05 January 2014

What's in it for Me? The D&D 4th ed. Starter Set

If you're like me, despite being diehard player of an out of print edition of DnD (or compatible 'clone' game), now and then you find yourself in the RPG section of your local game, book or toy store looking at the shiny new products for the current editions of DnD, or whatever other games are on the shelves these days. I believe that almost any product can be adapted to be useful in any game system, and using a fairly simple, barebones system like BECMI makes the process of bringing in new material really easy. In general you can just tweak the new rules you like to fit the game and ignore the rest. Sometimes that might seem to be easier said than done.

So, here begins an irregular series of discussions of new(er) products, with specific tips and advice on how to make use of them in your BECMI (or ODnD, Holmes, BX, RC, OSR, etc) game.

I'll kick things off with the DnD 4e Starter Set. Why? Simple. Look at the box! There's not an old schooler out there who wasn't curious on seeing this blatant homage to the 1983 Basic set, Frank Mentzer edited edition.

So, what's in the box?

64 Page DM's book
32 Page Player's Book102 PC and Monster tokens
10 "Action Point" tokens
63 Power & Item cards
1 small poster size outdoor battle map
1 small poster size dungeon battle map (printed on back of the outdoor map)
Blank Character Sheets 1 Set of Dice

Ok, battle maps are always cool. If you have an existing minis collection, this double sided poster map, depicting a woodland glade with monster lair on one side, and a random assortment of dungeon rooms on the other, will make a nice addition to your 'grab and go' scenery. Just add minis!

If you don't have minis, or don't want to get them out for every single encounter, the PC and Monster tokens are handy. A nice assortment of iconic PC types and standard monsters is provided, as well as 10 cards with no illustration, labeled "Action Point". We're not here to learn how to play DnD 4e, so we can either put those ten back in the box for storage, or use them as generic tokens for some monster not included in the assortment.

Dice. Well, duh. The dice required to play DnD haven't changed over the years. Another spare set is never a bad thing.

The Power and Item cards. Put them back in the box. Some have pretty art, but they are basically playing card sized stat block summaries of spells, "powers" and magic items that are found in the books. Useless outside a 4e game, in other words.

The Player's Book is setup as a "choose your own adventure (CYOA)" style affair, where the player's choices help build a PC from the basic selection of races and classes DnD4e offers. I found this to be an interesting approach, very evocative of the saga of 'strong fighter', the introductory CYOA style chapter of Frank's original DnD Basic Set, but in the end, it's heavy with DnD4e game mechanics, and sadly useless for our purposes here. Put it back in the box.

The Dungeon Master's Book is likewise fairly heavy on DnD4e mechanics, as is to be expected, but there are some bits we can use. Things start off with a simple description of the DM's "job" during a game, including some "Dungeon Mastering as a fine art" style advice, summed up as follows:
  • When in doubt, make it up
  • Use skill or ability checks
  • It's not a competition
  • It's not your story
  • Be consistent
  • Don't play favorites
  • Let players help
  • Be fair
  • Pay attention
  • Have fun.
The book expands each point with a little discussion, and while none of it is really new or game changing, they are handy points to keep in mind, especially for someone making their first leap into the DM's chair.

The book then jumps right to the point with a series of introductory encounters for 2nd or 3rd (the introductory CYOA adventure in the Player's Book takes the PCs through 1st level and ends with them advancing to 2nd level, to demonstrate the leveling process) level PCs. You might be thinking, as my co-blogger Darva did, "what use could encounters written in 4e stats be to my BECMI game?". Well, that's the whole point of this discussion, right?

It's different for every DM, but eventually, you're going to want to stock your own dungeon (thus this blog's name, Dungeon Stocking). Whether you have a published module like B1 or the original "banned" edition of B3 (which was, for the most part, unstocked like B1, left for the DM to customize. The revised edition most people have seen changed this and provided encounters and treasures for most of the map locations), or you're starting from scratch with a handdrawn map or a set of geomorphs, you're going to want to come up with some interesting encounters to make things fun and memorable. "You see another 20 by 20 room with 4 orcs waiting to fight you" gets old after a while.

I pretty much detest WotC's recent transition to the encounter by encounter tactical dungeon crawl format, where the big picture "plot" of the adventure and often, even the master map of the whole dungeon is ignored in favor of location by location encounters with little connecting material. I must say though, the encounters themselves are sometimes creative and interesting, so I propose melding the two formats, creating a "sandbox" style dungeon where the PCs are free to wander and explore as they see fit, but adding in some interesting encounters (monsters, tactical situations, traps, etc). Sandbox doesn't need to be 100% random, and planned doesn't have to mean throwing the players on the adventure script railroad with no control over things.

So let's look at the encounters provided, I'll include some thoughts on adapting them to BECMI DnD, including which monsters I'd choose to "drag and drop" in to replace those that are new to DnD4e. In most instances, this is my preferred method for adapting an adventure. Instead of reinventing the wheel for every creature you find, take a minute to browse your rule books and Creature Catalog(s) to see if a monster that already exists would be a good fit. The plethora of OSR blogs and games readily compatible with Classic DnD add a ton more monsters too, so in most cases, a bit of looking around for a good replacement will be quicker and easier than a painstaking conversion of the creature. Keep it simple, stupid! Only the coolest and most unique and interesting creatures should justify the time and energy of a full conversion!

The Starter Set adventure format

The encounters are presented using the following general format:

Encounter Name - if you decide to use this encounter somewhere, you'd probably make a note about it's location on your map here.
Encounter Level (Experience Point Reward) - You can use the EL as a very loose guideline to what level party of PCs the encounter is intended for, but EL, as with DnD3e's Challenge Rating before it is, IMO, a flawed mechanic. 3e and 4e have way too many variables in PC building to be able to scientifically decide which monster will provide the ideal challenge for the PCs. Use this number as a ballpark guideline, then use your experience and your knowledge of the PCs you are actually DMing for to fine tune things. Since we'll be replacing the traps and monsters in the encounters with those from Classic DnD, I'd ignore the XP reward notes and just tally things up using the rules from your edition of choice.
Set Up - This section tells you which portion of the battle mats to use, what monsters, traps, magic, etc will be in play, and any other information needed to stage the encounter. Any "boxed text" intended to be read to the players as they begin the encounter is here as well.
Tactics - Here the authors provide some examples, turn by turn, of how to direct the monsters in order to more effectively challenge the PCs. Just remember that these are guidelines, feel free to tweak or ignore them as the encounter progresses.
Monster Statistics - These are the DnD4e "statblocks" for the monsters and traps used in the encounter. This will be our main focus in this discussion, as I suggest what Classic DnD monsters to replace them with.
Features of the Area - Where appropriate, information is included on the environment, terrain and other factors of the encounter location that might affect how the encounter progresses. Poor footing, opportunities for cover or hiding, conditions that slow or block movement and other issues are noted and explained. Not every dungeon room is a perfectly square, perfectly flat and level stone room, using the quirks of an encounter area can do just as much as the choice of monsters and magic to make the encounter memorable.

Encounter 1:
Your First Encounter
Encounter Level 1