Dungeons & Dragons Designer Reveals Approach to Building a New Starter Set

How does Wizards of the Coast make sure that a Dungeons & Dragons player's first adventure is a satisfying one? Earlier this year, Wizards of the Coast released a new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, which contains a plethora of material designed to help newcomers learn how to play the popular tabletop roleplaying game. The new Starter Set contained a new adventure, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, which sent players into the middle of the ancient conflict between metallic and chromatic dragons and featured artwork inspired by the characters from the classic Dungeons & Dragons cartoon that aired in the 1980s. 

ComicBook.com had the opportunity to speak with James Wyatt, the lead designer for Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, about making the new adventure and what Wizards' goals were when crafting the new adventure. Our first question to Wyatt, who also was the lead designer of the 2021 dragon-focused rulebook Fizban's Treasury of Dragons, was how his approach differed from making a more traditional D&D book. "Fundamentally adventure design and source book design are pretty different," Wyatt said. "The beauty of a book like Fizban's Treasury of Dragons is that I just get to spout ideas until my head is empty of them. Fizban's is full of tables with adventure hooks and scenes on them and I never really have to spend any time developing them. But an adventure is an opportunity to take a couple of those ideas and really flesh them out into something a lot more alive and complete." 

One major idea fleshed out in Dragons of Stormwreck Isle are dragons, and specifically what makes dragons unique in Dungeons & Dragons. While previous Starter Sets have featured dragons on both the covers and in the adventures, none have really explored the concept of how dragons fundamentally alter the world around them due to the nature of their magic. "Particularly after working on Fizban's, I really wanted to make this an adventure that was about dragons and that was about the significant impact that even wyrmling dragons have in their own right," Wyatt said. "The whole adventure revolves around not just two wyrmlings but, more importantly, the impact of an ancient conflict between dragons that had shaped the island itself and continues to have magical effects on the world."

(Photo: Wizards of the Coast)

Because the Starter Set adventure isn't a full-length campaign, Wyatt and the other designers on his team focused less on making an adventure that balanced the three pillars of play in D&D (combat, exploration, and social encounters), but more on a handful of concepts. "If you were to start brainstorming a list of the things you want to make sure that starting players encounter, it would end up being just too much for a starting adventure," Wyatt said. "So this adventure is a little more focused than that. Introducing D&D's dragons is a big goal. You're not playing the Game of Thrones role playing game – these are our dragons and what makes them different." 

The locations in the adventures were chosen to give the adventure a "classic and resonant feel" with some clearly defined and understandable locations for characters to explore. However, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle did deviate a little bit with the introduction of myconids as a creature the players encounter. I don't think we've ever seen myconids in a starter set before," Wyatt noted. "They're not necessarily a monster that people immediately associate with D&D, but they're interesting and they are an opportunity for potentially really wild and psychedelic role playing encounters with these fungus creatures that communicate with spores."

(Photo: Wizards of the Coast)

The adventure also leaned into points of emphasis that Wizards has wanted to explore in recent products, namely the idea that non-human humanoids such as orcs or kobolds can be friend or foe depending on the situation and individual personality, and that encounters can be resolved without conflict. "We wanted to try to make sure that it was possible at least to play through this adventure without always resorting to combat," Wyatt said, referring to the 2021 adventure The Wild Beyond the Witchlight as inspiration. "There are a lot of things you can do, especially in dealing with the myconids, to engage in creative problem solving rather than immediately going to combat, which I think a lot of new players don't necessarily assume that combat is the way to go if they're not already indoctrinated into that way of playing D&D."

Fundamentally, though, Wyatt noted that the goals of D&D's Starter Sets haven't shifted too far from when he picked up his first Boxed Set back in 1979. "I bought this with a friend of mine in 1979," Wyatt said, pulling out his vintage copy from a shelf. "A couple of years before that, my older brother had gotten the original box set as a Christmas present and I desperately wanted to understand how it was a game and I couldn't. So, somehow this book did help me understand that it was a game and helped me figure out how to play it. But the adventure that was included with this, In Search of the Unknown, was very much geared at teaching players how to be a dungeon master. It taught you how to DM the game as it existed at that time. That is not really too dissimilar to what we're doing with starter sets to this day. From page one, we're trying to help you understand how this is a game, how you play it and what it means to do that."

Dragons of Stormwreck Isle is included in the new D&D Starter Set, which is widely available for sale now.