What is D&D?
A world of Magic and Mystery at your fingertips
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few years, you're probably aware of Dungeons and Dragons--but you may not be entirely sure what Dungeons and Dragons actually IS. Dungeons and Dragons, also known as D&D or DND, is a rule system for Table Top Role Playing Games or TTRPGs. Basically, it is a rules system which allows a group of friends (or soon-to-be-friends) to get together and tell stories together and "make believe" in a structured and organized way. D&D, which is on its 5th Edition presently, is a system from Wizards of the Coast (WotC).
There are tons of different worlds that D&D (and other tabletop adventures) take place in, but no single world contains more adventures than the world known as The Forgotten Realms. One person, known as the Dungeon Master, or Game Master (DM or GM respectively), leads a group of Players through the adventure by describing the world to them, and having the players describe their actions--and then translating those actions into events that take place in the world.
A resurgance of a favorite past-time
TTRPGs have been around for decades, but they were seeing a decline in play in recent years until shows such as Stranger Things came along, showing several of the main characters playing D&D. These viral media appearances of the game have been at least partly attributed to its recent rise in popularity--along with several podcasts, Twitch streams, and YouTube creators pumping out content related to D&D.
This rise in popularity has contributed to a massive spike in content for D&D--both user-generated as well as Official content from sources such as WotC in recent years. One piece of content such as this is the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit. The Essentials Kit has an MSRP of $24.99, but it can usually be had for less than $20 from sources such as Amazon, book stores, and even such places as Target or Walmart--although you should really support your Friendly Local Game Store if you plan to get involved.
The Essentials Kit Review
If you came here looking for this review, the above information is all probably review to you. So now that you're done reviewing, let's get on with the review.
WHATS IN THE BOX? WHAT'S IN THE F***ING BOX?!
The Essentials Kit comes with everything you need to embark on an epic journey through the lands of Faerun with anywhere from 1 playable character, up to a group of 4 or 5 (plus the DM). It has:
- A set of dice
- A full-color printed "overworld" map of the Northern Sword Coast
- A full-color printed map of the main town of Phandalin, where most of the adventure takes place
- A rules book to help players to understand and the DM to arbitrate the rules
- A bunch of awesome reference cards for things like initiative tracking, sidekick NPCs, conditions, and even magic items
- Character sheets that your players can use to create their characters with
- A book containing the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure, with all of the following in it:
- Tips on how to Dungeon Master
- Descriptions of the various places in the adventure
- Monster stat blocks
- Maps for the DM
- Detailed descriptions of the places and encounters that the PCs can explore, contained in "read aloud" boxes, to help you draw your players further into the world
- A DM screen, which can be used to hide miniature figures, as well as DM rolls from the players if they so choose
- A pretty decent cardboard box to keep it all in
The Essentials Kit also comes with a digital code to redeem the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure on dndbeyond.com, along with the sequel adventures as well--more on that later.
I have to say, the items contained in the box surprised me in both their usefulness and their quality. I have to imagine that their margins on this kit are SUPER slim, between the multiple full-color books (soft-back as they are), the maps, the dice, and the cards, plus shipping and whatever other costs are incurred through distribution and sales. I'm guessing they're hoping to hook people, and make up the money down the road on miniature figure sales, as well as other books. (At posting, the Essentials Kit was $15.59 on Amazon, which actually blows my mind. That's a shockingly good deal)
The Dice are the first pleasant surprise in this box. While they have a slightly 'boring' appearance (white ink on translucent red plastic), this is a full 11-die set of polyhedral RPG dice. Not only does the set come with two D20 for rolling with advantage/disadvantage, it also comes with both a D10 and D100 (which many boxed-kit-included dice do not), as well as four D6 for rolling characters (and making the inevitable Fireball a bit easier to roll for, as well). This is fantastic. My set was well inked and well balanced.
The Rule Book is well-bound for a 'cheap' paperback style book. It is much nicer than the one that comes in the Starter Set. It is full-color/full-bleed, and mine was printed and bound without errors. I keep it handy for all of my games, as an extra rulebook that players can get messy with their dorito fingers, without ruining my precious PHB. The rulebook also contains rules for Sidekicks, which is a huge boon for those looking to play with smaller groups.
The Cards are relatively cheap, and come in a full sheet of perforated cardstock, which you fold and separate. That said, they are EXTREMELY useful. The Essentials Kit comes with several different kinds of cards:
- Initiative Tracking cards
- These cards are numbered 1-9, and you can hand them out to your players or set them in front of them to help remember initiative order
- Condition Cards
- These cards explain the various conditions that a Player Charcter or NPC can be afflicted by, such as paralzyed, stunned, grappled, etc. These cards are super useful to hand out to your players when they are afflicted by a condition, to help them understand how that condition affects them--saving you and them lots of time flipping through the PHB or included Rules Book.
- Magic Item Cards
- These cards contain the names and descriptions of the various magic items that players can find/be rewarded throughout the adventure. This includes everything from Healing Potions up to magic swords and keys, and everything in between. I love these cards, because it also helps your players keep track of their inventory. If they hold the card, their character holds the item.
- Sidekick Cards
- These cards have information on the various Sidekicks that you can include in the adventure. I actually LOVE the sidekick rules, and have used them in a Duet (an adventure with one player and one DM) before. The sidekicks all have unique personalities, and are well thought-out and compliment the various classes available to the players well.
The DM Screen is nothing fancy, but it does the job. It's a bit smaller than the classic D&D 5E DM Screen, and it is simply cardstock, not folding game-board like many of them; but it has some lovely artwork on it, and some great rules for quick reference on the back.
Personally, I don't really use a DM screen very often. I find I can connect with and engage my players better without one, and I find other ways of hiding any minis/rolls that I may need to--but I also know that I'm in the minority on this, and so it's very nice that a DM screen is included with this kit. If you plan on playing D&D long-term, you may want to pick up a nicer one, but the one included in the kit is perfectly servicable.
The Maps are truly excellent, and I wish they came in the Starter Set as well, seeing as how that takes place in the same area/town. My only regret is that I started with the Starter Kit, and then bought the Essentials Kit after, and had already gone to a print shop to print out the Northern Sword Coast and Phandalin maps--so by the time I got the ones included in the kit, I had already made my own. The maps are full color, and high resolution--although they are not terribly large.
The Character Sheets do pretty much exactly what you expect--write stuff on them to build characters. Unlike The Starter Set, which contains pre-generated characters designed to fit into the adventure, The Essential Kit character sheets are blank. Personally, all of my players use DNDBeyond, and WotC makes the Character Sheets readily available online for easy printing, but it's 2020 and we're in a weird time where nobody owns printers anymore, but not everyone has transitioned to DNDBeyond, so it's very nice that WotC included these printed sheets in the box.
The Adventure Book is also well printed, well bound, thoughtfully laid-out, and does exactly what it needs to do. Unfortunately, the adventure itself kinda blows. Honestly, this is my one big "con" with this kit.
A Digital Code for DNDBeyond.com are contained in this kit--and not only does it unlock Dragon of Icespire Peak (levels 1-7ish), but it also unlocks the three sequel adventures, Storm Lord's Wrath, Sleeping Dragon's Wake, and Divine Contention. All in all, enough content to go from level 1 all the way up to level 13ish--which is quite a long adventure.
There is also a digital code for 50% off of the Player's Handbook on dndbeyond.com--which is awesome. If you're going to be using dndbeyond to play, the PHB is basically an essential purchase.
Dragon of Icespire Peak is set up to be "open world" and "sandboxy" and all those other gamey-catch-phrases that sound super appealing at first--and for some parties they very well might be. The thing to keep in mind here is that The Essentials Kit, with its handy reference cards, initiative tracking cards, included starter dice, character sheets, rule book, etc. is very much set up for first-time D&D players; and first-time D&D players may struggle quite a bit with "open world" and "sandboxy".
Warning: This next part of the review contains slight spoilers for the adventure--although there's really not much to spoil. If you REALLY care about spoilers, don't keep scrolling.
Dragon of Icespire Peak is set up basically with the adventuring party hanging out in Phandalin, a small mining town in the Northern Sword Coast. The area around has been getting harassed by a Yount White Dragon named Cryovain, and basically the plot of the adventure is "do side-quests to level up until you're strong enough to kill Cryovain". That's it. That's the adventure. Literally. There is an actual job board in the middle of town, and you stick side quests on it, and the players can choose which side quest they want to do.
There are some other plots happening, but none of them are really brought to the light, and any reference to them is pretty thin. It is very much on the DM to try to craft some sort of additional plot, if they aren't happy with "do sidequests until you can kill the dragon". And again, this kit is designed for first-time players and first-time DMs, and first-time DMs may have a very hard time coming up with something interesting and engaging.
The various areas of the adventure, and the individual quests themselves are fantastic. The various areas the players can visit are all charming and unique, and full of interesting NPCs to run into. There just isn't anything tying them all together, other than a job board.
The job board is also problematic, because players by design can choose between several different courses of action--which means that the DM has to choose between "prep several locations/quests" or "don't prep for tonight's session". I tried to work around this a bit by trying to end sessions after quests, and making my players tell me which quest they'd like to pursue next--but the timing didn't always work out well, even for me, and I consider myself pretty good at pacing my sessions--a new DM is going to have a very hard time nudging their party on a time schedule to arrive back at the job board near the end of the session.
The Essentials Kit is a FANTASTIC bit of loot, with a great set of dice, a nice rule book, some awesome reference cards, a map, and even a DM screen. The biggest letdown is the overall plot of the included adventure.
That said, the locations in the book are all incredible. I actually think this kit would shine best if it were thought of as an "expansion pack" to the Starter Set. The adventure in the Starter Set (Lost Mine of Phandelver) is famous in D&D-land for being an excellent adventure, full of intrigue and plots and well-thought-out hooks leading players through events that are connected by more than a job board. That said, there aren't actually that many interesting areas you can visit in the Starter Set, and adding all of the locations in the Essentials Kit would expand the world greatly. Plus, having a Young White Dragon flying overhead while your players navigate the plots of LMoP sounds like an absolute riot.
To be honest, for $20-25, even without the included adventure, this box-o-stuff is really not a bad deal.
Who should buy the Essentials Kit?
If you're looking for a bunch of awesome stuff to help newer players and DMs play D&D, and you have an adventure in mind, or you're going to be doing some one-shots, or you got a copy of LMoP from someone, or maybe you're okay with buying both the Starter Set AND the Essentials Kit and combining them, this is an awesome bit of kit. I use the reference cards, rule book, dice, and maps frequently--and we're not even playing Dragon of Icespire Peak anymore.
Also, DMs who enjoy plotbuilding, or who have players who want to just explore an open world--and are creative enough, and driven enough to create a plot for themselves, may have a blast romping around the Northern Sword Coast, leveling up, slaying beasts, and ultimately slaying a dragon.
Who should not buy the Essentials Kit?
New DMs hoping for a well-thought-out, easy-to-comprehend adventure that guides newer players through things, and has a plot that will keep playrers engaged are going to be disappointed here.
I give the "stuff" in the Essentials Kit an 11/10, and the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak a 7/10, we'll round the overall score up to a 9/10--especially because the adventure may work better for some DMs other than me.