My first look at The Essentials Kit a year ago wasn’t so much a review, but more of a First Thoughts post, as I hadn’t actually played the game at that point, just read through the rules and looked at the included components (I had played D&D before, but that was 2nd edition!). I was quite excited to jump in, as I’d been searching for something that could be played with a single player and with the introduction of Sidekicks, they reckoned you can do just that.
Well, after several sessions I have to say I have some reservations about the Kit, mainly as to who it is aimed at. It is supposedly an introduction into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, but I wouldn’t say that it entirely fits the bill.
Certainly, a group of new players shouldn’t have a problem and I would recommend it as a starting point, but with one caveat, the GM needs to have some experience, either as a player or in RPGs, preferably within the D&D universe.
The included campaign, Dragon of Icespire Peak, is fairly typical of how D&D campaigns are these days. Gone are the more linear adventures of old that I grew up on, and now we have these ‘sandbox’ type of adventures. Now, this is great for the players, they can go anywhere and do anything, within limits, but for a new GM it creates nothing but a headache.
As I ran the game I tried to think of how a new GM would see things, not too difficult as I’m a little rusty myself, and came to the conclusion that it would appear quite overwhelming, reducing the game to a crawl.
The ‘sandbox’ nature, especially at the start of the campaign, means that the GM needs to be prepared for the players to take on any of the first three scenarios. An experienced GM would cope with this easily, as one knows just how much prep they need to do for their playstyle. For some, that’s next to nothing as they like to ‘cuff’ it, for others it may mean having copious notes for the unavoidable encounters. There are also tricks one learns for steering the players in the direction you want them to go, especially handy if you haven’t the time, or will, to prep for all eventualities.
But for someone approaching this for the first time it makes for an uphill struggle. There’s also the encounters, which I found had to be adjusted on the fly, especially in terms of level – I was only playing with a single player which didn’t help – and again, this is something a new GM may struggle with. It isn’t helped by the lack of an index in the rulebook, which makes finding things an exercise in flipping pages – not that it tells you much about encounter level anyway!
I concluded that the rulebook does do a decent job of introducing people to the world of D&D, but the included campaign should perhaps be simpler and more linear to aid a new GM. It would also help to include pointers on how to deal with situations and how to adapt when things go awry.
I also found the Dragon of Icespire Peak, well, a bit boring! For me it lacked any real impact, with many of the scenarios finishing before they got going.
I also had another issue with the kit, and that was with trying to play with just a single player – a new one at that. With the introduction of Sidekicks, the game is supposed to be playable like this, but after several hours playing I would say it isn’t, at least not comfortably.
I found that including the sidekicks shifted the emphasis away from the player. With a single player I included two Sidekicks at first, but more time was spent using them than on the player’s turn. We tried a mixture of the GM and/or player controlling the Sidekicks, as well as how exactly they were used – like a mindless retainer or more like an NPC – but we didn’t find anything that let the game flow.
That’s the other thing I found, they’re called ‘Sidekicks’, but depending on how you run them they’re no different from using retainers or NPCs, and I eventually ended up creating them as fully fledged NPCs, as it was easier to keep track of exactly what they could do, what they were carrying, and their state of wellbeing.
Without the sidekicks a single player, or indeed a small group, just isn’t powerful enough to adventure out alone – maybe at higher levels they could, by taking on a campaign a couple of levels lower than themselves. However, I do think that Sidekicks would work better when they are included in a group of two or three players. They could then be used like a retainer and the focus would remain on the players.
Coming back to the included campaign, Yasmin, as a new player, found it really difficult to grasp exactly what was required of her, again it was partially due to the sandbox nature of the adventure. She couldn’t see how the individual scenarios related to each other or what the overall aim of them was. That’s a common issue with single player RPGs, there’s nobody to bounce ideas off other than the GM, which isn’t ideal and can cause things to stutter and bog down as the GM tries to help the player without leading them and giving too much away.
Knowing what I know now, would I still have bought it? No. It doesn’t do what I wanted it to do and that was give me an easy means to play one-on-one. The sidekicks just don’t do it, as far as I’m concerned.
Will it remain in my collection? Conversely, yes! At some point I may want to run an RPG again for a group, and this is a good place to start.
So, One Year On – The Essentials Kit is a great way to introduce new players to the world of D&D, however, having an experienced GM run the game would make things so much easier. The introduction of Sidekicks doesn’t add anything that couldn’t be done with retainers or NPCs, and it certainly doesn’t make the game playable for a single player. Personally, I’ll keep looking for something that does, whether it be within the D&D universe or somewhere else entirely.