The Dungeons and Dragons 5e core books, the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Masters Guide have been out for almost 4 years now. Since the release of 5e, Wizards of the Coast has released 15 total books. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is the newest which will be arriving in May. That’s a lot of books. They all cost about $30-$60 each. That’s expensive for a new player or DM! So, what D&D 5e book should I buy? Are there any “must-have” book(s) in order to play?
I’m going to tackle this problem by suggesting that there is a certain order in which I believe these books are best to be purchased in. In this post, I have separated the books into 5 Tiers. Start with Tier 1 and purchase the books that interest you. From there move down to the next section the next time you want to buy a new book.
I’ve personally used this system to recommend books to my friends and it has worked out well for veteran players, new players, dungeon masters, and everyone in-between!
Tier 1 – Must Have
There is only a single D&D 5e book in the “Must Have” tier. This book will provide all the information needed to DM or play in a D&D 5e campaign.
The Player’s Handbook contains all of the basic rules, character options, equipment, and spells in the game. As a player or a full-time DM this is an absolute staple. Obviously for players having access to the rules, classes, feats, equipment, spells, races, and backgrounds makes this book an obvious choice.
A DM could absolutely run a game using only the Player’s Handbook and some monster stat blocks they found on the internet. This book is a reference for everyone at the table. Trust me, regardless of your role at the table you will look through this book at least a couple of times a session. Buy this book before you purchase any other book in the collection.
Tier 2 – Cornerstones
The “Cornerstones” tier includes two books. I do not deem both of these books necessary for both DMs and Players to own. However, they are the books I frequently use as both a DM and a player.
As a DM the Monster Manual is basically your best friend. This holds a few hundred monsters for you to throw at your unsuspecting adventurers. I constantly have this book open and bookmarked whenever I am running a session. The variety of monsters is particularly good. I have been able to regularly surprise my five players with monsters they have never encountered in over 3 years of playing D&D 5e.
As a player this book is a pass. If you have no intentions of ever DMing I would not recommend picking this book up. That being said you should give DMing a try anyways, you may like it more than you’d think!
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is by far my favorite D&D 5e book. Each class got new character archetypes. Tons of new spells and feats were added. It also added so many awesome tables and tools for DMs. There are tables that explain how to distribute magical items to players, all the official Druid wild shape forms, and more.
Seriously, XGtE is practically a second Player’s Handbook with how much content it holds. It is absolutely worth the money as a player and has a ton of great tools for DMs. Both camps would benefit by adding XGtE to their collection.
Tier 3 – Expansions
The “Expansions” books are great books. They expand the content of the game and fill in some areas the books of the first 2 tiers only touch upon. They require at least the Player’s Handbook and/or the Monster manual in order to use them to their fullest potential.
I had originally placed Volo’s Guide to Monsters in Tier 2. However, after some thought, I decided against that. It has a lot of content such as new character races, monster lore, and new monsters for DMs to use. A lot of these new creatures include new versions of creatures in the MM such as the Flind which is a high CR gnoll. I have used many of the creatures in my games. There are a lot of more unique takes on creatures in VGtM and they can make for a fun twist on a creature your players are accustomed to.
The player races are very unique and fun, but that’s all that is in there for players unfortunately. That being the case this is an excellent D&D 5e book for DMs, but one I would put lower on my list if I were a full-time player.
It may surprise you that one of the 3 core rule books is so far down my list. Let me explain. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a ton of content such as variant rules, magical items, and great tips on how to DM. It is not necessary for a player or DM (especially new ones). A lot of the tips and advice given in the book could potentially be found online.
The variant rules are great references but you typically won’t use them all, and there are some very niche or overly specific rules. As you get more comfortable with the game you and your players will probably end up house ruling a lot of the variant rules.
The magical items and treasure are the main draw for me. Especially as a new player or DM you will want to look through the DMG for balance purposes. As a new DM you should stick close to the magic items and treasures in the DMG (and XGtE) for what you reward your players with. This will also serve as a good point of reference for when you create your own items.
There’s a lot of great content in the DMG, but I don’t find it necessary to have in order to run a game for either a DM or a player.
Tier 4 – Fun Extras
The “Fun Extras” books will add some fun to a game. They are not referenced often and have a niche use.
This is a very fun book for DMs to own. It is what I call a “throwback” book. It contains some of the most iconic D&D adventures from all the different editions but remade for D&D 5e. I recently ran the White Plume Mountain adventure as a one-shot and everyone had a great time. That is both the strength and weakness of this book. The book is a book of one-shots.
There is no continuous story line like with the adventure books. However, you can easily drop one of these adventures or dungeons into a campaign and it will fit right in with minimal tweaking. This is a fun book to have as a DM, or if you are looking for a nostalgia trip for adventures of past editions!
The Sword Coast Adventure’s Guide really suffered from the release of XGtE. This was the first supplementary book that added new character archetypes to 5e. The downside is that there are so few of them to choose from and not every class even has a new archetype. Not to mention that a few of the archetypes and the spells were also reprinted in XGtE!
There is some good lore and setting information on the Sword Coast, but if you aren’t running a game that involves that at all this won’t be a useful book for you. I’d advise you to look up the table of contents of the book and make a judgement call for yourself.
Tier X – Adventures
This is a unique tier. Depending on your group, you may value these more than the books in Tier 3 or 4. Other groups may not have any use for these books at all. The adventures are solid books of varying quality. They provide a customizable story with unique items, creatures, mechanics, maps, and NPCs for you and your friends to enjoy.
I own a few of the adventures and have used bits and pieces of some throughout my campaigns. My friends and I also played Out of the Abyss and that was so well-received that I’ve used some crowd favorite characters, setting info, and creatures in our other games. If you are looking for a gritty, survival adventure this is an excellent pick-up.
I have not played or ran Curse of Strahd. However, I have heard great feedback about it from friends and on the internet. If your group is into vampires and gothic horror this is a great adventure to run. The introductory adventure for CoS is available for free online should you wish to “try before you buy”.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat were two of the earliest D&D 5e adventures published. Unfortunately they have suffered a bit due to being early prints. Another strike against them is that the adventure requires the purchase of these two books to be completed. There are a lot of mechanical and story issues with the books. Here’s a reddit thread where people discuss more specific issues with HotDQ. On a positive note, there are at least supplements for HotDQ and RoT that save the DM having to purchase the MM or DMG.
Stom King’s Thunder is about giants wrecking havoc on the Sword Coast. I have good things about this adventure. There is a lot of room for the DM to modify the adventure and story. There is interesting lore and rich role-playing hooks as well. The one criticism I have heard about this is that the maps in the Roll20 Version have an issue with scaling.
Tomb of Annihilation is an adventure dealing with death and a mysterious disease. Necromancy is a major theme in this adventure. It is another gritty story, but I have heard tons of praise for its writing. While I can’t personally recommend this adventure, check out this show. Adam Koebel runs the module and it is a well-done play-through.
Princes of the Apocolypse was released early in 5e’s life cycle. Fortunately, it does not suffer the same fate as HotDQ and RoT! The online supplement warrants some bonus points for PotA as it has all of the monsters and magic items used in the game. The DM could buy just PotA and use the supplement without needing to purchase the MM or DMG. If thwarting evil cults focused around elementals sounds cool, this may be the adventure for you!
The Starter Set is an excellent pickup for a group of first-time players. It includes a small book full of rules and character creation choices for levels 1-5, dice, and an adventure. The Lost Mines of Phandelvr is the adventure, and it is a very well-written, fun, adventure. I have heard nothing but praise for this edition’s starter set and even popular shows such as the The Adventure Zone have used this adventure as a starting point for their campaigns.
Do remember that this is an opinion piece. Feel free to buy whatever books you like. I will always say to grab the PHB before you look at anything else. I will also be updating this list as new books are added to the D&D 5e book list so feel free to check back later or voice your opinions on my picks!