D&D Essentials Kit Review

In the wake of the unprecedented success of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition there has been a major push for entry-level content. D&D, even the streamlined and user-friendly 5E, has a bit of a learning curve. Plenty of products, both from Wizards of the Coast and third-party publishers, purport to meet the needs of the novice player. The D&D Essentials Kit is Wizards of the Coasts latest offering to get new (and old) players into the greatest role-playing game of all time.

The question is, are these entry level products worth it? We already met the D&D Starter Set and were pleasantly surprised (read our full review). But what about the Essentials Kit?

The Basics

Fundamentally, the D&D Essentials Kit is a successor to the older Starter Set. Starting at around the same price point, the Essentials Kit packs in more content than its predecessor. Both products include:

  • A 64-page booklet with a simple, streamlined version of the already streamlined and simple 5E rules. A standalone adventure. The Starter Set comes with “Lost Mine of Phandelver,” while the Essentials Kit has “Dragon of Icespire Peak.”
  • Gotta have dice. The Starter Set came with 7 dice. The Essentials Kit levelled up to 11, because gamers can always use more dice!
D&D Essentials Kit

So much more D&D stuff!

The Essentials Kit goes well beyond the Starter Set, however. In addition to the above, the Essentials Kit includes some of the bells and whistles that go beyond the basic game. It includes a DM Screen, a fold-out cardboard barrier for holding notes. It also provides a lovely double-sided adventure map, cards that detail the effects of spells and magical items, plus handy initiative trackers to remind you who goes when.The Essentials Kit also adds a new aspect to D&D as a whole: sidekicks. In effect, these simple, pre-generated characters can be controlled by either the DM or a player to add power to a party or depth to an RP session. Sidekicks also make two-person D&D much more achievable, which is perfect for parents looking to play with a child or couples inclined to get nerdy together.

Pros of the Essentials Kit

Obviously, the Essentials Kit provides plenty of pure content for its accessible price tag. But content is always achievable in tabletop gaming. Quality can be more elusive. Here’s what the Essentials Kit does well.

Adventure in a Box

Both the Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit were clearly designed to give players an out-of-the-box play experience: just set up, glance over the simplified rules, and get rolling. With the addition of the DM Screen and sidekicks, the Essentials Kit improves on the Starter Set’s success. Any prospective DM with one or more interested players can open this up and play a complete session. That’s huge.

Two Player Fantasy

Two-player D&D has always been a challenge. Wizards of the Coast have tried a dozen different ways to make two-player gaming achievable, with at best mixed success. The sidekick mechanic is their best attempt by far. The Essential kit contains 9 “sidekick” cards each with their own mini-backstory and Personality, Ideal, Bond and Flaw traits. This gives the opportunity for the DM or a player to increase party numbers with an extra player character.

It’s a basic part of the balance of D&D that no one character can do everything well. By in effect providing one player with multiple characters, the Essentials Kit gets past that hurdle and provides, in our opinion, the first really successful two-player D&D experience. Similarly you may have a small number of actual players in your party, so an extra sidekick in tow can help fill the gaps in the class roles that your existing party can cover.

D&D Essentials Kit Sidekicks

9 included “sidekick” cards allow the DM or another player to control an extra character

Building Character

The Essentials Kit shines as a tool for building unique player characters. The Starter Set provided basic building blocks, but it was clearly designed to be used with the pre-generated characters provided. The Essentials Kit puts much more agency in the hands of the players. The rules go into greater detail on the subject and the cards help keep track of characters’ more complicated abilities. The Kit empowers players to take their characters all the way to level 6 in the included classes. If you want to go higher than that, you’ll need the Player’s Handbook.

Essentials Kit puts much more agency in the hands of the players. The rules go into greater detail on the subject and the cards help keep track of characters’ more complicated abilities. The Kit empowers players to take their characters all the way to level 6 in the included classes. If you want to go higher than that, you’ll need the Player’s Handbook.

Cons of the Essentials Kit

The Essentials Kit isn’t perfect. Two flaws in particular raise concerns, especially for dedicated gamers looking to round out their collections.

Those Wonderful Toys

When you lower a price, quality suffers. Them’s the rules in capitalism. It’s great that the Essentials Kit includes item cards and a DM screen. Those are a fun part of the game and a great way to get new players excited. It’s less great that the cards and screen are flimsy and imperfectly printed. To be clear, the Essentials Kit swag is still 100 percent usable. It’s just a bit lower quality than we’re used to seeing from Wizards of the Coast.

Mission Fatigue

“Dragon of Icespire Peak” is… fine. It’s fine. There are dungeons, there are dragons. Buckles are swashed. Foes are vanquished. XP is hard.

Alas, that’s about all there is to it. The story is forgettable. The characters are more than forgettable: as of this moment I cannot recall a single one of their names. It’s a dull way to start an exciting hobby, and it’s certainly not something committed players should splash out for in hopes of a thrilling standalone module.

However, there is one redeemable factor. Icespire Peak provides a bit more opportunity to customize your adventures than in the Starter Set’s standalone adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. It also provides non-linear adventuring by providing quick, achievable quests for time- or attention span-limited players. That’s a meaningful plus: one of the downsides of Phandelver was that it demanded more time commitment than was necessarily achievable, especially for young players.

That said, the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure is far better in my opinion. There’s more story, more depth and more replayability.

D&D Essentials Kit Dragon of Icespire Peak

The “Dragon of Icespire Peak” adventure included has a number of bite-sized quests

Final Verdict

In short… buy it! The D&D Essentials Kit is absolutely worth your hard-earned gold pieces.

For New Players…

The Essentials Kit took what the Starter Set did well and improved on it. Can’t say fairer than that. We can nitpick about Icespire Peak not having quite the same charm as Lost Mine of Phandelver, but dragons are still dungeon’ed and quests are still hero’ed. We can point out that the item cards and DM screen are flimsy, but they’re 100 percent more DM screen and item cards than you got with the Starter Set, to say nothing of the Player’s Handbook, which has the audacity to be nothing but a book.

For Seasoned Players…

If anything, the Essentials Kit is a better buy for the seasoned player than the noob. This thing is laser-focused to get new people into D&D. At times, the old Starter Set felt like a different, simpler game. This is D&D. It prioritizes building exciting characters. It ships with an adventure that, for all its “meh” storytelling, opens up new opportunities for players to improvise and collaborate. In short, this is D&D, packaged to inspire new players and help old ones share the love.

Despite a few flaws, the D&D Essentials Kit is still an excellent way for new D&D players to get into the game.

Happy gaming!

The D&D Essentials Kit and D&D Starter Set can both be purchased from Amazon:

If a more endearing adventure sounds more to your taste than exciting sidekicks, deeper customization and a free DM Screen, check out our review of the D&D Starter Set for an alternative.