I picked up the Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition starter set a couple weeks ago and this last weekend, I was able to give it a try. I had been holding off on trying 4th edition D&D. I had heard mixed reviews of the game and it seems that people are pretty split. There is one camp that seems to think it is the ultimate edition of D&D and another that thinks they dumbed it down. Eventually, I realized that all of the negative comments about it I was reading might actually be a plus in my book. Still being cautious, I didn not buy the rulebooks, but bought this special intro set instead that comes with a slimmed down rulebook and adventure, "Dungeon Tiles," tokens and dice (no crayon this time). What follows is my review.
Box contents: Before I dive in to the game, let me talk about the contents of the box. The rulebooks are flimsy, but if you decide to continue with the game, you'll end up buying a hardcover rulebook before long anyway. The dice are plain and kind of boring, but they do the trick and are perfect for the new player who needs the dice. (I remember my early gaming days when dice were desperately scrounged for.....) The really nice things in the box are the dungeon tiles and counters. The tiles are the same as WotC has been packaging in their Dungeon Tiles line and I had been eyeing picking them up for a while to use with other games (like Heroquest, Warhammer Quest and Savage Worlds). After seeing the quality of these tiles, I wish I had. They are printed on sturdy cardboard and look fantastic. In this box, you get a nice variety that would allow you to make several rooms and hallways as well as some smaller tiles to add scenery to a dungeon, such as chairs. The tokens are also included. They are basically "pogs" with character images on them. Having a ton of D&D minis and other minis, I don't need them, but I do appreciate why some people would want to use them instead as they are still nice and infinitely more portable. The tokens represent a whole bunch of standard D&D monsters like Orcs, Skeletons, Dragons, and a Gelatinous Cube (woo-hoo!!).
Book contents: While this box gives the dice and counters that someone completely new to D&D would need, it does not do a good job of explaining the rules for newcomers. As a veteran of 3.0 and 3.5 (although I did not play a lot), I was able to fill in the missing gaps, but it was still disappointing. The art in the books (and from what I have seen the main rulebooks as well) is nowhere near as cool and evocative as 3.0 and 3.5, In fact the new D&D art style is almost cartoony.
The book does however give enough rules and information for experienced D&Ders to try out the newest edition including pregens for 5 characters and the level advancement information to take them up to level 3. There is a selection of monsters in the back of the DM book that helps a new DM prepare more adventures after the group has finished with the sample game included.
Speaking of the game, the adventure gives a good chance to try out the new combat rules but story-wise, it is a yawn-fest. So, I decided to spice it up a little. The scenario in the book has heroes hired to kill some goblins who are terrorizing a town. I instead made up a story that made it more personal and part of a bigger story arc, but still ended up with the PCs fighting the same group of gobbos. It worked pretty well and if you consider using this as a chance to try out the game and you are a GM, I would recommend adding some plot to it as well.
Game system: This is the problem a lot of people are having with the new system. The new system has removed a lot of the minutia and book-keeping of 3.5 which does, of course, sacrifice a lot of detail as well. Personally, I always wanted to run D&D as a fast-paced beer & pretzels RPG and this slimming down of the rules is perfect for that goal. The rules now only get crunchy in combat situations and in those situations they can still be fairly crunchy but outside of that, there isn't a lot.
If you are someone who enjoyed the infinite options of character building and the importance of having the "perfect character build", then 4.0 probably isn't for you. I haven't read the Player's Handbook but from what I have seen it sounds like what I have heard is true: There aren't a lot of different "builds" available. The strategy that will help you beat the dragons in the dungeons is no longer how well you know what feats go well with what classes but how you use the powers you are given once the game has started.
In battle, it seems like the new game will have lots of strategy as each class has access to abilities which not only dish out damage but tend to have some other effect like knocking the opponent off his feet or pushing them back several squares. I think this is a big improvement of my last game of 3.5 which felt like a contstant swapping of "I swing and hit for 10 damage, now you swing and hit for 10 damage, I swing and miss, you swing and miss, etc., etc." Now, Wizard classes aren't the only ones with options in a combat.
Overall: This starter set is a perfect thing to try it out if you know previous editions of D&D and want to see if the new rules are for you. I wouldn't give it to your little nephew however, unless you plan to walk him through how to play. The new system seems to be just what I was craving in a RPG: a system that allows for a fun but not too rules-laden dungeon crawl and a very basic framework for roleplaying.