Staring at the D&D Bookshelf – A Guide for New Players

Posted on May 18, 2011 by


I’m writing this post out of frustration.  Bear with me, as it’s meant for people new to D&D.


If you are completely new to D&D, and don’t know where to even start, then this post is for you!

The genesis for this post stems from a recent visit to my local big box book store.  The D&D section is upstairs, tucked away, gently nestled between the manga books and the graphic novels.  It’s a section of the store where you wouldn’t really go to unless you were already geeky.  Nobody accidentally stumbles up there.  Unfortunately, the store employees are also unaware of where that section is.  Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, as you are on your own.

Well, I’m going to try to help a bit, because that’s what I do.  And the lack of newbie-friendly D&D “stuff” is grinding my gears.  For realz.

So you are a new player to D&D, and you walk into the big book store don’t know where to start.  So many books!  And the shelf, what a mess!  And the D&D website?  Well, it’s a little confusing too, as it doesn’t really talk to you (the curious new blood) too well.

If by chance you walk into my neighborhood store and find the D&D (or rpg) shelf,  you’d see the following books, laid out with no order, rhyme or reason.  These are just a few:

  • D&D Players Strategy Guide
  • D&D Dark Sun Creature Catalogue
  • D&D Player’s Handbook
  • D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide 2
  • D&D Dungeon Tiles Master Set:  The City
  • D&D Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Dark Heresy (another rpg, not D&D)
  • Pathfinder RPG (what an earlier edition of D&D became, run by a different company now)
  • Monte Cook’s WOD (another rpg, not D&D)
  • The Gathering Storm (Warhammer rpg, not D&D)
  • Gamma World (another rpg, uses D&D rules, made by the D&D people)
  • The Slaying Stone, Orcs of Stonefang Pass (D&D adventures)

So there’s a small sample of the books available at my local book store.  Obviously I can only speak for my store, not other ones around the country.  Although something tells me that nationwide, it may be the same more or less.  The point is that there is no order to the books, no common sense approach to what books are must-have’s and what a first-time buyer should purchase.

Well, I’m going to try to help you out, because the D&D message is a little muddled online, filled with poisonous edition-warring, and a lack of thought about you, the new guy.  Sure, they say that you are important, but in practice, I don’t see it.  The focus is on keeping guys like me that already play, rather than luring folks like you into the fold.  Some may have a problem with that statement, but I stand by it.

Last year, D&D came out with products called “Essentials”.  Those are the ones on the shelf that are smallish and softcover, along with the white box sets.  They are the following products, and lets talk about these first:

  • Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Rules Compendium
  • Dungeon Tiles master Set (3 boxes, city, dungeon and wilderness)
  • Monster Vault
  • Dungeon Master’s Kit
  • D&D Starter Set (it’s a red box with a dragon on the cover)
  • D&D Essentials Dice

Heroes of the Fallen Lands

These products were introduced and presented as a way for new players to get into D&D, that would stay in stock, and serve as a jumping on point for new players.  Great.

Some of these products may or may not be available at your local B&N, or Border’s.  I’ll tell you what’s really essential, and cut through the crap.  If you want to play D&D, you need characters.  The two “Heroes of…” books provide you with the basic classes and fantasy races you’ll need.  The Fallen Lands book will give you an experience closer to say, Lord of the Rings-type races, with dwarves and elves, for example.

Can you play with just that one book?  Sure you can.  To start it’s a great choice.  Put that one in your shopping bag.  Now, you need rules for both the player’s and the DM.  The D&D Rules Compendium does this nicely.  It has all the rules you’ll need to play the game.  Put that one in your shopping bag too.

Now the DM needs monsters to challenge players with.  As a new group of players, you have a few options to handle this.  You can go the published adventure route (which I recommend, more so for newbies), or pick up the Monster Vault and create your own adventures (it also includes an adventure).

There are two recently released published adventures:  “The Slaying Stone”, and “Orcs of Stonefang Pass”.  These are NOT labeled as “Essentials” products.  It doesn’t matter though, you can use these just fine with what’s in your shopping bag.  So if you want to save money, go to the register with the Rules Compendium, the Heroes of the Fallen Lands, and The Slaying Stone and you’ll have several weeks of gameplay right there.  I’d also recommend the DM Kit box (which includes an adventure and tokens too).

Really, to get started, that’s all you need.

Oh, you need dice, so grab that Essentials Dice box (I hate to tell you to do that) or go online and buy some polyhedral dice from Chessex or someone else.  You’ll also need a way to draw your maps.  I’d recommend the Tiles boxes, but not yet.  You may not use them for that particular adventure you are buying.  Rather, go to Office Depot and buy a large easel pad of gridded paper and draw your maps on that.   The published adventures may include a poster map too for one or two of the fights, but otherwise, you have to draw them on your own.  You also need tokens or miniatures to represent your character.  I recommend Auggies for miniatures and my tutorial for making your own tokens.

These purchases will have you playing D&D hours after leaving the bookstore.

The DM needs to read the Compendium and the adventure (and the DM’s Kit if bought) and the players need to read the Heroes of… and the Compendium as well.

Have fun gaming for a few weeks.  Come back and finish reading this later….

Oh, you’re back?  Did you enjoy the game?  Good, then you are ready for more stuff.

Remember back at the store, up on the shelf there that there were other D&D books that weren’t labeled “Essentials”?  The hardcover ones, yeah.  You can use those too.  But be careful, because some aren’t really needed, and others look necessary but really aren’t.

When D&D 4th Edition first came out in 2008, the first books available were the following:

  • Player’s Handbook
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide
  • Monster Manual

The three core books released in 2008.

These books are still available on store shelves everywhere.  Unfortunately, they have gone through numerous updates, changes, and clarifications (oh my!) and  I do not recommend you buy them if you already picked up the “Heroes of…” books, the Rules Compendium,  and the Essentials “Monster Vault”.  It is mostly the same material as the Essentials stuff you now own, and are mostly outdated by current D&D standards.  Example?  Well, the Monster Manual monster math and stats are all off by current standards.  The character classes in the Player’s Handbook are all outdated (powers have been changed or adjusted for example) when compared to the Essentials book you already own.  I’ve been calling for these books to be pulled for a while, as I believe that selling obsolete material is just plain wrong.  But what do I know?

Skip those 3 books, although the DM’s Guide has some good advice.  Pick it up if you want, Mr. Newbie DM, but skip the Skill Challenge section.  In fact, rip it off the book and throw it out.  All those numbers in it are bad, and the mechanic in the book has been changed.   Initiative rolls in Skill Challenges?  That doesn’t exist anymore.  Hasn’t for a long time.  The copies at my local bookstore are still a first print run book from 2008 and those haven’t been updated.  The Dm’s Guide 2 (another hardcover book) has good advice too, but it can wait until your players are a bit higher in level, Paragon tier.  Confusing?  I know.

So as a DM, now you want more monsters to throw at your players.  You’ve finished both published adventures you own, so do you feel like creating something with new material?  Pick up the Monster Manual 3.  Is it on the shelf?  It should be.  It was the last Monster Manual hardcover that they published and has updated math and stats.  It’s a good book full of good critters.  Get it.

So now that you want to branch out on your own as a DM and as a group, where do you want to play?  What world?  Do you want to create your own world?  Or would you rather play in a setting that D&D publishes?  There are currently three worlds available for D&D:

  • Forgotten Realms
  • Dark Sun
  • Eberron

Forgotten Realms is a fairly typical fantasy world.  There are tons of novels set in it, and is pretty good for beginner players.  There are two books available for it, the Campaign guide, and the Player’s Guide.   The Campaign Guide is for the DM, and the Player’s Guide, well, self explanatory.  Dark Sun is set in a desert world, with gladiators, slaves, and that sort of thing.  There are also two books available for it, a campaign guide for players and DM’s, and a monster book.  The third world, Eberron, is kind of a pulpy fantasy setting.  It is also split into 2 books, one for Dm’s and one for players.  All these books are compatible with the “Essentials” stuff you’ve presumably bought already.

So there’s one aspect I haven’t touched on yet, and that’s the online component to D&D, or the Dungeons and Dragons Insider, DDI as the kids call it.  When I say that something is obsolete, it’s because of DDI.  DDI has a character builder for you to build characters with, and all the changes made to all the races and classes get updated there.  So if someone today, right now, makes a Player’s Handbook Cleric character using the character builder, while the guy next to him (that’s you) at the table makes the same exact cleric by hand, they will be completely different Clerics, due to all the changes that have been implemented these past three years.  Your hand made cleric is outdated, yet the book is still on store shelves.  Do you understand my point?  This leads to possible issues where a new player may walk into a game store to play with someone, and he may be told “dude, your character is obsolete” without the player understanding why.  He may say “I just bought this book yesterday!”.  And he’d be stuck with an obsolete character.

So should you purchase a DDI subscription?  Well, you have a monthy supply of adventures, new rules that add to the game, and the character builder and other half-completed digital tools (in the process of being finished).  Sample it for a month or two and then decide.

So lets look at some of the 4e hardcovers, lets review:

  • 2008 releases of PHB, DMG, and MM… I say skip it if you’re going to subscribe to DDI, and strongly think about not buying them if you already own the Essentials stuff.  These books aren’t needed anymore. Don’t let anyone tell you that they are.
  • Players Handbook 2 and 3?  Only if you want more classes and races.  Personally, for beginner players, I’d stick to the Essentials stuff and then explore these down the road.
  • Player’s Strategy Guide… helps you build optimized characters and other things that will make your character “fun to play” as they put it. I say pass for now. As a beginner you aren’t there yet.
  • Draconomicons…  For the DM, books on Dragons.  Honestly, these are cool books, I’m not sure how the stats hold up when compared to current standards.
  • The Plane Above/Plane Below… These are DM books with fantastic locations for your game.  Good stuff for ideas.  Only if you aren’t running published adventures though, otherwise they may just sit on your shelf.
  • Dungeon Delve… Good book with short encounters for each level of play.  Monster stats may be a bit old, but still fully playable.  I say pick it up if you can find it.

In short, if you are new to D&D, go find the Essentials stuff.  Pick that up, along with a published adventure or two.  Keep in mind that both the Monster Vault and the DM’s Kit boxed sets include adventures, so you may not need more than that for now.  Skip the core book hardcovers, as they are useless if you get Essentials stuff, and consider subscribing to DDI.  With these few things, you’ll have a few months of gaming assuming you aren’t a gaming freak who’s playing every night.

I’m not crazy about the way D&D is *not* marketed to newbies.  I see a game that is marketed towards the already established player base, and a game that is doing whatever it can to keep those players.  I don’t see it trying to wrangle new ones.  They can say all they want about Essentials being for the new players.  When a guy walks into a bookstore and sees the mess that is the Rpg shelf, with hardbacks, Essentials stuff, and other junk thrown around without any sort of context whatsoever, it does him no good that those products are made for him.  It really is a disservice to the hobby that new players aren’t being courted better, or advertised or marketed to.

I get accused of ranting a lot, especially about this.  That’s fine.  I rant because I care, and this is my site to write whatever I want about a game I’m passionate about.

I hope that if you are a new player to D&D, this cleared things up a bit.

Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming