If I had to list my favourite D&D adventures of all time, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver” would definitely be up there. It marked my return as a Dungeon Master in 2016 and it’s a tight little sandbox adventure.
With that in mind, the D&D Essentials Kit caught my eye purely on the basis that the included adventure, “Dragon of Icespire Peak” returns to the village of Phandalin and the surrounding area. I was also keen to access the adventure content digitally and with the physical product including a voucher for the D&D Beyond version of the adventure, it made sense to buy the physical box.
Ultimately, nothing in the Essentials kit is particularly “essential” to me these days. I own all of the core rulebooks and supplements. However, compared to the original Starter Set, the Essentials Kit is a huge improvement and contains some interesting items. Included within the set is:-
- Essentials Kit Rulebook
- Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure
- DM’s Screen
- Full colour double-sided poster map of The Sword Coast/Phandalin
- Blank character sheets
- Cards for initiative, magic items and conditions
- “Sidekick” cards
- Card holder
- Polyhedral dice set
Let’s look at these in more detail.
The rulebook is pretty much the same as the Starter Set rulebook from before but with a few notable exceptions.
Firstly, the quality of the product is better. The book is more robust and durable and although still softcover, the binding and page quality is much improved. One of the main criticisms I had of the Starter Set rules is that after a few uses, the books started to fall apart and tear around the staples. This is a much better quality product.
The set also introduces the Bard class to the four core classes previously introduced in the starter set (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue). The reason for this is not clear, but it’s a nice addition particularly given that the Bard is one of my favourite all-time character classes.
The rulebook also introduce the concept of “sidekicks”. These are simplified NPCs who can bolster the party when you don’t have enough players. The set is clearly marked as “for 2-6 players” with the idea that the use of sidekicks could allow the Icespire Peak adventure (or any adventure for that matter) to be played with as little as one player and one DM. This is an excellent way to get new players playing quickly without having to go on an immediate recruitment drive to find enough players for a full party.
My only concern is that some of the encounters in the adventure look like they’d be a wee bit of a handful for one player and a sidekick. Obviously these encounters could be scaled down easily by a reasonably experienced DM but it seems strange given that this box set is aimed at novice DMs.
As with the rulebook, the adventure booklet is a much sturdier affair than the previous Starter Set’s “Lost Mine” booklet. The map of Phandalin aside, the booklet sadly doesn’t contain lovely Mike Schley maps but the maps are still functional and nice if less detailed than they could be.
The adventure itself seems decent at first read, although it feels like more of a series of unconnected, level appropriate adventures, loosely strung together through the plot device of a “Quest notice board” in Phandalin rather than a single overarching story arc. In true video game style, as quests are completed, other quests become available on the notice board (for “available” read “unlocked”). This seems like nothing more than a simple mechanic to make sure that the sandbox isn’t too “sandboxy” and that beginning players and DMs don’t have to deal with the headwreck of having to deal with the consequences of wandering into areas that are beyond the character’s ability to cope with.
As for the Dragon itself, it doesn’t seem to have a huge tie in to the wider story beyond being a malevolent presence which randomly turns up unexpectedly at the main locations where the other quests take place. It remains to be seen how this approach works out during actual play.
There’s not much to say about this. It contains a lot of really good information but it’s not particularly sturdy. There’s not a huge amount of scope to complain about that – the entire boxed set is only £20 or so to buy – but it’s important to be aware that it’s not the same standard as the screens they sell separately.
The initiative, magic items and conditions cards will no doubt be really useful for a beginning DM and group. Ultimately though, they feel a bit flimsy and are difficult to separate. They have a tendency to tear along the perforations. The little box to hold them is a good idea but seems slightly too snug of a fit.
The maps are great whatever way you turn them. They’ll add a real visual element to the campaign. This is particularly useful for new players who might struggle with the idea of a game without a board.
I have an extensive collection of gem dice. I love them. Always have. It was a great surprise to find a lovely set of red gem dice provided. There are 11 dice in total as opposed to the 6 in the previous Starter Set. They include 4d6 and 2d20 which is a nice touch. They do seem rather cheap and light though and don’t offer the kind of satisfactory weight and rolling experience that I usually look for in dice.
You can’t go wrong with this product. It’s a great introduction for new players. It comes in at around £20 in the UK and is worth the price for the adventure alone. Add to that the fact that you get a passcode for the adventure in D&D Beyond, along with three additional D&D Beyond only adventures called “Storm Lord’s Wrath”, “Sleeping Dragon’s Wake” and “Divine Contention” which follow on directly from “The Dragon of Icespire Peak” (extending the campaign to around 11th level!!) then it’s an absolute bargain. Furthermore, there’s also a voucher in the box for a 50% discount on the D&D Beyond version of the full Player’s Handbook. All of this makes the Essentials Kit incredible value for money.
The quality of the booklets is good and they’ll put up with a lot of use before they start getting tatty. In fact, they’ll last longer than most people will ever need them because they’ll likely move on to the Player’s Handbook in short order.
Overall, one of the best products released for 5th Edition so far.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.