D&D Essentials Kit
New Dungeon Masters rejoice! The D&D Essentials Kit is here. And it’s fabulous.
The 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is clearly here to stay. Five years in and there’s no sign of a next edition in the pipeline—a significant difference from this stage of 3rd, 3.5, and 4th editions. Unlike those previous iterations—and it is here that I might lose some readers—this version of the World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game actually works.
Not only does it have mass appeal and is currently being championed by some of the planet’s largest online TTRPG communities, but it is simple to play. The overly complex rule system of 4th edition has made way to an easier-to-grasp, more rationalized set of rules, which actually invite DMs to create and develop their own interpretations and make judgments which favor “fun” over “Rules as Written” (RAW).
However, for a new Dungeon Master, setting up a game for the very first brings a whole lot to be nervous about. How do you keep track of the story? Will your players have fun? How do you remember all the abilities and conditions? What the heck is this weird 12-sided dice for?
Thankfully, WotC has released the D&D Essentials Kit, which aims to gently lower you into that first session. It provides everything you need to help a group of friends set off on their very first adventure, including a brand new story written by DM extraordinaire Chris Perkins—although even he probably can’t explain why you need a 12-sided die!
So, as the D&D Essentials Kit is designed for new DMs, we set a brand new Dungeon Master the task of unboxing it and delivering their take.
Here’s what they thought:
The box looks great and is heavy enough to know there’s a fair amount inside. There’s an action scene on the front that suggests the game will have its pinnacle fight against an icy dragon, but the halfling trying to stop her is intriguing. It suggests, perhaps, that there’s more conflict in the role-playing in this campaign, it’s not just a “kill all the things until you kill the bigger thing” story. The reverse shows everything contained within the box: the player’s rulebook, the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure, a map, a Dungeon Master’s screen, 6 blank character sheets, 11 polyhedral dice, and 81 cards for use in the game.
Card box and dice
The first items in the box are the smallest: a fold-up box for holding cards that is quick to build and shows a clear understanding of what new DMs need; losing one of the many cards between game sessions would be very frustrating.
A full set of dice is also included: 2 x d20s (needed for advantage or disadvantage rolls), 1 x d12 (no one knows what these are for), 2 x d10s (one in units of 10 to be used as a percentile dice for 1-100 rolls), 1 x 1d8 (for Sacred Flames), 4x d6s (the most often used dice for weapon attacks), and 1 x d4 (the most painful to step on).
Sword Coast on the front, Phandalin on the reverse. If you want maps for all individual areas your players may go to, you’ll need to print these out from the adventure book, but Phandalin is likely to be the base of operations, so it’s nice to have that as a visual reference. The Sword Coast side can help your players decide good routes to take to new areas and brings realism to the world they inhabit.
DMs like having a means to keep their own rolls secret, and having some cool artwork to distract their players as they fudge rolls is the perfect ruse. While this screen isn’t as sturdy as the ones you can buy on their own, it will certainly do the job.
The DM side of the screen is a quick reference sheet with details for combat actions such as disengaging from an enemy or concentrating on a spell, as well as role-playing statistics like the brightness distance on light sources and the daily cost of staying at an inn. Are your PCs trying to intimidate the bandits in their hideout by smashing one of their barrels? A glance at this shows it has 4 hit points.
This is a really useful DM screen—perfect for a newbie Dungeon Master.
Dragon of Icespire Peak
Here is everything the DM needs for this game. If this is your first-ever play through of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, this will start you from square 0 before you even get to square 1. It includes descriptions of all the items included in the D&D Essential Kit and how to use them, how to DM, and exactly what your role within the game is. It has maps for each of the individual areas including short descriptions to readout, quest goals, room breakdowns, contents, and the game statistics for any potential friend or foe.
For a new DM, this will be your bible for the entirety of the campaign and you can use your physical copy or you can opt for a digital version if you’d prefer (more on the later).
The story included looks fun. There are plenty of options for what to do and it doesn’t railroad the players to much. They have choices about what to do and their actions have consequences. But this is all managed in a way that shouldn’t overwhelm a untested Dungeon Master.
What the adventure book is to the DM, the rulebook is to their players. This delivers an overview of the game; how to create a character (including race, class and background); how to play the game (making ability checks, social interactions, combat options etc.); equipment lists (weapons, tools and magic items); and stat blocks for running sidekicks if you are running the campaign with just one PC, or if you feel your party could do with a little extra help.
This rulebook is a reductive version of the Player’s Handbook, so while it does include everything you need for playing this game, if you’d like to add even more options for your players the Essentials Kit also comes with a discount code for purchasing a digital copy of this. But for first-time players and DMs this really does have everything you need and has been streamlined to make it all that much more accessible, but not dumbed down.
Dungeons & Dragons games can be long and spread out over many sessions. Some things may be harder to keep track of over time and the inclusion of these cards helps prevent forgetfulness. For combat there are quick reference cards for the order, “Condition” cards describing any restrictions and limitations to your status, and “Initiative” cards to know what turn each player plays.
Personally, I’m enjoying the story-based cards—”Quests” are pinned up on the job board outside the Townmaster’s Hall in the village where the characters start the game. Giving these to your players will help drive the story forward, while still allowing an element of choice. There are plenty of “Magic Item” cards to reward players for their adventuring too. And there are even “Sidekick” cards, which have a short description of each character with an artistic portrait on the front to keep the players reminded that there is another person in their group!
Player Characters Sheets
This is where your PCs will record everything about themselves. By following Chapter 1: Creating a Character in the Rulebook, they’ll be able to craft the best Human Cleric or Dwarf Bard they can imagine.
There’s enough space to flesh out backstories, record details about allies and organizations, and even a space to draw your character’s appearance if you so wish. I often try to draw my characters, but they always turn out looking like a potato with earrings.
Included in the box is a leaflet for content available on D&D Beyond. After creating a profile on the website, you can use the code to unlock the complete D&D Essentials Kit bundle online, which includes a digital version of the adventure book, allowing you to run the campaign on a tablet or laptop.
When you access a location through here, any references to other locations are hyperlinked for quick access and you can even view player versions of the area maps, allowing you to print these out for your players without it being covered in DM room references or giving away secret doors. It also includes the follow-on campaigns Storm Lord’s Wrath (for levels 7-9), Sleeping Dragon’s Wake (levels 9-11), and Divine Contention (levels 11-13) for free! If you’ve got a great group together and want to continue with your characters after finishing the Dragon of Icespire Peak campaign then these are direct follow-ons, and they look great.
The leaflet also includes a discount code for 50% off the purchase price of the Player’s Handbook, a must if you plan on playing any campaigns after this one or even if you fancied adding variety to your characters in this one with a wider range of races, classes, and backgrounds. Maybe a Tiefling Warlock with a Folk Hero background who once stood alone against a terrible monster has arrived in Phandalin and is confident they can bring down the young white dragon Cryovian?
I’m confident that there is more than enough in this Essentials Kit that if someone had never played a D&D game before, there is everything required to get going.
When I first played, our group relied heavily on our DM for everything: they researched a good starting campaign, bought the book and two Player’s Handbooks for us to share, told us to go buy a set of dice; they downloaded and printed out some blank character sheets and handmade their own maps. Getting over that first hurdle before we even got a chance to play was long and confusing but well worth it for the fun we’ve had. Having all this content ready and available in one box for the same price as the Player’s Handbook is a real step change and will make life so much easier for any new group looking to start playing for the first time.
My special thanks to our newest Dungeon Master Tom Smith for reviewing the D&D Essentials Kit. In a couple of weeks we’ll begin playing the Dragon of Icespire Peak with them at the tiller and it looks like it going to be a fun adventure. I’m told we might even get to use a 12-sided die!
You can check out my other D&D Essentials list here for all the added extras you might need if you plan on stepping up to the Dungeon Master plate.
Disclaimer: GeekDad received a copy of the D&D Essentials Kit for review purposes.
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