Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: A Forensic Analysis

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: A Forensic Analysis

dungeons and dragons logo2For the last two years, Wizards of the Coast has been getting feedback on their new “5th edition” set of rules from playtesters all across the world. July 15 marks the official release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, giving the world the first glimpse of the final version of these rules. Unfortunately, the D&D Starter Set provides only pregenerated characters with some advancement rules through level 5, and some basic mechanics, so it doesn’t consist of a full set of game mechanics or character creation rules.

In other words, it’s not enough to give us a full idea of what the final rules for 5th edition will look like … but it does provide enough information to get some hints about how the upcoming edition of the game will be structured. In general, the goal seems to be to streamline the system, making it very accessible to new gamers, but still providing enough substance and versatility that more experienced gamers will find the system desirable. It’s a tough balancing act, but looking over the D&D Starter Set, I feel a growing sense of confidence that the new system will achieve these objectives.

First, let’s look at what the D&D Starter Set contains:

  • A 32-page Starter Set Rulebook
  • 5 pre-generated characters: 2 fighters, 1 wizard, 1 rogue, and 1 cleric
  • Set of 6 dice
  • A 64-page adventure manual: Lost Mine of Phandelver

startersetThe character sheets are fairly streamlined, and I do like that they contain spaces for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws … indicating that there’s an emphasis on the roleplaying aspect alongside the statistics and mechanics of the system. I always get worried when that gets lost in the shuffle, and making it front and center on the character sheets is a good sign. The elaborate array of powers that came with 4th edition is gone, returning to a more consistent character structure. There is enough versatility that the two fighters are clearly different characters, but in a way that seems to be handled relatively straightforward from a mechanics standpoint. The character sheet overall has a feel similar to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, but without feeling like it’s a step backwards.

Looking through these various materials, there are some clues to some of the more significant new or modified mechanics. I’m comparing this mostly to 3.5, since I never actually played 4th edition, and it looks like in general they’ve chucked the majority of 4th edition mechanics:

  • Advantage & Disadvantage: Various powers, spells, or special abilities will provide an “advantage” or a “disadvantage” on a d20 ability check. This means that instead of rolling a single d20, you roll two d20s for the roll and take the better (for “advantage”) or worse (for “disadvantage”). This appears to be one of the major mechanisms for giving bonuses and penalties to rolls (along with proficiencies, which I’ll get to in a minute).
  • Backgrounds: Each character sheet has a “Background” listed on it and this appears to have give a direct benefit that provides a roleplaying difference between different characters. One of the fighters has a “Noble” background and the other has a “Folk Hero” background, and the related traits establish very different guidance for how those different backgrounds are treated by the aristocracy and the common folk. The other backgrounds shown are “Soldier,” “Criminal,” and “Acolyte,” which give benefits when interacting with members of certain organizations.
  • Saving Throws: Instead of the traditional Reflex, Fortitude, and Will saving throws that we’re all used to, the new system contains saving throws for all 6 abilities. Other than explaining that they exist, these limited rules don’t give much detail on how saving throws work. It’s not exactly clear, for example, when a Charisma-based saving throw would come into play.
  • Proficiency Bonus: Each character has a “proficiency bonus” that begins at +2 and increases to +3 at level 5. We can guess from this that the proficiency bonus probably increases by +1 every 4 levels. Each character is proficient with different combinations of saving throws, skills, and equipment. Again, without character creation rules, it’s unclear exactly how these are determined for starting characters, but the following points give some clues:
    • Saving Throw Proficiencies: Each character is proficient with two of the six saving throws. Both fighters are proficient in Strength & Constitution saving throws, so these are likely defined by the class. If this is true, then the pregen characters indicate that clerics are proficient with Wisdom/Charisma, Wizards with Intelligence/Wisdom, and Rogues with Dexterity/Intelligence … all of which make sense to me.
    • Skill Proficiencies: Each character is proficient in a number of skills. Both fighters and the cleric are proficient with 4 skills, the wizard is proficient with 5 skills, and the rogue is proficient with 6 skills. The fighters are proficient with two of the same skills and two different ones. This might mean that each class has a list of skills to choose from, or that the class sets some proficiencies and allows free selection of others.
    • Equipment Proficiencies: Each character has a list of equipment they are proficient with. Again, the two fighters provide some clues: both are proficient with “All armor, shields, simple weapons, martial weapons,” and these are pretty much the pieces of equipment that you’d expect all fighters to be proficient with. The Noble fighter is also proficient with “playing cards” while the Folk Hero fighter is also proficient with “carpenter’s tools” and “vehicles (land).” The different classes have different weapon proficiencies, and then also proficiencies with different pieces of equipment. The dwarf is proficient with “mason’s tools” and the rogue is proficient with “thieves’ tools,” which are again the sorts of things that are expected.
    • Proficiency Modifiers: Two other traits show up on character sheets that are worth noting. The lightfoot halfling rogue has an “Expertise” skill that allows them to double their proficiency bonus on Stealth or thieves’ tools checks, which I assume is a rogue class ability (although I suppose it could be a lightfoot halfling racial ability). The hill dwarf cleric has a “Stonecunning” ability that provides a double proficiency bonus on History checks related to the origin of stonework, which is pretty clearly a dwarven racial ability.
  • Finesse: Some weapons have the “finesse” property, which means that the player can select from either Strength or Dexterity to provide the modifier for attack and damage rolls. The weapons listed that include this property are dagger, rapier, scimitar, and shortsword.
  • Rituals: Certainly spells have the tag “ritual,” which means that the spellcasters can cast the spell normally or they can perform a 10-minute ritual to cast the spell, but doing so doesn’t expend the spell slot. A divine character must have the spell prepared, at least, but a wizard need only have the spell within their spellbook. The limited list of spells that have this property in the short rulebook provided are: Augury, Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Identify, and Silence.

Overall, I think these show some key features of the direction the game system is heading in, and it’s a favorable one. But the real question is whether the changes will be significant enough to actually produce a product that is better than the 3.5 edition of the game, which is still the version that everyone I know who plays Dungeons & Dragons actually uses (if they haven’t switched over to Pathfinder, which is itself based on 3.5 edition rules). If the new edition of the rules doesn’t end up as an actual improvement over what came before, it’s unlikely that many will invest their money into buying the books when they could just use the existing materials and continue playing the edition that they’re familiar with. Players switched from 2nd edition to 3rd only because 3rd edition (or at least 3.5) was clearly a superior system in many respects. Many players refused to switch to 4th edition because they felt it was not. Has Wizards of the Coast been able to develop a new system that will be an improvement over 3.5?

And for that … we’ll have to wait to see what happens when the complete Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook releases in August.

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I have my set pre-ordered.

I’m just hoping the combat system moves along faster than what 3.5 has.

also, I’m not sure why they are release the three core books so far apart.

James McGlothlin

Thanks for this in-depth review. I’m curious to see how people react to this new edition, especially given the Pathfinder lay of the land right now.

You said: “Many players refused to switch to 4th edition because it was not [superior to 3.5 in many respects].”

My own anecdotal take on the refusal of some to “switch” to 4th edition was that it was really a completely different game from earlier “editions.” In that sense, it wasn’t really an “edition” of D&D at all!

Personally, I grew up on “1st edition” (aka Advanced D&D), and didn’t play D&D again until 4th edition came out. I actually liked 4th edition, but mainly saw it as a strategy-battle game, not as an RPG.

One thing that I find curious about this whole edition war business is this talk of “switching.” Can’t a person play more than one edition? Why must one “switch”? It makes it sound like you’re converting to another religion or something.

I suppose the big issue here is that RPGs are a money and time investment and most of us have only limited resources of each. Therefore, I suppose, one is forced by such practical issues to go for one game.

Again, thanks for the review Mr. Jones!


I think the biggest problem with 4th edition was the perceived short life Wizards gave to 3.x and the fact that it was not an attempt to tweak an already popular system. Instead 4e was very different in some respects and was answering a very narrow set of problems with some of its solutions. It is a game designed around the assumption that the 15 minute adventuring day is a huge problem in 3.x.

I play 3.x and Pathfinder, but I also play a lot of 4e. In the post-Essentials version it is one of my favorite games. In fact, it is far less a “strategy-battle game” than 3.x. Though both editions have very long combats at higher levels.

That aside. There is no wrong edition of D&D. I enjoy them all, but I do think there are many misconceptions regarding 4e by people who haven’t played it but who have read about it on the interwebz.

Hey Andrew,

You wrote: “Players switched from 2nd edition to 3rd only because 3rd edition (or at least 3.5) was clearly a superior system in many respects.”

It certainly LOOKED like a superior system, what with all the beautiful graphics, and the customizations available with skills and feats. Also, there was a signal unifying mechanic, which necessitated less flipping back and forth to consult various charts.

On the other hand, all that extra stuff comes down to an awful lot of extra book keeping, especially at higher levels, which is part of the appear of some of the OCR games, or a game like Castles and Crusades, which is sort of original D&D with streamlined mechanics and far, far, far fewer charts and rules exceptions. I’ll be particularly interested in seeing how the new D&D compares to C&C, which has been our recent default fantasy game…

Until very recently, that is, when we’ve taken up Savage Worlds to try some Solomon Kane gaming. And from the GM end, I have to say how much I love NOT having go keep track of huge hordes of hit points. For a gm that prefers cinematic gaming and more story based games, it sure is hitting my sweet spot, although that may just be puppy love. Perhaps I’ll find something irritating about it as I continue to use it with my players…

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