The Essentials Kit is aimed as an introduction into the world that is Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It contains everything you need to create a character and then set of on your adventures, but the unique thing about this set is, that it introduces rules to play with just 1-player and a Dungeon Master (DM).
Before we start delving into what the box contains, it’s worth mentioning where I’m coming from in terms of this review.
I last DM’d a game of D&D back in the old days, around 1990, and we were using the then pretty new 2nd Edition. From there I moved predominantly on to Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game, though I did run a number of games using other systems as well. I think I last played a character in D&D around the mid 90’s – so, as you can see, it has been some time since I last delved into D&D culture.
With the arrival of 5th Edition my interest was once again piqued, as I heard many a good thing said about the fluency of its game play, but without a current RPG group, or the time to form one, it remained just a curiosity.
And then they released this, The Essentials Kit, which promised to provide the tools to play with just one player and a DM – just what I’d been looking for to introduce my daughter to a game that had such an influence on me when I was her age – so, let us take a closer look…
The artwork on the box reminds me of the Basic Set of 1983, with our intrepid hero (this time with a trusty sidekick) facing down the titular monster, but this time it’s a White Dragon, not Red/Gold.
Inside there’s a rulebook, an adventure book, numerous generic character sheets, a map, a dungeon masters screen, a set of dice, and a whole host of cards, oh, and a little fold up box to keep them in. There’s also a sheet containing some handy codes that unlock further source material for the included adventure, as well as 50% off the digital version of the Player’s Handbook – redeemable on D&D Beyond.
The dice I actually quite like, and once again remind me of the ones that used to come in the old Basic Set, apart from you no longer have to colour the numbers in with a wax crayon! It’s nice to see that they have provided enough of each type so that you never really have to make two rolls for anything. There are 4 d6’s, 2 d20’s, a set of percentile dice, a d8, a d12, and of course we can’t forget the deadly d4 – you’ll know what I mean when you tread on one!
In order to give a clearer explanation of the other contents within the box, and their pros and cons, I’m going to go through the two books first.
The rulebook is for the players, but of course the DM will need to know everything that’s included within its 60 or so pages, and fortunately it’s an easy read and well laid out. It is predominantly character generation, as one would expect, taking the popular tropes from the main player’s handbook without overwhelming a newcomer with too much choice.
After a very brief introduction, including a game overview, the basic pattern of play, and the core rules, you’re thrown straight into creating a character. The book doesn’t hang around and straight away jumps on to the excitement of what the game is all about – the characters.
A lot has changed since I last played, and it all appears for the better, but I tried to take the approach of a total newb, how would they find the rules?
Well, initially you’re given the steps of character creation, along with a brief description. So we have, choose a race, choose a class, determine ability scores, describe your character, choose equipment, and finally, come together. Throughout there’s a definite emphasis placed upon giving the player what they want, and this is helped by letting the player choose their race and class before determining ability scores.
There are no ability score restrictions placed upon the choice of Race or Class, as there was way back, when you would roll ability scores first and then see what options were available. Here you get a bonus to add to an ability score dependant upon the Race you choose, for example, a Halfling gets +2 to Dexterity.
This instantly makes the game more accessible, as a new player is more likely to enjoy playing the character they really want rather than being shoehorned into something they don’t have an affinity for; in fact the whole system of character creation lends its self to tailoring a character into something you can bond with.
Every new player I’ve ever introduced to a Role-Playing Game has come to the table with an idea in their head of the character they wish to play, and using the system presented here gives them every opportunity of doing just that, at least within the restrictions of the book, that is.
You can choose from the following races, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, most of which also include a couple of sub-races. As for class, well there are the usual ones on offer here too, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Pretty standard stuff; familiar enough for a non-player to have at least an understanding of how they would be expected to fit within a fantasy world, but they also introduce enough variation and individuality to make things interesting.
Each race has their own distinct traits, such as Dwarven Resilience or the Elven Fey Ancestry, and each class comes with a host of special features, for example: The Bard knows how to cast magical spells, has Bardic Inspiration, and is a Jack of All Trades. These special abilities become available, and/or increase in power, as the character levels up, so you really get the impression that your character is developing and growing in their capabilities. I’ll come back to levelling up shortly.
Once a player has decided upon their Race and Class, and has rolled up their ability scores, they are then led into describing their character; adding flesh to the bones, so to speak. There are several backgrounds listed within the book and each class suggests which background would be the most relevant. There isn’t really much choice here other than to go with the suggested background, especially for a novice, though a more experienced player may choose to have a go at blending the criminal background with the class of Wizard. Actually, on paper, that doesn’t sound so bad, but it isn’t so much the traits of a criminal that would be difficult to fit with a class other than a Rogue, but the skill and tool proficiencies, and the starting equipment one gains from taking this choice – these go hand-in-hand with class they were aimed at.
The backgrounds offer a range of suggestions for such things as personality traits, ideals, bonds, and character flaws – a player can either choose one of the suggestions from the table or roll to gain a random one. Of course, there is always the option of choosing something not mentioned or taking one of the options listed against another background, but it gives a great indication to a beginner of the things you can come up with, and I’m sure there’s something here to suit the needs of most new players.
Alignment appears to have remained unchanged since the last time I played, and has the usual choices of Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic/Good-Neutral-Evil. I have always found Alignment to be a sticking point with new players, and here it is glossed over within a few paragraphs, which I think is a good thing. I’ve always been a believer of letting new players play their first characters quite freely, without being particularly bound by an Alignment, especially the Lawful/chaotic side of things. Once they have developed their understanding of the game, and how to play their character within the roles of their Race and Class, then I start to introduce a stricter regime of Alignment use – Personally I’ve always preferred the Palladium Alignment system, as it gives a more definite structure of how one should behave.
Moving on, the player then fills out the character’s personal characteristics – fleshing out their traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, as well as adding details such as appearance, height and weight, and, of course, coming up with a name!
Starting equipment is listed within the character’s class description, with more being added by the choice of background. Some DM’s may allow the character to spend their cash on further equipment; others prefer this to be done ‘in-game.’
I’ve always encouraged players to write a backstory for their character, though I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some will write page after page creating an amazingly detailed life story, other will offer a short paragraph defining a few likes and dislikes – either is fine, it gives the DM and understanding of what that player expects from the game. Some player’s want to experience the role-playing aspects and really develop a deep and meaningful character; others prefer to approach things head on, reacting to the ‘now’ and letting their character develop as they gain skills mechanically.
Writing a backstory also helps the player become more familiar with the character they have created, getting to know their skill set, their foibles, and learning how they may react in certain situations. There’s just enough information presented in the book to write a fairly developed backstory if one so wishes. Look through the Racial and Class descriptions, as well as the presented backgrounds, for inspiration.
Finally, the group is encouraged, along with the DM, to decide upon the characters relationships to one another and how they came together for the upcoming adventure.
Reading through the character generation side of the rulebook, one thing really stood out for me, and that was the levelling system. To start with, a level 1 character has a real sense of purpose about them, especially the Wizard, who in my day was lucky if he could set a match alight, let alone actually do any damage! But through the use of cantrips, which are the kind of spell one would have learnt during their apprenticeship and are actually pretty good spells in their own right, the Wizard is now on an equal footing with the other classes right from the off.
Secondly, on advancement to the next level each class gains a new feature; whether an ability score increase, a new class ability, or just a proficiency bonus increase, they all give a sense of development, and it is here one can really start to make their character distinct within their class. For example: Increasing to level 2 or 3 will enable you to choose an archetype for your character, maybe an Eldritch knight, an Arcane Trickster, or, in the case of the Bard, becoming an associate of the College of Valour. These start to turn your character in a certain direction, and making these choices is both fun and quite nerve-racking at the same time. You’re starting to bring your character to life – you have to make the right choice for your character – and this is one of the D&D’s greatest attractions; forming a bond with your character, getting nervous about them when they’re in dire circumstances, and enjoying their moments of success.
After character generation the rulebook moves on to the rules of play, and things are pretty straightforward here. Core concepts are: the use of advantage and disadvantage (rolling two dice and using the best/worst result), Saving throws, and Ability Checks.
Ability checks simply involve the roll of a d20 modified by the relevant ability modifier, with the result compared to the task’s Difficulty Class (DC). Skills are handled in a similar method, but what I like here, is that the skills have been refined into a list of just 18, each pertaining to an ability and a character automatically has them all, but you can then gain proficiency in each skill and thus increase your modifier. This cuts down a lot of debate when your character attempts to do something, as the skills are fairly generic and it is easy to find one that the current task would fit into.
Moving and interacting with the environment are a pretty standard affair and straightforward, as is combat. During combat a character can move and take an action, such as attack, cast a spell, dodge, etc. There is also the chance to take a bonus action if they have one available, such as the Rogues Cunning Action, which can be used to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.
Making an attack roll is kept simple, thus encounters flow and everyone feels like they’re part of the action. Again it comes down to rolling a d20, adding a few modifiers, and comparing the result to the targets Armour Class (AC).
During an adventure a character can take a rest, either a short rest or a long rest. A short rest, consisting of at least an hour’s downtime, lets the character spend one or more hit dice to regain hit points. A long rest, consisting of at least eight hours downtime, sees the character regain all of their lost hit points and a number of spent hit dice. At the moment I’m unsure how I feel about this. The short rest yes, I think I can see how this may work, especially as the number of hit dice available to spend is limited, and you won’t get them all back with a long rest. But the long rest feels a little like an easy cop-out; regaining all your lost hit points – no longer will you have the mounting tension as you nurse a badly injured character back to town, a few days travel along dangerous tracks. Of course, the DM can ensure you don’t get those eight hours of downtime by throwing in all sorts of diversions, and I’ll be interested to see how these rules pan out with play.
And then there are the sidekicks and the rules for playing with a single player. I was expecting something a little more here, maybe some magical new rule system that would open up a whole new world for single players; when all we actually get is what amounts to a few pre-prepared non-player characters (NPC’s). At least that was my first impression!
On looking a little deeper one can see a few subtle changes, such as the number of hit dice they have, and each type of sidekick (Expert, Spellcaster, and Warrior) has a few special abilities, like the experts bonus ‘Help’ action, or the warriors choice of being a defender or attacker. Basically they’re like an NPC on a mild form of steroid!
A sidekick is a pretty strong addition to single player or small party, and the DM also has the option of adding racial traits to their stats, which will add another slight buff. It is suggested that one sidekick accompanies a single player, and there is the option of having either the DM or the player run them. There are also rules for levelling up your sidekick; as the player advances so does his little (or large!) pal, and from what I can see, these advances are enough to keep the sidekick as a meaningful part of the adventure – not to powerful that you just throw them before you, or to weak that you end up protecting them!
The Essentials kit rulebook makes for a great player introduction into the world of D&D, but for DM’s I have a few concerns…
If you intend to take part in the included adventure, Dragon of Icespire, as a player, then you may want to skip to ‘Extra Bits’ as there are a few minor spoilers coming up.
At the start of the book, before one gets to the adventure itself, you’ll find a whole 2 pages dedicated to running the adventure. These consist of a quick look at the role of the DM, a few tips, improvising Ability Checks, and some information regarding the included components. At first glance I assumed that the Essentials Kit must be aimed at new players, as surely there isn’t enough information here for a new DM? I checked the box, nope, doesn’t say anything there, and then noticed a small paragraph, choosing a dungeon master, which states that, ‘Who should be the DM for your gaming group? Whoever wants to be! The person with the most drive… often ends up being the DM…’ This inclines me to believe that the Kit is an introduction for both player and DM.
There’s a little bit more help forthcoming a few pages on, where it briefly goes over character generation, running the game for multiple players, as well as running it for a single player, and I mean briefly.
Looking at the adventure I found it to be, on the whole, an entertaining affair, which is well structured and shouldn’t present too many difficulties for a novice DM, I say novice, I’m not so sure a total beginner would find things quite so straightforward.
I think my biggest bugbear (lol!) about it is the initial balance. The first three quests that are presented to the players, whilst appearing rather mundane and easily accomplished in their initial description, can actually go on to be something of a challenge. One throws a Manticore straight in the path of the budding adventurers, another a mimic, and the third a couple of ochre jellies!
My issue here is that these are the first adventures new players and a new DM will attempt, and they’re not going to find it easy. Remember, there is a good chance that these players have never heard of a Manticore before, let alone know of the sting in its tail, and a new DM may well find it difficult playing a creature of this nature (and then there’s the Mimic!). The Manticore is a challenge 3 creature, which, as it states in the book, will give a party of four well rested and appropriately equipped level 3 characters a reasonable challenge without them suffering any casualties – how is a brand new DM supposed to relate this to a group of level 1 characters or a single character with a sidekick?
There really should be some advice on how to tailor the challenge of an encounter to the character’s party, and if one unlocks the additional content through D&D Beyond, and takes a peek at the next adventure, ‘Storm Lord’s Wrath,’ one finds a short paragraph about adjusting encounters – why isn’t this included here?
You can also access the basic rules through the same Website, and for a new DM I would definitely say this is essential reading. Here you will find plenty of good pointers for adjusting encounter difficulty, and there really should be something contained in the book directing you there.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen a more straightforward introductory quest included, something that both the players, but especially the DM, can find their feet in and get to understand the core rules. As it stands, there is a good chance that a new DM could inadvertently wipe out the party on their first encounter!
The adventure as a whole is quite entertaining, and there are one or two quests that really stand out for me; the Loggers’ camp has some interesting connotations, especially if the party arrive at sunset or early morning. You could really ramp the tension of this deserted camp, adding a horror movie feel to it, even though it is a fairly simplistic encounter it should be good fun.
The showdown at Icespire Hold should push the players to be creative, especially in their initial approach, and of course, how to deal with that ice!
So, what else is in the box?
There’s a small DM’s screen, which on the player’s side features some nicely thematic artwork, and on the inside has more than enough to keep a new DM from constantly looking through the books.
There’s also an A3, double sided map with the town of Phandalin on one side and the Sword Coast on the other, which is a good edition and will help the players visualise the area they are in.
Then there are the character sheets. Now, it would have been nice to see an example character contained within the rulebook, and one of these pre-filled in for that character, because they aren’t the most intuitive of things to fill in for someone who’s never done it before, and you’ll have to write quite small in some of the boxes!
My advice would be to go on D&D Beyond’s character builder, which can be found under the tools menu, and create your first character here – you’ll need to export the character sheet to get it into the same format as those contained within the box. Once you’ve done this everything becomes pretty obvious, and if the DM wants to use a computer during play, then it is possible for all players to be contained within one place and adjusted during the game.
The best addition for new players though, is the included cards. It’s great to be able to hand these out to players, as and when they’re needed, as for the most part they act as reminders – condition cards, initiative order cards, and magical item cards.
There’s also several quest cards, which will help players keep their focus on the task at hand, and combat step by step cards – the DM would do well to hold on to one of these too, as surprisingly this information isn’t on the DM screen.
Finally there are the sidekick cards, which add some character to the stat blocks contained in the rulebook. I can see a lot of fun to be had here if the DM decides to role-play the sidekick – there’s Pickled Pete who likes his ale; Talon Thornwild who doesn’t see it as stealing if you need it more, and Donnabella Fiasco who wears a papier-mâché unicorn mask! There are plenty of others too, but these are my particular favourites.
If you’re looking to take your first steps into the world of D&D then the Essentials Kit is a great place to start, especially if you intend to play as a character. The use of sidekicks, enabling just a DM and a single player to experience the game, and which I’m intrigued to use myself, should open the game up to wider audience. Commitments often make large group sessions few and far between, but with a reduced number of participants one can hope to get together much more frequently.
The included adventure should prove an interesting and challenging one, and provides plenty of opportunity to hone both combat and role-playing skills. But most importantly, it should also be fun!
If you’re planning to be the DM, delving into this for the first-time, then expect to have a little more work to do. The adventure doesn’t lead you through by the hand, and you’ll have to get inventive. Make sure you read everything… twice, and take a look at the basic rules for tips on modifying encounter difficulty; these can be found online at D&D Beyond. It can be difficult to know what you actually need to know until, well, you need to know it, so be prepared to improvise on the spot and keep the game flowing, then when the sessions finished go and check out the rules. As it says in the adventure’s DM Tips, ‘When in doubt, make it up.’ And welcome to the world of being a DM!
D&D Essentials Kit is published by Wizards of the Coast, is for ages 12+, and retails at £24.99