The past couple months have seen a smattering of new Dungeons & Dragons products, some in a classic mode and one that is decidedly not, and it’s probably the strangest sequence of three things to come out of the tabletop division of Wizards of the Coast in a while.
The most recent, Essentials Kit, is truly excellent. Billed as a sort of sequel or complementary box to the Starter Set for D&D’s 5th Edition, it’s a small cardboard box that contains everything you need to get started with the game. An abbreviated rulebook, some character sheets, one set of dice, a map of the Sword Coast (with a reverse map of a town called Phandalin), some other tchotchkes, and an adventure called Dragon of Icespire Peak are contained in the box. The general idea here is that this is all you would need to begin playing D&D if you just got together with your friends and wanted to get down and dirty with some adventures in a far away fantasy realm.
It’s good! It is very clear that Wizards has thought quite intently about what the bare minimum amount of information and content you can give a new play group is, and the Essentials Kit is basically a limited sandbox for players to explore and figure out what they find compelling in a game of D&D. The adventure has a good mix of different types of dungeons, from the industrial Gnomegarde to the strange Woodland Manse, and while there’s a “main quest” for players to follow, the adventure also contains a number of smaller locales and fleshed-out locations for Dungeon Masters to put in front of players. If you’re getting your feet wet with D&D in 2019, then this is where you’d want to do that.
In the realm of more traditional sourcebooks, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is another recent release from Wizards that gives players a wide array of things to do. Geared at more veteran players, Ghosts is a big book of adventures that take the sea, coves, boats, and ocean creatures as their core. Comprised of seven classic adventures from the game’s past updated for 5th Edition, it runs the gamut of things you might expect: sailors and sea hags and sahuagin and holy hell, that’s right, even aboleths and krakens.
If you’re hankerin’ for boat stuff, this is where you get that boat stuff. I’ve found it very cool to read through, and I especially enjoy the update of the classic “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” adventure that was originally published all the way back in 1981. For whatever reason, the history of “sea adventures” seems a little more mechanically complicated than your average adventure, and it seems like a DM would need to really encourage players in specific ways if they wanted to run these as anything other than dungeon delves with strange enemies not often seen on shore. These are adventures, and they’re good, but they’re good for very specific things. Check ‘em out if you love boats.
The most recent sourcebook is a little stranger than even murderous sea creatures. The people behind Penny Arcade (yes, the webcomic) have been running an elaborate D&D game for the past several years that features multiple teams of people running franchises of artifact collection agencies and adventuring groups and what have you. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of Penny Arcade, and despite having a road map of what this show is apparently about in the book, I’m still a little confused. The sourcebook, Acquisitions Incorporated, is all about letting you, the players, get into shenanigans using the world and concepts and items and monsters of this Penny Arcade-allied thing.
What’s so strange about it is that this almost feels like a Star Wars supplement for D&D: there are a lot of characters and a lot of plot points that are written for pre-existing fans, and it is unclear to me what is in this book for people who are not already invested in the product. As someone casually interested in any new official D&D content, even if it is just stuff that I can pull out for myself, I am pretty disappointed in this product. The one bright spot is that it has interesting rules for running franchises of an organization, with “levels” that provide different additional effects for party members (someone can be a map maker, for example, and there’s a progression for that).
This has been a really interesting season for Dungeons & Dragons releases, but I’d be incredibly disappointed if niche products like Acquisitions Incorporated became a regular product (the fall will see the release of an official Rick & Morty product that I’m also curious, in a downer way, about). More products that make D&D accessible to more people is great, though, and there’s always a benefit for more adventures being added to the DM’s quiver. But here’s hoping that it’s more adventures from the brilliant designers at D&D and fewer products that feel like those weird McDonalds movie tie-in cups from the ‘90s.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman. He is the Editor at Large for Paste Games.