Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit (RPG)

The newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons (known as D&D) burst on the scene in 2014 and this “5th Edition” released by the Wizards of the Coast has never looked back. Thanks to the rise of a large streaming culture, where gamers broadcast their games on Twitch or other streaming media, play of D&D has grown nearly 50% in each of the past two years. A recent announcement states that over 40 million people now play the game, with 9 million of those also watching streamers play their games. While the initial release of 5th Edition included a Starter Set, Wizards of the Coast has gone back to the drawing board and created a new entry-level experience to provide a better on-ramp to the world of Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.

Concurrent with the initial release of the 5th edition rules for D&D, there was a starter set released to show off the new version of the rules. It had rules for the first few levels of play, premade characters, dice, and a highly regarded adventure book. Five years later, Wizards of the Coast has taken what they’ve learned and how players now play the game and created a new entry-level product, the Essentials Kit. Available only at Target for now, but everywhere in the fall, this starter kit focuses in on the storytelling aspect of the D&D franchise. Players are stepped through the process to create their own characters with more variety, options, and story elements than the Starter Set. The kit also includes an open-ended adventure to show gamers what it looks like to play with an open-world exploration style.


  • Essentials Kit Rulebook – The rulebook in the box contains everything needed to play the game. After just a couple pages of explanation and important concepts to remember, it launches right into designing a character. Players can choose from four races (elf, dwarf, human, halfling) and five classes (fighter, cleric, wizard, rogue, and bard.) The book contains everything players need to play through the first 6 levels of play. Note, the basic rules of D&D are available for free (it’s called the 5th Edition SRD) and cover rules for many more races and classes up through the 20th level. However, the SRD has only one class option (taken at 3rd level) and little or no story elements. The Essentials Kit has background information on each race (including attitudes, how they interact with the wider world, etc…), five different character background choices, and an additional class option for each included class. For example, Clerics can also follow the War Domain and emphasize their combat abilities while Fighters can take the Eldritch Knight option which gives them some spellcasting abilities. In other words, the rulebook adds in much more background and flavor to the game, enhancing the story elements much more than someone simply playing with the (somewhat dry) free SRD rules. One item that stands out is the addition of Sidekicks. Making their first appearance here, they are a set of rules to help people to play the game with fewer players, even allowing 1 on 1 gaming (one player and one GM.) Players can have a simplified character who comes along with their main character to help with adventures. Rather than running two full characters, a player can have an NPC with rogue, fighter, or spellcaster abilities to help give breadth to any gaming party of just one or two characters. Note, the sidekick rules only progress through the first 6 levels, so are not yet set up for higher level play.


  • Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure – The other booklet in the set contains a beginner-friendly adventure. It opens with advice for new DMs on how to prepare and run this (and other) adventures. Players start their story in the town of Phandalin and then begin to explore around the nearby countryside. It is a very PC-driven adventure with some specific beginning encounters an then the players are left to explore the surrounding area on their own, visiting sites in any order they choose. (Each site gives a DM tips for what sort of level is best for each location.) After PCs finish up all they exploring they wish, the adventure then comes together again for some climactic scenes. The booklet ends with information on creatures that might be encountered in the adventure, many of which can be repurposed for future adventures.


  • DM Screen – It is often nice for the DM (Dungeon Master) to hide some of the information in the adventure from the other players. The Essentials box includes a 4 page fold-out cardstock screen. One side had evocative artwork inspired by the included adventure, while the other side displays all sorts of handy information that might be needed by a DM. The screen includes types of actions and other combat-oriented details, the various conditions in the game, lists of things characters can buy, travel pace, skill checks, etc.. This is pretty handy and should be useful in the long term, well after other bits of the Essentials box get set aside.


  • Dice – If you don’t have a standard set of seven dice (of different shapes), the box contains a translucent red set of the seven types needed for D&D (or most other popular RPGs) including 3 extra six-sided ones since they tend to be rolled in groups more often.


  • Player Aid Cards – Nine sheets of game aides on cardstock perforated so they can be divided into nine parts. There’s a set of cards to track initiative, cards representing possible sidekick companions (with pictures), quest reminders, and items appearing in the included adventure book, a set of conditions cards that list out the details of their effect (like Stunned or Blinded), and a few cards listing the order of events in a combat. All the cards fit together in a handy little cardboard box included in the set (you have to fold it together.)


  • Adventure Map – A 17” x 22” double-sided map. One side shows the main town in the adventure, Phandalin. The other shows an overland map of the wider area on the Sword Coast. Note, unlike Paizo Flip-Mats these maps are not designed for wipe-off writing.


With a street price of around $25, this is a pretty good deal. It serves as an introduction to the game without players having to plunk down a large chunk of money ($150 MSRP, but $90 street prices) for the main set of three books needed as the typical base game. I like this kit better than the old Starter Set as it adds in some extras that would be useful if or when players want to advance into the core rules. I also like how the adventure is written so that it progresses in a more open-ended way rather than the more linear story in the old Starter Set. Sure, the dice are always nice to have, but the DM screen and the various quick reference cards would be useful in any game. Currently, the Sidekick rules are not available anywhere else (although it would be simple to translate them over) and so this set is also a great fit for smaller groups (of only 2 or 3 players.) The kit is not going to be a great value purchase for gamers who already have the core books (I don’t think the cards, screen, and adventure are quite worth it alone.) However, interested new players will certainly get an excellent test drive of the game through the Essentials Kit. One bit of follow-up, Wizards of the Coast sells many different books of pre-made adventures, but I want to point out a city-focused romp entitled Waterdeep Heist. This adventure has characters progressing through level 6, so technically it could be played with just the information in the Essentials Kit.

Other Resources
As always, there are always more things available to buy. Note that the Starter Set mentioned above is now running as low as $12.50 online, making it a pretty good deal for the dice + adventure that is included. Of note is the Stranger Things Starter Set (about $16 online), which also includes dice and features the player characters and an adventure based off the popular Stranger Things television show. As mentioned, the “core rules” of the game are three books:
the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. They MSRP at $50 each but can be found for around $30 each online.
Those looking to spruce up their game have no end of options, like colorful maps (check out Paizo’s Flip-Mats), painted miniatures (see the line of minis from WizKids – check out their set of Wardlings which are kid-versions of miniatures and a pet,) and a plethora of other game accessories (dice, cards, DM screens, etc…)

Kid Factor
Anything can happen in an RPG, but is almost always just what you bring to the table. The provided adventures, art, and other resources are somewhat other-worldly but should not raise any concerns. Note, that other products, especially some of the multi-part adventures available for purchase may have darker themes (depending on the adventure.)

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