Since the publishing of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, in late 2014, Wizards of the Coast has kept up a steady stream of releases. From the ‘Core Three’, to Curse of Strahd, to Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, each has its own audience and purpose. So grab a coffee, take a seat, and let’s have a look at what we have to work with.
WotC’s D&D releases generally fall into three categories: Core, Adventure, and Supplement. The Core books are the big three; Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Player’s Handbook. These books, while no technically essential, are the cornerstone of Fifth Edition, and the foundation upon which everything else builds. Adventures are just as they sound; complete campaigns for DMs to run straight from the book. For the savvy DM, though, they can be much more, becoming treasure troves of dungeons, ideas, maps and creatures. Finally, Supplements are the optional books filled with rules, monsters, and other things the Core books don’t include.
The Core Books
While I believe the Core books are the first D&D purchase your should make after the Starter Set, it’s worth talking quickly about what’s in them, as well as some of their less well known uses.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide
The DMG is the most daunting, but also the most useful of the Core books. Filled with disparate information on a variety of subjects, the book gives DMs far more information than they are ever likely to need. Filled with background information on the planes of the D&D multiverse, advice on how to build and run settlements, NPCs and enemies, and a tonne of optional rules, there is something for everyone, no matter your game style or experience level.
Personally, I use this book more as a reference, jumping to the information I need, rather than reading it cover to cover, and I’d recommend any new DMs do the same. The book has very little in the way of core rules (almost all of which are in the Player’s Handbook), so reading everything is as likely to confuse people new to the game as it is to aid them. I do heartily recommend reading Part 2, and the first few sections of Part 3 (if you’re newer to the game), though, as the advice in this part of the book is useful for old and new DMs alike. Finally, for those of you more comfortable with the game, the Dungeon Master’s Workshop section has some fantastic optional rules to flavour your game. Be it futuristic weapons, permanent injuries, or introducing new ability scores, these rules can help to give a campaign a mechanical flavour, which transfers over into other aspects of the game.
The essential book for players, the PHB is every bit as useful for DMs, with a fantastic spell-list, solid equipment section, and plot hooks galore in the class and race sections. While there is little in the way of background, compared to the DMG, or some of the supplements, there is more than enough in this book to keep campaigns running for a long, long time. If DMs can only choose one book, this is the one I would buy, having run a successful campaign out of this book alone.
While the Monster Manual might seem to be nothing more than 300 pages of stat blocks, it is so much more than just that. Simply flicking through its pages is inspiration enough for myriad encounters, while monster descriptions are filled with background material and plot hooks. While the PHB is the only book you need to run games, the MM is all you need to write incredible stories.
WotC’s adventure books are generally very well written, and well produced books, though there are a few, well documented, short comings.
Horde of the Dragon Queen
Horde of the Dragon Queen (and Rise of Tiamat, to a lesser extent), suffer from being the first of their kind. The adventure feels strange, and it requires some serious reworking to run, in my personal opinion.
That is not to say, however, that this book is worthless, or without serious merit. The book is filled with wonderful maps, and while the story itself feels railroaded and dull at times, a truncated and edited version of the adventure will make a fantastic sidequest, or lead in to your own adventure.
Rise of Tiamat
Following on where HotDQ left off, Rise of Tiamat suffers less from the railroading of its predecessor. Introducing the players to the political structure and intrigue of Waterdeep, the first chapter of this book is useful for running urban, intrigue-based games. The basic premise of the adventure, the race between the party, and the Cult, is a very good example of offering two ‘end states’ of the campaign. Rise of Tiamat culminates in a battle, with a realistic possibility of Tiamat rising, and destroying the party. Any good campaign should have fail states, from which the party must make the best of their situation; the end of Rise of Tiamat is as good as any to steal for a home game.
It’s also worth noting that the game we’re playing is called ‘Dungeons & Dragons‘. The dragon encounters, and the environments they take place in, are great. Each lair is flavourful, and ripe for being picked from, or lifted into your own campaign. No, we don’t want to just run stereotypical games, but come on…everyone wants to fight a dragon.
Princes of the Apocalypse
A reworking of the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, Princes of the Apocalypse chronicles the rise of four Elemental Cults, and the party’s attempts to thwart them. This all takes place in the Dessarin Valley, on the Sword Coast of Faerûn. If you want to run a game in that setting, then this book is one of three adventures I would recommend buying. The Dessarin Valley is well thought out, filled with lore and history dating back to 2nd edition AD&D, and presented with beautiful maps that can very easily be handed out to players.
The setting also helps mitigate the issue that HotDQ and RoT suffered from, by introducing the players to a sandbox world, while giving them specific areas to investigate. This setting is fairly easy to reskin, allowing you to fit the encounter tables, NPCs and locations into your own world, or another setting of your choice.
Finally, Princes of the Apocalypse’s climax centres on a megadungeon made up of four quadrants. While not amazing, it is good, and be flavoured to your game with ease, if not lifted wholesale.
Out of the Abyss
Out of the Abyss, while having many failures as an adventure, is a treasure trove of ideas, maps, and encounters for any DM wishing to take their game underground. Presented as a hexcrawl, it is filled with great ideas, tables, and locations. What it fails in is lack of variety. In such a large environment, the party very quickly come to see the same encounters time and time again.
One way around this is to create your own encounters, or variations of the ones in the book. Rather than a simple encounter with a Drow patrol, you might have a list of potential encounter to flavour that encounter. Maybe the patrol were caught in a ceiling collapse, and they appreciate your aid, or perhaps you happen upon them eating? The tables, maps, environments and locations in this book can be the foundation of a game, though I recommend some work is done to liven them up and give them a more unique feel.
Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd is an absolute must-have if you want to run a gothic horror game. Even if you don’t, some of the encounters and locations of the campaign can be lifted and placed into myriad settings. Hell, I have even taken the Mad Mage found in the book, and thrown him into Lost Mine of Phandelver! Places like the windmill, the abbey, and Castle Ravenloft itself are all worthy of being placed into games and settings galore. The adventure may have its failings, but I honestly believe every DM who reads it will be better for the experience.
Storm King’s Thunder
A huge sandbox that leads the players around the northern Sword Coast, Storm King’s Thunder has no end of things to steal, be it Triboar, and the locations found within, or the lairs of the giant lords, the random encounter tables, or the tale of intrigue as dragons seek to destabilise a fragile alliance. I myself have set up SKT as something the party can investigate themselves, introducing them to a major NPC in their early travels, only to hear of her death later on. So much of the adventure relies on the unique political structure of giant culture, and the maliciousness of dragons, that it barely needs reskinning to fit into your own games either. A great book with a tonne to offer, and plot hooks your players will actually want to look into.
Tales from the Yawning Portal
My favourite part of Tales from the Yawning Portal is the first chapter. In no other WotC release have they described a tavern in such depth. While I have yet to do it myself, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be able to take the first chapter of the book, re-work it to your own ends, and place it into a city of your own making. The place would make for an incredible hub for the players, filled with intrigue, spies, rumours and trails to danger.
The adventures within, of course, are also worth a look. All perfectly reasonable adaptations of old adventures, they can be dropped into your campaign at various levels to give the players an interesting sidequest, or a little slice of D&D history to break up to main narrative. Some can even be used as major plot points (the Tomb of Horrors, for instance), or additional encounters in a grander campaign (using Against the Giants in SKT, for example).
Perhaps the most regularly useful aspect of the book, however, is the range of design encountered in the book. Covering 30 years of D&D design, studying the dungeons, encounters and traps can breath fresh life into your own dungeons, with rooms, concepts or traps making their way into your creations.
Tomb of Annihilation
Another great sandbox that suffers from a lack of variety in encounters. For those wishing to run a jungle game, or to play out ‘Heart of Darkness’, this book is simply a must. The cities and encounters are like nothing you will find in other WotC adventures, and the rules for dinosaur races can be utilised to give your own cities life outside of combat and adventure. The final dungeon, while relying a little too much on puzzles, is characterful and interesting, with loads to be implemented in your dungeons.
Also, it has rules for an undead T-Rex that vomits zombies. Tell me that’s not worth the money.
Dragon Heist, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage
At the time of writing, these adventures have yet to be released. I wanted to give my thoughts, however, based on what I have heard about them.
While several of WotC’s adventures have included elements of political intrigue, and urban gaming, they have yet to set an entire campaign in one city. That is set to change. Both Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage are set in, or underneath, Waterdeep, and will apparently contain rules for playing in the city. This is incredible news, as systems of law, urban locations, and ways to play a traditionally combat heavy game in a new way are sorely needed. I can’t wait to take Waterdeep’s rules and place them into my own cities, and run my own games using them, not to mention DofMM’s rules for going ‘off-map’ in Undermountain. I wait with bated breath.
The Supplements are books released to give new options to players and DMs. Often these contain background and lore elements, as well as more mechanical options.
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
In truth, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is the worst of the D&D supplements. While not bad, it is exactly what it sounds like; a history of the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sword Coast. But, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make this a bad book, just one that needs to be used correctly. If you play in the Realms, this is a must have, with a potted history of the setting that can help you contextualise the published adventures, and go off-piste with them. The player options at the back, as well as the new spells, are a great way to inject flavour into any game. Imagine introducing your players to Bladesingers for the first time, or a racial subtype they’ve never seen before.
All in all, the book is good, though not for everyone. As a writer, I’ve found it has suited me best as a template for creating my own worlds, giving me a good idea of what it is a I need to be creating, and how much of it I need to create.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters
Volo’s Guide is incredible. Giving DMs a load of great information on monsters big and small, the first half of the book is a plot hook treasure trove. With maps of Mind Flayer colonies, Kobold lairs, and even the homes of Beholders, Volo’s is a must have for those wishing to build their own campaigns. The second half of the book is just stat blocks for new monsters, giving depth in some races (orcs and kobolds, most notably), and introducing us to new ones entirely. Outside the Monster Manual, this is the single best book for building encounters with.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
Simply put, Xanathar’s is the best book WotC have released so far, outside the Core Three. Filled with material for both DMs and players, this tome is jam packed with new subclasses, rules clarifications, additional options, and even NPC name tables from every conceivable naming tradition. I cannot think of a single person who would not benefit from this book, and I only just stop short of lumping it in with the Core titles. Really, it is that good.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Another fantastic release, along the lines of Volo’s, Tome of Foes deals with the major conflicts of the D&D multiverse. Be it the Blood War, the tension between the Elves, or why Halflings are lucky, this tome generates nothing but plot hooks, character backstory and other vital elements of running D&D. Any elf character should decide how they feel about the split between elvish types, and tieflings will begin to feel so much more a part of the world when the Blood War becomes a part of their lives.
The monster stat blocks are another winner, with a gruesome array of high level monsters provided to terrify the party. While there are a number of great options (and some Spelljammer classics hinted at pretty strongly), nothing can get the Oblex out of my head. A creature that feeds on memories, and created by my favourite monster (the Illithids), the Oblex grows to the point where it can create humanoid representations of the people it has eaten, all connected to the Oblex by a thin cord. This is body horror at its best, and my dream encounter is now to have an entire town eaten by one, only to be repopulated by the Oblex’s simulacra. Oh, the distrust that would create…
There is no such thing as a useless book. Every WotC release has its merits and its failings, and both are useful for us as games designers and writers. It’s my hope that this post gives you a bit more information into how I have read these titles, and used their content in my own games, and how each title has influenced my own game design.
Please, let me know your thoughts in the comments. How have you used these books? Have you found stuff particularly useful, or not? After all, I wanna learn from you guys too!
Till next time, cheers!