Yet Another Starter Set?

When I started this campaign, I did a series of articles explaining my planning and development of the homebrew system I was going to use, as we worked our way through the Dungeons and Dragons Easy to Master Boxed Set, it’s tutorial, and it’s adventure Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon. I posted these shortly after the sessions were played, because that way I could use them both as a campaign record, and share my thinking with any other aspiring GMs out there.

The so-called “Black Box” set of Revised Dungeons and Dragons was unusual in a way, because it showed the GM how to play, and then allowed the GM to explain how to play to their players. In a way, this boxed set was more of a course, featuring a long tutorial adventure as well as the basic rules of the game to get players up to 5th level.

Players were then encouraged to pick up the Rules Cyclopedia if they wanted to continue to advance, or to pick up a number of products in the Revised Basic D&D range to keep playing in the low level range of 1st to 5th level. When players were ready, they could always head on into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, with it’s three core rulebooks and mountains of content from TSR.

Looking at what was provided, it’s clear that the “Black Box” was packaged and marketed more as a complete game and learning system, feeding off the fan-base that enjoyed other fantasy board games, such as HeroQuest from Games Workshop. In fact, I believe I received my copy for my birthday shortly after getting the Advanced HeroQuest board game.

Moving on, it’s clear that how teaching players D&D had changed over time. No longer were there long adventures in boxed sets, but smaller, taster adventures that could be printed as an article in the likes of Dragon magazine or run as a quick demo in the store. Here, pre-gens and speed were focused, in a neat package that was relatively cheap to distribute, aimed at encouraging players who enjoyed the adventures to go further, by purchasing either a dedicated introductory box set, or the core rulebooks.

Although the introductory box sets were similar to the “Black Box” set, the majority of them had a few adventures provided, rather than a single tutorial system, and contained very few rules with which you could continue playing from the box sets alone.

What’s interesting is that, around 1999, the silver anniversary of D&D, the tutorial articles were branded as a Fast Play system, and even spawned a small series of products in their own right. There were two of these products, which introduced Haven and the Vale, as well as providing two more, longer, adventures for those players that enjoyed the Fast Play system. The setting of Haven and the Vale would be revisited for the D&D Adventure Game boxed set later on, but would not feature the Fast Play system, and contain three further adventures.

The problem with planning is that because these are all pre-prepared short adventures, none of which have the kind of length that Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon provided, so there’s not all that much to actually plan for, other than how to best sequence the adventures.

Some players might question why I am using so many pre-planned adventures, rather than creating my own, especially when it involves creating new parties and pre-gens alongside them. Well, the “Black Box” was an ideal tutorial scenario, which made it great for play by an absolute newbie like my partner, Sian. It had a simple progression which meant that decisions regarding character generation and equipment, as well as learning the basics of the game, could be drip-fed in a logical manner that was easy to digest.

However, the “Black Box” had one flaw – whilst the adventure Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon was great, it provided a much more bare bones dungeon experience in the form of the lost Dwarven Stronghold, Stonefast as a follow up. This dungeon had a map, a main villain, and some notes, but it was left to the GM to flesh out the adventure, moving on from the five rooms they stocked in Zanzer’s Dungeon.

It’s a bit like just being kicked out of the nest, and there was nothing else provided besides the bare bones of Stonefast. There wasn’t any setting given, as the it was either deemed unnecessary, or the players were expected to pick up other products, such as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which contained the rules from the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters sets of D&D (4/5th of the BECMI D&D system, missing only the Immortals set). The Rules Cyclopedia introduced the Known World, the default setting for D&D at the time.

Later on, Revised D&D would feature a number of other boxed sets and products, the majority of which were set in the new campaign area of Thunder Rift. Thunder Rift was fairly good as an enclosed setting, but there was a problem with this line. The first boxed set, Dragon’s Den, wasn’t actually set in Thunder Rift at all, but a renamed version of the Duchy of Karameikos from the Known World, that was first introduced in the Expert rules set, and provided in the Rules Cyclopedia.

Although the later boxed sets were set in Thunder Rift, none of the products, including the primer for Thunder Rift, mentioned Zanzer’s Dungeon or Stonefast at all. Whilst this made it easy to place Zanzer’s Dungeon in any campaign world, this did beg the question of whether were any other campaign worlds that might be more suitable.

Step forward Haven and the Vale, which was featured both in the Fast Play system for D&D and the Silver Anniversary D&D Adventure Game boxed set. It’s like Thunder Rift, but simpler, with a number of tutorial products to supplement it. Although we wouldn’t be using the 2nd Edition AD&D system fully, the background and adventures didn’t need a lot of conversion to a 3.x system, just as Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon didn’t.

It’s worth noting at this time that the D&D Adventure Game for 3.x, whilst fun and easy to learn, as well as being the basis of the rules system we were using, didn’t even bother providing a background, so it would be simple to transplant these adventures into any other setting, as desired.

I figured that mashing these three sets of products together, I would have the strong foundation for my homebrew campaign, along with a solid system, and a fairly well filled out stable of characters for my two players. The keys to this was all about how best to arrange the adventures in to a continuing narrative.

Right now, we are on our third starter set/tutorial adventure, with a third new party about to adventure in the Vale. The previous two parties haven’t been retired just yet, just are busy resting or travelling off-camera as we focus on the new party, ready to explore yet another mystery in the region – the Ruined Tower.

What does this mean for my planning articles? Well, it’s unlikely that I will continue them as regularly as I did before, as they only really make sense when I am introducing new features to the game. This will probably be between adventures, so every couple of sessions so.

Right now, I want to secure the narrative of the Vale down as a solid foundation for the campaign. This is a region which is ripe to explore, even if it’s just a few adventures designed to teach the game. By tying everything to this area, I can provide a form of consistency through a shared narrative even when the adventures themselves might seem disparate. Plus, I like having Stonefast is my back pocket for now – as I can use it as a sort of reward for the players, and even tie up any loose ends from the other adventures, before looking at where the campaign will head next.

There’s lots of possibilities in the long term, but for now, I think it’s best that the players stay in Haven and explore the Vale. It’s a big world out there, and who knows what they will find once they leave…

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Da' Vane

I am the designer and writer behind the D-Jumpers.com website.