The D&D Essentials Kit is a brand-new boxed set for new D&D players—sort of like a premium starter set. In addition to an adventure that spans levels 1–6 titled Dragon of Icespire Peak, it also includes a poster map of the northern Sword Coast, a sturdily bound rules booklet, and a set of cards for magic items, sidekicks, status conditions, and quests found within the adventure. Not to mention a set of dice and a slim DM screen that, while not quite as sturdy as the standalone “Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated,” is still useful for new DMs.
Oh, and it also contains a code that gets you the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure free on D&D Beyond, as well as a coupon for 50% off the Player’s Handbook on D&D Beyond. What can we say, we’re proud to have our name on a box set. The adventure is fantastic—designed by Chris Perkins and Richard Baker, who wrote not just Lost Mines of Phandelver, but many, many other D&D adventures over the years, like The Forge of Fury. It’s “quest board” gives players the ability to acquire sidequests in a somewhat video-gamey but highly player-motivated fashion. It feels fun and self-directed, and it culminates in a tremendously satisfying dragon fight.
Sidekicks and Solo Campaign Play
However, this adventure contains a new ruleset that may be of interest even to veteran D&D players: one-on-one adventuring. People have been clamoring for one-on-one D&D adventures—that is, an adventure played with one Dungeon Master and one player character—for a very long time. It’s a fun way for D&D-loving couples to bond; just ask Todd Kenreck, our beloved video host and creative manager, and his wife Meagan. It’s also great for people who have only one or two D&D-playing friends at their school or job, but still want to play a D&D campaign anyway.
The Essentials Kit accomplishes this style of play by granting the main character a host of NPC sidekicks to round out their party. It ends up making a single-player game of D&D a lot like the D&D computer RPGs of the 90s, like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Planescape: Torment. Given that Baldur’s Gate III was just announced, I’d say that comparison is pretty apt! There are three types of sidekick known as the expert, the spellcaster, and the warrior. The spellcaster can choose between a healer or mage specialization, and the warrior can choose between an attacker or defender specialization. The sidekick rules presented in this adventure give a leveling progression for the sidekicks to advance up to 6th level—the same level that the main character will be at the end of Dragon of Icespire Peak.
Each sidekick type is represented by a single stat block, and leveling instructions are provided for each sidekick. While the sidekicks are based off of classes like cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, they aren’t quite as skilled as their player character counterparts. For example, warrior sidekicks gain the Extra Attack feature at 6th level, while fighters gain it at 5th level. Because of this, the main character will always shine a little bit brighter than the sidekicks. I like this; it keeps the whole party leveling at an even rate while keeping sidekicks from overshadowing the main cast.
Overall, these sidekick rules are fun. They remind me of the D&D computer RPGs, and of more recent tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. It lets my character be a hero and a tactician simultaneously, directing units with personality around the battlefield to support my own personal strategies. The charming character portraits on the sidekick cards provided in the Essentials Kit boxed set really sell this feeling by making the sidekicks feel more like authentic characters than an assortment of stats—being able to hand them out as cards with those portraits displayed front-and-center helps keep their “realness” in focus at all times.
Even more, these sidekick rules are eminently usable in games that aren’t one-on-one, too! A game with only two or three players could let the characters find a sidekick that rounds out their party. Likewise, an enterprising DM could even use sidekicks in games in which the characters acquire an ally or hire a mercenary that travels and gains levels with the party for some time.
Alternative One-on-One Guidelines
With all that said, you may not feel satisfied with this answer to the question of “how do I play a solo D&D campaign?” You may not want to tactically command a bunch of NPC sidekicks around. You may just want to go on a heroic adventure on your own, like in the tales of Perseus or Theseus from Greek mythology, or like video game heroes like Link (The Legend of Zelda), Kassandra (Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), or the player character of The Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind or Skyrim.
If you’re a DM trying to run a one-on-one game of D&D without involving sidekick NPCs, consider how significantly the game changes when there’s no longer a party of adventurers to help each other. The weaknesses of any particular class become significantly more pronounced; a fighter’s inability to deal area-of-effect damage like a sorcerer or wizard can be a big problem in fights with lots of minions; a rogue’s inability to tank damage like a barbarian becomes a problem in forced combat scenarios; a wizard’s inability to disarm traps or open doors stealthily like a rogue makes it hard to explore ancient ruins—and the list goes on.
Try to compensate by these weaknesses by focusing on challenging your hero’s strengths—while throwing in a few obstacles that gently challenge their weaknesses. In combat, consider using optional rules such as Healing Surges, Climbing onto Bigger Creatures, and Cleaving through Creatures, to give your campaign a more heroic feeling. This will help elevate your sole hero’s actions and, in the case of Healing Surges, give them a better chance of survival in case the dice go awry.
Finally, as a DM running a one-on-one game, be sure you keep a close eye on the encounter building math. Encounters that will challenge a party of four will wipe the floor with a single hero, so don’t go too big too fast, especially if you’re used to “eyeballing” encounter difficulty. Pay attention to the math until you’ve developed your instinct for creating appropriate single-player challenges, using either the encounter-building tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder.
Are you running Dragon of Icespire Peak? Are you running it solo? Let us know what you think of it in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.