Unboxing the D&D Essentials “Red Box”

So I’ve done a couple book reports before. It’s something I’ve meant to do a lot more of, just to keep this site interesting. I read enough books, I may as well do something useful and sharing with that fact.

So anyway, speaking of useful and sharing, I recently was overcome by a fit of marketing induced nostalgia and purchased the new D&D 4th Edition Essentials “Red Box”. The D&D Red Box is something that’s about as sacred to a gamer of my generation that you can get. Way back in “nineteen dickety-doo” I was a young lad of about 12, and I had spent a lot of time staring at the AD&D books during my many trips to the bookstore with Pop. Not even knowing exactly what it was I decided to get into it, if nothing else because it looked so cool and was about swords and stuff.

The original D&D Red Box was a gateway into the game, but it was more than just a gateway. It was a game you could actually play. It supported levels 1-4 (if I remember correctly), which is a good long while of game play if you do it right. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

So I was pretty excited about getting a new Red Box. I have been fairly disappointed with the Fourth Edition (4E), but the Essentials line is touted as a return to basics, to the original “feel” of the old game. The box itself and the Elmore art on the front and the promotional posters at the gaming stores directly target that nostalgia, and what I was expecting was the feel of the old game, enhanced by the packaging of the old game, along with 4E rules, and 4E rules that had been “fixed” to help create that role-playing feel of ye olde tymes, as opposed to a very limited miniatures combat game.

Let us relive my unboxing of the new Essentials “Red Box”:So far so good. This is why we bought it, after all. It’s a big, red box, and it’s even got the original artwork on the cover! I am excited to open it.

And open it I do! There is a slim red rule book with a bag of dice sitting on top of it, just like when I bought the original back in the 80s. This box is bigger than the old one, though, and I was expecting a bunch more content. I was puzzled by the angle at which the books were sitting. I also noted that the vintage Elmore art had been replaced on the book covers with some modern styled art.

PACKAGING!The dickery started here, and it didn’t really stop.

In all fairness to Wizards, they tell you exactly what the contents are on the back of the box. But this is a review, and I am going to review those contents. You get a MAP! Some CARDS! Some TOKENS! Bleah. The big deal is the two rule books and the dice. That is what is important. The other stuff is just filler, really. You don’t need any of that stuff to play a game of D&D. I bought into D&D when I was 12 and didn’t even OWN a miniature until I was in high school.

OK, this is where I actually started to get mad. I waited for a while to write this review, because after I read through the two rule books I felt as if I had tried to pet a really nice looking dog who was wagging his tail at me, right up until it bit me in the groin. The original Red Box had several sections in it, and the first one was a choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) solo quest thing that introduced you to the concept of role playing (RP). How many kids of my generation had their first adventure going through those same catacombs chasing down Bargle the Evil Wizard, ending up by dragging that poor cleric he poisoned back to town? From there the races and classes were explained, there was a section on character creation that had a list of weapons, armor and equipment, and then at the end there was the basics of the rules laid out. The Dungeon Master’s (DM) section was a big mysterious book of monsters and even more rules and tips on how to create an adventure.

This…. THIS! This was not that. Someone at Wizards decided to be clever. Clever is OK for collectible card games (CCG), but piss on CCGs. This is D&D, and there is a certain expectation. What do you get? You get a CYOA that is the ENTIRE PLAYER’S GUIDE. You start off cold, being attacked while sitting on a wagon, and your actions determine your race and class. You know, that bit of cleverness would be cool if it were followed in the book by anything else that looked like a player’s guide. Maybe some blocks of stats, an equipment list and a section of rules. But you don’t get that.

Those are the only two tables in the entire book. Maybe the rest of the game information is in the DM book? But it isn’t. The DM book is a couple of paragraphs about being a DM, and then mostly an adventure scenarios to go along with the map included with the box.

With the original Red Box you had everything you needed to play the game for four levels for about $10-$15. With this new 4E Essentials product you pay $20 for a barely involved presentation on what a role-playing game would have been like if they could have been bothered to include one in the box.

I wasn’t expecting a lot of stuff from the Red Box. But I expected a lot more than was actually in it. The dice were OK, is about the nicest thing I can say about it. OK, so I have a bunch of 4E books from before Essentials and don’t need this anyway, right? But what do you do when you’re just getting into the game, when you’re a 12 year old interested in swords and stuff like I was back in the 80s? Can you buy the new “Red Box” and play the game? The answer to that question is sort of. This product is a “starter set” in a very literal way. You buy this product, are introduced to the game, you have enough to muck about with the game and an idea about RP but not much more beyond the included adventure. So what do you get out of it? With the original Red Box you could play three or four levels worth of adventures, which is hours and hours of fun. This new Red Box? For $20 you get an evening, maybe a single weekend of actual gaming. Then you have to branch out into the other Essentials products. 10 “core” products to play the game, each about $20 or so (if you can figure out which one you need). And those are a mess I’m not even going to get into.

The verdict? Waste of time and money, even if you’re 12 and wanting to get into RP. Honestly, this product is a bit insulting to the intelligence of 12 year olds. If you’re a geezer like me you should resist the packaging and the nostalgic impulse. If you’re a kid wanting to get into RPGs, there are better ways to do it, like earlier editions of D&D or AD&D. Even if you’re sold on the idea of “modern D&D” you don’t need this thing. Go out and read the Hobbit, skip the “Red Box” and just get straight into the regular D&D game, because the only thing really usable are the dice.

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