list is similarly limited, but given how much of the core is dedicated purely to spells, this is probably better so as to not overwhelm new players. I have covered the rules of the game themselves in the Player’s Handbook review, but it bears reiterating that they are concise, playable, and extremely welcoming to new players. The basic rules lack any artwork, but the pages carry a scroll-like coloration that elevates them above a bland pdf.

The Dungeon Master’s rules are of similar quality. They give all the basics needed to get up and running: monster types and CR, a few magic items as potential rewards, and how to handle experience. Most of the rules are taken up by a basic monster list that is surprisingly extensive considering it is a free resource. A vast number of these monsters are animals, which may or may not ever come up depending on your game style, but certain standards such as goblins, orcs, and of course the famed owlbear make their return. The generic list of NPCs is something I appreciate and believe should be a mainstay in any game, core book or otherwise. The headache it saves to know there are basic guard or thug stats somewhere is a nice backup for any DM.

While the basic rules do cover character generation, five pregenerated characters come provided to get new players up to speed without that immediate barrier. Each of these is competent, and I could believe a real person made them. This is a nice rarity. Some books have starting characters I would be deeply afraid of taking into the game world. They have reasonable strengths to fulfill their roles and weaknesses that will keep the character interesting without threatening to cripple them in any unfair manner. They have all of the special abilities filled in, saving additional time, and each has their own backstory with associated ideals, bonds, and flaws.

starter-set-fighter-1The characters are narratively complex but mechanically accessible.

These characters show the real impact of the underlying theme of the starter set: showing new players the ropes. These backgrounds are familiar enough to not subvert expectations but well written enough to feel fresh. More importantly, it sets the ground rules, clearly but not forcefully explaining the tone and feel D&D is meant to elicit. The party bases are covered including fighter, rogue, wizard, and healing-focused cleric. The one gripe I have with the starter characters is that two are fighters. Any party with two characters of the same class is bound to end up with toe-stepping to some degree. To Wizards’ credit, this is only a problem with the maximum number of players…unless two people want to play fighters for some reason. They also have very different backstories and stats, so the problem is reduced. In a way it is a positive in that Wizards has managed to show the diversity available to members of the same class, but looking at them one gets the strong sense one is more a ranger and the other a straight fighter or perhaps paladin. I take it Wizards wanted to limit the available classes in the basic rules.

The real meat here is the Lost Mines of Phandelver, a starter campaign taking your characters through the first five levels, designed to get everyone up to speed on what it means to play D&D. It would be indecent of me not to praise the design of this adventure highly, though keeping in mind it is intended as a learning tool. Make no mistake, veterans will enjoy the challenges and play here, but will have to relieve themselves of some of their knowledge to do so entirely. It’s like watching a new Disney film: knowing all the beats and pacing doesn’t stop you from enjoying it, but the experience doesn’t compare to when it was all completely fresh.

CaptureThe first dungeon is simple yet deep; rewarding exploration and careful planning.

That digression aside, it is simply fantastic as a tutorial. It sets up all the best in how D&D games are supposed to run. We start in the most basic of basic scenarios, just to meet expectations: a cave full of goblins your party has to deal with. The first encounter is away from the cave, on a fairly open road. This gives your players a chance to understand concept in pure vacuum, getting their heads around initiative, attacks, and damage. The road to the cave is lined with traps, but no goblins. This means they learn to watch out for such hindrances, but without being punished for it by getting swarmed. Goblins as an enemy type are traditional, but their special ability avoids most attacks of opportunity, making it another rule you can slowly introduce when it becomes appropriate.

What follows is a hub town with multiple side quests meant to show the players more lessons. The town is a great genre introduction. Its NPCs offer quests but are memorable on their own. Each has a logical relationship to the quest they send the characters on. There are shops where they can sell goods, get essentials, and chat about local goings on. The more time the players devote there, the more connected they feel to the town, urging them to fight for more than gold and XP.
The quests are designed to teach valuable lessons about D&D: exploration is rewarded by faster routes to the goal, more interesting encounters, and better rewards. Tactics such as stealth and diplomacy DO work, and forging blindly ahead will get you killed. The encounters are varied and dynamic, forcing your players to learn to think with their heads and your DM to learn how easy it is to make dungeoneering exciting.

These side quests slowly suggest a larger plot at work, culminating in a final, climactic dungeon which tests all the skills your players have learned along the way. This structure is meant as a teaching moment for the DM: “this is how you set up a campaign.” Small adventures can be interesting on their own, and it only takes a letter or a name drop to tie it to something bigger the players need to investigate. Along the way you meet familiar NPC types, but also a few fresh faces you may enjoy keeping around for a continued game. The monsters you fight are mostly expected, but a few jump out at you with their air of mystery and terrifying power. The magic items you get are unique and have their own history, spicing up gameplay wonderfully.


You can tell from the jump in complexity between the first and last map alone how far you can come as a DM with this adventure.

You may have heard of the game’s lethality. Depending on how your DM runs it, it may be a highly lethal game. This adventure doesn’t pull its punches, and you need all your wits about you at every stage to keep these starter characters alive. In no way is it an unfair adventure (insert Dark Souls reference here), but I have to feel the real balancing factor is one the starter set can’t rightly rely on, a DM who knows how to balance. If four goblins focus on a single first level character, he will die. Fast. A DM should not do that, but you can only know that through experience. Maybe the idea is to drive the point home to the players to be careful. Maybe the idea is that as a starter set it is a safe place for DMs to learn these things. I can’t speculate, but what I can say is to keep this in mind during play. You need to be careful how you handle encounters, whether as player or DM.

All said, this is a fantastic buy for someone trying to get into the game or curious as to where to get started. It is much less expensive than the core books or Hoard of the Dragon Queen. More importantly, it gives you everything you need to learn how to play the game, even if you start with no experience. You could very well continue the campaign if you so choose, and there are some third party adventures available for free if you want more of a guiding hand. For a solid five sessions, a trial run of the game, and an intro into D&D, this is a wonderful purchase.

D&D Starter Set
Published by: Wizards of the Coast
Players: 2-7
Ages: 14 and up
Mechanics: Role playing
Weight: Medium
MSRP: $19.99

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John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:



D&D Starter Set

Review Guidelines

The starter set and Lost Mines of Phandelver are a quick and cost-efficient way to start your group on D&D. While it won't last long and has little to no replayability, the quality of the adventure is high enough to create some great memories.

John Farrell

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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