GameJoy: Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit

My all time favourite tabletop gaming products are the books and kits designed to introduce games to brand new players. A product that can elegantly teach new people to play and run a game quickly and easily is, to me, the benchmark for a successful product.

The D&D Essentials Kit is definitely one of them!

Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition was released over five years ago (longer if you include D&D Next), and since then the ‘world’s greatest role-playing game’ has embraced a renaissance of new ways to enjoy the hobby. Live stream games like Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, and shows like The Adventure Zone, Harmonquest, and many more have introduced fantasy roleplaying to a whole new generation of fans. The players and DM’s of these shows have been catapulted to celebrity status, and their success has brought D&D fans from television and film to join in.

To fans in 2020, Dungeons & Dragons is a celebrity-driven affair that sells out auditoriums and concert halls typically reserved for rock and pop headliners. D&D is Hollywood and D&D is mainstream media.

But D&D is also a simple game of paper and dice, played between friends at a table. The lifeblood of the hobby is not just in fans of shows, but in players of the game. Reading through the Essentials Kit, what the tone of its rules booklets drives home is this:

“Anyone can play D&D, and anyone can become a Dungeon Master”, and that is perhaps the most encouraging tone of all.

The Essential’s Kit is an embarrassment of riches for $25. The rulebooks are high quality, glossy paged tomes filled with much more information than what the starter set had.

The Essential’s Rulebook acts as a slimmed down Player’s Handbook, complete with four races (elf, dwarf, halfling, human) five classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard, and now bard!), five backgrounds (acolyte, criminal, folk hero, sage, entertainer), and all the item lists, rules, spells, and magic item descriptions one might need to create a character from scratch and play them through 6th level. No longer are players limited to a handful of pre-made character sheets, they can now create their own fantasy darlings from the start.

On the DM side, there’s a whole cardbox filled with helpful perforated cardstock cards complete with art and text that details magic items, quests, initiative counters, and condition reminders. There’s a glossy cardstock DM screen with brand new art (it’s gorgeous) and all the rules reminders found in the previous product, the DM Screen Reincarnated.

On top of all this, the included ten piece translucent ruby-red dice set is wonderful. If these are to be a dungeon master’s first dice set, Wizards of the Coast chose well. They’re beautiful.

The included adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, is a much more open ended and improvisational affair than its linear forebear, Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set. The characters head to Phandalin, make friends with the locals, and are then given an entire notice board’s worth of quests and adventures to choose from: Send word to a dwarven mine, convince a prominent NPC to return home, deal with some displaced orcs, protect a ranch, find a magic item. All of them simple in premise, but filled with loads of narrative potential.

All of these quests and jobs are unified by an overarching threat: a white dragon is circling the region, and it’s only a matter of time before it attacks. It appears as a random encounter, players will encounter the destruction it wrecks as well as fight its servants. Eventually, they’ll have to take the fight to it. But how and when they do that is up the players.

The whole thing feels like Skyrim meets Red Dead Redemption; a wonderful blend of fantasy and western tropes that make the adventure feel new, but familiar.

The D&D Essential’s Kit eliminates this problem by offering a 1-on-1 rules variant for running the game with only two people (A DM and a single player). The kit provides 9 ‘sidekick’ characters that the player can run, each with their own condensed statblock and provided info for when they level up. They’re like more adept hirelings or torchbearers from D&D editions past, coming in Warrior, Expert, and Spellcaster varieties.

As someone who runs a weekly one-on-one campaign, these rules are a joy to see. They provide just enough info to help a duo along in running a D&D campaign. Plus, the provided ‘sidekicks’ come with backgrounds, personalities, and really wonderful art. They’re a wonderful collection of characters.

With these rules in place, more people should be able to play D&D for the first time, without the need to schedule a group of friends to make it happen.

The D&D Essentials Kit is a big win. It’s well worth its asking price and contains more adventure and useful content than most products worth twice as much do. If you’ve got the cash, buy two and donate one to a school group, public library, or children’s fund. This is a great product to introduce younger folks to the world of fantasy roleplaying, and it came out at a perfect time!