by Mike Shea on 27 January 2020
Many agree that the best way to get started in D&D is with the D&D Starter Set. With a low price, excellent adventure, and all the materials you need to run a game in a single box; it's hard to recommend anything else. I still consider the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, one of the best D&D adventures with its clear focus on the small town of Phandalin and a nice sandbox full of places to explore, people to meet, and threats to face.
The recently released D&D Essentials Kit adds another alternative. Like the Starter Set, it's designed for new players although not necessarily new DMs. It comes with a wider range of materials including a larger set of dice, a deck of cards, full-color maps, character creation rules, and sidekick rules. Like the Starter Set, the Essentials Kit is a bargain for the price.
But which boxed set should you get if you're new to D&D?
I'd still start with the Starter Set. It's slightly cheaper and, in my opinion, the adventures are better tuned for the characters.
But as an alternative, why not both?
The D&D Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit work really well together. In this article we'll look at how to join up these two products to get the best out of both.
When combining the storylines of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak we have the main storyline of Lost Mine of Phandelver and the series of individual quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak. The characters can begin with chapter 1 of Lost Mine of Phandelver, Goblin Arrows. When they arrive back at Phandalin, they find the quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak nailed to the town's quest board. The characters (and players) are free to continue following the main quest line in Phandelver or choose one of the job board quests from Icespire as they wish.
While the characters follow one path or the other, we can drop in secrets and clues that point to other quests from both Phandelver and Icespire. They may learn of the secret plot of the Black Spider while spending time on the dwarven excavation or meeting the gnomes of Gnomengarde. They may hear of the displaced orcs and the rise of the anchorites of Talos in Neverwinter Wood while exploring Thundertree or Cragmaw Castle in Phandelver. The green dragon in Thundertree may be a rival of the white dragon in Icespire Keep. The cult of the dragon in Thundertree may be recruiting both of these dragons. There's lots of ways to join up these two adventures and running them together gives the players a huge range of options to choose their path.
Joining these two adventures together will not make a DM's life easier. You'll need to read both adventures to get ideas how to join the two together. You'll need to bring in hooks from both adventures into the paths of the characters as they explore each of them. There will be a lot of moving parts; parts that make the world feel rich and full and real, but all of those moving parts will make your campaign more complicated. In the end, however, it can be well worth the effort.
One concern is how we handle leveling. You may want to level more slowly than you might otherwise if the characters are spending a lot of time on side quests. Otherwise the characters will out-level the quests in both adventures before either of them are done. You'll still want to level out of 1st level quickly but once you're at second level, leveling every couple of adventures is probably just fine. As an alternative you can level up as fast as you like and simply let some of the quests become obsolete before the characters have had a chance to engage with them.
Both the D&D Starter Set and the Essentials Kit include more than just the two adventures. The pregenerated characters from the Starter Set, which you can download right here, make it easy for new players to get into the game if they don't have the experience to make a new character. For players interested in building characters, the Essentials Kit includes all of the rules needed to create characters with the four basic races and five classes including a couple of different class builds for each class.
The two books together also include a large menagerie of monsters. Only a few monsters are replicated across both boxes. Together they provide a huge range of monsters from 1st to 5th level that you can use to run your own adventures for years without buying another book. The Starter Set has a wider selection of more basic monsters while the Essentials Kit fills out this list with stranger monsters like ochre jellies, wererats, and evil half-orc shapeshifting druids.
Both books also include a wonderful selection of maps and locations you can reskin to fit your own homebrew adventures.
The maps, DM screen, and cards from the Essentials Kit work just as well when running the Starter Set material.
One fabulous feature of the D&D Essentials Kit are the rules that let you play D&D with one DM and one player using sidekicks. Sidekicks are stripped down NPCs that run alongside player characters to shore up any deficiencies and help even out the odds in combat.
Though Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn't include any rules for scaling combat for less than four characters, we can use some handy guidelines to help us tune down battles when running Phandelver one-on-one. Here's a quick reference:
Being able to run these adventures with a single DM and single player adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. Joining Essentials sidekicks with the Starter Set is a powerful combination.
When your players have completed the adventures in both boxes, you can move on to the additional digital adventures included with your purchase of the Essentials Kit. These adventures include Storm Lord's Wrath, Sleeping Dragon's Wake, and Divine Contention, all of which you can find here which take characters from 6th to 13th level. That's quite a campaign!
Joining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit together helps you build out Phandalin in a way that neither boxed set does on their own. The world becomes richer, the options wider and more varied. The two boxes together create a powerful toolkit for DMs who want to run their own low-level adventures. Without needing another product you can run adventures using these two boxed sets for years to come.
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