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Dungeons & Dragons’ newest starter kit lets you build out a party with a single player

The Essentials Kit features a bunch of slick components, plus new rules for sidekicks

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A close up of the cover art for the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit shows a player-character and their sidekick going up against a dragon on a snowy hilltop. Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons’ newest retail product, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, might be the single best introduction to the original role-playing game I’ve ever seen. In addition to a bunch of handy pack-ins and a meaty campaign that takes new players up through sixth level, it also includes rules for two-player games. Now all you need to play D&D is a Dungeon Master, a single player character, and a trusty sidekick.

Inside the box you’ll find a slim rulebook that goes over the basics of D&D. At 64 pages, it’s a veritable wall of text for role-playing newcomers. Meanwhile, veterans will find it just scratches the surface. But the volume does the job it was designed to do; it provides an excellent on-ramp for both would-be Dungeon Masters and their newby players.

The included adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, kicks players out into the world of the Forgotten Realms for an adventure entirely without pretense. I was impressed with the diversity of environments and enemies on offer. Players will encounter everything from dragons — naturally — to Orcs and Ochre Jellies, fighting along shipwreck-strewn shorelines and atop icy mountains. The retail product itself provides an excellent value, including a set of 11 dice. Especially handy are the three extra d6, perfect for low-level characters. But the real delight are the Essentials Kit’s handouts, including a thick stack of cards for magic items, condition cards listing the rules for prone and blinded, and even big, friendly cards to help keep track of initiative. There’s even a cardboard screen for DMs, with plenty of basic rules inscribed on the backside for quick reference.

But, the most dynamic addition to the 5th edition ruleset is the Essential Kit’s set of dead simple rules for two-player games. The concept is pretty simple: just give your solitary player a sidekick, and off you go. Sidekicks have stat blocks just like monsters, and it’s up to the DM and the player to work out who controls the sidekick in combat and non-combat encounters.

Cover art for the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit shows a player-character and their sidekick going up against a dragon on a snowy hilltop. Image: Wizards of the Coast

If we’re being honest, sidekicks are more of a hack than anything else. But they are delightfully implemented, and build on the flexible systems at the core of D&D’s 5th edition ruleset. I can easily see myself adding two sidekicks without much trouble, giving me a party of three and reducing the potential need to nerf some early encounters early.

The Essentials Kit comes with nine sidekicks, drawn from some of the more pedestrian races and classes from the lore of D&D mind you, but they’re all playfully illustrated with templates that are easy to improve on. Each one comes complete their own personality, including an Ideal, a Bond, and a Flaw — just like any other player-character created for the game. It’s a great way to get a single player thinking about how they’d like to build out their party, and who among their friends they might like to invite to the next session of D&D.

Also inside the box are a set of blank character sheets and a two-sided paper map, including Phandalin and its environs on one side and a larger, hex-gridded region of the Sword Coast on the other to help manage overland travel.

If I have one complaint, it’s about the Essentials Kit’s many cardboard components. The DM screen, for instance, is pretty flimsy. The one that came with HeroQuest in the 1990s was more sturdy. I’ll likely end up using paper clips to fasten it to the inside of other, more substantial screens that Wizards of the Coast sells separately for its other campaign modules.

But the real disappointment is the quality of the cards.

There are 81 cards inside the box. In addition to the ones mentioned above, there are cards for magic items and quests. It’s incredibly powerful for new players and DMs alike to have these kinds of physical items on the table. They don’t just simply serve as reference items, they do double duty as the physical representation of the intangible rewards players will earn throughout their first few adventures. The ones inside the Essentials Kit are a bit sloppy. Once separated from their sheets, the edges are rough and uneven. They’ve even too big to sleeve, and need to be trimmed down to fit.

A final surprise is how readily this new Essentials Kit embraces the D&D Beyond online database. First announced in 2017, D&D Beyond has grown to become ... well ... essential to my own personal campaign. I use it on my phone to look up spells and magic items on the fly, making the task of running strange monsters that I may not necessarily have prepared to run in advance much easier. The Essentials Kit comes with a code to unlock the entire Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure online, giving you searchable access to everything in the module right out of the box. It also includes a 50% coupon on the Beyond version of the Player’s Handbook.

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit is currently only available at Target, of all places, where you can get it for $24.99. Expect it on the shelves of your friendly local game store and at other online retailers like Amazon by Sept. 3.

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