5e was launched in 2014. Since then, in addition to the three core rulebooks, we’ve had 17 hardback adventures, seven campaign settings, and at least seven other supplements – and as with any product line, quality varies. So which books are ‘must buys’ and which should you avoid?
As with my holiday gift guide, it’s worth pointing out that this blog is unmonetized and I don’t have Amazon links or paid-for recommendations. This is my personal opinion based on six years of playing 5th edition D&D (and 20ish years of playing RPGs in general). Enjoy!
Ten best buys
1. The Player’s Handbook
OK, a bit of a cheat, but it really is essential. This is the book that teaches you how to create and play a character. The Basic Rules are available for free online, but if you’re going to own one book, this should be it.
2. The Starter Set
Arguably what you should start with (hence the name), this relatively inexpensive box set comes with dice, character sheets, and an excellent adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’ve played this adventure with new players and veterans alike, and it always goes down well.
3. The Monster Manual
More useful than the Dungeon Master’s Guide in my opinion (which, apart from the magic item section, largely sits untouched on my bookshelf), the Monster Manual is a fantastically useful book. Even if you are running games online, this is a book that I recommend having in physical form, and it’s now one of the only books I always pack for my sessions.
4. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
I rank this more highly than Xanathar’s (see below): not because the subclasses are necessarily ‘better’, but because Tasha’s introduces variant class features that help to solve long-standing problems like the beast master ranger. There are also some useful sections here about group patrons, sessions zeros, and puzzles.
5. Curse of Strahd
It’s not perfect, but it’s widely agreed to be the best 5e adventure so far – and certainly the most popular. I have run it twice from start to finish and would happily run it again sometime. Castle Ravenloft is an absolute joy.
6. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
You mainly want this for the subclass options, but it hugely expands the game for players. The game is poorer without it, for sure.
7. Eberron: Rising from the Last War
This campaign setting isn’t for everyone, but I personally think this is an excellent sourcebook, absolutely packed with useful information: NPCs, factions, adventure hooks, and other flourishes. Highly recommended.
8. Monsters of the Multiverse
Frustratingly, this book is currently only available as part of a box set that includes Xanathar’s and Tasha’s. It’s due to be released as a standalone book later this year. If you want 33 new races and more than 250 new monsters, definitely pick this up. If you have already invested in Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, however, this sourcebook is pretty much a waste of money.
9. Tomb of Annihilation
Once you’ve finished Curse of Strahd and Lost Mine of Phandelver, head to Chult for something completely different. Of all the campaigns I’ve run, this might still be my favourite. Puzzles, jungles, traps, an undead T-rex: what’s not to like?
10. Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons
I nearly went with Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft for this slot, but I plumped for this one because, well, dragons are half of the game! I love dragons in all their forms, and this book will give you some great ideas for using them in your campaign.
Six bad buys
I’m generally pretty happy with the products Wizards puts out, but any game line is going to have a few duds. Here are some of mine.
Not included here: ‘merch stuff’ (ie, collectibles). Dice, plush toys, limited-edition minis . . . yes, this stuff has little ‘inherent’ value, but many fans love these things, so I’m not going to dump on them.
6. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Let me be clear: this is by no means a bad book. It’s just been superseded. Most of the bestiary is now in Monsters of the Multiverse, and the remaining lore chapters are . . . mixed. There’s some good stuff on gith and the blood war, but I’m not sure anyone’s rushing to read the chapter on halflings and gnomes.
5. Essentials Kit
In some ways, this should be better than the Starter Set. You can make your own characters; there’s a DM screen; there are (at the time, new) rules for sidekicks. But the adventure itself is so lacklustre. There’s a quest board for goodness’ sake. Save your money and get the Starter Set instead.
4. D&D Character Sheets
Honestly, these are a waste of money. The character sheets on the D&D website are perfectly decent, and you can print off as many as you need. But hey, if you want a branded folder to store them in, you do you.
3. Princes of the Apocalypse
Full disclosure: I have not run or played this adventure. But I have heard only bad things. ‘A slog’ is how most people seem to describe it. The original Temple of Elemental Evil module is a classic, and the 3rd edition follow-up by Monte Cook, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, is also well regarded. But this . . . caveat emptor, I suppose.
2. Hoard of the Dragon Queen
One might expect the first published adventure of the new edition to have a few teething problems, but even with that, no one speaks very favourably about this adventure anymore. Reviews have been decidedly mixed over time, and the adventure has been criticized as railroaded and vanilla.
1. The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
I hate to dump on something, but this book is really disappointing. Many of the new player options are flawed or lacklustre, and there’s no adventure hooks, no magic items, just a lore dump. Storm King’s Thunder does a much better job of introducing the Sword Coast than this book does. If there’s one product you really shouldn’t buy, it’s this one.
Disagree with any of these choices? Let me know in the comments below.
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