A Comparative Review
So, you’ve made the excellent decision to jump into the fantastic world of Dungeons and Dragons, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you stumbled across a clip of Critical Role and thought that it looked pretty fun to make funny voices and tell stories with your friends. Maybe you saw Will from Stranger Things desperately trying to get his friends to have fun again. Maybe you are coming back to D&D after many years away, but don’t feel like jumping into the deep end by picking up a new Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. Or maybe you are introducing a loved one to the game for the first time and need something accessible.
There are also a number of great resources on DM’s Guild aimed at newer players and DMs, including our popular introductory adventures for one-on-one play, the Crystalline Curse Trilogy!
Both the Starter Set and the Essentials Kit are excellent products, but which one you pick up first will depend on what you are looking for in an introductory D&D product. In brief:
The Starter Set is excellent for people who want to jump right into D&D with minimal setup, board-game style.
The Essentials Kit is perfect for people who want to create customized characters and be more involved with building the story that these characters bring to life.
Both of these gaming desires are equally valid and awesome, but will ultimately determine which D&D product is right for you.
The Starter Set
The Starter Set comes with everything you need to run hours and hours of D&D with your friends. It includes:
- one set of dice,
- a basic rules book,
- several pregenerated character sheets (complete with back stories: more on this later),
- and the excellent early levels adventure book, “The Lost Mines of Phandelver” (LMoP).
The included character sheets make the Starter Set a great jumping off point for those that do not want to be slowed down by complex character creation and customization. Of course, you are welcome to tweak and change anything about the provided characters you might like to, but the only thing you have to add yourself is a name for your adventurer. The character sheets include leveling guides letting you know what to do when you gain experience and its time to level up.
In a stroke of genius, Wizards included the bones of a backstory for each of the character options as well as ties for that character into the provided adventure. This gives each character unique goals and an extra entry point into the events of LMoP.
Speaking of, Lost Mines of Phandelver is an excellent adventure for new Dungeons and Dragons players. LMoP does everything a good D&D campaign should do.
- It provides the adventuring party an immediate access point into the story with the disappearance of a trusted ally.
- The adventure is situated around a solid starting region and town with diverse factions and forces in place to provide tension and choice.
- That choice is supported by a number of different paths the party can take to push the plot naturally forward.
- Perhaps most notably, it also makes a cohesive and satisfying narrative arc with a satisfying conclusion.
In playing through Lost Mines of Phandelver, your adventuring party will get a healthy serving of all the different elements that make Dungeons and Dragons special. They’ll get to roleplay and interact socially. They’ll get to slay terrifying foes (monsters and men). They’ll get to explore ruins and forgotten magical caverns. And they’ll grow more and more powerful, coming fully into their characters and the world.
If you can’t tell, I am a big fan of the adventure included in the Starter Set. However, the set isn’t a perfect product for every situation.
A big part of D&D that many people enjoy is creating their own characters and telling their own stories. Collaborative worldbuilding is kind of what we’re about after all! Of course, you do not have to use the included character sheets and excellent background material from the Starter Set. There is a blank sheet in the box as well as numerous online resources if you want to roll up your own character. However, if you want to play a character that is not part of the released SRD, you’re out of luck.
(The SRD is the System Reference Document: basically, it’s the material Wizards has released to the public so you can get started for very little, even for free!)
The Essentials Kit
Spoiler Alert: I’m a big fan of the Essentials Kit for folks looking to dive into D&D. Check out our extensive review of the Essentials Kit.
The Essentials Kit is a treasure trove of goodies including:
- a set of 11 dice,
- a basic rulebook that includes some character creation information and the Sidekick Rules for one-on-one play,
- several kinds of cards (magical items, adventures),
- the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure,
- and a DM screen.
The greatest advantage of having the Essentials Kit is having access to character creation rules. With this introductory product, you can make your own party of characters from the provided (but incomplete) selection of races and classes. You can take these characters up to level six. Beyond level six (or if you want the other classes and races) you will need to pick up the Player’s Handbook.
Having the freedom and flexibility to make your own characters is a core delight in D&D. Getting a cool idea and then expressing that person on the page, attempting to quantify their unique qualities and quirks by filling in Wisdom scores and picking proficiencies is an essential Dungeons and Dragons experience that you miss out on if you are using someone else’s character. Fortunately, the slightly expanded rulebook in the Essentials Kit enables this kind of character creation!
In the back of this rulebook, you will also find Wizard’s Sidekick Rules which tell you how to run and level up a companion for your party. This can be especially helpful for people who want to play D&D, but only have one player and one DM. You don’t need these for 1-1 Dungeons and Dragons, but it does provide one option for duet-style play.
The addition of a serviceable DM screen adds to the classic D&D experience. It is made of the same thick, glossy paper as the cards. The magic item, “what can I do on my turn?”, and condition cards are a worthy addition to any table.
Finally, the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure provides the same quality starting town and region as in the Starter Set and adds in a series of bounty-board style areas and location-based adventures. The numerous and diverse locales featured in the adventure book provide a nice variety of tasks for your adventuring party to complete.
Whereas the strength of the Starter Set lies in the excellent Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure, it is here in the adventure that the Essentials Kit misses a step.
The lack of cohesion between the different jobs that party members may elect to complete leaves something to be desired. It will take the new DM and players some effort to make some kind of meaningful narrative arc out of the bones of the provided adventure.
Creating a narrative is, to me, a delight. However, some new DMs and players may prefer a more complete campaign such as the one found in the Starter Set for their first foray into the Forgotten Realms.
If you are looking to pick up something to play D&D that you can implement with minimal effort or planning (this is not to say zero of either) then the Starter Set is likely the correct option for you. The provided adventure and excellent pre-made characters make the Starter Set an excellent way to begin playing Dungeons and Dragons quickly.
If you are looking for a more classic (and by classic I mean involved and requiring some planning and writing beforehand) experience with the fifth edition of the world’s greatest roleplaying game, I would suggest picking up the Essentials Kit. While you will have to do more work, this Kit provides the necessary tools for your party to create their own characters and for you all to tell your own stories while the provided adventure offers solid “filler” tasks for when your party needs more money or experience as a diversion from your narrative.
Or, you could pick up both and run the Essentials Kit jobs out of Phandelver while you work through the Lost Mines adventure!
In the end, both are excellent products in their own right. The value that one gets from picking up Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks cannot be overstated. For the price of a movie ticket, you get hundreds (thousands) of hours of entertainment and completely unforgettable stories with your friends!
For those interested in reading about more of Wizards of the Coast’s published adventures, the Hobby Inspired blog discusses each of them in this post.
What are your experiences with the Starter Set and/or Essentials Kit? If you have experience with both, which do you recommend for new players? Leave your comments and questions below!
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