We are going to take an extra close look at the brand new Essentials Kit from Wizards of the Coast. Beth and I are particularly keen to dig into this new supplement because it features a new focus on one-on-one play.
The Sidekick rules promise to make the experience of playing D&D with one player and one DM easier than ever. We’ve been playing for over a year without too many changes to the rules (the product of our lovely experience is this blog) so we know that you do not have to have the Sidekick rules to play one-on-one D&D.
However, the recognition from Wizards that this style of play is awesome, and the new duets that are sure to spring up because of the “official” support are definitely being celebrated over here at D&D Duet.
What It Is.
From the Target website, the Essentials Kit includes:
- (1) rulebook
- (1) Dragon of Icespire Peak introductory adventure
- (6) blank character sheets
- (11 ) dice
- (1) 33″ × 8.5″ Dungeon Master’s screen
- (81) cards for magic items, sidekicks and more
- (1) 21″ x 15″ double-sided poster map for use with the adventure
- Codes to continue your Dungeons & Dragons journey on D&D Beyond
The box feels nice and substantial when you pick it up. It’s a small thing, but this feels like a more quality product than the rather thin Starter Set.
The Essentials Kit is now available at Amazon, Target, and other retailers! You can follow our affiliate link to Amazon—at no cost to you—and check it out today! Or, visit your local gaming store!
The rule book in the Essentials Kit is a nice upgrade from the Starter Set. It includes, as far as I can tell, most of the rules that one commonly needs for getting around, adventuring, and slaying nasties. Additionally, several magical items and spells can be found in its pages.
The biggest upgrade between the rulebook here and the one in the Starter Set is that with the Essentials Kit, you can make your own characters! …Provided that you want to make one of the 5 included Races and Classes. If you want to make a half-orc Barbarian or a tiefling Warlock, you might have to pony up for a Player’s Handbook.*
On the last two pages, you will also find the Sidekick rules that Wizards suggests using for one-on-one D&D.
The Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure includes some good getting started advice for newer DMs at the front and then several adventure locations. The art is really cool and there are a couple of new creatures included in the back of it.
The Peripheral Goodies
The dice are nice. They included a set of 11, meaning that you get 4 bonus d6 along with the standard set of 7. Ours were translucent red with white lettering.
The Essentials Kit comes with a DM screen made of the same sturdy paper that the cards are printed on. It is a bit smaller than the full blown screen, but contains essentially the same information and is large enough to hide knowing smiles behind.
Speaking of the cards, they are one of my absolute favorite parts of the Essentials Kit. There are Condition Cards, Initiative Cards, Sidekick Cards, Quest Cards, and Magical Item Cards. They have rather attractive illustrations on them as well as any necessary rules or information. A paper box to keep the cards in is included.
What It Does.
The item of greatest interest to us was the revamped Sidekick Rules. Initially published as Unearthed Arcana, Wizards took community feedback and streamlined the Sidekick Rules substantially for the Essentials Kit.
There are three varieties of Sidekick: an Expert, a Spellcaster, and a Warrior. Each one comes with a base stat block and there are simplified rules for leveling them and granting them additional abilities and HP.
Think of the Expert as someone in possession of extra skill proficiencies (like Thieves Tools) that seems to be geared rather Rogue-y to me.
The Spellcaster breaks into two different sub groups (typical of casters… always gotta be complicated…) which are the Mage who casts with the Intelligence modifier and the Healer who casts with the Wisdom modifier.
The Warrior soaks up damage if you go the Defender route, or dishes it out more efficiently if you go the Attacker route.
These Sidekick rules allow a player to run another, simplified character using just a stat block. The stat blocks will be immediately familiar to anyone who has thumbed through the Monster Manual and operate exactly the same way.
The included adventure, The Dragon of Icespire Peak, is unlike any of the other published adventures that I have read. Essentially, the adventure provides a starting town (in this case the exact same one from the Starter Set, Phandalin) a big scary dragon that occasionally shows up places, and a job board. The job board send the party out on quests to level up and grow more powerful, ostensibly with the goal that they will eventually encounter and defeat the dragon.
There are a couple of new creatures in the adventure. Something tells me that a certain lightning-charged porcine is going to be featured in many post-game retellings. The adventure also introduces some interesting orcs as well, but most of the creatures will be familiar to veterans.
Why We Love It.
When we started D&D Duet, we wanted to share the incredible experiences that we had while running our one-on-one game. Playing D&D together has been such an incredibly rewarding activity for Beth and I, and we knew that it would be special for other pairs as well. We wanted to spread the good news as it were about how awesome co-creating a world, telling stories, and sharing epic adventures through duet-style D&D could be.
When Wizards of the Coast announced at their D&D Live: The Descent event earlier in 2019 that their new product was going to feature 1-1 play, we felt nervous and excited all at once.
We worried, what if Wizards comes out and says we’ve been doing wrong this whole time? Would it matter? We wouldn’t have cared, but would our readers?
We were excited because it seemed like more and more people would have the chance to play D&D our favorite way. Folks would have official permission, and we might even see a cessation of the “you can’t play D&D with just two people” comments that appear sometimes.
So, the hot take on the Sidekick Rules: They’re a nice way for someone to run a simplified character using a stat block. They give a streamlined guide for increasing the Sidekick’s abilities alongside the PC.
It’s pretty similar to using an NPC stat block, but they level with you! (That’s what we did for you in our own introductory one-on-one adventure, the Crystalline Curse Trilogy, if you’d like to take a look!)
This is in line with some of the advice we’ve given to those who want more streamlined combat. Stat blocks for additional party members are one way to play D&D with just two people. You do not need the Essentials Kit or the included Sidekick Rules to make stat blocks for filling out an adventuring party, but they are clear and concise.
We love the Sidekick Rules because it should lead to more and more folks picking up this awesome hobby and spending quality time with the people that mean the most to them.
The Dragon of Icespire Peak is really a starting location (that you might already have or could adapt) and a number of side-quests. The job board is a trope in fantasy that’s done quite nicely here.
Other published D&D campaigns will oftentimes include a freewheeling chapter or two where the players are left to their own devices to peruse a number of non-linear tasks that are tangentially related to the primary goal of the campaign. However, these side-quests makes up basically the entirety of The Dragon of Icespire Peak.
I can imagine some people crying foul that there is only the suggestion of a narrative arc to the Essentials Kit adventure, but I think it is really a nice asset. Having a number of roughly one-session length tasks at hand with clear setups, nice maps, Quest Cards, and rewards will prove valuable to any DM.
Imagine your player(s) goes in a completely unexpected direction from what you prepped. Ordinarily, you would be in improv-land, a place in which DMs have wildly varying level of comfort and success, especially when first starting out. If you have The Dragon of Icespire Peak handy however, you can quickly flip through and settle on an appropriate location-based adventure, and you are off to the races.
This easy to navigate, roughly session-length collection of non-linked adventures is one of the (thousand) reasons Beth and I both loved Uncaged Anthology.* To my knowledge, The Dragon of Icespire Peak is the first such collection that Wizards has put out for 5e and by itself would be enough to justify picking up an Essentials Kit. But then you factor in the cards…
The Peripheral Goodies
The main thing that I got excited about with the Essentials Kit outside the adventure and the Sidekick rules are the cards.
Quest Cards can be laid out in front of your player(s), simulating the postings that they can find on the job board in Phandalin. They can argue about which one they want to take on next, strategize and predict what dangers and awards await them, and keep it handy so they don’t have to rely on only the one note-taker at the table. I run a D&D Club at the school where I teach, and I often have zero note-takers at my table. These will be awesome for making sure that players have at least some idea about what is going on.
Condition Cards will be very helpful for new players as their characters are subjected to status effects for the first time. It can be hard to remember the difference between being Restrained and Grappled, but with the Condition Cards, it won’t be a problem anymore. Just have the Succubus charm the character, pass them the Charm Condition Card, and move on with your evening.
Included within the Condition Cards are also Combat Cards that explain the normal sequence of play and describe some of the Actions that players can take during their turn. Awesome for newbies!
Sidekick Cards offer some very nice portraits of potential allies to bring along with you as you adventure around Phandalin and Neverwinter. On the flip side, they have the standard Ideal/Bond/Flaw NPC personality breakdown to assist in roleplaying them. These are pretty cool and offer some variety as to adventuring companions.
Magical Item Cards are going to be a staple of many of my games moving forward. How nice to hand a player a physical thing when their character finds some sweet sweet loot! Having the item description handy prevents having to stop and look it up, plus attaching it to the character sheet means that it won’t be forgotten about!
Initiative Cards… are just cards with numbers on them. Meh. The other cards through… The other cards are awesome!
While you do not need the Essentials Kit to play D&D with just two people, the included Sidekick Rules offer one way of playing duets and will hopefully encourage many other pairs to pick up some dice and get into this amazing hobby.
The adventure is worth having if only for a number of well written, carefully designed one-shots at your disposal. The Essentials Kit is a great resource for folks that are still getting started with D&D and will provide a load of fun for pairs or parties. Go out and grab your copy today!
We videoed our unpacking of the Essentials Kit, which you can see below!
We also apologize for the screen being turned vertically and the very active dog nails in the background. 😉
Other Resources for New DMs and Players
We have a few posts that we think will be helpful in starting your D&D adventures!
- How to Play D&D: A Guide for New Players
- For New DMs: How to Research an Encounter
- How to Start Playing One-on-One D&D
- How to Make Your PC
- How to Get Your Partner to Play D&D
A Video Example
We’ve gotten several requests for video examples of what playing one-on-one looks like, and we’d love for you to check out the video below!
Here, we play through the first half of our introductory adventure, First Blush. Our next goal on Patreon is a more robust video channel and more video content, perhaps even playing through the Essentials Kit adventure! If you’d like to help us make that happen, please consider supporting us on Patreon!
And, our own introductory one-on-one adventures!
These adventures for levels one through three are perfect for anyone new to D&D or to two-person play!
The Crystalline Curse Trilogy bundle includes adventures that will get your PC through level three, character sheets, interesting NPCs, and plenty of maps, intrigue, and encounters along the way!
The adventures also have a built-in DMPC or sidekick character so you don’t have to worry about your new character making their way in the world alone!
This post may contain affiliate links which means that, at no cost to you, we receive a small commission when you follow the link and make a purchase.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan