Essentials Kit vs. Starter Set

Published 1/10/21

So you want to start playing D&D

I am a big believer in bringing friends into the wonderful world of table top gaming. When you are bringing new players or if you are starting down the path of becoming a Game Master or Mistress I do believe it is important to make sure you have the right resources when jumping into the rabbit hole. There are some premade modules that are great for new time Dms and some that would be to overwhelming. Thankfully Wizards of the Coast has come out with two box sets that make learning the ropes of Table Top Gaming easy. I own both box sets and have run them with both new players and my more experienced tables. I honestly wish I would have known about these boxes when I first was learning 5th edition. Today I present to you the Starter Set and the Essentials Kit; two great boxes to choose from if you are starting brand new into D&D Fifth Edition.

What's in the Box?

Starter Set

  • The adventure book for "Lost Mine of Phandelver"

  • Handy Dandy Starter Set Rulebook

  • 6 polyhedral dice

  • Five Premade character sheets

Essentials Kit

  • The adventure book for "Dragon of Icespire Peak"

  • Essentials Kit Rulebook

  • A double sided map: One side is the starting town of the adventure module and the other is of the Sword Coast

  • A high gloss paper version of the Dungeons Master's Screen with unique art to the Essentials Kit

  • High gloss paper cards of the conditions, magic items, NPC's, quests and initiative order numbers. There is also a box for these cards

  • 6 blank character sheets

  • 11 polyhedral dice

What do Both Offer?

Which ever box you start with, each set comes with a rule book, an adventure module and a set of dice. Both of these have adventures that give a good introduction to the world of the Forgotten Realms. There is some cross over between the rule books including that the last page holds the list of conditions players may come across in game. They both also have a rulebook chapter set aside for spellcasting and spells (though the information that is presented in each are slightly different between the manuals).

Both the starter Set and the Essentials Kit are rated for ages 12+ and have modules that can be run with a small group of 4-5 starting players. The Dragon of Icespire Peak can also be run for an individual player with a sidekick/companion.

No matter which box you run, both of them are run in the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms and each of the modules have the same starting town of Phandalin.

Dice Dice Baby

Both of the box sets come with a set of dice. The Starters Set has one set of 6 polyhedral dice. The Essentials Kit comes with a set of dice that comes with 2 d20's for advantage/disadvantage and four 6 sided dice. Each box set has a functional amount of dice for first time learners. The red set from the Essentials Kit was the more preferred out of the two.

Starting with the Starter Set Box

Lost Mine of Phandelver

*please note some spoilers are ahead in this section. Continue reading with caution.

The book has a written in adventure hook that gives an NPC interaction to help make sure that all of the players are on the road together to make their way to Phandalin.

The first few pages are the introduction with a basic DM tutorial on how to run an adventure and an overview of the game. The book is broken into four main parts that go over the different sections of the game. Part One has the information of what happens on the way to Phandalin; Part Two has everything that happens in the town including the NPC's, and the little quests that can happen when interacting with the people of Phandalin; Part Three has locations of the quests players could have picked up in Phandalin; and Part Four has the confrontation of the BBEG in Wave Echo Cave.

In Phandalin the areas that can have interactions include: Stonehill Inn, Barthen's Provisons, Edermath Orchard, Lionshield Coster, Phandalin Miner's Exchange, Alderleaf Farm, Shrine of Luck , The Sleeping Giant and the Townmaster's hall. Depending on their actions and the quests they complete the PC's can be approached into joining the Order of the Gauntlet, the Zhentarim, the Lord's Alliance or the Harpers.

The players have a few bigger "quests" from clearing out the Redbradn Ruffians from the town of Phandalin, possibly saving Gundren Rockseeker and Sildar Hallwinter along with taking down the Black Spider.

Starter Set Rulebook

Taking a peek at the starter rulebook there is a lot of great information to help those brand-new to playing table top gaming.

Chapter One focuses on the "basic how to play" in regards of the game and what to expect. It even gives an example dialogue between a DM and a player. It goes over some more basics as what are the dice, what are the six ability scores and their modifiers. How to play with advantage/ disadvantage is also taught along with rolling for skills and other dice related checks.

Chapter Two focuses on combat with the step-by-steps on how to play from initiative, through your options of play, and how to use cover. This chapter even talks about character death.

Chapter Three is all about adventuring from jumping, the types of rests, and then pages 16-19 go over all the common equipment and gear.

Chapter Four should have been titled Spellcasting 101. It has everything you need to know as a new character with spell slots, known vs. prepared spells, rituals and all about making magic with your player character. Pages 23-31 are spells and their information presented just as it would be in the Players Hand Book.

Who are you?

I can definitely appreciate the inclusion of pre-made characters in the Starter Set. Sometimes creating a character can be very overwhelming with all of the options and it is nice to have the ability to pick one of the five characters given as a starting point.

We are given the options of a human fighter noble, a human fighter folk hero, a high elf wizard acolyte, a halfling rogue criminal and a hill dwarf cleric with a soldier background. Each character sheet presented is balanced, each player having a ability score of +3, two +2, two +1, one +0 and one -1.

On the back of each of these sheets are the printed information about the race, class and background for the character. There is also explanations and guides on how to level up each character through 5th level.

The Essentials of the Essentials Kit

The Module: Dragon of Icespire Peak

*please note some spoilers are ahead in this section. Continue reading with caution.

The first part talks about Running the Adventure and gives a general overview of the game, some Dungeon Master tips and talks about the tools that came with the box and how to use them. There is a brief introduction to the setting of the Forgotten Realms and the Sword Coast where the story takes place. On page 5 there is a smaller version of the Large map that came with the box set. The difference here is the smaller map in the book shows all of the adventure quest locations.

There is a whole section talking about session one, building a character for the module. There is also a section that talks about how to run the adventure for one player. Starting on page 7 it talks about the starting town of Phandalin and how to start with the adventure. There is not really a plot hook to explain why the players are at Phandalin but there is a section for a DM to read to introduce them to the setting.

The way that Dragon of Icespire Peak is run is players can pick a variety of quests from a job board outside of the townmaster's hall. The three starter quests are: "Dwarven Excavation," "Gnomengarde," and "Umbrage Hill."

Once the players level up there are other quests that they can complete/ areas to explore include "Butterskull Ranch" (levels 2 - 4), "Loggers' Camp" (levels 2 - 4), "Mountain's Toe" (levels 3 - 5), "Axeholm" (levels 3 - 5), "Shrine of Savaras" (levels 1- 6), "Tower of Storms " (level 3),"Dragon Barrow" (levels 4 - 6) with the possible addition of "Circle of Thunder" (levels 4 - 6), and "Woodland Manse" (levels 3/4 - 5/6). Please note that the lower numbers in the parenthesizes are the very hard mode of that encounter the higher numbers are the levels that will have an easier time with the encounter. Only cautious and clever parties should attempt the quests at the lower levels or risk death.

The main goal of the adventure is for the players to level up and defeat the young white dragon Cryovain who is plaguing the area. A d20 and the chart on page 11 will determine which location the dragon is currently in. It is recommended by the adventure module that players should be 6th level before they go to Icespire Hold to defeat Cryovain.

Deal me in DM

I LOVE these cards. I am one who is big on visuals. There are many types of cards that you are given including cards for: conditions, magic items, NPC's, quests and initiative order numbers.

I appreciate the initiative cards. For new players especially it's important to make sure that everyone is aware of who is doing what in the line up order. I usually use name magnets in a board but the cards are large and easy to deal out based on number rolls.

The Quest cards are so helpful. It helps players be aware of all the information they had been presented by the quest givers. Physical cards are a good way to keep players on track and a good reminder of what quests they have accepted.

The NPC cards are a great tool for new DM's. Each card gives a description detailed enough to help even brand new DM's portray the characters. Each card lists a quick blurb about the person and lists their personality, ideal, bond and flaw.

Magic Items cards are nice to have because it comes with all the information you want to know that doesn't always fit on the paper character sheet.

The conditions cards are nice for new DM's and players alike. Its not every session that you will come across a condition so these are nice tools to have to just hand to a player for reference if they become afflicted with one of these conditions.

The last three cards are reference cards titled "Combat Step By Step" that give the player (and DM) how to do combat in 5 easy steps.

This is Definitely a Kit

There are so many good tools that can be used by DM's and players a like. The Essentials Kit Rulebook has lots of great information. The whole first chapter focuses on building a character from scratch and presents some of the most classic races, classes and backgrounds to pick from.

Chapter Two is all about "Playing the Game" and talks about Advantage/Disadvantage, all of the skill checks and rolls you may need to make. Also in this section how contested rolls work is explained along with working with the environment and social interactions. Falling, suffocation and the types of vision are explained. Unlike the starter set, this book also covers mounted and underwater combat.

Chapter Three talks about Equipment from you plain jane adventuring gear, to armor and shield along with Magic items. Mounts and Services can also be found in this chapter.

Chapter Four is all about Magic. This chapter has some more information than the Starter Set as well. Here it talks about what is a spell, the schools of magic, how do spell levels work. There is also an explanation on known/prepared spells and spell slots. Then it talks about cantrips, rituals and all the things that goes into casting a spell.

Dungeon Master's Screen

The fact that a version of a DM screen comes with this kit is one of my most appreciated things as a DM. Usually a DM screen is sold separately and can cost at a wide range depending on if you are getting the regular dungeon master screen or a screen specific to a module. I also love that there is unique art on this dungeon screen.


As a DM I love large maps. The Phandalin side of the map is enough to put a mini on which location the party is currently visiting. I love that all of the places of interest (*for both Essential and Starter boxes) are located. On the flip side is a good map of the Sword Coast with Phandalin and other important places (such as Neverwinter, Mount Hotenow and the Icespire Peak) are clearly labeled as well.

In Conclusion: Both, Both are Good.

I do love both of these boxes. Overall I feel that the Starter Box is true to its name and good for those just starting into D&D. The adventure module The Lost Mine of Phandelver has a few options for players to choose from but it wouldn’t be as overwhelming as the large amount of quests and locations that come with the essentials kit. There is a lot of guidance inside the module to help new players and Dungeon Masters. I feel like new DM's who have played 5th edition but are new to the DM chair would benefit better from the Essentials Kit. There is so many great resources and there is a lot of places to explore within the Dragon of Icespire Peak, but it could be overwhelming for brand new DM's and Players to tackle first.

If you have both of these boxes I would say start with the Starter Set Adventure first and then progress into the Essentials Kit. If you are looking to purchase a box of your own then take into consideration the information presented to you in this article. If your players and you feel comfortable with creating your own character sheets and are at least slightly familiar with what table top gaming is, the Essentials Kit is the way to go for you.

Essentials Kit OverAll

This box is definitely more "Bang for your Buck." It has all the tools that a budding DM needs to take over the reigns of the game. There are lots of "choose your own adventure" feelings with the different quests you can choose from to level up to defeat the BBEG.

Another thing that I truly enjoyed and was happy about with the Essentials Box was there was a paper included with three QR codes for D&D Beyond. One of them giving a digital version of Dragon of Icespire Peak, and other giving a 50% off coupon for the Players Handbook.

Also, if you enjoyed playing Dragon of Icespire Peak you can continue the adventure on D&D Beyond with the adventures: Storm Lord's Wrath (lvls 7-9), Sleeping Dragon's Wake (lvls 9-11) and Divine Contention (lvls 11-13).

Starters Set Overall

The Starter Set Rulebook is definitely more brand-new user friendly and takes away the stress of building a character. I personally love Lost Mine of Phandelver and have run it for a couple groups. Each time you run a module you will always have different experiences as each party will come up with new and clever solutions to problems. The added pre-made character sheets make it really easy for complete newbies to sit down and enjoy a game of D&D 5th edition.

This article I referenced material and reviewed: Essential Kit. Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2019 and Starter Set. Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2014