A Whole Lot of Starter Sets

The night before Christmas, the tree was lit, August and I were in our pajamas sipping hot cocoa, looking at the tree and following Santa’s progress across the Atlantic on the official NORAD Santa Tracker. I’d wrapped a few of his presents and tucked them under the tree, and August had wrapped me a present – the procurement of which is a very sweet story that I might tell another time – and we sat gazing at the trimmed Fraser Fir and the anticipated bounty beneath her boughs.

“Dad,” August asked, “do you think Santa will bring you a present?”

“I don’t know, Aug,” I replied, “Do you think he should?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “You’ve been a pretty good dad this year.”

I smiled and said, “I guess that’s up to Santa,” but I’d just received my Christmas gift and my heart melted from the weight of his words. We went to bed, and while Aug usually struggles falling asleep on Christmas eve, he nodded right out. Must have been the hot cocoa, and the quarter tab of Quaalude I dropped in his mug. That’s a joke. I’d never share my Quaalude tabs. Okay, now I’m being silly, back to the point.

Santa did indeed bring dad a gift. He also brought a lot of games and starter RPG sets for my son. Aug was thrilled, later saying that this Christmas was fantastic. A few days later, after the wrapping paper had been recycled and the excitement died down, as he busied himself drawing – he got a load of art supplies too – I took a look at the various games he’d received.

Top of the list is Games Workshop’s The Mines of Moria, the beginner’s set to their Lord of the Rings miniatures strategy battle game. The kit comes with plastic models to put together and paint, and directions for both playing the game and assembling the models. Aug did all the assembling while I read the game. As starter manuals go, I thought this was put together nicely. Three scenarios lead into the fourth. Each of the early scenarios teach an aspect of the game, so that by the fourth scenario we were playing in earnest. I read and led the first scenario, which included movement and shooting, and Aug led and read the second, which included fighting. Lots of fun; well done Santa!

Following that, Santa brought the Mouse Guard RPG, a role-playing game based on David Petersen’s popular Mouse Guard comics. It’s cool and was actually on Aug’s Christmas list. “No way,” he squealed with excitement as he tore it lose from its Christmas wrappings.  Nice work Santa. We’ve only cracked the rule book. Aug realized that it wasn’t D&D-based and asked if I’d help him learn the game. He was disappointed that there wasn’t a chapter about making a character, and that the game focused on characters from the comic books. We initially thought that we could play only pre-generated characters and not make our own. We were wrong, and I found that a later chapter includes this information. It comes towards the end of the book, which I think misplaces its importance. I’m reminded of Jevon saying, “if you want me to play an rpg I haven’t played, guide me through making a character.” Nat has often said that her favorite part of a new rpg is character generation. Thought to self: character generation is important and should take precedence. I’m glad I put it first in my latest project.

The Mouse Guard game is based on Luke Crane’s popular Burning Wheel game, which I own but have never played, and my hope is that the MG rules will guide us through learning the game. You would hope that any set of rules for a game would teach you how to play the game, but that is not always the case, especially with role-playing games. Several, including the one I write for, have been accused of being too dense to learn on one’s own, requiring a learned player to teach the uninitiated. I’ll report back as the year progresses, as Aug and I have vowed to play every game that Santa put under the tree.

I bought Aug the Fourth Edition Red Box D&D starter box. It’s ironic that I write about this today, the day that several Internet sources have announced that D&D is heading for a Fifth Edition. The Red Box is pretty simple. Character generation is accomplished through an introductory scenario similar to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. The reader is asked to make choices, “would you rather hit the goblin with a club (go to page 12) or cast a spell at the goblin (go to page 15)”, and those choices ultimately build the reader’s character. It’s cumbersome, time consuming, and Aug loved it. All a reader needs to know is how to read; she needs no familiarity with the game or with role-playing or anything of the sort. Every little fiddly bit, including the mystical d20, is explained as the reader chooses her adventure. I don’t like to puff up Wizards of the Coast (the “evil corporate entity” that owns the game), but I do like to give credit to where credit is due. Building a character is fun, and hooking a player with a character is a good way to hook him into the game. Well, at least if that player is Jevon. I kid.

We haven’t explored the rest of the box yet, filled with it’s maps and grids and punch-out cardboard tokens to represent characters. Fourth Ed. D&D is more of an encounter-based, refereed board game than a role-playing game. I’ve been running a D&D Gamma World game for my mates, which uses the D&D Fourth Edition rules. It’s tactical, movement and positioning are important, powers and abilities have ranges measured in squares, players roll dice and use cards, and  its fun. While we are all crotchety old curmudgeons and can remember when the only rpg books in existence were the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual, 4th ed. is fun. It’s different, I don’t know if I’d call it roleplaying, but it is fun.

Speaking of Gamma World, which I got for Christmas last year, this year I got the Pathfinder Beginner Box; thank you Santa! This is essentially 3.5 Ed. D&D, the edition before 4th ed (Red Box) but with the obvious failings fixed (hence the .5). Pathfinder is widely popular, selling better than 4th ed. D&D, and occasionally looking for new writing talent. Ah, Santa, I see the method behind your madness. Get me a game that is looking for writers. I hate to disappoint you Santa, but after leafing through the Beginner Box I felt disappointed. Despite all its gloss and hype, and there is quite a bit of both, it is still just D&D.

Which makes me think that the thing I thought was great about earlier editions of D&D was not the rule set, the level building, the d20 mechanics, but the world, Greyhawk. Greyhawk and all it included: the evil Kingdom of Iuz and the Theocracy of the Pale and the Scarlet Brotherhood and the gods Boccob and Zagyg the Mad and Vecna and Kas, the list is endless. That is what made D&D great for me, this vast, fictional world that seemed to live and breathe and was slowly revealed with each supplement, hints dropped in early adventure modules, the complete picture sketched incompletely in the various gazetteers.

Anyway, Pathfinder is sleek and sexy and the illustrations are masterfully done  and the iconic characters look like they slipped off design sheets used to sell a medieval version of the Matrix movie. Look, it’s Trinity with a pair of glowing daggers instead of pistols, Neo casting spells instead of stopping bullets in mid-air, and Morpheus with a katana waving us forward to battle. Oh, wait, that last bit really is the movie. So, Pathfinder seems dipped in marketing. Compared to the D&D Red Box there is a ton more gear in the Beginner Box – a ton more that the buyer pays for. I didn’t fall out of my chair skimming the material. But before I cast final judgement, I’ll play the game.

Out of the four starter kits, Moria, D&D, Mouse Guard rpg, and Pathfinder, Moria proved the most fun, followed by D&D. Now, Moria is a different kind of experience. It’s cooler than the others because Aug got to put models together, and everybody likes models. D&D was the most approachable, both for him and for me. If I had to choose between playing the Red Box D&D and the Pathfinder Beginner Box, I think I’d pick D&D. That decision is based on only an hour spent perusing each, but that is about all the time I’d like to spend when deciding what to play with my friends for an evening. Now, I’m talking a one-off, an evening spent role-playing. Not a campaign. I don’t know which I use, D&D or Pathfinder, to run a campaign.

Well, if I was going to run a campaign – and I’m about to start again – I’d either use Ars Magica because I’m vastly familiar with it, or HeroQuest if I could convince my players to play it. I know, I’ll guide them through making a HeroQuest character! Ah ha!

One final aside, as Aug and I made dinner tonight I mentioned that the fifth edition of D&D had been announced. Without batting an eye he said, “I wonder what kind of superheroes you’ll be able to make with it.” I don’t think he was being sarcastic. Sarcasm is tough for a twelve-year-old to pull off. I think he was being sincere.

What kind of superhero can I make? Captain Keoland? Furyondyman?

 

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