DnD Starter Set, Review

A while back I wrote a review about playing DnD with kids. Well, since then I’ve done some more of it. A few years had passed, and my son assembled a band of fellow adventurers to take on the Lost Mines of Phandelver – which is still a terrible name.

As before, I actually ran The Delian Tomb as the first adventure. It’s a good one to start with. As characters we had four of the five starter set characters, plus a dwarf ranger. Later in the campaign we’d add an extra wizard and the fifth starter set character for a total of seven players. (too many).

The campaign faced a few extra challenges…

  • The players (7 of them) were nine years old and dutch
  • There is no dutch edition of DnD
  • My dutch isn’t bad, but there’s a big difference between doing the shopping or running a meeting and *telling a story*.
  • I had to translate character sheets, spell descriptions, abilities etc. ‘check the rulebook’ was not something I could say to any of the players.

So what have I learned about playing DnD with nine year olds?


  • Roll initiative once at the start of the session, seat the players in that order around the table.
  • Have visuals of monsters, key locations and the like printed out. Don’t say “It’s a goblin” or “It’s a bugbear”, show them a picture “It looks like that”. Kids don’t know what Bugbears are anyway.
  • Make treasure obvious. The scenario is packed with magic items, the kids found almost none of them.
  • Use Milestone experience
  • Use Hero Points
  • Kids are easily intimidated. This makes it much easier for villains to negotiate their way out of tight spots (and so come back later).

Playing DnD with Nine Year Olds

DnD is complicated. Even after five or six sessions the kids were still finding it hard to navigate their way around a character sheet. This might have been because sessions happened ~ every six weeks ~ but it’s probably because there are a lot of things to track. And think about it, you’ve got a constitution score, which is listed as something like +2 and 14, and you’ve also got a constitution save, which is the same as the constitution score for most of the players, but different for some. Simple it isn’t. With an active GM supporting every roll it works, but I wouldn’t say the kids have ‘learned’ DnD. The fact that there was no way to let the enthusiastic ones take the rules home to obsessively read probably had a lot to do with this.

DnD also has a very specific vocabulary. Constitution, in either language, isn’t a word nine year olds use. Neither is dexterity. Arcana, as a skill, is a word only used by players of Dungeons and Dragons. So yes, the kids will learn stuff, but they will also be confused by a lot of stuff in the beginning.

The kids would latch on to particular rules and try to exploit them, which led to odd things happening. After the rogue player learned that sneak attacks do extra damage the fighters started trying to hide to get the same bonus. It took a while for me to work out why they kept running away and hiding. And why doesn’t a professional warrior get extra damage for attacking an opponent unawares? Because DnD, that’s the only reason.

DnD assumes loads of knowledge that kids (or anyone new to the hobby) won’t have. What’s a rogue? What’s a fighter? What’s a cleric? What’s the difference between divine and arcane magic? DnD also assumes that in certain situations certain classes will do different things. When the Wave Echo Cave adventure was threatening to turn into a disaster I realised I’d never explained things like party order and the dungeoneering process. So I told them…

  • Do one room at a time
  • The rogue scouts, then hides or falls back
  • The warriors are the front line, the cleric goes next, then the wizards

It made a big difference. If you’ve played much DnD it sounds super simple, but people aren’t born knowing these things, and the game breaks pretty quickly if characters don’t act in these ways.

Anyhow, the kids loved role-playing, having adventures, describing their actions and experiencing the element of risk that comes with rolling dice. I’d say a lot of this enjoyment happened in spite of the rules, rather than because of them.

The Lost mines of Phandelver

As the introductory campaign to the world’s best selling RPG I’d guess the lost mines of Phandelver is probably the most played campaign of all time, and it’s, well, pretty medicore.

The first session sees the party attacked by goblins. I’d say ambushed by goblins, but it’s not an ambush. It’s a cart blocking the path in a way that screams “This is going to be an ambush” [1]. Even nine year olds aren’t going to fall for that. After that there’s a fairly linear dungeon that ends with the heroes discovering the plot, which basically boils down to ‘rescue Gudrun the dwarf’. There is an evil genius in the background, working away on his agenda, but this is one of those plots that’s exclusive to the GM. There’s no way for the heroes to find out what it is, or interfere with the plans before the finale. So, ‘rescue the dwarf you’ve only met once’ is the plot.

Indeed as in so many RPG scenarios the big bad is only encountered once, when he makes his last stand, surrounded by adventurers in his dungeon. There’s no way to make him memorable or build a relationship between him and the party. He’s just another boss, waiting for his comeuppance at the end of the level.

Fortunately for our game the kids were always open to negotiation. So both Klaarg and Glass Staff were able to survive their first encounters with the heroes and subsequently recur. Indeed Glass Staff managed to survive the whole campaign after successfully talking his way out of trouble at Cragmaw Castle.

In between the first couple of dungeons (the Goblin Hideout and Tresendar Manor) and the campaign finale (Cragmaw castle and Wave Echo Cave) are a bunch of quests assigned to you by people in the village of Phandalin in a manner that will be familar to anyone who’s played a computer RPG. Someone has a problem, go over there, solve the problem, come back and you’ll get a payment and someone might get an opportunity to join a secret society.

I get that the various organisations the heroes can join are established bits of the Forgotten Realms, but they’ve got no business in the starter set. There’s no guidance for GMs about what to do with them, what benefits or duties membership might incur and they don’t make any difference to what happens. Leave them out.

The adventures in this section are a selection of straightforward go to x, kill the monsters, take the rewards sessions. I skipped most of them. This would have been a great chance for the starter set to show the breadth of options available in role-playing games. We could have had a heist, a social intrigue based adventure, a straight up military mission, a rescue against the clock and so on, and we could have tied them all together in a way that made the main plot come to life. [2] But that’s not what we got.

There’s also one with a Dragon. A Dragon that delivers 42 damage (halved on a dex save) with its poison breath. Quite what level three adventurers are supposed to do about it I don’t know. If the heroes decide to take it on – and there’s an NPC urging them to do just that – the GM is basically left with a choice between nerfing the Dragon or butchering the adventurers. I skipped it.

Other notes on the Starter Set

The Starter Set contains *too few dice*, the scenario, character sheets, and the rules. Layout and presentation is all great, although I’m sure a few flow charts and such would have made the rules clearer.

The pregen characters are good, if a little bland, but was it too much to ask for pictures of them? I hunted out suitable illustrations from the web which helped the kids lots, but I’d have preferred official illustrations in a consistent style. Indeed I’d have *loved* multiple illustrations per character so people could see how the same stats could be applied to different styles, ethnicities and genders of character.

When it comes to running the scenarios I found myself constantly turning to Google for player friendly versions of the maps. I want a map I can give to the players without giving anything away. Preferably in PDF format so I can print it out, perhaps big enough to use as an actual floorplan.

Wrapping it all up

Playing Dungeons and Dragons with nine year olds is possible, but it takes hard work, particularly with language issues. The Lost Mines of Phandelver is in some respects a good starting point, and an adequate introduction to the hobby, but a company with the resources of WOTC could have done much better.

[1] I changed this a bit. I decided the goblins, having captured Gudrun had got what they wanted and left. They had however left their wolf pack behind, so they could finish eating the horse and pony. So instead of a goblin ambush the heroes encountered evidence of the kidnapping, and a bunch of wolves. Wolves which turned out to have collars bearing the symbol of a black spider, because if you’re going to foreshadow something, why not put it in the very first scene?

[2] In our game Glass Staff sought revenge for his expulsion from Tresendar Manor. First the mayor was murdered and replaced with a doppelganger. The fake mayor had drawings made of the heroes (for a forthcoming painting in their honour) and then sent them off on a mission. On their way back the party were ambushed (properly) by hobgoblin bounty hunters with a drawing of the heroes, seeking to claim a bounty set by Glass Staff. Being wanted really shook them up.

When they got back to Phandalin they snuck into the mayors’ house, and found his dead, partially devoured body, and some correspondence with Glass Staff. This made things between them and Glass Staff properly personal, indeed for them he pretty much was the big villain.

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