Five years after the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set launched the 5th edition of D&D, publisher Wizards or the Coast has released a new introductory boxed set, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit. Unlike the Starter Set—which was designed more for introducing established players to 5e—this product is designed with new players & Dungeon Masters in mind. It contains everything you need to get started with D&D, both playing and running the game.

What It Is

A $25 boxed set, the Essentials Kit has two 64-page softcover books, a single small poster map (double sided with an overland map on one side and two map on the other), a thin cardboard DM screen (not quite full sized), and eight cardstock pages of perforated cards. There are also several blank character sheets and a foldable box to hold the cards once they’ve been separated. There’s also a full set of dice and a flyer. 

The several pages of cards include nine sidekicks (with a picture on one side and a personality on the other), quest cards (that repeat the quest text), cards for all the magic items, condition cards, and even an initiative cards. There are also a few combat step-by-step cards, like you often seen in board games, which spell out your options each turn. In total there are 81 cards printed on nine pages of cardstock. 

Both books are full colour and have slick, glossy pages, although the rulebook is a mix of full colour art and sketched line art. The pieces in this book are a mixture of new pieces and recycled artwork. The first book has rules for character creation and the rules for playing the game. The second is the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. This “adventure” is really a collection of small quests and encounter locations: three starter quests for level 1-2 characters, 3 follow-up quests for level 3-4 characters, and 3 later quests for level 5-6 characters. By the end of the adventure, PCs should be at or nearing 7th level. There are an additional five encounter locations that might be encountered on the travels or based on how encounters unfold. 

This adventure booklet ends with 33 monster statblocks: all the monsters featured in the adventure, including three NPCs. Most of these monsters are in the Monster Manual and most feature recycled art alongside the monsters. 

The Good

I’ve been critical in the past of starter sets for 3e and 4e for being “cheap” $20 products that barely provide a long weekend of gaming, making the cost high for the time spent playing. Small boxes that only get a character through a couple levels and a handful of encounters. A mere taste of the game. In stark contrast, the Essentials Kit is great value for the price, which is just $5 more than the Starter Set. In addition to all the other odds and ends, there’s the two large books plus a full set of dice including 4d6, 2d10, and even a second d20 for dis/advantage. With five classes, each with two subclasses, the rulebook even has more classes and subclasses than the Basic Rules! And unlike the Starter Set, which relied on pregens, this product included character creation! 

The rulebook contains the fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard, and, of all the potential fifth classes, the bard. I’m not sure why they went with the bard, which feels like an odd choice. But oh well. 

The rulebook is pretty useful, being a nice, small version of the core rules. This would be handy for many Dungeon Masters to keep by their side, even after moving onto the full rules, allowing them to reference the rules while leaving the Player’s Handbook in the player’s hands. Especially if you plan of DMing while travelling (such as to a convention or in-store Adventurer’s League game), as it’s much lighter and more portable than a 320-page hardcover.

The included DM screen is really focused on the basics, with a description of the common actions along with what you can do each turn, conditions, a summary of Concentration, and the usual tables. Very useful for new DMs and it has a small presence at the table. I actually rather like the small size and reduced footprint on the tabletop. 

The “adventure” is less of a single story and more of a series of small 1-3 page micro-adventures. You can easily knock out two or three adventures in a medium length game session. This means the product is a useful source of maps and inspiration, as the quests and locations can be recycled or modified for use in a home game. It begins with a quick introduction to DMing and running the game as well as a very nice description of what a DM is and does. There’s even a quarter page of quick tips for DMing and a few paragraphs on handling improvisation. 

Like the Starter Set, the adventure takes place in the small village or Phandalin. You could probably combine the two sets nicely, mixing and matching quests and dungeons and making things more of a sandbox. If doing so I’d replace the green dragon in that book with the white one here and maybe slow advancement down a smidge.

Prior to the adventure is a small one-page description of the Forgotten Realms and area around Neverwinter in the northern Sword Coast. This isn’t limited to the area of the adventures, leaving some room for Dungeon Masters to add their own adventures following this box, moving to Neverwinter or the Mere of Dead Men. And if they don’t, following the adventure is a description of most of the published storyline adventures to date, giving each a blurb so new DMs have an idea of where to look for inspiration next.

The initial three adventures also seem designed to introduce new players to D&D elements, like secret doors (the dwarven quest), exploring and hunting for an enemy (gnome quest), and negotiating instead of fighting (midwife quest). There’s hidden treasure, and traps, and NPCs to interact with. There are a couple fun NPCs, like the mayor who hides in his house and slides coins under the crack beneath the door.

Like the Starter Set, this product features a dragon. Because the game is Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike that earlier box, the dragon doesn’t just appear in the middle of the adventurer unannounced. The dragon is a continual presence that is disrupting the area, causing monsters to be displaced and townsfolk to quake in fear. It’s the common element that connects all the disparate encounters without being a constant physical threat. So when the time comes to fight the dragon, you’re prepared and it feels climatic. 

I like how each monster entry has the illustration by the monster. I disliked how the monster pictures in the Starter Set were randomly scattered throughout the book.

Included in the rulebook are the newly published rules for sidekicks, which allow for for 1-on-1 play. Encounters often have a variable amount of opponents, with one creature for every player. And if you don’t use the sidekick for their intended purpose, they’re useful for rounding out the population of the village. The sidekick rules are fun, and might be interesting to hack for other games, being useful for hirelings or squires. Or even guest PCs dropping into a campaign.

The Bad

While I love that the rulebook lets you build and customize your character, it would have been nice to also have some pregens for quicker games where you want to jump right into the adventure. Not everyone wants to spend the first session just building characters.

As characters can choose their first quest from a list of three, each of the starter missions could be the group’s first encounter. As such, none of these encounters really gives a “first encounter” walkthrough. It might have been nice to begin with a random encounter on the road that could have served as a template for encounters and running fights.

Phandalin doesn’t get any more attention or details in this product, and there are no new residents or inhabitants. There’s actually fewer, as this product doesn’t try to work in a contact for each of the five Adventurers League factions. 

Most of the adventures are a little too simple and entirely combat focused. No puzzles or riddles, no investigation or mysteries, few traps, and very limited exploration. There’s few that make use of creative thought, problem solving, or even diplomacy. You complete most of the quests by smacking things until they stop moving. And while there’s some magic by way or items and spells, there’s few magical places. Locations of wonder. 

Encounters are often fairly hard, especially for one player. Most of the 1st level encounters are against CR 2 creatures that can drop a player character in a single solid hit, especially if previously injured. The CR 3 manticore is particularly deadly, and could take out a party of three 1st level characters in a single round. Ostensibly, this should be a social encounter where you negotiate with the beast, but it’s presented as an immediate threat and new players are unlikely to realize how deadly it is until they’re halfway to a TPK. When running this encounter, my player never even considered the flying lion-beast could talk. And even if they had, the encounter is presented as one with an innocent in immediate jeopardy.

Similarly, there’s not a lot of alternatives to high DC checks. In a regular party, you have two or three changes to roll well and recover from a failure. With one player… less so. 

There’s also no travel encounters or side encounters on the road. A page of encounters on the road would have been nice, even if they recycled monsters or were just interesting locations or travelling merchants. Moving rapidly between quests feels like a video game: you fast travel to a location, hit things until they explode in treasure, then bamf back to the homebase for your reward.

The Ugly

I’ll start by whining: this product was exclusive to the United States for the summer. From almost two months, this product was only available in Target stores. However, Target closed all its Canadian stores several years ago, so this product was unavailable in D&D-loving Canadia for the entirety of the summer vacation window. (Or towns with a Wal-Mart or some other box store instead of a Target.) Which means kids on holidays with ample free time (i.e. the perfect audience for this product) could not buy a copy. Ditto this seasonal working father who had the summer off with his 8yo son, which would have been great for some geeky indoctrination and paternal bonding. 

I’m a little sad the image of the Dungeon Master screen isn’t included in the digital file on DnDBeyond. That image would be fan-tucking-fastic as a desktop wallpaper. 

I also wish the sidekicks had been more imaginative rather than just slightly weaker adventurers. You can easily imagine a horse or wolf sidekick or a juvenile owlbear. (Or a miniature giant space hamster.) Pets are super popular with younger players, and it would be neat to have an Ash & Pikachu dynamic between the PC and their sidekick.  And despite exclusively being humanoid, the sidekick statblocks use “it” as a pronoun rather than the now standard singular “they”. “It” is fine for most monsters, but not people.

The Awesome

The adventure makes regular use of common magic items, so players can regularly receive magical treasure without upsetting the balance of the game. Plus, most common magic items are just fun and can evocatively define/flavour a character. Similarly, there’s a friendly skeletal horse! Getting a unique undead mount is fun and the kind of unique, memorable treasure people will talk about for years.

In addition to the few magic items, there is also a charm: a small boon that can be used a few times before its magic fades. I love when adventures give unique powers like that. (Even if, as a consumable, most players will hoard it rather than use it and risk “wasting” the power.)

The back side of the included product flyer has several QR codes, one of which unlocks a digital copy of the adventure on DnDBeyond: the 5th Edition digital toolset. And there’s a discount code for 50% off the Player’s Handbook. (Or rather, 50% off the checkout price when you buy the PHB; I’d purchased a few subclasses and options already, so my PHB was already discounted, so I received slightly less of a discount than if I had never bought anything. But that’s getting nitpicky.)

Theoretically, there will be three follow-up adventures online as well, for adventurers of levels 7, 9, and 11. At the time of this writing these are still forthcoming, but it’s a neat way of expanding the content of the box into an adventure that rival the length of most of the hardcover adventures. It expands the scope of the adventure & product without increasing the cost on the box.

I like that the box includes condition cards. I am stunned that neither WotC nor Gale Force 9 has done an official set of condition cards. That seems like a no-brainer product that would be an insta-buy for most DMs. (I find them so useful, I ended up making my own.)

In the section describing “Continuing the Adventure”, the page not only mentions the official site and but also the Dungeon Master’s Guild. I like that they’re pushing the Guild as a source of content, which also encourages new players to homebrew and share their designs.

Final Thoughts

The D&D Essentials Kit is a decent starter box. Arguably one of the best starter boxes D&D has ever done. Because it includes character generation and tries to walk brand new players through the game, it’s an excellent product for players new to RPGs in general and D&D in specific. And the sidekick system and design of the adventures is a novel addition that nicely distinguishes this product from prior attempts. Unlike the Starter Set, which was a rote product designed to hit checkboxes of what was expected in a new player kit, the Essentials Kit innovates and tries to add some surprises, such as the quest and magic item cards and the sidekick rules. Even the adventure tries to innovate slightly, being a series of connected quests that can be knocked out during a lunch break. 

Sadly, the included rulebook doesn’t make it easier to consume the rules or start playing than downloading the free Basic Rules. You still need to read through one or two dozen pages of solid text. The box doesn’t present the rules any more simply, or make playing any easier.

I do wish a little more work an imagination could have been put into the quests. A little investigation and problem solving and perhaps a puzzle or two. Highlight the different ways of playing D&D and different types of adventure you can run. As presented, the quests are not only generic but a tad repetitive. While a skilled dungeon master should easily be able to take what’s written in this product and turn it into a memorable and interesting encounter, the whole point of starter sets is that the DM isn’t skilled and needs that extra hand.

Despite these complaints, this product really raises the bar for D&D starter boxes, and is one of the best boxed sets for new players D&D has ever produced. 

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, Traps, Diseases, Legendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic!