Review: Wizards of the Coast – Essentials Kit (Dungeons & Dragons)

Essentials Kit
Essentials Kit is an epic fantasy starter box set for Dungeons & Dragons, written by Jeremy Crawford, Christopher Perkins, and Richard Baker and published by Wizards of the Coast.
By Aaron T. Huss

Learn more about Essentials Kit here
Purchase Essentials Kit here
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Wizards of the Coast has a unique position in the tabletop role-playing game industry. As the owners of Dungeons & Dragons, thousands of developers, writers, artists, editors, and publishers lean on them (virtually) to bring new fans into the industry. With such a lengthy track record and guest appearances in E.T. and Stranger Things, it is the name of Dungeons & Dragons that draws people into the hobby. So stop for just a minute and contemplate what it means to be a new fan approaching tabletop RPGs for the first time…

You look around a bit and you find there are core rulebooks in published book format. To play, you need three of them – Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. Then you look at the cover price… $50 each. You look around and find them for $30 each, but you quickly realize that you have to make an initial investment of $100 to play a game you’ve never played before. So you think about it and look into it a little more and realize that across three core rulebooks, you’re look at ~1,000 pages of content. You quickly become overwhelmed and walk away from the hobby for good with the realization that you don’t want to make that investment.

It’s possible this happens more often than not and with that in mind, the hobby quickly fizzles and fades away. But fear not, because along comes Wizards of the Coast with a poorly-named box set that is perfectly geared towards those new players.

Essentials Kit is basically the ultimate newbie starter kit for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Unfortunately it is very poorly named, but very well marketed. This is the retail box set, available at Target and eventually other retailers, literally containing “Everything you need to create characters and play new adventures in this introduction of the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” But wait a minute, it gets even better than that.

You open the box, and this is what you find – a very accessible no-frills rulebook of only 64 pages in length; a low-budget DM’s screen which is really more of a nice quick reference than a DM screen; cool cards that have items magic items, conditions, initiative designators, and character portraits on it; a decent dice set; character sheets; a beautiful fold-out map of the Sword Coast; and an adventure book also coming in a 64 pages. The best part… it comes with a retail price of $24.99. This is the box set that promotes the entire tabletop role-playing game industry because it gives brand new players an easy entry point into the hobby. You literally get everything you need to start running games at an incredibly affordable price.

Keep all of what you just read in mind as you read through the rest of this review.

First up is the Essentials Kit Rulebook. This stripped-down version of the D&D core rules provides everything brand new players need to get into the very breadth of what D&D has stood for across almost 5 decades. The basic rules are provided and only four races are presented – dwarf (hill dwarf and mountain dwarf), elf (high elf and wood elf), halfling, and human. Only five basic character classes are provided – bard, cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard. Only five backgrounds are provided – acolyte, criminal, entertainer, sage, and soldier. While this is very limited from the long-time gamer’s perspective, it’s a good entry point for the newbie. Keep is simple and don’t overwhelm. The rulebook then provides everything you need to run those character options up through level 6. If you have a player hooked to that point, then leading them to the full Player’s Handbook should be much easier. In essence, the Essentials Kit is the “gateway drug” for Dungeons & Dragons.

Next up are the accessories – DM’s screen (an abridged, low-cost version that serves as more of a quick reference), dice (very simple, but completely usable), cards to make things a little fun, the Sword Coast map, and character sheets. Just the right amount you need to get a new player involved.

Finally you have the included adventure – Dragon of Icespire Peak. There’s something unique about this adventure that I didn’t catch at first and then realized as I delved through it. If you have every played the Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG, you will recall that the basics of the game is that you go to a location and perform quests to advance your character. It’s a simple model and used regularly in video games. Dragon of Icespire Peak is written just like the D&D MMORPG. You start at the main location, Phandalin, in the Sword Coast region. You work your way through a mild backstory by fulfilling quests. Each quest advances the character and has a chance of advancing the backstory or dropping a piece to the backstory puzzle here and there. It is literally a tabletop RPG equivalent of the D&D MMORPG. While this style of gameplay is nothing new in RPGs, it is a familiarity hook that Wizards can use to bring in new players. You have this wildly successful MMORPG and you can say, “Hey, do you want to play the tabletop version? It feels a lot like the MMORPG version.” You’ve already piqued their curiosity. Long-time DMs and D&D fans may find this gameplay method a bit boring and redundant, but then you’re not the target market. It’s really a brilliant marketing maneuver and only serves to enhance the purpose of the Essentials Kit.

So what does this really all mean for the D&D market? If you are an established DM with an established gaming group that has played D&D for years, this product will be of little value to you. You might enjoy the adventure, but that’s really it. You will likely find it a waste of your time and money and you will only be upset over the purchase.

If you are an established DM with potentially new players or even a new gaming group, this is a great product to put in front of those new players. It’s a very entry-level way of getting into the game and eases those new players in without overwhelming them. You will easily be able to run the adventure or use it as fodder for something else.

If you are a new DM with a new gaming group, start here. This is your entire group’s gateway to Dungeons & Dragons and allows everyone involved to get a taste without emptying their wallets and having to sift through 300 pages just to understand the game’s mechanics. If the group enjoys the game, then you move on to the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

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