On Starter Sets and Beginner Boxes

I am a little more than halfway through my 39th year as a roleplayer. In that time, which yes seems both long and short to me, I have never really had a full starter set of any game to enjoy. I have had a few incomplete sets, mostly back in my early days as a gamer, but at a certain point, they just stopped being of interest to me. To be clear, I am not writing about boxed sets in general, rather I am specially referring to sets designed to lure established gamers to a new game and sets designed to teach new players what
roleplaying is.

My first gaming was launched by being given the Moldvay Basic books, but not the box or other items that that box had contained. Not long after, I was given the Holmes rules, and some time after that I started getting irregular access to the Mentzer BECMI books. Of that latter effort, I only managed to get the books for Master (but no box) and the boxed set for Immortals. Neither of these two sets felt in any way ‘introductory’ and I did not then nor now consider them to be ‘starter sets’ but the number of people who got their first taste of roleplaying by getting Mentzer’s Basic never really ceases to amaze me. By “virtue” of random chance and distance from civilization, I just missed being one of them.

Of course, the people that I played with in those years had a random assortment of books, so our “D&D” was very much a stew of different iterations. Most of it unintentional at the beginning with more and more informed decisions as time passed. Looking back on my beginning days with those beginner – or “Basic” – books, I see a lot of things that took root in how I see games and that have continued to help me learn and enjoy new games throughout the years.

Recently, I received a review copy of a starter set and it set me on a path of not-so-quiet contemplation about what makes a good product to introduce a newcomer to gaming. The first thing that crossed my mind was to consider the purposes a publisher might have to weigh before making one. For this post I want to focus on The Beginner Box and The Starter Set, What’s the difference? Consider the notion that a pure Beginner Box will be an introduction to roleplaying for newcomers with the publisher’s game as an example. This differs from the notion of the Starter Set which serves as an introduction to the publisher’s game without a realized intention to teach a newcomer what roleplaying is and how to do it.

For an old school reference to these two purposes, consider that Original Dungeons & Dragons was a Starter Set. Its purpose is to elucidate the rules of the game. Most of the culture and procedures of play were left to other products or interactions. By direct comparison, the three iterations of the Basic D&D rules were Beginner Boxes geared toward explaining the concepts of play, giving examples of it, and integrating those concepts with the rules. Back in 1974 when OD&D was released, there simply was no one who had enough experience or perspective to write a Beginner Box.

For a more recent reference, we can look at The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set and the Zweihander Starter Kit. Of course, the names of those products and my chosen names for products fulfilling one of the two purposes in this post conflict. This should surprise no one. The Call of Cthulhu product provides clear guidance into playing and running the game. In addition to presenting the rules with an eye toward the newcomer, it offers a solo adventure to help cement the lessons presented in the rules, in addition to a series of three adventures for small to medium groups of players. It not only arms the reader with insight into the rules, it provides logical, effective, and lengthy means to practice those lessons. In the case of Zweihander, the Starter Kit spends a good amount of time helping to increase understanding of the dynamics of roleplay, how to run a scenario and by extension design your own, managing oneself and others in a group, and how to use the rules to produce the sort of play that those rules are best suited for: Fantasy Horror. So, which one matches the notion of Beginner Box and which one the Starter Set? While each has tendencies toward a specific answer, things are not as clear. A lot of time has passed since 1974 and the first decade of play which followed.

From my perspective, once these two purposes have been identified, it doesn’t take long for someone who is risking time and resources to develop a product to reach the conclusion that they should try to do both. As with many things in life, when we try to do two things at once, we can find we cannot do both fully. That can have an impact on whether the product is as useful as it might have been.

In the case of Call of Cthulhu, it very much seems like it matches the notion of the Starter Set, but it also includes the truly excellent means to develop skills as a GM, first through the solo adventure, and then through the other three full adventures. It includes dice, maps, handouts, simplified rules, and all the sorts of things that go along with a Beginner Box. It just really isn’t about being an introduction to how to roleplay as much as it is an introduction to running Call of Cthulhu. Likewise, with Zweihander the text does generally speak to the newcomer as do its dice, abridged rules, pre-gens, and accessories. Further, the included adventure is stellar in its presentation of what a scenario is, how they are constructed, and its step-by-step guidance for the new GM to follow in running it. That said, as much as it seems like a good match for the Beginner Box concept, it is also a sort of soft-reboot for Zweihander and it does not really address the need of a newcomer to practice and build an attachment to the game. In that regard, it feels more like a Starter Set with its slick lure providing established or experienced GMs a distinct and impressive taste of what they can expect from games using these rules. What says this really clearly is that the GM guidance and the included scenario are together in the same book. Once used, it’s time to leave it behind to upgrade to the full rules.

For me, if I had the chance to work on a beginner product, what I would want is something that assumes the reader has not played before. The text would address this by introducing what RPGs are and how this particular RPG works in relation to the wider hobby. Like with the amazing Holmes and Moldvay Basic sets, the text would take time to clarify the procedures of play and I would like that to be backed up with clarification of the culture of play as we see in the Zweihander kit. Everything needed to play would be in the box, such as dice, character sheets, sample character handouts, one-page rules references, and any other resources the system required. Like Call of Cthulhu, I would want to include a solo training adventure for the GM to learn with and to later offer to GMs they recruit. If you are a Forever GM and are not happy about it, the culture of play in your group has to change to include the encouragement and support of players trying it out. Most of my groups throughout all of my time in gaming have been full of GMs. When they weren’t. I helped get people ready to both want to and be ready to GM. A product like the Call of Cthulhu set makes that a lot easier.

For a product that fills the role of a starter for a game, my wish list is different. In this case, dice are a nice extra, but not as necessary – unless the game requires specific or proprietary dice. I would look to offer resources that help a group transition from a different game or from a different edition of the same game. That would include one-page handouts for character creation and setting information that include page references for the starter set rules and the core rules. If a different edition is involved, conversion guidelines on handouts would be excellent. I would like to see the books in the set remain useful as players’ guides even if the group moves into the full game. In other words, the rules might not be complete, but they would not deviate from the rules in the full game, nor would they leave out the essential material needed for a full appreciation of what the game offers. For the GM, time saving tools for running the game that can continue to be useful long after the group has left the starter adventures behind come to mind. The included adventures should showcase the rules and the character types in order to help make a compelling argument to add the game to the roster, while giving advice to help the GM learn to leverage the rules and setting of the game to best effect. In the space not used to introduce gaming to a newcomer, the writers could help to develop real understanding and confidence in the GM who is trying this new game out among others. A good first run of a game goes a long way to keeping it in rotation.

Ultimately, however, with thin margins, a long-tradition of imitation over innovation, and the willingness to put page count toward the chance that your product will be someone’s first RPG product, we have tended to end up limited-use sets with text that has had to cater to too many purposes and priorities being marketed most heavily to those who didn’t really need either a starter set or a beginner box.

Is this changing?

I like to think so, and I find myself hopeful that a trend toward more effective products is in motion already. To my eye, Chaosium is the stand-out leader in this department with their Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest: Glorantha beginner boxes. If they, like Zweihander, can get themselves in places where people who are truly not already linked to RPGs in some way, and if other companies can follow suit, we might see something very rewarding and not at all surprising take place.

Do you have a favorite product of this type? What’s in it? Why is that a good thing? What did it have that was not useful? What was it missing which you think was essential?

7 Responses to “On Starter Sets and Beginner Boxes”
  1. Likewise, starter and beginner sets have always fascinated me. I like your contrast between the two. I’ve never used a beginner set as such, since I was taught D&D by friends. Starter sets I’ve used regularly over the years to delve into the rules of a new game.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I am a big fan of Quickstart booklets or PDFs, but I have noticed that if I like what it shows me about the system, I do not use it, I go on to get the full game before running or playing it~

  2. allluckyseven says:

    I commented briefly in the video about my experiences with a single starter box—the black box for D&D—and how it was not great as compared to the Basic BECMI box—or rather, copies of the books that we borrowed—, but contrasting it with your idea of not providing dice unless they were proprietary… Well, at that time polyhedral dice were very much “proprietary” dice. It was the only game that I knew of that used them.
    That black box had them and was my first contact with “weird looking” dice. Until I found more in a sort of local hobby shop (it used to take me about an hour to get there).

    With the hobby as big as it is nowadays, and with the Internet to gather information from, things are different. Easier. But still, I would like to make the process of learning the game as painless as possible, and thus would provide a set of dice. Even if it’s just a pair of d10s or a small set of d6s. And those are durable, and would likely be used when the now not-so-new player upgraded to the full rules.
    They don’t need to be extra fancy, of course. This is a starter set. Just don’t make them cheap and disposable.

    Some could argue that you could simply use a dice app but, then, at that point, why even have printed books?
    I think my first trip to that hobby shop was to buy miniatures. Those could definitely be extras. If the game even uses them.

    So what I consider indispensable in a beginner’s box is, a) as said, a set of dice (the minimum amount your game needs), b) a subset of the full rules, enough to play a few games with, c) a couple of adventures; one solo for the GM, one for the players.
    Maybe also a leaflet telling them about the full rules and where to get them.

    The rules contained in this small set shouldn’t be there just to serve the intro adventures. Let the players have some fun with them, creating one or more adventures of their own. It should be worth the money they’re paying.

  3. Runeslinger says:

    I definitely would like Beginners to be encouraged and supported in creating their own material and sharing the joy of playing and running the game~

  4. I find I get starter sets more for the extra swag you don’t from just buying the core book. The various Alien boxes have been good for those that want a pre-built campaign, but I usually pock through extra material to graft onto my ideas. The starter set for Blade Runner was actually pretty good. Most of the rules present, good set maps, dice, etc.

  5. Ben E. King says:

    Love those starter boxes. Although honestly I usually already know I’ll be buying the big rulebook as well and want the starter box for the included adventure(s), dice, cards, and other goodies that aren’t included with the rulebook. Plus I find they often help make clear rules that are sometimes not ideally phrased in the books. And those boxes are a great way to tote pencils and extra dice and paper I need when playing/running the game.

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