It’s the grandaddy of the roleplaying game industry, and for many — if not most gamers — the standard to which all other games are measured. It’s important enough in the gaming community that we’ve had vicious “edition wars” throughout the 1990s and 2000s. For many of us, and nearly all of us, if you’ve been playing since the 1970s or 1980s, it was your first exposure to RPGS (it was for me, rapidly followed by Traveler.) I missed out on all the edition war idiocy, as I walked away from d20 with the end of my high school D&D campaign.
The new edition of Dungeons & Dragons went through heavy playtesting with loads of input from players around the world as a response to the harsh (maybe overly so) reaction to 4th Edition, which tried to win the “kids” back to the tabletop by emulating computer RPGs — a bit of recursive irony, as computer RPGs (really, all versions of role playing games) owed its existence to the original D&D.
So what did all this hard work spawn? Answer: a modern version of AD&D with a few vestigial trappings of 3rd Edition — the most popular engine for RPGs at the beginning of the century, thanks to the Open Game License. For a while there, everything was f#$%ing d20 (and now it’s Fate.) The most popular version of D&D (if we’re being honest — that’s what it is) is Pathfinder, which uses a modified 3rd ed. rules set.
The system scrapped skills for the old school Abilities checks. Want to see if you did a balancing act on the thin wooden plank over a dangerous chasm, and do some complicated bit of lockpicking? Roll a d20 and add your dexterity bonus. Want to cast a spell or figure out a riddle? Intelligence. Just like AD&D. There’s class and race features and the usual Hit Point, Armor Class, and save thrown mods — just like in AD&D. I blew threw the Player’s Handbook in record time, because it was so familiar, even after 30 years, I barely needed to read it. There’s some new player character races (at least for me, but these have been around in various incarnations for decades), and some variations on the usual classes, but it’s all boilerplate Dungeons & Dragons. Spells work pretty much the same. There’s an equipment guide. Essentially, everything you need to play is in this book.
On to the Dungeon Master’s Guide: this book is not needed if you aren’t running the game, but it give the DM a massive tool kit for how to run a game. From worldbuilding elements like gods, planes of existence, to the minutiae of building a town or dungeon for exploration or adventuring, the book is a grand example of doing one thing really well — creating a world, adventures, picking treasures and monsters, and other aspects of the world or the encounters for a D&D campaign.
The third important book for the D&D gamer is the Monster Manual. I was pleased to see all the old standbys: the gelatinous cube, the bugbear, dragons of every color, orcs, monsters borrowed from all across the mythologies of the planet. There’s something for everyone, and every level of game. Looking for a total party kill? They gotcha covered.
The big difference between these products and those from back when I played D&D — the books are bloody gorgeous! Well bound, each coming in at about 330 pages, and filled with glossy paper with full color art of top-notch quality (no talented amateurs and somebody’s pal doing art here…) The fonts are clear and large enough for me to read without issue. The charts are well laid out and clear in purpose. The layout of the material proceeds logically; it’s unlikely you will get lost looking for a rule here. The table of contents and indexing are good, as well. The three books are an example of superior workmanship.
So — on substance, it’s a 5 out of 5. Everything you need to play is here. If you are not running a game, or are an experienced DM, the DM’s Guide is probably not especially useful. Style — again, 5 out of 5: layout, fonts, artwork are all top-shelf. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, and that it made me somewhat interested in what I might do with a D&D campaign…something I hadn’t considered since 1984.
Is it worth it? Well, I got them for the price of a pint and a desert because a friend didn’t think he’d play 5th ed. again. At Amazon prices (about $30/book), it’s a definite YES, and at the normal $50-70 a book I’ve seen in stores, if you want to play D&D, a qualified yes. If you don’t know if you’re going to play, or don’t think you need the books because someone else in your group has them — go the Amazon route.