D&D Essentials Kit an evolution and expansion of 5E Starter Set – not necessarily a replacement

There’s suddenly a bounty of boxed sets lately in the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game! The original Starter Set for the game’s 5th Edition continues to be a hit. Then came the Stranger Things-branded set earlier this year, based on the D&D campaign seen in the nostalgia-heavy Netflix original series.

Now comes word of a Rick & Morty-themed set to draw in fans of that subversive animated series, and a new Essentials Kit out June 24 in Target stores exclusively before coming to a wider release Sept. 3.

Why all the starter set options, and why now? It’s all about expanding the exposure of the D&D game.

The Essentials Kit is referred to more as a “storytelling game” than a “roleplaying game,” perhaps to make it more of an impulse purchase for those looking for a good game night pick-up solution. It’s worth noting there has been some online pushback over Target’s timed exclusivity, and whether that’s fair to “friendly local game shops.” But there are often FLGS exclusives of their own (alternate covers of D&D hardback releases, mainly) and it’s unlikely the audience Wizards of the Coast is trying to reach with the Essentials Kit will track down a niche store to find this — so the Target release seems to be more of a, well, targeted strategy to expand the game’s reach.

The Essentials Kit is basically the basic rules of the game, which you could download for free, but with an added “sidekick” mechanic which makes it easy to play one-on-one — one Dungeon Master and one player, aided by simple, throwaway sidekick characters. It’s something that a lot of people already playing D&D are going to want to check out for themselves — hence, the wider retail release in September, probably.

Like the Starter Set that came before, the Essentials Kit includes dice and simplified rules; unlike its predecessor, it includes a DM screen, player cards for combat steps, initiative, conditions, items and sidekicks, and character creation rules.

What I like about the Essentials Kit is that it actually complements the original 5E Starter Set. It’s not meant to replace it, although it can. You can enter the game using either one, or add the adventure scenario in either product to an existing D&D campaign. While the Starter Set seems more geared towards DM interest, the Essentials Kit is a bit more player-friendly.

Both use the region of Phandalin in the Forgotten Realms world setting, and if you’ve played it first in the Starter Set, according to WotC’s Chris Perkins, you can expand that world easily using the Essentials Kit’s player-friendly poster map, something that was missing from the first box.

“One of the things that was important to use is the versatility of the DM Screen,” Perkins said in a video describing the product’s development. It’s not adventure-specific, he said, but rather “adventure-agnostic” and can be used as you build your own adventures or buy others, without containing irrelevant information.

“You don’t need the Starter Set to play this — it’s a completely stand-alone experience,” Perkins said. “But if you have the Starter Set, this is just added value for you.”

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