Getting into tabletop roleplaying isn’t always easy. With thick rulebooks that mirror math textbooks and the need to find at least one other player (but ideally three others), simply getting to the table, ready to roleplay is enough of a challenge. Enter the concept of the Starter Set: An all-in-one collection of resources to give you enough of the rules, an adventure (often referred to as a “module” or “scenario”), and other goodies such as dice to get the polyhedral ball rolling.
If you’re looking to get into the hobby, specifically fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, the latest Starter Set, Dragons of Shipwreck Isle, from Wizards of the Coast is worth considering, broadly speaking, for two to six new players who want to see what this kind of game is all about. But note that it might not have much to offer for a veteran’s existing collection and is lacking in several ways that makes it hard to fully recommend even for beginners. For that reason, it’s worth considering for the absolute beginner who isn’t sure whether or not they’re ready to invest in the hobby. But if you’re really ready to dig your claws into the world of TTRPGs, there are some better options out there, both for D&D specifically and this kind of gaming in general.
Dragons of Shipwreck Isle is a $20 physical package of a box, two thin and very, very soft cover volumes (totaling 79 pages combined), a single set of dice (which I’d argue aren’t actually a full set), and five pre-made character sheets. That’s it. (Oh, there is an advertisement flier for various D&D books and resources). If the size of the box has you convinced there’s more in there, that’s because there’s a one-inch cardboard riser that isn’t even stylistically slanted like in previous D&D starter sets. The lack of materials in Dragons of Shipwreck Isle is the weakest element of the set, and I’d argue it’s a loss no matter your experience with the hobby.
There’s no map. And there are no character tokens of any kind—not even the cool cardboard punch-out ones that came with the fourth edition red box (glue a metal washer on the underside of those and you have yourself some decent token minis for a map, by the way!). There are no rules cheat sheets or handy utilities like cards that spell out available actions in combat. There aren’t even any blank character sheets. On top of that, the books are too thin to be shelved on their own in any sort of convenient way.
If you are a D&D veteran and you’re looking to grab the starter set to stock up on some materials to use in other adventures, this set is a hard pass for you. If you’re new and are thinking of getting this set to start out in the hobby, it’s kind of a hard thing to recommend as well since, aside from the dice (more on those in just a second), there’s nothing here you’ll be taking into the rest of your TTRPG career, whether you’re a player or Dungeon Master.
Sure, the dice are a nice, pretty blue pearloid color (they seem to be identical to the ones that shipped with the original fifth edition starter set), but there’s only one set of six dice, and there isn’t even an extra d10 for percentage rolls. While percentage rolls aren’t something you’ll be doing at every game necessarily (especially in 5e where those are mostly used for randomized DM charts), I would argue that two d10s in addition to the others make up a complete set of roleplaying dice. It would’ve been nice to either complete that set, offer a second d20 so everyone isn’t sharing the same main die, or provide even a second set of dice so that your table isn’t fighting over the same resource if everyone’s new and without their own math rocks.
Complaining about the thin offerings of the new starter set isn’t just about wanting more things. The lack of what’s here does impact the game you can play with this set, and the games you will play in the future, for which it provides no foundation to build on. For example, the lack of maps, for beginners, can be kind of challenging—whether you’re a player or a DM. For some, playing in the theater of the mind is a learned skill. Others might always struggle to visualize scenarios, particularly intricate combat where distance between creatures is essential. Having a map, even a basic one (I played on a dry erase map with simple markers for years) can help a player understand where they are quickly and with little confusion.
Not having a quick cheat sheet of basic action definitions also sucks as you’ll need to dive through the books to find answers to common questions—and the two books don’t even have an index! So, if you’re searching for a common point of confusion like how to Grapple an opponent, you’ll need to know to look under “Melee Attacks” in the rulebook. Rulebook diving can already derail a quality adventure enough as it is, so not having an index to look up a specific term is a remarkable loss. No TTRPG book over twenty pages should be without one. These kinds of games are simply too dense to not provide that.
When compared to something like, for example, the Pathfinder second edition Beginner Box, which offers a double-sided map, dice with different colors to easily know what’s a d12 and what’s a d20, cardboard tokens that pop out and are inserted into a plastic bases, books with a stable binding that can be shelved, quick reference cards, and more rules and utilities in its literature to last for many adventures beyond the printed one, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle feels very lacking. Granted, the Pathfinder beginner box costs around $40, and despite being another medieval fantasy TTRPG, is a totally different set of rules and a unique setting (D&D and Pathfinder are like Call of Duty and Battlefield, Warframe and Destiny, PUBG and Fortnite). But if you’re looking to get into the hobby, not D&D specifically, I’d recommend looking at the Pathfinder box set.
If you only want to play D&D specifically, however, the D&D Essentials Kit is a much better value and costs about as much as Dragons of Stormwreck Isle. You can also buy the Stormwreck Isle adventure digitally through D&D Beyond for about $15. Combining that with either a purchase of the Essentials Kit or even any or all of the main three rulebooks (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual) is a better use of your money for getting into the hobby.
All of that said, the adventure in Stormwreck Isle is actually a great starting point for newcomers, particularly since it isn’t just room after room of whacking goblins with swords. If you’re interested in the adventure as a player, this is a great way to learn this kind of game and the main setting of D&D, Forgotten Realms. But in order to discuss that any further, we’ll need to get into some stuff that isn’t appropriate for a prospective player to know.
Consider this the DM section of this review. Dragons of Stormwreck Isle is simply excellent for beginners, whether you’re using pregenerated characters or not. It’s so good for beginners that it makes me more upset that the starter set is so sparse.
Speaking of the pregenerated characters, each of them comes with a narrative thread that ties in to the main plot, giving them a reason to be here in the first place and setting a great example for new players. You’ll only get five of these characters, so if you’re at a party of six (which is a lot for new DMs, and you rarely should exceed this number even if you’re experienced), you’ll need to photocopy one—another reason why the lack of blank character sheets is a substantial loss for the starter set.
The main adventure itself also does a good job of introducing folks to the setting’s lore, particularly where it concerns the role dragons play in this world and its history. And there’s ample opportunity to dive into that lore since the scenario presented here has an unexpected number of opportunities for diplomacy and roleplay.
For example, while the adventure might start out with the players fighting off zombies on the beach, once they move on from that, they’ll be introduced to some kobolds who aren’t there just to present another set of enemies to fight. You’re actually encouraged to roleplay a bit with these NPCs, and the book provides nice descriptions of their overall personalities. This is a nice evolution of published, starter adventures for D&D. The kobolds could’ve easily been another room of carnage contributing to the infinite monster machine problem a game of D&D can swiftly fall into.
And it doesn’t stop there. Chapter Two involves the party encountering some myconids (described as “fungus people”) who, though the book does describe them as hostile to the player’s presence, won’t necessarily default to combat—and, in fact, the players might find some opportunities to get on their good side.
The adventure is filled with a number of NPCs you can use to give players hints about their options during the adventure, as well as the opportunity to fill the game with memorable characters. On top of that, the language and layout of the adventure is particularly effective. I especially enjoy the fact that the book encourages DMs to not spell out a specific mechanic like saying “this kind of creature is immune to fire spells,” but rather to describe it narratively by saying “your fire spell didn’t seem to be particularly effective on the enemies you’re fighting.”
The adventure is very well-written, features some nice dragon lore to get players (and DMs) up to speed with D&D’s own fiction around them, has great opportunities for combat and diplomacy, isn’t just a basic dungeon crawl of combat encounters, and offers enriching narrative gameplay.
Dragons of Stormwreck Isle is an excellent starting adventure packaged in a disappointingly barren kit. If you’re really dedicated to D&D specifically, you may wish to consider getting the adventure digitally in conjunction with the tools and resources available on D&D Beyond and spending the rest of the money on a good set of dice (if you’re playing in person). If you’re not tied to D&D as a property, but instead want a good starter set of roleplaying materials to start or add to an existing collection of TTRPG resources, something like the Pathfinder Beginner Box is a better, if not more expensive, value.
But if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive set to just try this whole D&D thing out, what it lacks might not be a total loss, especially considering the standard that the adventure will set for you in terms of roleplay and adventure scenarios.