If you haven't read my preview, you might not know that the D&D Essentials Kit is also set in Phandalin and can be used alongside the adventure in the Starter Set. However, it also stands completely on its own as an introductory box set for new DM's. The adventure within is independent of events occurring in Lost Mine of Phandelver.
Included in the D&D Essentials Kit is
- 64 page "Essentials" rule book (including character generation)
- Dragon of Icespire Peak, a new adventure by Chris Perkins
- 4 panel landscape DM screen
- Double sided poster map with the town of Phandalin on one side and the local region of the Sword Coast on the reverse.
- Quest cards, NPC cards, Magic Item cards, cards, cards, cards...
- Red crystal dice set with 2d20 and 4d6
- Blank character sheets
- Includes a key to unlock the adventure content on D&D Beyond and a 50% discount on the digital Player's Handbook.
In a word? Yes. Solid. The art. The layout. The adventure format... It really hits on all cylinders. There are a few minor foibles, but they can be overlooked (more detail below).
A New Basic Rulebook
The Essentials Rulebook is a boiled down version of the D&D Basic PDF, but with some new art and layout adjustments. It includes character generation rules for the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Bard classes. Spell lists go to level 3.
I love this book as a replacement for the Starter Set rules. I was critical of the Starter Set over the fact that players (and DM) would have to download the Basic Rules separately for character creation. Not including character generation rules was a mistake in my opinion. With this change, this new box set feels very much like the early Basic D&D box sets with enough level advancement to give you the taste for the game.
Happy Little Accidents
The art is fantastic. It uses the same color art style already seen in the Starter Set and Player's Handbook as well as the pen and ink sketches found in the D&D Basic PDF (also seen in the PHB Conditions appendix).
The Sword Coast map lacks some detail, but I understand the need to not put extra details on the maps which would not appear in the adventure. The player map of Phandalin is excellent and will give the players a sense of place.
The DM screen has an amazing 4-panel illustration of an adventuring party about to walk in on some serious danger. I also love the fact that both the Starter Set and Essentials Kit have utilized a dragon for their cover art, something that recent core books have lacked. Some fans on social media have criticized the fact that the DM screen is a lighter cardstock instead of cardboard like the "reincarnated" screen. This isn't really new. Past editions have used lighter cardstock DM screens. It is true they might not take as much abuse as the cardboard ones, but if you treat them with care, they should be fine. I have cardstock DM screens from AD&D and 3.x that have survived the years.
The dice are... dice. Basic red gems. I wish they had been pearlescent red similar to the Starter Set, but that's a personal preference. The set also comes with quest cards, NPC (companion) cards, magic item cards initiative cards, etc.
I am a little surprised that there were no pre-gens included as an alternative option to character creation. It would have been easy enough to include an example of each class. They could have just removed the ideals and bonds from the Starter Set characters. It's a minor consideration, but it does mean new players can't just "jump in and play" without going through the creation step.
One other new enhancement is that the D&D Essentials Kit includes an unlock key for the adventure on D&D Beyond. This is the first time a Wizards of the Coast physical product has included a free digital version. This is less easily achieved on a product that is not shrink wrapped (like a hardback) where one-time use keys could be stolen. It also comes with a 50% off key for the digital Players Handbook. I have lots to say about licensing a book through a service (which could go away) versus owning a PDF, but I won't complain here. It is nice to be able to use the D&D Beyond maps for virtual table top software.
There is one foible that I ran into. Their keys use a San Serif font. They also mix upper case "I" with lower case "L" and "1" in the same keys. Similarly the letter O is not distinguishable from zero. I am not the only one who has run into issue redeeming a key where the letters are less than obvious.
The Adventure Begins
The adventure isn't perfect, but it works extremely well for the purpose of teaching new DMs, and is probably better than the Starter Set in that aspect. As much as I like Lost Mines of Phandelver, it has a strongly focused story that channels the players along a largely pre-determined route. Each leg of the Starter Set story is also "heavy" for lack of a better word. It contains a lot of detail for a new DM to digest in order to run well.
The Essentials Kit, on the other hand, is much more loose. It consists of a series of smaller site-based encounters than do not have a strict order of play. Each encounter is generally only 2 to 4 pages. This means the DM has a lot fewer things to consider to prep for any given session. Each scenario is very light and easy to run. This format is quite brilliant for new DMs. The adventure feels much less overwhelming for a newbie.
The encounters themselves often present non-combat solutions as well as what skills a player might use to achieve a skill test. Scaling guidelines are often also presented as this set can be used in a DM and single PC only mode as well as with a larger party. The boxed text for the encounters usually includes just a few sentences to set the scene, leaving most of the description up to the DM to formulate. The adventure is written to foster a learn-as-you-play experience. There are a few things I might nit-pick, but they are relatively minor and largely subjective to my own tastes.
[UPDATE] After some careful consideration, I do believe Lost Mine of Phandelver is a better adventure overall than Dragon of Icespire Peak... However, Icespire Peak is much better as a D&D teaching tool. From the perspective of a new DM and new players, the Essentials Kit does a much better job of introducing newbies to the game at a pace that doesn't overwhelm. I would certainly recommend it to a newer audience over the Starter Set. That said, both are excellent products.
There is little doubt in my mind that this box set is a grand slam. It oozes the feel of D&D as both a game and fantasy genre in all the ways the Stranger Things box set failed to do so. It does a better job of teaching D&D in smaller, easier to digest chunks than the Starter Set did. The design team has learned a lot about the presentation of D&D since 2014 and it shows. It sets out to be an introductory set that can work well for a single PC or a party of five. It basically succeeds at every product goal put before it.
The Bad? As I noted in my earlier post, I do not like that this is being sold as a Target exclusive through September. I truly think this exclusivity is going to hurt game shops because all the posts I see of people buying it on social media are from long-time D&D aficionados and not new gamers.
If you are not currently running the Starter Set, or not immediately going to start a new campain, I urge you to wait until September and order this from your friendly, local game store. If you were planning on paying the full $25 MSRP from Target, you should use the money to support your local game shop instead. They are the ones who often provide gaming spaces to the community and ways to hook up with other players locally. Please support the local community if you can.
I realize I am a bit of a hypocrite, but a review of this set three months from now would be much less relevant than one posted today. If I weren't running a D&D blog, I absolutely would have waited.
So, the long and short is: Buy this box... but wait until September if you can.
PS - For the curious, there are more pics in the Twitter thread.