Monday, September 6, 2010

2010 WOTC 4E Red Box: A Review



Would it be vain to suggest that the old school community is having a measurable impact on the marketing efforts of Hasbro and Wizards Of The Coast? While its certainly comforting to imagine that the design and distribution of the new 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Starter Set (4E Red Box) is a reaction to the blossoming of the old school community, it is just as likely that the look of the new 4E Red Box is simply a clever marketing ploy by WOTC, to get those parents who fondly remember D&D to buy a copy of this new D&D game for their kids.

Whatever the reason, the announcement of a new 4E Red Box several months ago provoked old-school and new-school fingers to race furiously across keyboards. Those groups alternately predicted that the 4E Red Box heralded the end of civilization, or a new golden age of role-playing.

Having recently purchased a copy of the 4E Red Box, I thought some might find it useful if I shared my thoughts regarding this product, now that the game is "in-hand."

The 4E Red Box is $20, is 9" x 12" , and is 2" deep, but don't let the depth of the box fool you into thinking you are getting 2" worth of gaming materials. WOTC could have made the box 1" deep and still have provided all the materials in the box. A 1" high, sloped, cardboard boxliner (sloped so the dice fit inside) reduces the interior depth of the box, so the enclosed materials won't flop around. Inside, you will find two 8.5 x 11" booklets (a 32-page players book and a 64-page dungeon masters book), a set of black dice with white numbers, a sheet of cardboard counters representing characters and monsters, a double-sided battlemat, four character record sheets, and several sheets of power cards.

The production quality is top-notch, as one would expect from Wizards of the Coast. The booklet artwork is full-color and bleeds to the edge of the pages. The cardboard character and monster counters feature art typical of 4th Edition D&D. WOTC has recycled the crossroads battlemat, appearing in other 4E products, but the reverse battlemat reveals a dungeon, designed specifically for the 4E Red Box. While only four character sheets are provided with the game, WOTC gives permission to photocopy the character sheets for personal use.

The Players Book is simply a two-column choose-your-own-adventure book consisting of 100 entries (with the manual being 32 pages, that works out to 3 entries per page). In making several adventure decisions, those 100 entries take you through 4th Edition D&D character creation. For example, your first choice, upon being ambushed, is to determine whether you wish to cast a spell, heal a comrade, sneak around the attackers, or confront them in mortal combat. Depending on which choice you make, this determines your starting character class. During three in-book encounters (two combat and one information gathering), you make additional choices about your alignment, starting weapons and equipment, ability scores, healing surges, and powers or spells. Once you finish the Players Book, you are encouraged to gather three or four friends, and have them walk though the included adventure to create their own characters.

There appears to be very little resource management in the 4E D&D. Neither the Players Book nor the Dungeon Masters Book provide any lists of equipment for purchase. Every character is assumed to have all of the materials he or she needs for adventuring (rope, torches, etc.). The resource management in 4E is all in about your hit points, healing surges, and powers.

The 64-page Dungeon Masters Book provides additional encounters and advice on how to run encounters. By the end of the encounters outlined in the Dungeon Masters Book, each of the characters should reach 2nd Level.

Is this boxed set worth $20? If you are interested in playing 4E D&D, and have never played Dungeons and Dragons (or any role-playing game) before, it is, and may be the product for you. But, while the contents of this boxed set are quite nice, if you have played role-playing games before, you don't need to buy this product. The character generation in the Players Book is oversimplified, and you don't need 32 pages and 100 entries to accomplish this exercize. It should take someone, with even a passing familiarity with role-playing games, no more 2-3 minutes to make the choices that might take 15-30 minutes following the examples in the Players Book.

If you are someone who played D&D 20 years ago, and want to get back into the "most recent" version of the game, this product is still probably not for you. Wait for the other more comprehensive D&D Essentials game materials. Understand though, that this is not the D&D you played in the 1980's, or even the D&D you played in the 1990's. 4E is an "encounters-based" game, with experience doled out for completing quests assigned by the referee, battling monsters, and participating in "skill-challenges", where you roll dice against a certain skill, in order to continue the adventure.

Did the 4E Red Box convince me to play 4E? No. It reminded me why I lost interest in 4E to begin with. But that doesn't mean that it is not right for you. If your favorite part of D&D was engaging in combats, participating in heroic quests, and obtaining magic items, and least favorite was role-playing your character, solving puzzles, exploring abandoned ruins, and managing your material resources effectively, then 4E is worth checking out.

28 comments:

David J. West said...

Thanks Paladin, you have confirmed what I was suspecting.

Cimmerian said...

Good review. Having opened a box myself, my opinion is that it was created for a new gamer. I have never played 4e but would imagine that it would be a little much for a kid say in the 6th grade to pickup on their own. I think I started playing (Moldvay) at about that age so maybe that is what WotC is thinking.

New Fish In An Old School said...

Thanks for the review, great insights and a helpful review for those, like me, who are tempted to dole out the cash just for the box but wondered about the contents. I read on Erik Mona’s Facebook page that Paizo will be publishing a basic/rules light box set set for Pathfinder in the next year or two. That should prove interesting as well.

John Williams said...

"If your favorite part of D&D was engaging in combats, participating in heroic quests, and obtaining magic items, and least favorite was role-playing your character..."

That's a great line.

This is what I think...

1) Cash in on nostalgia - Check

2) Use picture from previous edition to avoid paying new artist, and also cash in on nostalgia even more - Check

3) Find another way to cash in on nostalgia by referring to it as the Red Box edition - Check

5) Make a great rules lite game - Did We mention nostalgia, this product has a lot of nostalgia...

kelvingreen said...

Would it be vain to suggest that the old school community is having a measurable impact on the marketing efforts of Hasbro and Wizards Of The Coast?

I don't think so. They released a scenario with a hexmap a few months ago, and Paizo have just done an entire campaign, sorry, Adventure Path, based around a hex-crawl. All this after the OSR bloggers spent a a year or so extolling the virtues of the hexmap sandbox. Someone is paying attention.

Atom Kid said...

I looked through an advanced copy about 3 weeks ago and was excited! Then I looked through it and the excitement fizzled. It's just not for me, yeah it's cool that they used the old Elmore art but that's about the only cool thing about it. I've got the original Red Box so I don't think I'll need this one.

It is a good tool for getting kids into D&D though.

Havard: said...

I am pretty sure the majority of the game designers working for WotC grew up playing old school D&D.

Yoo-Hoo Tom said...

Just got done with my first Red Box game with my nephews. I was extremely pleased with how well it went. I've been playing 4th ED for a while now and I'm still not 100% happy with it, but overall it's still D&D. I've already ordered 2 more for xmas.

jonhendry2 said...

Get this tool ^.

Wow.

sirlarkins said...

Yeah, he left the exact same comment on my latest post too. And became a Follower.

Beleted and blocked.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Yoo-Hoo Tom said...
Just got done with my first Red Box game with my nephews. I was extremely pleased with how well it went. I've been playing 4th ED for a while now and I'm still not 100% happy with it, but overall it's still D&D. I've already ordered 2 more for xmas.

As long as everyone's having fun, that's the main thing. Happy gaming!

A Paladin In Citadel said...

David J. West said...
Thanks Paladin, you have confirmed what I was suspecting.
The upside is I have a box to carry my B/X/C books in now.

sirlarkins said...

The upside is I have a box to carry my B/X/C books in now.

Funny, that's not the first time I've seen that sentiment expressed about this set. It might be worth picking it up in the secondary market (eBay or somesuch) just for the box!

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Cimmerian said...
Good review. Having opened a box myself, my opinion is that it was created for a new gamer.

Absolutely.

New Fish In An Old School said...
Thanks for the review, great insights and a helpful review for those, like me, who are tempted to dole out the cash just for the box but wondered about the contents.

$20 is a lot, just for the box. You might be able to sell the power cards to a 4E player to cut your losses though.

John Williams said...
This is what I think...
1) Cash in on nostalgia - Check


I've seen more than one blogger play the nostalgia card while contemplating the purchase of this boxed set.

kelvingreen said...
Someone is paying attention.

Seems like it. But are they admitting as much? That I havn't seen evidence of.

Atom Kid said...
It is a good tool for getting kids into D&D though.

Yes, if they don't have someone to mentor them. If they do, they should wait for the Essentials line to be released.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Havard: said...
I am pretty sure the majority of the game designers working for WotC grew up playing old school D&D.

I don't know any of them. I'm sure they're all decent chaps and ladies. Help me connect the dots here...

A Paladin In Citadel said...

sirlarkins said...
The upside is I have a box to carry my B/X/C books in now.


Funny, that's not the first time I've seen that sentiment expressed about this set. It might be worth picking it up in the secondary market (eBay or somesuch) just for the box!

I don't know that i'd recommend buying the box, simply to carry other gamebooks. But if you can get the box for cheap on resale, why not?

:)

Tim Shorts said...

Thanks for the review Paladin. Sorry you had to spend your money on it. I can see where it would be helpful to some, but your review definitely makes it easy for me to pass it by. I was also interested because of the old school look, but you have shown me the truth. As a paladin should.

Clovis Cithog said...

thanks for the review -
4E is not the game for me

in my humble opinion -
a compromise between 1st and 3rd edition would be the ideal game

ascending armor class and skills,
but NO psionics, feats and reduced prestige classes

Mr. Gone said...

I was going to pick this up this weekend, actually. I've never owned any 3rd ed stuff, or 4th ed stuff, and wanted to try something new. I'm glad I read this review.

James C. said...

Would it be vain to suggest that the old school community is having a measurable impact on the marketing efforts of Hasbro and Wizards Of The Coast?

I might be splitting hairs here, but I rather think that the two phenomena (OSR and this new box) are symptoms of the same underlying nostalgia vs. being causally related. Maybe that's what you were saying as well, Paladin... the measurable impact being that the suits already understand that nostalgia sells in other markets and the OSR shows it can with RPGs as well.

That the blogging community and the so-called OSR was at the vanguard of it seems fair and accurate... but my sense is that sites like this, as personally interesting as they are to me and others, are only the crest of the wave WoTC is hoping to tap into.

Consider the reportedly 12,000 boxes a month (posted by James Mal) sold at the start of the D&D hey day... I'm guessing a tiny fraction of those folks have actually heard of Swords & Wizardry et. al. by now and likely will never discover the existence of retro-clones. Despite this, I'd suspect that many among them could have fond memories stirred up at the sight of Elmore's iconic red dragon and fighter at their local Borders.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Tim Shorts said...
I was also interested because of the old school look, but you have shown me the truth. As a paladin should.

I'm always happy to serve the Lord of Gothridge Manor.

Clovis Cithog said...
thanks for the review -
4E is not the game for me


Nor for me, but it was interesting to review, if only to confirm that fact.

Mr. Gone said...
I was going to pick this up this weekend, actually. I've never owned any 3rd ed stuff, or 4th ed stuff, and wanted to try something new. I'm glad I read this review.

I hope you find the right game for you!

James C. said...
Despite this, I'd suspect that many among them could have fond memories stirred up at the sight of Elmore's iconic red dragon and fighter at their local Borders.

If they get some enjoyment out of the 4E Red Box, more power to them. Many lapsed D&D players preferred combat, questing and magic item acquisition, and this game will certainly scratch those and the nostalgia itches.

Havard: said...

4E Designers:

@Paladin I don't know any of them. I'm sure they're all decent chaps and ladies. Help me connect the dots here...

Mike Mearls, Rob Heinsoo, James Wyatt, Stephen Schubert and Andy Collins are credited on the covers of the 4E "Core Books".

I don't know them, but I am guessing that they were gamers before getting into game design and if so, I would be surprised if they didnt play old school D&D at some point. No idea if these were involved with the 4E Red Box or if that were someone else.

-Havard

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Havard: said...
I don't know them, but I am guessing that they were gamers before getting into game design and if so, I would be surprised if they didnt play old school D&D at some point. No idea if these were involved with the 4E Red Box or if that were someone else.

It would be interesting to hear (the truth) from someone on the inside, on how the pitch went for the 4E red Box. I can't fault them on a brilliant marketing plan, I would absolutely want to tap into the nostalgia of parents buying D&D for their kids.

Dungeonmum said...

Thanks for this. I got a freebie D&D Basic Game box set with an SFX subscription and had a go with that at the weekend. Several bottles of wine later the players, both noobs and veterans had lost interest - it wasn't challenging enough for the old schoolers and the young'uns just got bored. I thought it was just my crappy DMing style but a player later told me it was just the contents (or lack of them) of the game.

I paused to pick up and read the back of one of these Red Box Sets in the FLGS today, I'm glad I put it back down again. Whilst I don't consider myself either a newbie or a veteran player I think the best route for me to get into DMing would be to try out some of the newer retroclone stuff.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Dungeonmum said...
Thanks for this. I got a freebie D&D Basic Game box set with an SFX subscription and had a go with that at the weekend. Several bottles of wine later the players, both noobs and veterans had lost interest - it wasn't challenging enough for the old schoolers and the young'uns just got bored. I thought it was just my crappy DMing style but a player later told me it was just the contents (or lack of them) of the game.


Your daily dungeon vignettes are pure gold. If they are anywhere near how you would run a game, then you should have no problem attracting faithful players.

4E doesn't seem to be designed for logical puzzles and tricks. I'd be interested to be corrected on that score.

The Lord of Excess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Lord of Excess said...

Good review thanks Paladin! I still might snag a box for the kids for xmas ... you can get them on amazon for like 14 bucks I think. The choose your own adventure aspect sounds like a fun thing to walk a small child through for the first time (would be awesome for my 7 year old).

I don't care what anyone says ... I have a strong nostalgia for old D&D my first experience was the Frank Mentzer Red Box ... way back in like 1986 ... I was 11. I had a few glorious summers with Basic D&D and then sports, girls and eventually booze stole me away from gaming for quite some time.

A few years ago I bought a nice nearly mint copy of the game and have looked it over a few times and had fond memories. I agree with comments that this is a marketing move by WoTC ... look its Hasbro ... look what else is on the market ... Transformers, GI Joe, My Little Pony and on and on ... all stuff from the late 70s early 80s. I have kids of my own now and I'm buying things for them. That is absolutely what this product is ... per this review as evidence ... clearly there isn't much in the box for an old Grognard. Though most of the WoTC game designers grew up playing classic TSR D&D ... I don't think many of them listen to the 3.5, Pathfinder, Old School fans ... those folks are never going to buy 4E ... I would say it would be rather stupid to listen to people who are happy with their older versions of the game about anything ... they aren't potential customers.

As an adult ... I honestly have found that the rules lite games are more appealing ... but even there ... I play stuff like Prime Time Adventures, Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Savage Worlds, Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel/Empires, etc. ... I own Labrynth Lord and Tunnels and Trolls (just saw Rick Loomis last weekend at Strategicon) and I have to say both of those games make for AWESOME beer and pretzel style one shots and mini campaigns (3 sessions usually) ... but I'd never play one of those games for months on end ... too many video games and shots to the head on the gird iron I guess. As much as I look the part ... I just can't play the role of a Fat Beard who clings to my old games and proclaims any new game as inferior. I have said and will continue to say ... stop fighting about what version of D&D you prefer and start converting people away from World of Warcrack ... back to ANY type of tabletop gaming.

Though I have a penchant for rules lite ... I also enjoy 4e as the weekly D&D game ... we smash shit up ... have awesome gritty combats and lite RP on the side. For deep RP we do other games on an occasional basis.

As always though the divide continues ... smug old school fans vs. the so called "tools" ... the version war continues. The only "Tools" are the people who burn down the gaming community with conflict ... any tabletop gamer has alot more in common with other tabletop gamers ... despite D&D version preference .. than not.

Play what is fun for you and let others live in peace. Old School is here to stay (has been since it was new school) and the new school stuff ... well if it brings new people to the hobby or brings old timers back for whatever reason ... let them have fun.

Maybe one day they'll decide to play an Old School game. But as always ... statements like this tend to fall on deaf ears.

Anyway thanks Paladin ... clearly you get it ... you have a damn fine Blog sir and as always I continue to enjoy reading it!

infrequentdm said...

4E doesn't seem to be designed for logical puzzles and tricks.

The 4E DMG has a section, in the chapter on non-combat encounters, on puzzles and how to build them into your adventure.

There is quite a bit of "exploring abandoned ruins" in 4E, starting with the short adventure in the back of the DMG and continuing in the first WotC 4E adventure, The Keep on the Shadowfell. Well, abandoned by the original owners. Now possessed by monsters.

4E de-emphasizes managing material resources in favor of hit points and powers, as you correctly point out. However, I remember glossing over ammunition and encumbrence in my 1E and 2E games in high school, too. They weren't fun.

I haven't picked up the Red Box. I was planning to get it for my eight-year-old for Christmas, but poor reviews mean I might not.

Short of actually playing 4E, I think the best product for evaluating 4E is the DMG.