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I've asked several questions about 4th Edition D&D because I may be able to start a game. However, I'd need to purchase (some) materials. I am aware of the 4 book set (core) and the expected Essentials Red Box.

So now I need to know: presumably buying either the 4 book set or essentials will be enough to get my game on. Would there be something 'lacking' though? Would I be missing character types, for instance, as I've seen that the splatbook strategy is still in effect?

I'm an experienced player and GM and plenty creative, so many holes I'd be able to fill in myself. I just don't want to get sucked into too much financial impact.

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12 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The basic three books -- Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual -- will give you what you need. You can get them as a gift set, usually discounted if you look online. If you're experienced with other editions, you'll notice the lack of barbarian, assassin, bard, and gnome options.

Be aware that there are a fair number of rules updates that affect these. You can find the full list here.

For the Essentials line here's the breakdown of what I think you'll want if you go in that direction: the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, as an optional tutorial; the Dungeon Master's Kit, which is the equivalent of the DMG; the Monster Vault; and one or both of Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, which give player options. The first three of those are boxed sets, and you'd wind up with three or four adventures, some dungeon terrain tiles, a ton of tokens to use instead of miniatures, and a DM screen; you're definitely spending more, though. You may also want the Rules Compendium -- it has some rules not covered by the DM's Kit, but is more of value to people who have the core books and don't want to look up errata to rules.

The advantage of Essentials is that it's an easier entrance point, particularly if you're familiar with an older edition. Also, it doesn't have a ton of errata.

If you buy either group of books and later want to use material from the other group, that should be possible without any fuss.

Finally, I'll agree that the DDI subscription is a good purchase. You get access to an online database containing every rules option from every source; you get a character builder, which also has all the options (Windows and Mac only); and you get daily articles.

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Would you get the Player Handbook on top of the DM Kit, Monster Vault, and the Hero's of the Forgotten Kingdoms? –  UnknownGnome May 4 at 18:38
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This being November, some things have changed a bit. Dust has settled, and the Essentials line is -AFAIK- recognized as being compatible with the core books. Amazon now has

  • The three Core books in a giftset for $66.12
  • The Essentials books (Dungeon Master Kit, Monster Vault, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, Rules Compendium) for $84.99.

Since the Essentials books are in some cases boxed sets, and include at least three adventures, tons of tokens, all the errata and changes, a DM Screen, and are -I've read- more comfortable to lug around, I'd say that it's damn good value for the extra 20 bucks. I'm very tempted to place the order. If only I could find other players...

EDIT I've read further, and you can knock back some of the cost of the Essentials series by considering that the two Heroes books overlap: they introduce different classes and races (both include humans), but the rules section in both books is identical, because they are supposed to be self-contained. So you only need one, unless you want to build races / classes from both.

EDIT EDIT The absolute minimum set of Essentials books you need is:

  • A Heroes of book
  • The DM Kit
  • The Monster Vault

Knocking down the price even further. The rest is just nice to have, of course.

Chalk another advantage to Essentials: The included modules mean extra added value. You do have to think up your campaign (not that it's bad, mind) or buy a module if you buy the core books. For newbie DMs, having a campaign ready to play is an interesting proposition.

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Good news! You have everything you need to get started. The new Red Box is self contained and can get your group up and running for several sessions at least.

The included adventure will get the characters up to 2nd level. In order to obtain higher levels you will need Heroes of the Fallen Land. This also contains the full rules that the player needs.

An experienced DM will need nothing further. However, a Dungeon Master's Kit would be most helpful to get the complete rules as long as 2 more adventures which will get the characters up to 4th level.

That's it, that is all you need to play for 2-3 months (assuming a game a week). Once you get through that, your group will probably have a good idea of what is needed next.

  • Heroes of the Forgotten Realms: More options for the players
  • Monster Vault: More options for the DM :) (Includes a continuation of the mini-campaign up to level 6)
  • One or more DDI subscriptions:
    • Makes character generation much easier and more likely to be correct
    • Frankly, I have a hard time imagining DMing without it. I remember that I used to, but I have no desire to go back to a time when I couldn't look anything up quickly :)

I don't think you need the 3 player's handbooks at all. You can get nearly everything out of DDI if you want more options for the players. The Dungeon Master's guides would be a good pickup for a less experienced DM, but there is going to be a lot of overlap with the Dungeon Master's Kit.

Before picking up those, I'd recommend investing in a few Dungeon Tile sets and perhaps some miniatures to supplement your counters.

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I've had a chance to actually look at all the Essentials products now, so I can give a better answer rather than just a guess, so I've edited accordingly.

Thanks to DDI going online only, it's no longer possible to subscribe for 1 month and download all the prior content for $10. That'd really keep things in around $10 for everything. As is you'd need to buy HeroLab with the Authoring Kit for $30, and pay another $10 on top for one month of DDI to get all the content. That puts you at $40.

If we're looking at Amazon prices it's a lot better, since you're talking $14 for the core books. You need just one of the Heroes books. Rules Compendium is nice to have, but isn't necessary as the important stuff is covered in the DM's Kit. The reverse is also true, although I consider the extra content in the DM's Kit (screen, tokens) to be of more value than the extra rules you probably won't use in the Compendium.

So you could look at $14 as a player for Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. As a DM you'd want Monster Vault and DM's Kit, which would come in at $46. If you want to go really cheap, Monster Vault and Rules Compendium would cost you $34, which is viable if you already have a lot of experience DMing and are just looking for affordable rules at the table.

It's also worth noting that the D&D Adventure Game Red Box, while completely unnecessary, is a great tool for complete newbies to the game to make a character without being overwhelmed. For them, having Heroes of the Fallen Lands would be much more useful than Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms.

The original 3 core books are also going for less than half price on the used market now, which could run you $30, without having to pay tax. That's of course YMMV, but you won't see anything like that for Essentials (yet).

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4E D&D has been constantly evolving as they continue to add new classes and abilities every couple of months. In effect, you will never have the "complete" game.

However, my suggestion is to get the core 3 books, Player's Handbook(1), Dungeon Master's Guide(1) and Monster Manual(1). Those three books will give you the basic rules needed to play. From there get the the D&D Insider subscription. The included Character Builder has all the rules currently in play for 4E D&D. This will allow your players to play with any class or ability that has been released for the game up to now, without the need to purchase further books (though you or your players can choose to do so later on). This will always ensure you stay current and as "complete" as possible with the rules.

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Since you already have the "Red Box"; at this point (February 2011) I would say these are "required" for a minimum style of game:

Dungeon Master's Kit (DM Stuff)

Heroes of the Fallen Land (Player Stuff with last errata)

Players Handbook 1 (Basic classes and race)

Monster Vault (Plenty of things to hit)

Rules Compendium would be good for general speed of access to a rule but you can get by without it.

These will give you what you need to start. With these the DDI subscription would be optional. Having it will give you plenty of dungeons and a lot of reading material for resources and character options.

Here is a similar question 4e Core Books outlay. This question was asked back in August 2010 and the available purchasable options have changed somewhat since then. Compare both and you should have a good idea of what you need.

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For me, I would recommend only these three things:

  • Red Box
  • Heros of the Fallen Lands
  • DM Kit

These are the barest minimum you need.

Honestly, I don't think you need the monster vault unless you are not a gamer on a budget. Then in that case, take that too.

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I'm a brand-new, inexperienced DM, and before I started, I hadn't played DM before EVER, so I knew NOTHING, but I was pretty keen on getting into the game. I found almost all I needed online. The DnD 4e Quick Start Rules are available from the Wizards of the Coast website, as well as the Keep on the Shadowfell scenario, which is the one I am currently using with my PCs. The Quick Start Rules aren't that great though, so I advise you look elsewhere for a rules overview, often you can find a great wrap-up on forums such as this, and I'm currently in the process of making a plain english rules compendium to put online. If you're interested in writing your own campaigns (as I am) I do advise you buy the 3 core rule books though. Hope I've helped! :D

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In addition to the quickstart rules and Keep on the Shadowfell, Wizards' "Learn to Play" page has the Khyber's Harvest adventure (as a ZIP archive, rather than a single PDF). –  Brian S Jan 3 at 15:01
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As Wizards takes books out of print, I feel like we need an answer here that gives updated information on how to get started with 4e and where to go to get those resources. Some products are still readily available from online retailers like Amazon. But mostly, those are starting to dry up and in the coming years we will see mostly digital distribution for 4e rules and content.

First and foremost, if you are not ready to spend any money, Wizards is now providing quick start 4e rules and Keep on the Shadowfell as a free adventure via Drivethru. I've played through Keep and while it's not the best adventure ever, it is designed to show off D&D quite well. This was the first adventure published for 4e and it stands as somewhat iconic to the game. It's been updated a bit since first publication to reflect the rules changes, but there are additional fixes to it discussed here that do improve it.

With the Redbox supplies dried up and no hope of a reprint with 5e coming out this summer, the best bet for getting started is probably this particular package. If you like the game and are interested in continuing, investing in the books would be the next step. Choose your line, I expect the balance of the publications to be offered digitally as stocks run out at retailers. All of Wizards' 4e digital publication offerings can be found here.

As far as what set of books make a complete game, we still have the same two options:

The original line:

  • Players Handbook
  • Dungeon Master's Guide
  • Monster Manual

The first book in each of these series are still available at the time of this answer, I will update if they become unavailable for a long period of time. MM 2 and 3 are available online through drivethru, and I expect the balance of the library will become so as stock runs out.

OR the Essentials line:

  • Heroes of The Fallen Lands/Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Dungeon Master's Kit
  • Rules Compendium
  • Monster Vault

Both the first and second players books are still available on Amazon right now, as are the Monster Vaults. However, the RC and DMK are both hard to find and available via Drivethru.

Any answer here would be incomplete without mentioning Wizards' in house digital tools. This is a great investment if you decide to play 4e regularly. They have a character builder, voluminous compendium, and numerous free adventures, player advice and other articles of interest to D&D players distributed exclusively to subscribers. It does cost money, but the time effort that the character and monster builders will save you (in addition to the cost of books saved by the compendium) does have a significant value (I feel like I've gotten my money's worth). More information about DDI here.

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There will always be something lacking :)

The core three books will get you going. How D&D4 works, basic classes, fight construction, monster planning, lock, stock, +1 shotgun of double barrel.

After that, you might want to start a Bard or a barbarian, so you'll need PHB2. Some rules for familiars (Arcane Power), a few more types of monsters, some more in depth source material. It's in Wizards' interest for you to buy more books, after all.

What you might want to look at or trial is the D&D Insider web account. Non free, but gives you access to the desktop application Character Builder (with every skill ever, updated with the latest in "We've rewritten Magic Missile again" errata) and all the stuff they put in the books and magazines.

But with the basic set you can get a basic campaign running, see if it works before you start investing in a new bookshelf.

I haven't used Essentials yet - obviously - but it seems to be a step below that, a streamlined variation on D&D4 with an emphasis on fast combat and lower barrier to entry, so if you're not sure about D&D at all it might be a good place to start (I'm kind of reminded of the old DragonQuest board game that was my first introduction to D&D, which was D&D2 theory streamlined into boardgame mechanics. That worked quite well).

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Needed

  • Dungeon Master's Guide [Dungeon Master Only]
  • Player's Handbook [Everyone]
  • Monster Manual I [Dungeon Master]
  • Miniatures
  • Board

Optional

  • Dungeon Master's Guide II [Dungeon Master Only]
  • Player's Handbook II [Everyone]
  • Monster Manuals II through the latest, and/or Monster Vault [Dungeon Master Only]
  • any adventure books [Dungeon Master Only]
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I know that you asked for books, but if you sign up as D&D Insider, you'll get access to the online compendium, the character builder and a monster tool. The Compendium is everything you might need.

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The compendium is an excellent source of content, but a DDI subscription on its own does not make a complete game: a lot of fundamental advice, instruction and basic lore cannot be found in it, and the basic rules are spread out. –  Jonathan Hobbs Jan 3 at 5:14
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