Dungeons & Dragons 5E: What You Need

One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to any roleplaying game is “where do I start?”. When you’ve got a 300 pound gorilla like Dungeons & Dragons dominating the field 30+ years after its birth, it’s only natural that it’s going to come up as a lot of people’s “go to” answer…but with somewhere upwards of 8+ editions (depending on who is doing the counting), that’s hardly an answer.

Over the course of a few articles, I’m going to look at every edition of Dungeons & Dragons I’ve played extensively and run down the absolutely MUST HAVEs for each of them. As you’ll see, it’s often not a very easy question to answer. I do hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts!

Now we move on to Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition (or 5E), where the creators of D&D attempt to bring it back to its roots while at the same looking ahead at a longer, greener pasture of multimedia expansion. Except this time, they’ve got a business strategy that — to some — follows a glacial pace. Whether that’s good or bad remains a point of great contention.

D&D 5th edition Release Schedule

This was a look at the future, but it happened in the past, so…Back to the Future rules!

As with D&D 4th Edition, the latest edition of the world’s greatest roleplaying game has a couple different ways to get into it, only this time, it’s not because of a complete cluster-eff of products that didn’t know who or what to aim at.

No, in this case, 5th Edition got the two-pronged pincer attack right: give the players a free road in, the DM a free shot at checking things out, and then release a slow-but-steady product line of high-quality books for the die-hards.

D&D Basic Rules

Free RPG rules release done right!

Version 1: All Free, All the Time!

This setup includes three PDF files that are 100% free; if you like dead-tree, this is going to be annoying in that you have to print stuff out, and that’s never free.

Both of these are also sitting in HTML (website) format right on Wizards’ website: Player’s Rules and Dungeon Master’s Rules. This is excellent for online games and quick-referencing when you’ve got a laptop or tablet handy at the table.

The following free supplements are also available, giving you more monsters, player races, spells, and more. Although this article is about what you NEED, the fact is that this stuff is free, so…just pick it up! None of it adds a layer of additional rules, just new options for the existing stuff, so it’s no more difficult to jump in with this stuff at your fingertips.

Version 2: Books, Plz

And here’s where I get called a heretic:

This setup once again adds the Hoard of the Dragon Queen supplement purely to increase the variety of magic items. You also still require the Basic D&D DM’s Rules, because that’s the only place where the Encounter Building rules exist.

Ultimately, you could really just print out the couple of pages regarding encounter building, and any magic items from the DM’s Rules and Hoard supplement, and just not worry about the rest, because that’s all in the PHB or MM.

Um, DMG, Plz?

If you’re wondering why I’m missing the third CORE RULEBOOK of the freakin’ game, well, you’d be right to note its absence, but here’s the skinny: ain’t nobody got time for that.

Crazy, right?

Here’s the thing: the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide is a spectacular book, filled with fantastic advice, a gazillion random tables to add spice to every piece of worldbuilding and every scene in the game, as well as tons of inspirational material…

…But it’s just not something you NEED to run D&D, in my opinion.

If we’re talking about just starting out, minimum buy-in to get the full game, the PHB and MM give you everything you need, minus only a couple aspects:

  • Encounter building rules
  • Magic items/rewards

That’s all contained in the Basic D&D rules. Why spend $40-50 on something you don’t need?

(The answer is: because it’s awesome. But again, not necessary.)

Alternative Version 2, You Say?

Here’s some cheap alternative ways to buy into D&D, using Version 2 above, as a template.

I’m Just a Player

Just a player? Remove the MM and Basic D&D rules. You’ve got all you need in the PHB, but you can and should add the PDF of the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion because it’s free.

I’m a DM…and a Newb 🙁

Are you looking to DM but new to RPGs? Forget complex, scary things like “Encounter Building Rules” and big lists of “Magic Items and Rewards” and stick to something that does all that for you: published adventures.

Goblin Ambush encounter setup

Pretty sure those horses are just sleeping. I saw a leg twitch.

As a DM you really can’t get a better starting adventure than the one included in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, titled Lost Mine of Phandelver. It may seem a little daunting at first because it’s a mini-campaign, but they do a great job of dividing into chapters that work well as individual game sessions, so it’s sufficiently “bite-sized” for a starting DM.


I may have written a few more words in this article compared to previous editions’ What You Need, but it’s because 5E has some very clear, very affordable, and very complete-in-a-small-package methods of getting into the game for both hesitant newbies and old-hats. All the history of D&D’s past editions culminates with this release, and the wild experimentation in 4e’s whacky release schedule have been ironed out into a finely tuned instrument of gaming fun!

If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.

Send feedback and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, or email us via the About page.

neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

Tagged with:
2 comments on “Dungeons & Dragons 5E: What You Need
  1. Dear Neurophaser,

    I liked what your article on what you need for starting D&D 5e, however I disagree in regards to what a new DM needs. As much as I would like to encourage sales I have found that someone new to the role of DM is generally not very good at it. I wouldn’t include the monster manual among needed resources and here is my reasoning. The monster manual has a huge number of monsters of varying power which will be intimidating to a new DM. I would build on your other options, specifically premade adventures, the premade adventures I have read have guidelines for adjusting the encounters for various group sizes and a group larger than the sizes for which guidelines are given is too large a group for a beginning and often even an experienced DM to manage and keep the game enjoyable. My advice would be for a new DM to stick with published premade adventures until they are comfortable enough to make adjustments to fit the players’ levels and/or numbers, then with the experience they have gotten with the premade adventures make the addition of the monster manual. So that pretty well sums up how I disagree, as far as for an experienced DM I agree with you. As always there are exceptions both ways, new DMs who are naturalist and experienced DMs who just never get into a groove.

    Anyway, just my opinion as it has developed over the years, I began with D&D in 1980 with the rules that would become Basic Dungeons and Dragons and played many other tabletop RP games including every edition of D&D with the exception of 4e as well as being lucky enough to platters Aion Trinity (though White-Wolf renamed it after threats of a lawsuit by MTV it will always have the original title to me), take it or leave it.

    I have a question as well, perhaps you could point me in the right direction. I have trouble getting into games because I am in a wheelchair and the vast majority of homes in the town in which I live are not wheelchair accessible. I play at the local game shop but the games run there only run in two hour stints and there are many M:tG players there at the same time which is problematic for me because I have a very quiet voice. I really don’t think it would go over well with the shop owners if I took the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, especially if I used the big stick to quiet the Magic players down. Do you have any suggestions for where to find an online D&D group? Not a MMO or text chat room because I type really slowly, something using voice chat which doesn’t have an associated monetary fee. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I am pinching pennies to keep up with the gaming books I want these days.


    Julian Hubbard

    • neuronphaser says:

      Very good points, and something the readers should be aware of! Just as there are many different ways of learning, there are also many different ways of doing: some DMs are naturally going to gravitate toward building their own stuff and learning from the experience of manipulating the system right away, while others will find the structure of a published adventure as the proper guide for understanding the authors’ intent of the game mechanics, and thereby that will serve them better in learning the game.

      As to finding online games, I have to admit that I’m not very well-versed in them, having only watched and participated in a few; speaking of styles, my style of gaming just doesn’t warm me to the idea of doing things “remotely” even though I’m invariably going to dive into it further at some point. That said, interactions with forum-goers and with other DMs and players via social media leads me to think the following are your best bets for at least dipping your toes in, with the only potential cost being a decent microphone/headset to ensure sound quality isn’t a nagging issue (and based on my research for gaming and non-gaming-related stuff, you can get a decent mic/headset combo for less than $20 if you look for deals on Amazon and the like). Anyway, without further ado:

      Tabletop RPG One Shot Group on Facebook – very active community, and as long as you can tolerate the occasional flamewar, there’s a lot of games going on all the time, and of all different genres. They primarily use Google Hangouts, which is free, and Roll20 (which I believe you can use a free account for). Less often, there are Fantasy Grounds games (which I believe may also have a free version, but I’m only familiar with the paid version that is quite expensive for DMs to buy into).

      G+ RPG Hangouts – A Google+ community that is all about getting gamers together to play.

      TableTop Fan Community – Although it’s partly focused on the show “TableTop,” there’s also dedicated sub-groups for finding games.

      Geek and Sundry, RPGNet, ENWorld.org, and others also have dedicated forums for finding games that are currently recruiting. Many are play-by-post, but I’ve definitely seen plenty of Hangouts or even Skype games advertised at times. I’m sure there are plenty of others — and I know of some sites that are dedicated solely to this sort of thing — but these are the ones I’m most familiar with and know gamers (or myself) have connected with other games for online, non-text-based games in the past.

      Happy hunting, and better yet, happy gaming in the very near future!

Leave a Reply