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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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