I managed to get my hands on the D&D Essentials Kit last month and ran it for my 12-year-old son. The upshot is that the Kit itself is a decent product, but the adventure is extremely weak and is easily eclipsed by the “Lost Mine of Phandelver” in the Starter Set. Let’s talk about why.
- Rulebook: 64 pages (see details below)
- Adventure: “Dragon of Icespire Peak”, also 64 pages (referred to as DoIP from here out)
- Fold-out map of the northern Sword Coast centered on Neverwinter Wood, basically the same area as the Starter Set
- Perforated sheets (cards) for conditions, quests and magic items from DoIP, and suggested sidekicks
- Blank character sheets on decently heavy paper
- GM screen (flimsy cardboard, not the nice hardback ones)
- Dice including two d20s, a d12, d100, d8, four d6s, and a d4.
- D&D Beyond promo codes plus ad for other D&D products & social media
Rulebook and accessories
The rulebook starts off with “Generating a Character” that includes more than the Basic Rules do. For example, it includes the Bard (Lore and Valor colleges), the Cleric (Life and War domains), the Fighter (Champion and Eldritch Knight archetypes), Rogue (Thief and Arcane Trickster archetypes), and Wizard (Evocation and Transmutation schools). Several backgrounds are detailed: Acolyte, Criminal, Entertainer, Sage, and Soldier. There’s a somewhat streamlined chapter on “Playing the Game” (the core rules), plus a slightly shortened Adventuring Gear table in the “Equipment”chapter. The latter also contains a few magic items at common and uncommon rarities. Finally, there’s a spell list, a sidekick appendix, and the back cover is a conditions appendix. There is no index at all, so if you’re looking for something that isn’t explicitly listed in the table of contents… good luck!
I liked most of the little accessories, especially the extra d6s and the d20 for rolling Advantage/Disadvantage. I found the DM screen totally useless because it can barely even stand up on its own. At least it has some good references information, like Actions in Combat, Conditions, DC and skill information, costs for food and services, and other common things in combat like travel pace and cover. There’s a nice table for Encounter Distance.
The usefulness of the cards vary quite a bit. I didn’t need the initiative cards because I only had one player, but I did quite like the magic items and quest cards. In theory, the sidekick cards are cool: they have a portrait on one side, and on the back you have a very brief bio plus Personality, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. My son liked looking at the portraits and the roleplaying hints came in handy. Maybe the combat order and condition cards would be useful for less experienced players, but he’s been through a few campaigns and more or less had the ideas down.
In general, this portion of the Essentials Kit does a serviceable, if not outstanding, job. Certainly, I consider it an improvement on the similar portions of the 2014 Starter Set. Now let’s get to the other bit: the included adventure.
Dragon of Icespire Peak
Let’s be clear at the outset: I found this adventure disappointing and nowhere near the quality of “Lost Mine of Phandelver” despite the fact that Chris Perkins wrote it. As I’ll explain below, it feels much more like supplementary material to LMoP with some implied extra storylines. Do not hand this to a new Dungeon Master and expect them to learn how to run an adventure, although an experienced DM can make it work with some effort. Additionally, the section on running the game for one player is two paragraphs long and will likely lead to the character getting killed in the first session or two, as it doesn’t give the DM any advice whatsoever on balancing for that type of game. (See my recent post for a bit more guidance on this.)
The adventure mostly consists a gazetteer that takes place in the same locale of Phandalin and the surrounding region, up to Neverwinter and the Neverwinter Wood and down into the Sword Mountains. The hook is incredibly sparse and doesn’t fit current D&D culture at all. After a five-page discussion of how to run a game, there’s a brief description of the town of Phandalin. That concludes the following sentence:
A couple of doors down from the inn, posted outside the townmaster’s hall, is a job board for adventurers.
Newer DMs and players will almost certainly struggle with this. There’s an implicit storyline of a white dragon terrorizing the area, plus a secondary plot of orcs working for half-orc spellcasters who serve an evil storm god, so why not start out with the dragon? As an experienced DM, I quickly turned that into a scene with folks in the inn buzzing about the white dragon that had been destroying local farms and such (and let the storm god plot reveal itself through play). But for a new DM, that’s not necessarily obvious.
The quest structure is pretty well done, so far as it goes: three starter quests, then follow-up quests gradually become available. The adventure explicitly uses milestone advancement rather than experience points, and so players will level up pretty quickly assuming they focus on the assigned quests. Other locations and encounters, however, provide no rewards other than treasure. At the end of this chapter is a random table to determine the dragon’s location every time they arrive at or leave a location on the regional map.
The dragon won’t really fight them except in its lair, though. Despite the quest-oriented nature of the adventure, no quest will even lead them to its lair. The DM gets some advice about how to point them to it, one of which is literally “suddenly orcs” and the other is “pray to the goddess of luck” – and this advice is tucked away in the location map for the dragon’s lair, not in the quest section.
The rest of the book is a compendium of dungeons. Each is detailed on two or four well laid out pages, with cartography by Mike Schley plus a few more maps by Jason Engle. Standouts include a creepy abandoned dwarf fortress called Axeholm and an even creepier woodland mansion that once belonged to a wizard but has now been overrun with orcs and other creepy things. If you dig around enough in here, you’ll figure out how to get them to the dragon’s lair (on Icespire Peak, if the name didn’t already give it away), which the book suggests around level 6.
I expect to write another article soon on shoring up this adventure, hopefully before the broad release (as the Essentials Kit was a Target exclusive for the first three months). I’ll update this post with a link when I do. In the meantime, just add this job board to your LMoP game along with the rumors and locations to give your adventurers some other places to explore.
Otherwise “Dragon of Icespire Peak” stands on its own about as well as the DM screen in the same box.
8 thoughts on “D&D Essentials Kit: the Disappointment of Icespire Peak”
Curious if you ever got around to writing down your thoughts on fleshing out Icespire for new DMs?
nice article. My family just purchased this, as our first attempt at playing D&D. I took a shot at being DM with my wife and son playing. I would say everything you criticised is bang on, I struggled a lot more than I thought i would, as a first time DM. Without another resource we couldn’t figure out a wide range of things – how we managed movement and distance, when or how food/supplies came into things, etc. We kind of muddled through, but there was a lot that wasn’t clear and we all spent a fair amount of time researching online whilst trying to figure it out. And the first adventure kind of flopped, for many of the reasons you’ve outlined.
Keep up the good work!
Gary, movement is covered in the PHB and/or DMG, as is food/supplies, random encounters, etc. You being a new GM and not knowing that stuff shouldn’t be used as a criticism of this module. I don’t point this out to defend the module/attack you – I point it out so that you’ll know, as a new GM, that that information is available to you, and usually isn’t included in modules.
That said, I agree with the article and think that this module could’ve been made better.
cra2, This module is part of the D&D Essentials Kit. So its design is for new players, who do not have PHB and/or DMG. You can’t fault a new DM for being a new DM.
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Agreed. These things are aspects of the game, which the essentials kit sets out to cover for someone with little or no experience. Therefore the basic “essentials” of day to day gameplay such as travel, rations etc should be covered.
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Good insights! Which is why I’m incorporating the Essentials Kit into the Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign.
While I agree that it can be a bit awkward, I feel like it’s good at introducing new DMs to the whole improvisation side of DnD, where a fully set out story might not be. I am currently using it to run a campaign with my friends, and it’s my first time as a DM, and I’m doing fine. Took some improv but it works and the general story is quite cool.
Thank for the write up, I’m looking for ideas to improve this. I’ve been running it as a first time DM and played maybe 4 games as a player in a friend’s campaign. They could add the free rules put out by Wizard’s I think that would help a lot of first time players and DMs. https://media.wizards.com/2018/dnd/downloads/DnD_BasicRules_2018.pdf
The quests need a lot of imagination and effort if you want it to be anything more than a quest board. I don’t mind the work and creative aspect, but there is no through-line of the whole campaign that is obvious. My players are pretty much ready to jump on any clue or thread I give them so its easy to feather in quests without, “uh should we go check the job board?”