It is undeniable that Dungeons & Dragons of late has experienced an explosion of popularity unlike any before. It’s not just that more people are aware of Dungeons & Dragons, but that many more people are playing it – and many of them getting their first taste of the game (or any roleplaying game). With the continued spread of Dungeons & Dragons well beyond a traditional ‘hard core’ playerbase, the availability and utility of introductory products is more important than ever – not every new player has an experienced Dungeon Master to bring them into the fold (and even if they have an experienced DM, not every experienced DM is going to have the time, skill, and inclination to design a great introduction).
For the last five years, that introductory product has been the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. In my experienced, the Starter Set has been doing a great job throughout that time, and the included adventure (The Lost Mine of Phandelver) and the town it was based around (Phandalin) are now iconic parts of Faerun (to the point that Phandalin was recently used in the Acquisitions Incorporated sourcebook).
This summer, however, has seen the release of a new introductory product – the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit (it’s currently available only at Target, but that exclusivity period ends in early September). Since it’s not like the Starter Set went away, the question to me is not really whether the Essentials Kit is a good introductory D&D product – we’ve already got one of those. The question is whether the Essentials kit is even better than the introductory D&D product we’ve already got.
And my answer to that question is a definite yes, for three main reasons – more stuff, character creation, and bite-size adventures.
The basic of the Starter Set and the Essentials Kit are similar. Each comes with a basic rulebook, an adventure book, character sheets, and the basic array of six dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20). The Essentials Kit comes with more, however. There’s the standard seven-die array (adding in the second d10 for percentile rolls), instead of just six, plus a second d20 (it could really come with five, but at least this way a brand new group of players won’t have to be passing around just the one d20). It also has another three six-sided dice (3d6, in gamer-speak) for character generation (although longtime readers will know that I would recommend forgoing random attributes in favor of a point buy – or, because, this is an introductory product, a standard array). Beyond dice, the Essentials Kit also has a fold-out map (with Phandalin on one side and the Sword Coast), several sheets of punch-out cards for conditions, magic items, and quests, and a tuck box to store all the cards in once they’re punched out. I’ve become a big fan in general of accessories like cards that make the game faster and easier during play, so this is a real plus.
In the prior paragraph I mentioned that the Essentials Kit comes with enough six-sided dice for character creation. That’s because another one of the core differences between the two kits is that the Starter Set used pregenerated characters, while the Essentials Kit has players make their own characters (the Essentials Kit rulebook is twice as big as the Starter Set rulebook, and this extra space is used for character creation). Of course, it isn’t the same array of options as are presented in the Player’s Handbook (PHB). There are four available races: dwarf, elf, halfling, and human. There are five available classes: bard, cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard (no, I do not know who the bard seduced to get included along with the four classics, but I’m going to say that it does vindicate our opinions on the best D&D character classes). Each class has rules going up to level 6. Every class has at least one option along the way with two choices – college for the bard, archetype for the rogue, school for the wizard, and so forth – but there are (for obvious reasons) far fewer options than are presented in the PHB. I think this is another one in favor of the Essentials Kit. I understand the notion that adding character creation means one more thing that a new player has to do before they start rolling dice. But getting to make a character and having it truly be your character that you’re rolling the dice for is such an integral part of D&D.
The campaign included in the Essentials Kit is Dragon of Icespire Peak (yes, there really is a dragon that will have to be defeated). The campaign is centered around Phandalin, which earns brownie points from me (unlike Lost Mine of Phandelver, there’s no lead-in before getting to Phandalin, the characters are already there). While Lost Mine of Phandelver was a more traditional campaign, with most of the action in longer chunks, almost all of Dragon of Icespire Peak is split out into smaller chunks, delivered through a literal job board in Phandalin. The campaign, then, consists of a series of quests that will have the characters go out from Phandalin, complete a small-ish task, and then return back to Phandalin to pick up a new quest. I’m not inclined to think that’s an “ideal” way to play D&D in a vacuum, but in an introductory product it seems like a great idea. Each quest can be readily accomplished in a shorter-than-usual session. So if there’s a group that’s ready to dive in with a 4-6 hour session, they can start churning through them. But it lets groups start out with smaller time commitments, and no need to break in the middle of a quest between sessions. The quests tend to involve a few fights and some exploration. Common foes include orcs, various worshippers of an evil god, and some undead. Dragon of Icespire Peak also lets characters advance up to 6th level (instead of 4th level), although this is because the campaign hands out levels more quickly, rather than because it is longer.
Ultimately, while I think that the Starter Set is a great way to get introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, I think that the Essentials Kit has done it even better.
That’s it for the general part of the review. Down below the spoiler bar I’ve got some comments and tips on the quests and their organization that I would recommend avoiding if you think you’re going to be a player in Dragon of Icespire Peak.
As mentioned above, Dragon of Icespire Peak is split into smaller quests. Specifically, there are nine ‘job board’ quests, two ‘rumors at the tavern’ type quests, one additional quest, and the final confrontation. Note that, because the introduction to Phandalin spends a lot of time on the job board, it can be easy to miss the other quests. The rumors quests are located in a table on page 9, the extra quest (Circle of Thunder) is referenced in the two quests that might lead to it, and the one built-in way to find the final confrontation is from one of the ‘rumors’ quests.
From a DM perspective, one thing to bear in mind is that levels are handled a bit oddly in Dragon of Icespire Peak. It uses a milestone system, rather than encounter-based xp. That part is pretty standard, and works well for linear campaigns. But Dragon of Icespire Peak isn’t terribly linear. The characters start at level 1 and the job board starts with three quests. For the first two of these, the characters will level up upon completion, and then a second set of three quests is added to the board. When the players have completed two of those (leveling up each time), then a final set of three will be added. The final confrontation is geared for level 6 characters, so the characters will be ready for it after completing two of the initial quests and then three of the follow-up quests. No other adventuring awards levels, so the other four ‘job board’ quests and the two ‘rumors’ quests don’t result in advancement.
Additionally, the leveling is very quick by default. Some of the quests can technically be completed by showing up, delivering a message, and then leaving. But even if you don’t let the players get away with that (I wouldn’t let them), some of the quests are legitimately one fight and a few other interactions, and it’s a very quick progression up to 6. That isn’t a problem – it lets new players get to experience a wider array of play experiences more quickly. But it does mean that, if you think the players will be running through all (or almost all) of the quests available in the campaign, you may want to slow the pace down a bit, or else your players will just be coasting through quests that are far too easy for them.
Either way, it’s helpful to know the levels the quests are scaled for.
The starter quests are Dwarven Excavation, Gnomengarde, and Umbrage Hill. Dwarven Excavation’s quest is technically to get a message to a pair of dwarves, but the characters should be strongly encourage to then help out the dwarves by clearing the excavation site of monsters (basically an ochre jelly and some orcs). Gnomengarde is, similarly, a quest on one topic (find some magic items) that ends up mostly being about something else (social interaction with some gnomes and hunting down a mimic). Because the third starter quest, Umbrage Hill, is basically just a single fight against a single monster (and not even that, if the players realize they can bribe it to go away), I would be inclined to push the characters to Dwarven Excavation first (because it’s just a mini-dungeon) and then Gnomengarde, before having them hit up Umbrage Hill anyway and giving them their third level and the second set of quests.
The first set of follow-up quests is Butterskull Ranch, Loggers’ Camp, and Mountain’s Toe. Butterskull Ranch is a quest to find out what’s happened at said ranch, with the answer being “orcs” (this is mainly one fight, plus helping out the rancher afterward). The Loggers’ Camp is a supply run to said camp, and the characters will have to deal with some burrowing ankhegs. The Mountain’s Toe Mine has been occupied by wererats (who were driven out of the Shrine of Savras by orcs), and presents a relatively rare D&D circumstance where negotiation is pretty clearly presented as an option, but ultimately ends up to be the wrong option. While Butterskull Ranch and Logger’s Camp are optimized for 3rd level characters, Mountain’s Toe is optimized for 4th level characters. As the party will first get access to these at level 3, I would suggest tweaking the book and only making Butterskull Ranch and the Logger’s Camp available that level, then adding Mountain’s Toe as on option after they’ve taken down one of the first two.
The second set of follow-up quests consists of Axeholm, Dragon Barrow, and the Woodland Manse. Axeholm is an abandoned dwarven fortress now full of undead (the quest is to clear it out in case the town needs to evacuate there). The Dragon Barrow is a quest for a magic sword, which is involves minimal combat but a decent amount of environmental/trap challenges. The Woodland Manse has been attacked by worshippers of Talos and by orcs, so there’s more combat here than in almost any of the other quests. All three quests are balanced for a 5th level party, and (with the by-the-book level progression) these quests aren’t available until the characters are 5th level anyway, so the order doesn’t make much difference (if the players attempt more than one). Because the Dragon Barrow quest promises a dragon slaying sword, and the players know they need to kill a dragon, I would expect it to be the first choice of most parties (and, therefore, the only choice, if the group is going through things full speed).
The two quest locations that are found from rumors at the tavern are the Shrine of Savras and the Tower of Storms. The Shrine of Savras automatically scales to match the level of the party (by varying the number of orcs who have taken over the place. However, because there’s a lead from the Mountain’s Toe quest to the Shrine of Savras and the Shrine of Savras quest will tell the characters how to get to Icespire Hold, it’s probably best if this one is held until 5th level (or else the players will want to go try to kill the dragon too soon, which will not work out well for them). The Tower of Storms, on the other hand, is balanced for third level characters, so from that point of view it fits in best after the starter quests have been completed. The Tower of Storms is a lighthouse and temple to Talos, the evil god of storms, and the characters must ascend to the top to destroy an evil beacon.
In addition to the quests launched in Phandalin, the Circle of Thunder is found based on information from the Dragon Barrow or Woodland Manse. Because it’s balanced for 6th level characters (the same as the final confrontation), the Circle of Thunder will likely only be attempted if the DM is slowing down the levels or just includes the Circle of Thunder in with one of the prior quests. Personally, I think there’s a sense of closure that will be missing if the prior Talos-related quests were attempted but the Circle of Thunder isn’t dealt with. The Circle of Thunder has the characters conduct a raid to present worshippers of Talos from summoning a force of destruction upon the area. If they’ve run into hostile worshippers in earlier quests, they players will likely want to rush off and take care of this quest. Or all of the quests that feature Talos-worshippers can be conveniently omitted.
The final confrontation takes place at the eponymous Icespire Hold. Although the castle has a lot more rooms to go through than the most of the rest of the adventures, it is also focused on a small number of combats – including, of course, the dragon that serves as the capstone for the campaign. It’s balanced for 6th level characters.
Given the relatively short nature of the quests, I feel a strong pull to extend the campaign by slowing levels to a more ‘normal’ pace and covering everything. But I can also see the advantage of being able to blaze through and show more of the game off more quickly. Ultimately, I’m probably overthinking it, the flexibility to go either way (if you’re familiar with D&D and realize how unusually brisk the pace is) is probably a strength for the product (because a new DM will probably just run it as written, and that will be close enough).
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.