Dungeons & Dragons is becoming an ever-increasing popular hobby. Is it part-due to Netflix hit Stranger Things? Is it because of popular YouTube show Critical Role? Could it be because of my Beginner’s Guide to D&D on the Zatu blog? (The latter, it’s definitely the latter.)
Wizards of the Coast’s tabletop RPG has gained fans by the dungeon-full. It’s currently in its 5th Edition (known as ‘5e’). Wizards of the Coast have got a basic set of 5e’s rules on their website. That’s kind of them; in theory, you can play the game using that PDF, alone. But that’s like playing any game with only 10% of the depth it could offer. D&D provides so much potential for players to explore. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole.
The first step to tumbling down said hole starts with a single book – The Player’s Handbook. So, what’s the big deal about it?
You See Before You A Giant Book…
Chances are, the first time you play D&D, someone at the table will have played before. Chances are, that person will help you out and know the answers to your questions. They’ll guide you through the first session like an older sibling. But in case they’re not there, that’s when the Player’s Handbook comes to the rescue.
The PHB measures in at a little over A4 size. It’s a hardback, and so carries some weight. The binding is durable and excellent quality. This thing could be a weapon in combat, dealing 1d4 bludgeoning damage! (If you’ve no idea what that means, don’t panic. The Player’s Handbook answers all kinds of questions like that.)
There’s over 300 pages of streamlined rules, artwork tables to pore through. There’s four approximate sections to the book:
• How to create your own playable character (a PC)
• Explaining combat and adventuring in general
• Explaining spellcasting and magic
• Appendices covering world-building information
It’s organised in a logical manner, but here’s those sections in greater detail…
Build Your Own Hero
Whenever you start a new campaign or one-shot, you’ll design a brand-new character from scratch. This can be intimidating for new players, but the Player’s Handbook comes to the rescue. The first 160 pages (over half the book) is about character creation. It’s broken down into chapters, for ease of digestion. It also explains how to roll dice to determine your initial starting Ability Scores. It’s wordy in places, true, but it’s not pure blocks of text. It’s broken up with crossheads, artwork and helpful, corresponding tables.
There’s chapters for picking a race, class and background for your hero. Each of the nine standard races (elf, halfling, dwarf, dragonborn, and so on) have sub-chapters. Listed alphabetically, they range between two to four pages each. These detail racial traits, characteristics, typical allegiances to other races, and details of sub-races (if any). They all sound appealing; you’ll be hard-pressed to pick one!
The class chapter has sub-chapters, too – one for wizards, one for barbarians, and so on. These detail many ‘mechanism’ traits that come with picking said class. It details starting equipment, proficiencies, and Hit Points. Each class has a table, detailing clear bonuses you unlock when you ‘Level Up’. Some races are more complex than others, so have more pages. But Levelling Up is lots of fun for every class. Oh no; more choices!
The Race and Class chapters are the pastry and meat to this pie. The Backgrounds is like a sprinkling of herbs. They’re suggestions to giving your character a bit of history. It’s a launch pad for ‘who they were’ before this person began a life of adventuring. You can even work out their height and weight! There’s also options to customise classes further, by multiclassing. This is more for advanced players – I wouldn’t recommend this for newer players. There’s enough going on to start with…
When playing as your new character, you’ll find yourself flicking to these chapters a lot. How does Sneak Attack work for rogues, again? What new features do monks unlock at Level 3? If you can’t find the page, there’s an Index at the back. It’s a life-saver.
Show Me The Money!
Part and parcel of D&D is gaining loot, and spending hard-earned money. There’s a whole chapter on equipment, which lists the cost of all the essential, basic items. Want to buy a shield or a new axe? The prices are in the PHB. Want to buy generic adventuring gear like rope or a lamp? The prices are in the PHB. Want to buy a horse, sled, or a warship? Want to know how much a banquet costs, or a night at a squalid inn? Yes. It’s in the PHB.
This makes life easier for your DM. They can have their shops, towns and locations stock those items and charge those prices. But it also helps the players by setting their imagination on fire. D&D isn’t limited to the items listed in this chapter. You can ask to buy anything (well, at the DM’s discretion). And it’s when the players start thinking outside the box that D&D comes into its own…
I Hit It With My Sword
Combat is the most technical aspect of D&D. For new players, this could be the most daunting part. It is also the most dramatic, and the most exciting part!
‘Using Ability Scores’ talks you through what certain technical terms mean. Most of these are conditions that involve the player having to roll dice to determine an outcome. ‘Adventuring’ deals with things like movement, marching orders, speed and stealth. It includes the environment, light levels, food and water sources. This is more for the DM than it is the players, but it’s still handy to know.
Combat is a technical exercise. It takes a bit of getting used to for new players (and new DMs). The ‘Combat’ chapter talks you through how it works step-by-step. Once you get into the swing of things, it’s a thrilling back-and-forth. It’s unpredictable, and often conditional (if this, then that). That means a lot of variables. But it also means a lot of phenomenal outcomes, and many are a joy to witness unfolding. In comparison to earlier editions of D&D, this is a super-streamlined chapter for combat.
Spells, Cantrips and Magical Mayhem
The latter third of the book deals with spellcasting. Some classes come with traits that grant the player magical powers. This means casting cool spells! This section explains how spells work, from a mechanical point of view. It lists which spells are available to which classes, and what spellcasting level they must be to learn them. Last of all, it then lists every single spell in alphabetical order. Its casting time, range, components needed to cast it, its duration, and a description of what it does.
Spells play a huge role in D&D. Sometimes they are vital to survival! Other times, they are ripe for comedy value. But one thing’s for sure: they have the potential to cause confusion. Having the PHB to hand so you can check a spell’s details is crucial.
It is all too easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity or conditional nature of spells. Ultimately, it should be down to the DM to decide the consequences of spells that are cast. But if you’re playing a magic casting character, you need to know your spells. Otherwise, you’re missing out on a large chunk of what Cool Stuff your PC can achieve.
Tidbits In The Appendices
The last few pages wrap up a few odds and ends. Condition details break down the effects caused during combat, such as being ‘poisoned’ or ‘grappled’. Having these definitions to hand is useful to help you think your way out of danger. There’s a list of deity tables, as well as fantasy-historical pantheons. The different planes of existence are here here, too. These might inspire you or your DM to create stories that involve inter-planar travel. Will you visit the lush Feywild, or the hellish lower planes, homes to demons?
At the very end, after the all-important Index, there’s a blank copy of a character sheet. You can photocopy or scan this, to fill in your own copy. Or, you can download it in digital form, for free, from Wizards of the Coast’s website.
Final Thoughts on… The Player’s Handbook
D&D is an RPG where the possibilities are boundless. It’s impressive they fit a lot of this into 300 pages, alone! The PHB provide answers for some of those possibilities. Situations will occur where the book might not have a bona fide answer. (In such circumstances, that’s down the DM to make the judgement call.)
In a nutshell, this is a 300-page rule book. That’s going to put some people off who are new to RPGs; I appreciate that. But this isn’t like a rulebook for, say, Journeys in Middle Earth. You won’t read this cover-to-cover before playing. It’s more of an essential reference guide that you keep close to the table. You’ll fill it with bookmarks. Between the contents and index, you’ll find what what you’re looking for. And believe me, once you’re clued in, the PHB will speed up the pace of your game, and the tone will improve in quality, too.
The PHB is text-heavy, in places. The good news is that there’s quality, evocative artwork on almost every page. It’s not too exhausting on the eyes, but page spreads can look busy. The order to the book, though, is a logical one. The rules leave you feeling creative and eager to try things out, rather than feeling restricted.
Some people might baulk at the price. “What? Paying in the region of thirty pounds for a book?” Instead, if you think of paying that with the PHB being a game, then it’s outstanding value. You’ll use the PHB in every D&D session you play. And there’s enough scope and variety to play this game between now and the end of time…
The marvellous (and intimidating) thing about D&D is that there’s no right or wrong way to play it. It’s not like a structured board game. D&D is like a pet that sometimes does whatever the hell it wants, not matter how well you think you’ve trained it. Yet somehow, it’s charming enough to get away with it. So long as everyone’s having fun at the table, that’s all that matters. Having the PHB close to hand makes this possible.
Join Us Down The Rabbit Hole
The Player’s Handbook is essential for anyone playing Dungeons & Dragons. You can, in theory, play the game without it. That's how I first started playing. I got introduced to D&D by a friend; I showed up with nothing but a pencil! The more experienced players carried me through the first couple of sessions. I enjoyed it so much, I invested in the PHB. Then the game changed. It went from good, to outstanding.
I mentioned rabbit holes, earlier. D&D is a rabbit hole, and a wonderful one, at that. But it’s the kind of rabbit hole that only exists if the new players know how to fall down it. For some players, that entrance is clogged with soil. They can’t imagine what it looks like, or how deep it goes. In this analogy, The Player’s Handbook is the shovel. And once you start digging, you’re going to love what you find down there.