I wasn’t around back when the original D&D Red Box set by Frank Mentzer came out, the entry drug that launched a thousand ships of the imagination. I did get a copy second-hand that dad bought off eBay, and from its clear and concise writing to starting an adventure within five minutes of opening the box to its badass Elmore cover, I can see why it’s held up as the reason so many people got into the hobby. I can also see why Wizards of the Coast went back to the Red Box idea for 4th Ed.
Getting new–particularly young—players into the hobby is something publishers have not focused on as heavily, even though it was founded by the wild-eyed imagination of thousands of kids and teens back in the ’80s. There was a long, long drought—most of the ’90s, the ’00s, and the early ’10s—where entry-level gaming products were few and far between. Some of that is because the games dealt with more “mature” themes; there’s a reason we never saw a White Wolf or Deadlands entry-level product. Or, as Adam Jury of Posthuman Studios pointed out in the comments, because box sets (beginner or in general) are a huge expenditure for an RPG line, especially since they’re a highly visual media and need a huge investment from the art department’s budget.
Other games tried to release entry-level starter kits, but somehow mucked it up; I was gifted one of the 3.5 Player Kits because I didn’t have a 3.5 PHB, and that kit was almost exclusively a softcover 3.5 PHB with a few “getting started” brochures and a box of D&D minis. I’d already been gaming for years, but those pamphlets didn’t seem terribly helpful. The 3.5 Basic Game may have been better, though I never saw a copy: it came with a bunch of minis, including a large Blue Dragon, so many people snapped them up just for the figs. Compared to the old Red Box, it just didn’t feel the same.
That’s started to turn around, to the point where the hobby may start growing from the ground-up, may pick up some younger gamers and not rely on the old guard to draw people in. After a few decades of being told that RPGs are no longer just kid stuff, much like comics, the genre had the inspiring realization that you can cater to both the youngest newb and the oldest grognard at the same time. Woah!
A Look at RPG Beginner Products On Store Shelves Today:
The 4th Edition D&D Red Box is more than a tad obsolescent at this point, as 4th Edition hasn’t seen any support in a dog’s age and Wizards is gearing up for its D&D Next release this fall. The big draw against it is its price, which is sky-rocketing on the secondhand market into the $75+ range. The original MSRP was $20, which was a steal. The setup is a good mix of D&D nostalgia and D&D new. It has dice, a map, a sheet of cardstock character tokens, some blank character sheets, a stack of Power Cards, with rules and suggestions that explain how to make your own heroes and adventure to 2nd level. Really, it’s just dipping your toes into the D&D waters.
The Pathfinder Beginner Box is still in print, and aesthetically is a joy: Paizo has a great art team and budget, and worked some marvels here. It includes dice, four pre-generated character sheets using the iconics, some blank sheets, thick cardboard character pawns, a map, GM and player rules so you can make your own heroes and adventure to 5th level, and includes a big chunk of Bestiary monsters to fit that level range. So, you can do a surprising amount of adventuring using nothing but the beginner’s box and your imagination. It has (correction) not one, but two adventures: a solo adventure starts the Hero’s Handbook, and a group adventure at the start of the Game Master Guide. It’s pricey at $35, but you get a lot for your money, and if you don’t mind missing half of it and printing the rest the .pdf is $10. Plus, it has a sizable support network of digital resources.
The Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game has taken a lot of inspiration from the Beginner Box, as well as the old Red Box of yore that eased you into gaming within minutes of cracking the lid. After sliding everything out of the Beginner Game, you’re treated to pages screaming Read This First!, which explains the general idea of gaming, then Read This Second! which is a quick canned adventure where you learn the system (and how to roleplay) as you go along. Dammit, why can’t more starter games be like that? It includes a set of the funny dice needed to play, a map, a sheet of cardstock character and starship tokens, four pre-generated characters, a pre-generated adventure, and a rulebook that covers all the basic systems as well as how to advance those four pregens. All for $30. Sadly, no rules for making your own characters, but it takes those pregens a good ways up their skill trees.
Note that so far, every box set has had similar features: dice, map, things to represent figures, trimmed down copies of the rules, and ideas to get you started. Edge of the Empire and the Pathfinder box both give you pre-gen characters to get started and a pre-gen adventure to use them in. I think there’s a lot to be said about how both of them start with adventures, since (much like the Mentzer Red Box) it pushes you to learn the game first and get started immediately, instead of having the brand-new GM plan out their adventure beforehand or just wing it.
Fate Accelerated Edition is the entry-level version of Fate. While Fate Core was labelled ages 12+, FAE is meant for younger players (ages 8+) and is a grab-and-go game needing little to no prep. The Fate Core rules are boiled down to a simpler approach (groan), with a clear and concise explanation that does not talk down to the reader. Actually, it has some rather slick manga-style art and a writing style that just screams adventure. No canned adventure, but it does show off some pre-generated characters. It’s a lot more kid-friendly than most game books out there, while still being approachable by adults, which is one of the big flaws most starter products have. It’s 46 pages, free for digital, $5 in hard copy, making it the cheapest entry product out there.
There’s probably some others I’ve forgotten, but even this glut of three (four if you include the hard-to-find 4e Red Box) starter products is a huge step above what was available ten years ago. It’s an interesting sign of the times, the pendulum swinging back towards the hobby’s roots. There’s a saying that the golden age of science fiction is 13, as in the age most fans started reading it. I think gaming falls into a very similar situation, where a lot of hardcore gamers are adults who started rolling twenties somewhere between grade school and college.