This summer, game publisher Wizards of the Coast made another strong push in their efforts to bring new gamers into the Dungeons & Dragons fold with their newest release, the D&D Essentials Kit. Containing everything a group of players needs to start roleplaying, the Essentials Kit aims to appeal to new players and new Dungeon Masters. But what’s in the box, and what are our first impressions of the kit? Let’s dig in.
First up, the Kit includes a 64-page trimmed down version of the rules for players and DM’s, including four of the game’s core races (the LotR crew: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human). Each race is described in detail, going over bold racial characteristics, sub races, and special abilities and modifiers. This book may only contain four of the nine races included in the Player’s Handbook, but the four races are fully fleshed out.
From there, the book moves onto classes, including descriptions of the Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The Rulebook runs the characters up through 6th level (which is as far as characters can level up in the included adventure, described in the following section). And while trying to wrap your head around a Wizard as a brand new player is a daunting endeavor, the Rulebook helps lay a foundational knowledge of all five classes to get players up and running.
Moving on from classes, the Rulebook offers up five backgrounds (the Acolyte, Criminal, Entertainer, Sage, and Soldier) to help add some story hooks and motivation to player characters and offer some small gameplay benefits. After the character creation section of the Rulebook, the rules themselves are laid out in plain detail. From the core mechanics of the game (ability checks, saving throws, etc.) to travel rules, social interaction to combat, everything you need to know to actually take D&D past the character sheet is on display. Add to that sections on equipment and spell casting, and it’s as close to a full package as can be expected for newcomers to digest.
Of special note is an appendix in the Rulebook, which covers Sidekicks. This is a fairly new concept to the game, providing basic stat blocks for special characters that the players can befriend and bring along on their adventures. And this marks one of the biggest shakeups the Essentials Kit represents: you can play the adventure in this kit with only two players. With just a Dungeon Master and a single Player Character, the story can unfold as the Player Character enlists Sidekicks to join their adventure. Speaking of adventure…
Dragon of Icespire Peak
Dragon of Icespire Peak is a fully formed, full-color campaign adventure included in the Essentials Kit, taking players from first to sixth level as they traverse the wild northlands of Faerûn. The story centers around the small but hearty town of Phandalin, where settlers from Waterdeep and Neverwinter have moved to eek out an existence on the edges of the wild. The nearby mountains are full of precious metals, so people have come to the area to build a new community. All was going well, until a terrible young white dragon took up residence in the nearby mountains. Now people are afraid, problems need to be solved, and adventures need to be had! Enter: the player characters.
The adventure doesn’t waste any time getting players into the action. The game opens on the town of Phandalin, and players are encouraged to play characters that already know each other and are used to adventuring together. This smoothes away what could be a slow introduction, by basically telling the players: A. you’re looking for adventure and you heard there’s adventure to be had here in Phandalin, and B. you all get along. Railroading? Sure, a little, but the point of the Essentials Kit is to teach the game and get things moving, so… all aboard.
After the adventurers get a lay of the town, the adventure becomes fairly modular. There’s even a quest board, where adventurers go to choose what to do next. Once the party completes two of the initial three quests put up on the board, three follow up quests are unlocked. And once two of those are completed, three more are unlocked. Eventually, players will be strong enough, and have enough cool magical gear and support, to take on the white dragon and help rid the town of their worries. It’s an easy, elegant introduction to the system. These adventures include: rooting out an evil menace among a colony of magical gnomes, clashing with vicious orcs twisted by magic, scrabbling with a manticore, retrieving an ancient magical weapon from a barrow, and more.
This adventure is robust, well-contained (your players won’t have any reason to want to travel to the desert with the allure of all the cool quests and treasure around them), and approachable. And a big part of that approachability comes from the rest of the components in the box.
The rest of the box contains a collection of useful tools to help make running a game of D&D effortless for new DM’s and players alike. Along with a set of red dice, a player-friendly fold-out map of the town of Phandalin and the overarching region, and paper character sheets, and a lightweight DM screen loaded to the brim with quick-glance useful tips, the Kit also comes with a huge amount of tear-apart cards, including:
- Nine quest cards, each a handy reference for quests that will be unlocked during gameplay.
- Cards for each of the various status ailments, like “grappled” and “stunned,” which can be given to a player when they succumb to that condition.
- Cards detailing the steps of combat.
- 36 different cards for the various magic items players may uncover in the campaign.
- Nine cards detailing different sidekicks they could meet and have join the team in their journeys.
The Bottom Line:
I’ve played a lot of 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve taught a lot of it to new players, as well. I love the system, I love its elegance and its friendliness, and so it was with a bit of skepticism that I looked at this new Essentials Kit. Is D&D really in need of a product like this? Isn’t the Player’s Handbook succinct enough to teach the game to new players?
To say I was blown away by the structure, composition, and presentation of the Essentials Kit is an understatement. This is perhaps the company’s clearest and most concise introduction to the game they’ve ever produced. It’s so accessible, attentive to new players, inventive, and exciting that it even has me, a long-time veteran of the game, raring to dive into the box with a brand new group of players.
While some of the components in this are lightweight, for $24.99 (MSRP) you won’t find a better introduction for your money. If you’re at all hesitant to fork up the cash for the Player’s Handbook (not to mention the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual), but you’re curious, you should absolutely start here. It has everything you need, from the adventure to the rules to monster stats to tips on how to run the campaign, and I would guess there’s at least seven to nine sessions (and by session I mean a night of about four hours of play) in this kit.
It’s a triumph, simple as that.
Get This Game If:
– You’re ready to finally dip your toes into Dungeons & Dragons.
– You want all your adventuring needs in a self-contained box.
Avoid This Game If:
– You’re a 5th Edition veteran, and so are all your players.
– You’re looking for the entire ruleset right from the start.
Have you been itching to try Dungeons & Dragons (or any other tabletop RPG)? Have other questions we can help with before you dive in? Let us know in the comments below!
This review copy of Dungeon’s & Dragons: Essentials Kit was provided by Wizards of the Coast.