Dungeons and Dragons - The Essentials Kit (A Review)

Dungeons and Dragons - The Essentials Kit (A Review)

We've already got a Starter Set, and now we get an Essentials Kit, too! Which one is better? Which one is for you? Read here to find out!


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.


D and D Essentials Kit Contents

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.

The Stuff

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.

The Adventure

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.


Review for
Dungeons & Dragons

Excellent extras

11-die set of dice

Very inexpensive

Everything you need to play

Charming locations


Lack of plot in the adventure

Difficult to navigate for new players and DMs

From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 11, 2020 7:59 PM

    Hey folks, I just created my first Review on Cortex. It's a review of the Essentials Kit for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition by Wizards of the Coast.

    Read more: Dungeons and Dragons - The Essentials Kit (A Review)

    • reply
      November 11, 2020 8:07 PM

      Thank you for this, former coworker desperately tryna get me to join his D&D guild or whatever it is called and I do not want to but I finally said OK just to shut him up

      And so now I am going to have to do it one time or maybe two and maybe I don't have to read through that collection of 15 hardbound coffee table books that he has with him at all times

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        November 11, 2020 8:14 PM

        You most certainly do not need to read them all. The Essentials Kit is geared towards Dungeon Masters (like your former coworker) looking to lead folks through an adventure--but all you REALLY need to know to play is how to show up and roll dice and improv a little bit.

        I highly recommend you give it a shot.

        Stephen Colbert recently did a one-shot Duet with Matthew Mercer as the DM, and it's what I usually send to people who are thinking about playing D&D for the first time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3658C2y4LlA

        The play cycle is basically "DM describes a scene/location, player tells the DM what they'd like to do, DM might make player roll dice, DM then tells the player what happens, rinse and repeat." As long as your DM is a bit forgiving of newer players, and helpful (which they almost definitely will be), it's SUPER easy.

        The character sheets can be a bit daunting to look at when you first start. I often color code my character sheets for new players so I can say stuff like "make me a dexterity saving throw--it's in the green section."

        • reply
          November 11, 2020 8:14 PM

          (also, ignore the SUPER cheesy intro to that video linked above)

          • reply
            November 11, 2020 8:17 PM

            Heh, reverse psychology, nice

    • reply
      November 11, 2020 9:10 PM

      Awesome post. Loving these.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 1:13 AM

      Great post and very nicely formatted.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 1:26 AM

      Very nice job with the images there.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 3:42 AM


      • reply
        November 12, 2020 6:45 AM

        If you’re looking for a full adventure, I would say go for the starter set. LMoP is a masterpiece.

        If you’re looking to just do an introduction, maybe one or two sessions, get the essentials kit and turn one of the quests into a one-shot.

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          November 12, 2020 7:25 AM

          I would agree. I ran it for my family in lockdown and now have leveled them up to handle a homebrew campaign. It was fantastic. The lack of maps was a bummer though; I got a big mat and drew everything out old school style but maps would’ve been much easier.

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            November 12, 2020 7:27 AM

            Yup, agreed. I went to kinkos and printed big, black and white copies of the overworld and Phandalin maps for like $3 each.

            Then I bought the essentials kit and I was like ahhh! These maps are so great! Lol.

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              November 12, 2020 7:29 AM

              The character sheets in the starter set are fantastic in how they explain the changes upon leveling up. By the end of that adventure, one kid wanted to play a beast enclave ranger instead and the other two were deep into the PHB rather than using the starter Guide.

              Good times

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 6:21 AM

      Most D&D adventures take place in a land known as The Forgotten Realms.

      This may be true for CRPGs and for 5th edition published adventures, but it is otherwise not true. I agree with this reddit poster: ... about 25% of games are set in the Forgotten Realms, another quarter use other published settings, and half are homebrewed.


      • reply
        November 12, 2020 6:43 AM

        Sure makes sense. I would still say with that, no other world has more adventures in it than the Forgotten Realms, but I totally see your point.

        Also, as I was typing this, I typed corgotten realms, and now I want to homebrew a world where all playable characters and NPCs must be sentient corgis.

        • reply
          November 12, 2020 7:08 AM


          “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.”

          It’s awesome being able to edit these. Thanks the man with the briefcase.

          D&D, had quite a lot of experience etc.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 7:13 AM

      I haven't played DnD since the 80's but I just bought the Essentials Kit off of Amazon thanks to this review.

      • reply
        November 12, 2020 7:21 AM

        Note to self: include referral links in future reviews. ;)

        Just kidding. Here’s to hoping you embark on an epic adventure in this land of magic and mystery!! Welcome back. We’ve missed you.

      • reply
        November 12, 2020 7:31 AM

        You’ll find the 5E rules super intuitive and simple compared to Thac0 tables and all the rest of the Gygax-ery of the first edition :)

      • reply
        November 12, 2020 8:22 AM

        I also hadn't played in decades, but my brother's been running a campaign the past few weeks and it's been a ton of fun.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 7:25 AM

      I updated my score to 9/10. I think the adventure could work well for some DMs other than me, and to be honest, even if this kit didn’t come with an adventure at all, it would still be an incredible value. 7/10 felt far too low with all that in mind.

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      November 12, 2020 8:50 AM

      So this isn't a direct response to your post, but it's a D&D thread and it could fit. Sorry if this is a derail.

      Anyway, my nearly 10yo son out of the blue one day said "so what's this D&D thing about?" which is extremely exciting for my wife and I!

      A little backstory: My wife and I have been playing board games for around 2 years now. They're pretty much our favorite thing and our collection is massive at this point. We've tried COUNTLESS times to get our son interested and every single time has been a massive failure. So to see him come to US with an interest in something in the same realm is very exciting.
      Now, we have NEVER played D&D before. In the board game world we have played numerous "D&D Adjacent" games, but nothing that is a full on RPG with a DM and all that.

      One day at Target I saw they had the "starter set" on sale for like $10. https://www.amazon.com/Dungeons-Dragons-Starter-Wizards-Team/dp/0786965592/

      I figured "why the hell not?" and took it home and immediately started reading the rules and introductions. This is where I found the first hurdle:

      "this is an adventure for 5 players"....

      Well... ok... it's just going to be the 3 of us. Is that just a recommendation or do we NEED to have that many players? Since I'll be taking the role of the DM can I just sort or tweak things on the fly to make it a more enjoyable experience for my wife and kid? I want to put the emphasis on "fun and adventure" rather than "brutal combat that we barely survived". Or will things just be impossible without a more robust party?

      So what should we do? Is there a better starting point than the so-called "starter box"? I suggested playing Descent:2E instead and he just sort of rolled his eyes and groaned. You'd think that would be more appealing to a 10yo, but I think he likes the idea of character creation and having a unique experience.

      • reply
        November 12, 2020 9:15 AM

        Great question! First of all, don’t worry, the starter set is an awesome adventure.

        Personally, I use the first cave from LMoP (the starter set adventure) as a one-shot for first time players all the time. It’s great!

        That said, the Essentials Kit reviewed here contains rules for “sidekicks”, which can be used to expand the party a bit, and make it easier. You can also just “nerf” some of the encounters so a smaller party can do well.

        The “sidekick” rules can be found online pretty easily, but if you do buy the essentials kit, you’ll get another set of dice, some great maps that go well with the Starter Set, as well as some reference cards, and everything you need to add Sidekicks to your adventure to play with fewer people.

        Additionally, there are some adventures, known as “duets”, which are designed for one DM and one player. You can head out to dndduet.com for more information on those.

        The Proving Glade is a great adventure for duets or small parties (it is a one-shot), and there’s also the crystal curse trilogy or something like that.

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          November 12, 2020 9:59 AM

          This is awesome advice, thank you! Definitely helps makes me feel a little less overwhelmed. I guess I was just worried we'd get to a part in the adventure where it would be required to have a certain number of people to accomplish a task, you know? Like in Gloomahven where someone has to stand on a pressure plate to open a door in another room sort of scenario.

          Your review is amazing, btw! Forgot to mention that in my first comment. This is the sort of thing that really makes Cortex shine.

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            November 12, 2020 10:04 AM

            The best part of D&D is when a GM modifies the existing worlds to fit your group. It might take some math or something but generally speaking the GM gets to be the creative idea guy.

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              November 12, 2020 10:08 AM

              yeah that's what I was hoping for. Board games are typically more structured, but D&D seems like you can adjust on the fly to make it a more enjoyable experience for the group. I just want to make it a fun experience for my son so he doesn't get discouraged.

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                November 12, 2020 10:30 AM

                You got it! Personally, I love Duets, and I’ve also run adventures for groups of 2 before. “Tricky Treats” was a fun one I did for two members of my party when everyone else couldn’t make it.

                Here’s a video if me running Tricky Treats: https://youtu.be/JIzjDnjWU4I

                And here’s The Proving Glade: https://youtu.be/sL7spU54l7E (audio quality is crap on this one).

                Long story short, don’t worry about it. At the end of the day, everything in the adventure book is just a suggestion anyways—and even if you did run into a situation that “required” more people, you can just change it.

                Honestly, sometimes I like to just throw puzzles at my players when I don’t really have a solution in mind. I just let them explore and try things, and when someone has a particularly clever idea, it “works”.

                Biggest piece of advice I have for you as a new DM is to just relax. Make stuff up. Let go of your nervous inhibitions, try out funny voices, etc. Have fun. :)

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 9:07 AM

      This is killer content!

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      November 12, 2020 9:48 AM

      This is super awesome. I only lol’d it because how did you find time to write it with a new baby!? 🤣🤣

      • reply
        November 12, 2020 9:56 AM


        She sleeps.. a lot.

        Like, I know it’s going to get harder, but honestly this hasn’t been hard at all. It helps that breastfeeding is going REALLY well for Kelsey, and that if the baby isn’t breastfeeding, it’s sleeping lol.

        I change diapers during the day, and swaddle her, and rock her to calm her down, and do laundry and cleaning to help make up for the fact that Kelsey is the one who has to get up in the middle of the night to feed her—but honestly, we’ve all been getting like 7-8 hours of sleep at night (in 2-3 hour chunks), and lots of free time during the day.

        Working for a company that gives me 4 weeks of paternity leave helps, too.

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          November 12, 2020 10:01 AM

          Awww baby pictures!! I love it. Yeah, mine slept a LOT in the beginning and never really got too difficult for me to handle. Ratalon did the same thing you are doing when Ryder was newborn. He made sure I had extra food and LOTS of water and took care of a lot of the household things. My kid never really had sleeping issues so maybe you will get lucky like that too! ❤️
          The only time we had issues with sleeping was when we tried to force him into sleeping in his bed when he wasn’t ready for because I thought that was what I was “supposed” to do. Ratalon asked me one night why I kept doing it if it felt wrong. He told me to go with my instincts and don’t listen to everyone else and that was just the best thing ever. That was the hardest lesson for me to learn as a new mom.

    • reply
      November 12, 2020 9:57 AM

      Nice work, thanks!

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