Friday, May 23, 2014

D&D Starter Set Fiasco

EDIT 05/27: This post was originally posted prior to the D&D Basic announcement. Some of the commentary loses strength based on this new revelation. However, some of my critique becomes even stronger in the face of this new knowledge (such as the lack of map and tokens). Let me know what you think in the comments.

I was having some Google+ conversations about the D&D Starter Set and thought I'd expand my thoughts here. I have concerns that Wizards of the Coast has not put enough content into their starter box to create even a reasonably good product. "Fiasco" may be a strong description, but it probably caught your eye.

On Starter Sets

What are the goals of a Starter Set?

Looking at the business goals, one would want to provide a low barrier-to-entry way for new players to get hooked on your product. This in turn grows the player base and creates new revenue from the sales of players "upgrading" to the larger product line.

In order to do this though, I also believe that there are game related goals (non-revenue related) a Starter Set has to attain in order to do the best job possible at achieving the business goals.

What I consider required for a starter set:
1) Low entry price

2) Character creation rules -- up to level 3 is nice, but level 5 is a bonus.

3) Short module with poster map (ala D&D encounters) which entails three to five combats with some story and role-playing examples to glue it all together for new DMs.

4) A GM booklet which includes a small "Monster Manual" that contains stats and some iconic monsters beyond those that appear in the include module. The booklet should include advice on running a game for a new GM as well as where to go from there (setting up campaign, adventure design, etc)

5) Pregenerated characters showing the base character archetypes

6) Easy to use (well laid out) character sheet

7) Cardboard PC and Monster Tokens

8) Dice

Additional nice to have upgrades:
  • Wet / dry erase battle map
  • Stand up tokens (rather than flat)
  • Precision dice

Paizo Sets the Standard

Pathfinder Beginner Box
Of all the things that Paizo has done right to capture market share, I think their Beginner Box sets a high bar for what should be included in a near perfect introductory RPG box. They hit every single item that I believe makes a great introductory RPG box set. Their price point was a little high for an impulse buy, but otherwise they hit every other mark.

Their books had fantastic layout and artwork and the instructions stepped a new player completely through a sample character generation and combat. The adventure was a pretty standard dungeon crawl, but it came with a great big wet/dry erase flip mat with the dungeon on one side and a blank map on the other.

Wizards Misses the Mark

Based upon what has been published so far, Wizards of the Coast is missing key components from their new starter box. Here is what is listed on the back cover of the box contents:
  • 32-page rulebook
  • 64-page adventure book 
  • 5 pregenerated characters
  • 6 dice
From this description, the D&D Starter Set falls far short of "Wow!" and largely in the realm of "meh."

1) Character creation rules are not included in the box. Wizards has noted it will provide some of the PHB character generation pages via free PDF, but digital content just cannot replace hard copy content in a beginner box.

If I'm a new consumer, unless there is a flyer specifically included in the box, I may not know to seek out the PDF download. Even if I do know, a download is mediocre replacements for a hard copy I can use and pass around the table.

EDIT 05/27: Now that the Basic PDF contents are better known (levels 1 - 20 with monsters, etc), this criticism is less valid. However, Wizards needs to make it really, REALLY obvious to the new player picking up this box set how to download the Basic PDF. It needs to be a giant freaking flyer in the box, or I still say this is a failure on their part.

Additionally, the Pathfinder class generation booklet in the Beginner Box wasn't just a cut and paste of the core rule book. It walked the new player through the character creation process and explained each item on the character sheet and how it relates to play. This is a much better approach for players new to RPGs.

EDIT 05/27:  Hopefully, the Basic D&D PDF will have a section geared towards helping total newbies with character generation.

2) No encounter maps. In the description, I saw no mention of a D&D Encounter style poster map. The box back cover appears to have map graphics on it, but it is not listed in the contents. If indeed there is no map, I see that as a serious minus. While 5th Edition is not as grid based as 4th Edition, most groups play with encounter maps and minis. Leaving the map out seems to be a lame way to save a few pennies of revenue on each set sold.

3) No tokens or standees. Again, even though 5th edition is less battle-map bound than the last two editions, who doesn't want stand up tokens for PC and monsters? This is a great visual aid for the new gamer and starts out a DM's collection of game accessories. Even "Theater of the Mind" style groups can get some benefit from maps and tokens.

4) No blank character sheets. I suppose it's possible there is a photo-copy page in one of the books, or more likely will be included in the character generation PDF. Even though this is less important than the 3 items above, I see it as just one more minus.

The Perfect Price

One thing Wizard of the Coast has gotten spot-on is the price point. At $20, it is the perfect impulse purchase price for parent or young gamers with a little allowance lawn mowing money in the pockets. The problem I see is that even with the lower price, the skimpier contents makes this Starter Set less than appealing. Yes, with the Amazon discount, the set is reasonable priced. But this does nothing for the FLGS or local retailer where the average new consumer might come across the $20 price point.

The D&D Starter Set has a page count of 96 wherease Pathfinder comes in with a hefty 160 page. If you take the $35 price point of the Pathfinder box, replace the flip-map (-$10) with a paper poster map, you could hit a $24.99 MSRP. Include only around 40 PC and monster tokens (instead of 80), and you shave off a few more dollars. Make them flat instead of stand up, and you can hit $19.99.

Instead, WotC chose to go for thicker profit margins. They forgot the razor blades business rules. Lose money (or break even) on the razor and make more on the blades. Instead of making a top-notch Starter Set that sacrifices a little short term profit for longer term gains, they decided to skimp on contents. This is a major disappointment.

Final Thought

No doubt Wizards will make good money on the Starter Set. They may even attract some new gamers instead of just re-selling to their existing D&D audience. But it appears they have learned nothing from the competition. Paizo has risen to the top of the RPG publishing heap (according to sales numbers from retail distributors) because they put out amazingly polished products. It is likely Paizo sacrifices some profitability because of this, but in the long run it has paid off in an audience that is rabid for their new releases. Their fans know that each new product will have the highest production values available.

Wizards of the Coast (Hasbro) should be listening. Their bean counters need to realize that an investment in consumer value at the front of the product line can pay off with the follow-on products down the line.

(Note, this concluding statement was written before the free Basic D&D announcement. They appear to have learned some things... and lastly, I critique because I love. I am actually very excited about the new edition. I just want WotC to knock it out of the park, and I don't quite see that yet.)

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