Front Page



Game Index


Site Tools



Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

MT Updated October 06, 2020
0.0 (0)
12244 0
Dungeons & Dragons starter set review

Game Information

There Will Be Games

At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

Day 1

The box contains some nice marbled polyhedral dice, some basic rules and an adventure. Tempting as it is to start with the latter, I felt I ought to brave the rules first.

It felt intimidating after such a long time. And while the booklet is slim, it was a little hard to piece things together. There’s no character generation material. Instead you’re given five pregenerated adventurers to run. Some of the rules you need to understand things like levelling up is printed on those character sheets, which is a bit confusing.

Once I had it though, it felt like slipping into a warm bath of wonderful nostalgia. These rules didn’t feel like third edition, with its confusing plethora of feats and tables. This felt like the game I remembered, but cleaned up, streamlined yet at the same time made more flexible.

Every stat now has a plus or minus modifier, and it’s used to change a d20 roll. You compare the result against a difficulty number to see if you succeed.

Sometimes that difficulty is fixed, like the armour class of your enemy. Sometimes it’s a vaguer call from the DM, like the 15 that’s suggested for a “difficult” task in the rules. But that basic system, supported by simple rules for a broad sprinkling of skills and proficiencies, is all there is. It’s all the game really needs.

Everything else is just like it used to be, only better. Everyone levels on the same advancement tables. Spell casters have flexible “slots” instead of having to memorize fixed spells, but the principle is the same. And the maths of the system have tweaked to ensure that the power differential as characters advance is big, but no longer vast.

Quite suddenly, after 20 years, I’m desperate to play this thing again.

Day 2

First things first, though: I need to read that adventure. It’s called The Lost Mine of Phandelver, a corny title right out of the D&D history books.

With that emblazoned on the title page, I’m expecting a classic, by-the-numbers dungeon crawl. But I’m in for a surprise. The adventure has four parts, the first and last of which are standard, but exciting, dungeon delves.

Between, however, are two glorious free-form sections. These see the characters exploring first a town and then a number of wilderness locations, looking for clues. No railroads here: the players can, and likely will, wander around until they’ve gathered the clues they need.

This might seem a big ask for a novice Dungeon Master. But the adventure book is full of helpful hints on how to keep things running smoothly.

After all these years, I think I’m going to need some of that advice. I do the rest of my prep work as best I can. I collect all the figures from my D&D board games and make copies of the character sheets. Just standard fighters for the kids so they don’t get bogged down in rules, and a cleric for me, so they don’t get killed.

I show my eldest the box, and the dice. She recognises the logo and gets very animated. But it’s bed time. To be honest, I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, or them.

Day 3

I’d been planning to wait until the afternoon to run the game, but as soon as they’re up, the girls are pestering me to get going. So we eat breakfast, clear the table and I set up a makeshift DM screen from the box.

I don’t spend any time explaining the rules or the concept of role-playing. The idea of pretending to be someone else in a fantasy world is as natural to them as breathing: they do it playing together every single day. I’m both worried and curious about how they’ll handle combat.

At first, it’s adorably naive. However everyday the concept of role-playing might be, they know nothing about this paradigm. Within ten minutes they’ve fallen into a pit and walked past some gold because they don’t know to check for traps or search for treasure. I use my in-game character to nudge them in the right direction.

Then they run into some goblins. Their first instinct is to try and sneak past, but the greenskins are guarding the entrance to a cave. After searching for a back entrance, they get stuck in.

It’s a riot. They’re learning to behave sensibly in the game environment. After the guards, they refuse to light a torch in case it attracts attention and ask my Dwarf to lead them around with his night vision. They explore the caves, rescue their friends, down the big bad in the final cavern.

In the showdown, everyone gets knocked out except younger daughter. She’s terrified, rolling the dice then hiding her eyes and squealing in case she misses. But she does it: with a little dice fudging, she saves the day.

Fifth edition has both experience points and a “bookmark” system where you gain levels at specific points in an adventure. This is one: everyone goes up to level two and is very proud, even though they don’t quite know what it means.

Day 4

In the morning I ask the girls what their favourite part of the game was. “When we found the treasure!” says the eldest, carefully toting up the gold pieces and adding them to her character sheet. “When I saved everyone!” says the youngest, her eyes shining with pure, unadulterated glee.

“Do you want to play some more?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

Yesterday, they learned everything they needed to move to the next part of the adventure, but they’re too young to piece it together. They whisper conspiratorially, planning what to do next, but they can’t decide. So I use my character again to help them work out where to go.

This session is much more based on role playing and skill checks. It showcases how powerful and flexible the new system is, but the youngest finds it a little dull, and starts building towers out of all the pretty dice.

They end up scouring the crowd in a tavern for clues. They order “fruit whiskey” at the bar. Elder daughter is loving all the slowly-peeling onion rings of the scenario, and tries to piece the mystery together. They don’t have all the clues yet, though.

Eventually they face off against the main antagonists in this location, a bunch of human brigands. They’re not happy about fighting other people, and decide to use the flats of their weapons to knock them out at first.

It’s interesting that they had no such qualms with goblins.

They hit on a plan to try and scare members of the same band by carrying round tokens of their previous victory, and fronting it out. We use more skill checks to see if it works, which are just as thrilling as combat.

It does work. One of the surrendering guards tells them there’s a horrible “eye monster” guarding the next cavern. They’re both apprehensive and excited about meeting it.

They tip-toe into the cave and ask to see a picture of the dread beast. Usefully, there’s one in the scenario booklet, so I show them.

They both run screaming out of the room, in a delighted panic. I think that’s a good time to end today’s session.

Day 5

It’s Monday again, after the high of the weekend. Time for me to go to work, and them to go to school, and everyone to reflect on how things went.

For my part, I’m bowled over by this edition. These basic rules run fast and smooth. Even the cut-down set in the box feel like they could be easily manipulated to handle most situations.

It’s almost the game I remember, except tweaked to be the game I always wanted it to be.

Although the details you need are annoyingly spread out over the booklets and the character sheets, new players can get everything they need with careful reading. And the supplied adventure is excellent, giving you a reason to buy the box over just downloading the free version of the rules.

As for playing with such young children, it went better than I dared hope. They’re primed by their own play to accept this kind of game. I hope they never grow out of that.

Part of me feels like a bad parent for introducing them to what might be the nerdiest thing in my whole nerdy cabinet of nerd hobbies.

But most of me feels like I’m riding a Unicorn across a galaxy of sparkling pixie dust. I’d forgotten how much fun role-playing could be. And I’d never imagined how much extra fun it would be doing it as a family.

I know what we’re all doing next weekend.

Dungeons & Dragons starter set review
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.



Dungeons & Dragons starter set review
Matt Thrower
Head Writer


Dungeons & Dragons starter set review
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


Articles by Matt

User reviews

There are no user reviews for this listing.
Already have an account? or Create an account
Log in to comment

quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #273160 11 May 2018 16:22
Very cool! How old were they and have you continued playing?
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #273166 11 May 2018 16:55
I still haven't gotten around to looking at 5th edition, partly because I am still somewhat burned out after wrapping up my 3.5 campaign a couple of years ago. And partly because I can't justify getting another edition right now. But everything that I have heard about 5th is great, especially for new players.

It's great that they re-published each of the previous major editions around the same time that 5th came out, because every major edition of D&D has some merits. AD&D (1st) had some really creative and interesting adventures. 2nd had a variety of interesting campaign settings. 3.0/3.5 was very crunchy if you like crunchy (I do) and had a very coherent structure to the massive rules set. I skipped 4th, but it appeared to be very action-oriented and featured nice miniature scale maps. 5th is apparently very smooth to run and great for new players, like the old red box Basic D&D of the early '80s. I didn't run red box Basic, but I was extremely impressed with the way the rules were organized.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #273168 11 May 2018 17:23
How timely that this shows back up- I just picked up this set for my kids- 8 and close to 7. Mom doesn’t know, but this is going to be the summer of D&D. I think they can handle it, and it’s funny you mentioned playing an in-game cleric- that is exactly what I was thinking about doing. I figure they need a Gandalf-like figure to prod them gently in the right direction.

I haven’t played 5th and haven’t really played since 3rd. It looks awesome, I really like what I am seeing. And it really shows how much the board games do resemble the system.

Very excited...I am probably going to get that Goodman Games B1/B2 reprint hardcover because it looks incredible. Hopefully we’ll be in the Borderlands by the time school starts back...
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #273169 11 May 2018 17:42
My wife bought this for herself for christmas, with the reasoning that none of boys who played in high school would play with her. She has never gotten around to wanting to run a campaign but I'm not pushing it. It will be fun if she decides to.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #273176 11 May 2018 20:56
I DMed the starter set with my group in Michigan. We had a great time with it.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #273183 12 May 2018 09:18
We're going to the beach this summer with some friends and my buddy asked me, with great seriousness, if I would be willing to run D&D for him and his sons. This will be their first game. I almost choked up--this feels like godfather-level responsibility. I accepted with great solemnity and pride, and I am now designing dungeons full of fart monsters.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #273186 12 May 2018 10:28
^oh so much sweeter than this bgg thing where you have this elaborate plan to "convert" your friends.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #276191 25 Jun 2018 19:35
How did I miss this article when it hit? I did a similar D&D revival with the 5e starter with my then 16 and 20 year old daughters and her future husband. It was the best bonding time ever.

I really can't undersell that little $15.00 starter box - What an amazing value. Everything you need for 20+ hours of fun. We spent the better part of a year on bi-monthly gaming nights - probably 50+ hours of gaming and socializing.
Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #276193 25 Jun 2018 19:57
/ogre gif
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #276203 25 Jun 2018 23:01