Discussing the New Red Box with Rodney Thompson and Laura Tommervik

There we were, ensconced in the Wizards’ of the Coast Steel Cocktail Lounge high above the Gen Con exhibitor’s hall, Laura Tommervik, Rodney Thompson and I. What else was there to do but open up that new D&D Red Box and find out what it’s all about?

Anyone who played D&D in the 80s recognizes the classic Red Box. It introduced many of us to the game. When Wizards decided to create a new introductory product  for 4e, using the classic Red Box image by Larry Elmore seemed like a stroke of pure genius (though I wonder at the wisdom of creating a nostalgic cover for a product aimed primarily at new players). Wise or not, it sure as hell looks cool, and that nostalgia is probably powerful enough that even old players who have no need for an introductory D&D product will end up buying one. As Tommervik put it, “The box itself sparks so much emotion in players from that era.”

Before we got down to the business of pawing through an actual Red Box, I took a photo of the exhibit hall from the top of Wizards’ booth. Nice view.

The new Red Box is aimed at people who are really new to D&D and RPGs in general. It takes you through the process of character creation by building a story around the character in your mind. You read about a series of situations, then answer questions about what you think your character would do in response. The book then helps you turn these decisions into game stats, and by the time you’re done you’ve got a full 4e character ready to play.

The book is a fairly meaty chunk of D&D, with a selection of classes based on familiar fantasy archetypes (fighter/cleric/wizard/rogue) and somewhat straightforward builds with fewer options than you’d find in Martial Power 2 or Player’s Handbook 3. “We wanted to make the game more approachable to someone who’d never played it before, but maybe has read some fantasy novels and enjoyed exploring those worlds,” said Thompson.

I was impressed by the material provided for fledgling DMs. Not only do they get a selection of low level monsters and a set of two-sided monster tokens, there’s a lot of guidance and hand-holding regarding adventure creation, narrating an encounter, keeping play fun and balanced, and other crucial ideas that can be difficult to grasp if you’ve never played anything more complicated than Monopoly. There’s a double-sided dungeon map cleverly separated into quarters so the DM can reveal new dungeon areas a little at a time. A few rough details on the Nentir Vale setting help give these early adventures some context. The box also includes a code for a free downloadable solo adventure.

To make sure Red Box is an all-in-one experience, you’ll find a set of dice, character sheets and power cards. Anyone who buys this (retail price is $19.95) will be able to start learning and playing D&D right away. The release date is September 7.

Before we wrapped up, I talked to Thompson about a few other things. When I interviewed Owen K.C. Stephens a few weeks ago about the connection between Star Wars Saga and D&D 4e, I found his answer surprising, and I was interested to hear Thompson’s take on the development of both games. He agreed that Star Wars was not consciously used to test potential 4e ideas, but Saga came out during the development of 4e, so the feedback from fans was very valuable in ironing out small problems and inconsistencies. As an example, he mentioned the consolidation of certain skills into broader “superskills.” 4e has a single Athletics skill in place of Saga’s Climb/Jump/Swim skills, something most players agree is an improvement.

Finally, it looks like we won’t be seeing a ton of additional material coming out for Dark Sun in the immediate future (I still need to review Dark Sun — there’s too much going on in Robot Vikingland lately!). Thompson seemed a bit rueful that there wouldn’t be additional hardcovers or a Dark Sun superadventure, but he did say that we’d be seeing a lot of Dark Sun support via DDI, including a monthly column.