As a birthday gift to myself, I decided to pick up the new Essentials Kit for Dungeons & Dragons. Although, I still consider myself to be a new player, this kit is designed for someone completely new to the game looking to get started in an easy, direct, and uncomplicated manner. The Essential Kit certainly succeeds in this regard. There are aspects of it that I think even more experienced players will find compelling and fun to insert into their own campaigns and/or use to entice others to take up the game.
This was the first product I’ve gotten from Wizards of the Coast that wasn’t a rulebook or supplement with more spells, magic items, races, or backgrounds. I tend to have very little interest in any of the pregenerated campaigns or stories; I prefer to make my own. Yet, this kit interested me because I’ve been experimenting with dual-play or 2-player mechanics (just the Dungeon Master and Player Character) and it billed itself as having rules for playing opposite just one other person.
A quick rundown of what’s inside the box–a very easy to understand and streamlined version of the core 5e rules for players and an easy to follow guide for would-be Dungeon Masters (DMs).
What I like most about these manuals is there is very little likelihood someone could get confused. Step-by-step and avoiding anything that might smack of needless complication, unnecessary arithmetic, or the seemingly endless gyres upon gyres homebrewers insist on creating to overwhelm straight-forward play.
It also makes it clear to both players and DMs just what is expected of them.
I’ve written before about how I see the game as cooperative rather than competitive or confrontational, so I very much approve of the tone presented here. But perhaps the most useful components of the kit are the cards.
Initiative Cards allow for every player at the table to know who’s next in line because they can see who’s number is up. I think this goes a long way in mitigating confusion and making sure more easily distracted players can find their footing when it comes time for their ‘move.’ Also, letting the players have numbered cards and then keeping certain numbers to yourself as DM gives playing a bit of dynamism.
Initiative management isn’t sexy even though organization techniques are (hey, it’s Virgo season, deal with it). Perhaps the best resource cards for new players are the Condition Cards that come with the kit. An illustration on one side and a clear description on the other allows players to are experiencing whichever condition a physical reminder of what state their character is in.
These serve as memory aids and allow players to present before them at the table a little station marking for themselves and others just what’s going on. Again, this is a wonderful way to reduce delay in gameplay. Most DMs have already found third party vendors who offer spell cards (a must have really) and cards for magic items. In the Essential Kit, spells are kept to a basic minimum inside the player’s rulebook and the magic items corresponding to the various adventures are provided in cards to be handed out to players as they come into possession of them.
The kit also provides players with a cute paperbox to hold the cards. There is a smattering of blank character sheets. Although, players will have to make a space to mark down their spells or find an extra sheet of paper.
Of course, no kit would be complete without a set of dice. Players are given two D20s (for rolling advantage/disadvantage or the inevitable dice exile), four D6, one D4, D8, and D12, and a pair of D10s (used for the rare percentile roll). The dice included aren’t anything flashy but as a self-professed dice goblin (shiny! shiny! clickity-clack! more! More! MORE!), I rather like the bright, translucent candy red.
Would-be Dungeon Masters are provided with a folding four-panel DM screen. On the DM side is all the standard information a game runner will need laid out in a very easy to find and follow manner. It reads smoothly, which is vitally important for what is essentially a large info-graphic. I very much like the art on the player-facing side of this screen.
It’s evocative without being over the top or overly exaggerated. Plus, cats. My favorite panel is a great still catching what might be a moment of magic, certainly of conversation, and the smoldering grumpiness of the dwarven folk. It hints at roleplay encouraging players to let their characters have a personality.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Essential Kit are the Sidekicks. These are NPCs (non-player characters) designed to serve as augmentation for your party of adventurers. Specifically, they exist so these adventures can be run with just two people, one-on-one. It allows a player to pick up at least one companion they can play alongside their own (or allow the DM to play), making it more likely the individual will be able to make it through the quest. These are also provided as cards for the DM to hand over to the player as the story progresses. Sidekicks can come and go as the player wills making them a wonderful resource.
The rules for Sidekicks are fairly straight-forward. Each as a listing of character traits, some lovely artwork so we can visualize them (my favorite is Donnabella Fiasco due to an amazing name and a papier-mache unicorn mask). Although they begin at 1st level, they can advance with the player or encounter the player slight higher in level depending on what the DM thinks would work best. Each Sidekick is broken up into one of three categories–Expert, Caster, and Warrior–with simple to follow stat blocks provided for players in the rulebook. Also, there’s clear cut information on how to level them up. This makes for good practice for new players and a way to try out different classes so to zero in on what they might prefer in the future.
Just as any kit needs dice, it also needs maps. Maps are vital to all fantasy. Having a visual representation of where you are and where you might go has no end to its utility. The Essential Kit ties in with previous kits placing players in the world of the Forgotten Realms. However, there’s no need to know anything about this world in order to run these adventures. In fact, you needn’t use the map at all and still be able to run the quests without difficulty. They simply make it easier.
Personally, I don’t give a shit about the Sword Coast or Waterdeep or most of the Forgotten Realms locations. They feel too used–overpopulated and nearly played out. Granted, I did set my first ever campaign in the Forgotten Realms, but I cheated–I made the continent of Osse my setting so I’d have virtually carte blanche to do what I want. What was great about this move, I could do my own thing and then, if need be, fall back on tomes and tomes of lore. I would recommend users of the kit approach the it the same way. Fold these quests into your campaign if you’re in the Forgotten Realms, and if you are not, then just tweak them to fit your needs in whatever world you got.
This is meant as a resource, don’t overthink it, just use it.
I think laying the double-sided map down for players to see or even hanging it up as a poster would be a great way to augment the experience. However, within the DM’s book there are a slew of encounter maps (buildings, dungeons, mines, etc.) that are indispensable for a new player. For more experienced DMs, you can certainly create your own paths but why overthink it? Just use what you’re given…and tweak it here and there.
Overall, the Essential Kit is a great resource to introduce the game to people. I’m certain people with no knowledge of D&D other than it exists could open the box and begin playing immediately on a game night.
For intermediate players, I think this kit provides great inspiration for how to streamline gameplay and ease into new characters. Those advanced or longtime players might find it to be less complicated than preferred but that would be missing the point. I think advanced/longtime players can approach this kit as a refreshing change of pace, a way to play with a renewed sense of wonder. Also, there are just enough new pieces of art to inspire the heart and head.
I think my favorites are these fresh version of one of my beloved monsters, Blights.
Here they are made somehow more humanoid but yet more grotesque than previously depicted. I think it really works for an under-utilize monster. But the best piece of art in the kit isn’t the end boss white dragon Cryovain, but rather the ghouls…
How can you not love that!? Lunging at you from out of the page while looking frenetic and feral, it’s a quality piece of work.
I hope to run the adventures with my wife to take advantage of the Sidekick aspect and to give her a chance to roleplay a few characters she has who she doesn’t quite feel she ‘knows’ well enough. So there may be updates.