When I first dived into the world of dungeons and dragons, I weighed up the difference between the starter kit and the essentials kit. In the end, I chose the essentials kit because it had extra dice, ready-to-use player sheets, a dungeon master screen, and a rule book.
If you want to see our comparison review between the D&D Starter Kit and the D&D Essentials Kit, click here.
There is obviously way more in the kit than those four items, but I was new, and I wanted all the help I could get. Those items stood out as the most helpful, so I went with my gut.
As a new dungeon master guiding new players, the essentials kit was meant to be perfect for me, but I came across several problems on my journey. I didn’t know how to create a long multi-choice story, I had no idea what the rules were, and I assumed the kit would baby-walk me through the process – it did not.
Looking back, there are a couple of things I wish I had thought of to stop the game from being confusing and stressful, instead of the fun interaction I knew it could be.
That doesn’t mean the kit is useless or a waste of money; there are some amazing quests, fantastic NPC dynamics, and helpful starting suggestions.
This review will give you a real insight into a new dungeon master’s feelings about the essentials kit, give you an idea of the premade campaign’s quality, and suggest some tips to make the game easier for a newbie.
- What’s In The Box?
- New Dungeon Master Thoughts
- Is The “Essentials Kit” Easy To Understand?
- Is The Campaign “Dragon’s of Icespire Peak” Easy To Control?
- General Dungeon Master Thoughts
- Dragon of Icespire Peak’s Story Quality
- Premade Non-Player Character Quality
- Campaign Flexibility
- One-Shot Potential
What’s In The Box?
Inside the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit, you will find:
- 64 pages rule book
- Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign – Preset Adventure
- Double-Sided Poster Map
- Dungeon Master Screen
- 6 Blank Character Sheets
- 11 Dice
- 81 Useable Cards (Magic Items, Sidekicks, Conditions and Initiative Numbers)
Let’s go into a bit of detail about these items.
64 Pages Rule Book
5th Edition is the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons. You do not need to know the other editions to play.
In total, they are around 640 pages long. The 64-page rule book in the Essentials Kit has picked out the essential rules from these books, so you can learn the basics of the game without being confused by the flare of lore.
Because a lot of the lore and history of the game have been removed, the types of characters your players can create are reduced too.
The reduced rule book only has 4 races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human) and 5 classes (Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard). Because you’re just starting out, this is the perfect balance between choice and limitation. You can create the character you want without having a library of options to look through.
Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign – Preset Adventure
Most of this article will be about the campaign, so I won’t go into detail here. If you want to jump ahead, click here.
Double-Sided Poster Map
The poster map shows the adventure location and the zoomed-in drawing of Phandalin, the main town. The quality is excellent, but the map and the books don’t explain how long it will take your characters to get from one side of the map to the next.
The math isn’t hard, but the kit doesn’t explicitly tell you how far your characters can move in a day. Instead, I will explain it here.
On page 242 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and page 32 of the Essential’s Rule Book, it is explained that “Characters can walk about 24 miles a day”. The map’s key says that 1 hexagon equals 5 miles.
This means that each character can move between 4 and 5 hexagons a day.
You can be creative here. Maybe it takes 4 hexagons to travel the roads, 4.5 to travel the grassland, and 5 to travel through the rivers, forests, and mountains.
Dungeon Master Screen
The DM Screen is a Dungeon Master’s best friend! It has all the basic and quick answers you might need while playing the game, including a size chart, a difficulty chart, condition descriptions, and much more. You can put the screen up, so your players cannot see your dice to allow the tension to grow, or you can stick helpful notes to the screen to remind you of those rules to just keep forgetting.
Blank Character Sheets
I personally prefer to use DnD Beyond’s online character sheets. They do the math for you, level up your characters, and keep all your special features and spell descriptions in easy-to-find locations.
I have friends who prefer to play on paper; for them, the character sheets are easy to fill in once you know how proficiency bonus works.
Your bonus gets higher as you gain levels, and if your character is good at something (like using a bow), they can add these bonuses to their attacks. When your characters level up, you will need to create a whole new character sheet to adjust these numbers.
The dice include one 4-sided, four 6-sided, one 8-sided, two 10-sided, one 12-sides, and two 20-sided.
81 Useable Cards
Because most of my players use DnD Beyond, we didn’t find a need for physical handouts. We started playing in lockdown too, so my one paper-based player couldn’t receive her Potion of Healing card when she found it.
If you are playing in person and would like a physical handout, then these cards will be super helpful. They explain everything the item does, and they can fit into typical card holder pockets, thereby making searching for your items in physical form super easy.
New Dungeon Master Thoughts
This section is dedicated to new Dungeon Masters or even new players who want to know where to start. If you’re a veteran DM, this might not be useful to you, but there is no harm in getting the lay of the land!
Is The “Essentials Kit” Easy To Understand?
The Essential Kit’s Rule Book doesn’t give you all the rules you might want to know, but they tell you what you need to know. Character Creation, Combat, Ability Checks, Spells, and Equipment are all explained in minimalist detail so that you can grasp the core rules.
The number of spells you can use and the types of equipment you can use are just as limited as the races and classes available to you. This isn’t a problem for paper players, but DnD Beyond players might try and buy a rifle or dragon scale armor from the little armory run by Linene.
Because everything has been reduced, your help book won’t have information on all these items. You can try and improvise the cost of these items or create a mini-quest to find the items, but these choices can be overwhelming if you are a new DM.
Need a guide on pricing an item quickly. Click here.
I recommend telling your players exactly what they can see in the shop and explaining how much damage they can do through imagery. For example:
As you walk into the blacksmith’s shop, the first thing you notice is a shining battleaxe. The light reflects off the blade as if it could cut through sunlight itself.
A curtain twitches at the back of the shop, and you see a muscular human woman covered in soot, lowering her smith hammer.
“Pick it up and give it a swing,” she says, pointing at the straw-stuffed potato sack tied to a pole. It has 3 red target rings, which get smaller as they reach the center.
“Try them all. I’ll just clean up.”
Here you get to invite your players to pick up the equipment and make attack roles. When they do damage, you tell them to roll the appropriate dice, making this shopping experience a fun role play experience.
Having a limited equipment list compared to DnD Beyond was the only problem I faced when it came to understanding the rules. And as someone who now owns 5 rule books, it was easier to expand my knowledge after creating this foundation from the Essentials Kit.
Is The Campaign “Dragons of Icespire Peak” Easy To Control?
As a new dungeon master, you ideally want a campaign that you can easily master and control without railroading your players.
Railroading is when you force players down a one-way path without letting them have control or influence in the world, like a train following its tracks without any choice.
Balancing control from the dungeon master and freedom for the players can be a tricky juggling act, but new DMs need to learn how to structure a game before learning how to improvise one.
This is where Dragons of Icespire Peak has its drawbacks. There are a lot of plot hooks ready to pick up. Halia Thornton, for example, is an agent of Zhentarim, a shadowy organization that seeks to exert secret control over the North through wealth and influence. This bit of detail is expanded through the whole Forgotten Realms story, but by itself, it’s irrelevant information.
There are many non-player characters (NPCs) that are easter eggs to other campaigns. They might be fun additions for veteran players, but a new dungeon master will find these details overwhelming and unnecessary filler.
My advice is to read through the whole campaign and circle the NPCs that matter to this adventure, crossing out any which seem irrelevant. Halia can be a greedy merchant for now, and if the players press on her character, you can develop her story as you go. Make it your own.
In my campaign, she is simply trying to buy the whole town. As the story developed, the town’s mayor, Harbin Wester, attempted to evacuate the villagers to Axeholm to escape the dragon. Halia voiced her concerns and tried to persuade the villagers to stay. My players rolled well and figured out she just wanted their rent.
When you have simplified your NPC, you can control the story better and help your players stick to relevant information that will lead to quests.
One great detail that Dragons of Icespire Peak has is a quest board. Quest boards aren’t revolutionary, but in this campaign, three quests are pinned to the board at a time, and when all three are completed, a new three will arrive. This allows your players to choose their path, while the dungeon master can control the overarching story without railroading their players.
If, like me, you didn’t read through the campaign before playing, you’ll think that the whole adventure is about fighting dragons. However, one of the main baddies is a group of half-orcs called the “anchorite of Talos.” These half-orcs can turn into boars. In three of the adventures, boars show up and terrorize the people around them.
If you want to make the story more your own, I recommend playing around with boars. Instead of having a shrine of luck, you could have a ward against boars. It can be a strange addition to the main village of Phandalin, which seems quirky to your player at first, but turns into a historical artifact that protects the town.
This is one way to review the unnecessary NPCs and add your own connection to the story.
Dragons of Icespire is not the best campaign for a new dungeon master to start with. There are too many NPCs that are massively detailed but utterly irrelevant to the story. The adventures can often feel disconnected. The story only begins to weave together naturally when the game is nearing the end.
To get past this hiccup, I suggest reading through the story in detail beforehand, eliminating all the faff that’s clogging up the storyline, and adding connecting elements to help the adventure seem more cohesive; like adding boars as a central theme.
General Dungeon Master Thoughts
This section is for dungeon masters who have headed a game a couple of times before and so understand what to expect.
I will go over many of the same topics from “New Dungeon Master Thoughts,” but this time aimed at DMs who don’t need extra guidance.
I expect you know how to handle player improvisation, how to add to the campaign without steering it off course, and you might be excited to see easter eggs from other parts of the Wizards of the Coast landscape.
To you, Dragon of Icespire Peak will be a treasure trove of story, expandability, and NPC development.
Dragon of Icespire Peak’s Story Quality
Dragon of Icespire Peak is a slow-building story that focuses more on world expansion rather than plot expansion. The players will start the quest following the quest board, which produces adventures that are utterly irrelevant to the storyline.
The story only really comes together in the second batch of three quests which show how the dragon has displaced other creatures from the mountains and forced them into interacting with the humanoid landscape. If your players move quickly through a typical pre-made campaign, this story development will come at a decent pace. If your players like to role play a lot, or take weeks or months off between sessions, you may find the pacing too slow.
Compare with your previous games to see if you should cut out some quests or adapt them to make the half-orcs and dragon more prominent.
Premade Non-Player Character Quality
The NPCs come with very good backstories with enough detail for you to use them instantly, but also enough details missing for you to develop them into something for yourself.
I stand by my previous statement that some of the NPCs are completely irrelevant to the storyline, but if your characters are moving through the Forgotten Realms adventures, then you may find these NPCs interesting or useful.
Most players hate a railroading campaign, so flexibility is key to keep the story fresh. Premade campaigns are never super flexible, as they assume your characters will act in a certain way, complete certain quests, or move around the map in a predictable pattern. Dragon of Icespire Peak is no exception.
However, if you are used to playing with premade campaigns, then you will find that the disconnected quests allow your players to move around the map however they please. There are very few long-term consequences for their actions, so you don’t need to modify the campaign to fit their choices.
Dragon of Icespire Peak does try to allow for flexibility; for example, going into Axholme, the game tells you where the ghouls will be if the players enter from specific locations. New DMs might find it difficult to set up enemy locations if the players choose an unexpected route, but veteran DMs should be able to roll with the punches.
I’ve said it a couple of times now, but many of the quests are completely unrelated to the Dragon of Icespire Peak storyline. This is fantastic for DMs who want to add random quests to their current adventures or for DMs who run entirely one-shot adventures. You can use every quest as a one-shot adventure with just a couple of tweaks, and with the same simple adjustments, you can use the quests in your already active campaigns.
This is because the storyline is so disconnected and without consequence that you will not have to remove Cryovain’s backstory from any of the content.
Overall, the Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit had a fantastic shortened rule book with enough details for a new dungeon master to wrap their head around the game and give enough information for players to choose their character creation.
The campaign, Dragon of Icespire Peak, will not hold your hand as you learn the game, which is super unfortunate as, without a proper explanation on how to use the game, you will likely get frustrated with yourself.
The NPCs are great for veteran players as they give enough information to be used instantly but leave enough room to make them your own. However, the NPCs are too irrelevant for novice DMs, adding an unnecessary amount of clutter to their first campaign.
The quests were disconnected from each other, which might be perfect for quick players, but will feel untethered to players who move through campaigns slowly.
In general, it feels like the kit was designed for DMs who already knew how to play the game and not for completely new dungeon masters getting to grips with dungeons and dragons as a whole.
This doesn’t mean that the kit is bad, but you will need to take your time to learn the game and learn the campaign. Write all over the pages until it feels like it was written by you all along. I suggest asking other DMs online for help when you get stuck. The D&D community loves to share thoughts, so don’t be shy!
You can always use our guidance by checking out our Ultimate Guide to Dragon of Icespire Peak, or you can use online forms to get instant feedback.
Good luck, and may the dice be in your favor.