D&D Debate – Essentials Kit Review

Is Dungeons & Dragons so awesome, that it needs yet another beginner box set?  You bet your sweet ampersand it does.

Kit Cover1
Just like the previous starter kit they threw a dragon on the cover. But don’t worry, this time you actually have a fair chance to NOT become dragon fodder.

Dungeons & Dragons is currently enjoying a wonderful period of revival, resurgence, and renaissance. TV and web shows such as “Stranger Things” and “Critical Roll”, plus all the DM “experts” on the internet have led to a renewed interest in the hobby, unseen since the days of Gary Gygax and the ubiquitous Red Box Starter Set. Even I rekindled my love of the game after an absence of over 20 years.

Back in 2014, the team at Wizards of the Coast (R.I.P. TSR) put together a terrific Starter Box Set as an introduction to 5th Edition D&D. The rules were good and simple and the included adventure was excellent. I used this Starter Set to introduce my kids to the game. Although it did have its limitations, it was a great starter set. You can read my review of that Starter Set here.

Now it is 2019, and WOTC has just released a new starter set called the Essentials Kit. How does it compare to the previous box set? Is it worth getting? And, do we really need it?

Kit Contents Square
This is a ton of great stuff! And I forgot to mention the cool online content you get as well.

To start with, the Essentials Kit is superior in almost every way to the Starter Set. The Essentials Kit comes with a 64-page Rules Book, a new 64-page novice adventure, 9 perforated card stock sheets that represent everything from magic items, initiative, combat conditions, quests, and NPCs, plus a box to hold all the cards in. There’s also a cardstock DMs screen and a full set of dragon dice (I’m bringing the term back!)

The quality of the books is excellent. The worst part of the 2014 Starter Set books is how disposable they were; printed on lightweight paper and stapled at the seam. My copy of the adventure book fell apart before I even concluded the adventure. The Essentials Kit’s books are fully bound with cardstock covers. These books are meant to last.

Kit Books
Ooh… And they have that new book smell.

With 32 extra pages, the new Essentials rulebook is a vast improvement over the original Starter Set. The pre-generated characters of that Set allowed you to begin play immediately, but my players felt no connection to the roles they were given. This required that I buy the Player’s Handbook anyway to allow the players to roll their own characters.

The Essentials Kit fixes this. Almost half of the new rulebook is dedicated to character creation. But due to space constraints, your choices are limited. You can choose from the four common races; dwarf, elf, halfling, and human. The five offered classes are bard, cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard.

Kit Dice
Don’t forget your character sheets. Make copies.

Within each class you also can develop your own play style (called an archetype), but again the listed choices represent about half of those in the full rulebook. At first, this isn’t obvious until you realize that there are 8 schools of magic but the only wizard archetypes offered are Evocation and Transmutation. And doesn’t it seem odd that the only gods available to worship are just gods of life or war? But to their credit, Wizards of the Coast did a great job of giving players enough choice while keeping the page count to a manageable number. They even included background creation with unique traits, ideals, and flaws for each character.

As for the remaining rules, many of them are verbatim from the previous set, but with some improved editing and organization the Essentials Kit is much easier to read and understand. Just adding a sentence or two can turn a confusing, ambiguous rule into something clear and concise. (I’m looking at you, Hide.) And in almost every case, the rules have been expanded. Combat, Travel, Coinage, Equipment, Vision, and Spells are all given greater detail and usefulness.

They also introduced a new “sidekick” system. The idea is good; and it is certainly useful for parties with only one or two players, but the implementation seems tacked on at the last minute and not fully fleshed out. NPC companions have been a staple since original AD&D, but I much preferred when they were called followers and retainers. “Sidekicks” sounds juvenile and better suited for superhero comic books.

Kit Sidekicks
Seriously, one of these guys is wearing a unicorn mask! 

Before I tackle the adventure book, I’ll briefly mention the other “essentials”. First, the included dice are excellent. It is a deluxe full set; 4d6 for character creation, 2d10 for rolling percentile, 2d20 for rolling with advantage or disadvantage, plus the usual d4, d8, d12. Does anyone even use a d12? Sit down, Barbarian!

Sure, there are higher quality dice on the market, but these are leagues better than the original, old-school, plastic dice that were notorious for grinding down at the corners; turning them into misshapen marbles with number on them. Numbers that you had to color in with a crayon. Yessiree, nothing but the best in the early 80’s.

The perforated cards are a nice bonus, but they are a mixed bag. I really liked the Condition cards, though I would recommend making more than one copy; these are very useful. I also think the Magic Item cards are a great idea, as I have used them before. I only wish that they had included artwork for the items in the large blank space on each card.

Kit Conditions2
I really wish the same level of style was placed into the other cards as well.

The rest of the cards are… whatever. Some people might use cards to keep track of initiative; I’m not one of them. The Quest cards are either a poor version of a handout or a missed opportunity to roleplay; you decide. And the sidekick cards need to have the stat blocks on them to be useful. If I need to write this info on a separate sheet of paper, what is the point of the cards?

The only disappointing “extra” is the Dungeon Master’s Screen. It is functional, and it does have the same information as the official DM screen (purchased separately), but it cannot stand upright properly, and tends to curl over onto itself. It does have a pretty picture on it though.

Icespire Cover3
Yes, WOTC (and us here at Family Game Night) will use the cover art to death.

Okay, let’s get to the meat of the Box Set, the adventure. Dragon of Icespire Peak is designed for players from 1st to 6th level. Like the previous Starter Set adventure, the excellent Lost Mine of Phandelver, this was written by Chris Perkins. I really enjoyed the Phandelver adventure, so how does this new one compare?

When Lost Mine of Phandelver came out five years ago, the biggest complaint was that it was a railroad adventure. So WOTC has taken this new adventure in the exact opposite direction. Icespire Peak is a total sandbox adventure and, in that regard, it is well done. There are a total of 15 detailed locations. This includes 9 main “quests” and 6 other places of interest. That is a lot of adventure, but there is no real story.

The module returns to the village of Phandalin, but instead of an evil Drow wizard, The Black Spider, the threat comes from Cryovain, a white dragon that has moved into the area and is menacing the land. The overall storyline is that the players are building up experience and gathering items to help defeat said dragon. Not the most dramatic narrative but certainly equal to the classic “Hey, there’s a cave. Go kill what’s inside,” plot from Keep on the Borderlands.

KOTB cover
Grognards rejoice! The original sandbox adventure. Instead of just 1 cave to explore. You get 11! All kinds of choices. Cave on the left, cave on the right, that cave up the hill…

I won’t get into any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of exciting encounters and a cool menagerie of monsters to battle. But here are my immediate pros and cons.

On the good side, I love the poster sized maps of the town and surrounding area; they are great for immersing players into your world. I like the way quests and choices are introduced based upon the character’s level. This creates a well-balanced game with lots of player options, like a good sandbox should have. And I really like the way the main villain continues to harass and antagonize the players through the adventure without killing them outright. This was something that Lost Mine of Phandelver really needed, so I’m glad they fixed that issue here.

Ice Maps
Both maps are actually on opposite sides of the same poster. Photoshop saves the day, again!

On the bad side, the town of Phandalin is horribly underdeveloped. There are only 5 townspeople mentioned and they only offer random rumors. Worse still, all the quests are given out by “notices” nailed to a bulletin board, hence the quest cards. Zero role-play. Even when you get paid, the mayor just slides the money under the door. Boring.

It’s like a bad video-game – “You chose Quest 2. A group of reclusive… -skip-, The gnomes of… -skip-, Get whatever… -skip-, I will pay you… -skip-, Proceed to ‘insert quest marker here’”. Argh! Role playing games are not video games! Except for Baldur’s Gate. I love that game!

There are a few other minor comments, but I will address them when we do our full Campaign Diary for this adventure. My son wants to try his hand at DM and this is the module we will use. Stay tuned. Until then, you can read my full Phandelver Campaign Diary right now. And in time, just like I did for the Lost Mine of Phandelver, I will make a Resouces Page (see below) for Dragon of Icespire Peak.

Ice Phandalin
Ah, Phandalin. An idyllic frontier town. Filled charm, mystery, and at least four playable NPCs. All of whom want to sell you stuff. 

So, is it worth getting? Yes. For the amount of stuff you get in the Essentials Kit, this is a great value for the money. The dice and the adventure module would run you more than $25 if bought separately. All the other extras in the Kit make it even more special. This is the best Starter Kit ever assembled for D&D.

Now the real question; do you need it? Maybe. If this is your first foray into D&D, then go buy the Essentials Kit. It is a great starting point, and the adventure and extras will be used for many sessions. But if you are an experienced player, already running a game, using the core rule books, then no, there is very little in the kit that you don’t already have a better version of, probably.

But the best use for the Essentials Kit is to use it as a supplement to The Lost Mine of Phandelver. On its own, Dragon of Icespire Peak is an okay adventure, but it is a perfect companion to Lost Mine of Phandelver, or to flesh out any campaign based out of a small town or village. I wish that I had this when I ran my kids through Phandelver. With two separate antagonists and the blending of a dungeon crawl story and a wilderness sandbox, the whole campaign would feel alive, exciting, and filled with action and adventure. Plus, it could be a perfect lead in to “Storm King’s Thunder”. Just sayin’.

LMOP DISP
If you can justify spending $40 (as I clearly have) you too can have one of the best beginner campaigns ever! And you’ll get to fight TWO Dragons!

Bottom line, I would highly recommend the Essentials Kit for any new group of D&D players or anyone starting up a campaign set in a village.

The D&D Essentials Kit is available right now exclusively at Target.com

It will be available everywhere (and at D&D Beyond) on September 3rd.

As always, an ampersand is the “&” symbol, and Game On!

Deep in the…-skip-, Every two months…-skip-, Barthen, the local…-skip-, He needs…-skip-, Return to…-skip-…-skip-…-skip-…, Wait! What did that say? That sounded important.

Further Links:

Lost Mine of Phandelver Resources Page

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