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I have been GMing Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. for some time and now want to try something different. I would like to go with D&D 5.0 since it will be available in my native tongue in a few weeks - the DM Guide is coming in few weeks, the Monster Manual and Starter Set are already translated and easily purchasable.

I wonder if I should buy the Dungeon Master's Guide or should I start with Starter Set? I don't mind waiting for the book to be available so it's not an issue of any sort. I suppose the Starter is easier to swallow, but what is your experience?

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    \$\begingroup\$ To the POB close voters. This is not opinion based, there are very distinct and clear advantages and disadvantages to each option and users experienced in both can make recommendations based on that experience and knowledge of the system as evidenced by the answers below. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Nov 21 '19 at 11:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was in a similar situation not so long ago, a new DM to 5e. I decided to go for the Starter Set at first to dip my toes. I didn't run LMoP at first, I came up with a simple "tutorial" dungeon using the prefabs. Then I went for the PHB: more than just for me, it was useful to teach my new players how to make their characters once they grew out of the prefabs in the Starter Set and wanted more personalized play. I then got the MM for myself so I could spruce up the monster encounters from the Starter Set. I've had few problems without the DMG (and the help of this Stack!) \$\endgroup\$ – Eriol Nov 22 '19 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso It would only be a shopping question if it were asking "which book should I buy first" with no books listed. A comparison between two products for a new DM should be on topic. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Nov 27 '19 at 3:34
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It depends on what you're looking for

You're comparing two entirely different products.

Starter Set: I have no idea what D&D is and want to DM

The Starter Set has everything you need to start playing. It has a bunch of pre-made characters, it has enough of the rules to get going and it has a short campaign to play through. If you simply want to get started with D&D and have some friends who want to play, this is the easiest way to get going.

Dungeon Master's Guide: I know how to play D&D and want to make my own campaign

The Dungeon Master's Guide is just that, the Dungeon Master's Guide. It has no rules for players (those are in the Player's Handbook, almost all basic rules are in there, including character creation, how skills work, how you attack, how spellcasting works, etc.), there are no monsters (those are in the Monster Manual), it only has a lot of rules and advice on creating your own campaigns. It'll do little to teach you how to play the game. I mostly tend to open it to look up magic items or to look for variant rules to try out.

My recommendation:

As somebody who has DMed a lot of D&D, I can safely say that the Dungeon Master's Guide is a great resource, but not for somebody who has no idea what D&D is, at least not by itself, because it'll do nothing to teach you the game. However, if you're already familiar with D&D and want to make your own campaigns, the Dungeon Master's Guide is the better choice of the two, as the Starter Set does not explain how you can balance encounters or what variant rules are solid choices, it just explains the bare details.

In your case, it sounds like you don't even have the Player's Handbook, so the Dungeon Master's Guide would be a terrible first purchase. Go for the Starter Set and play it with some friends to learn the game first, or start by buying the Player's Handbook and playing as a player in some games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 but I'd add that since you're already familiar with how pen&paper RPGs work in general, you don't really need the starter set. Just get the Players Handbook and start playing/DMing - that's how we got started on D&D 5e. We did eventually buy the other books, first the Monster Manual to get more interesting monsters, then the DMG for magic items, variant rules, etc and later other books. But for a low level adventure, the Players Handbook is all you need. \$\endgroup\$ – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Nov 21 '19 at 20:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sumyrda-ReinstateMonica While that is true, the starter set does package it in a far easier package. I've personally gone from 3.5 to 5 and never bothered using the starter package to learn the game, but I have used it to teach other people the game, and I've noticed that a lot of players who want to try out D&D like having a few characters to pick from and simple enjoying the game, not having to worry about character creation and the like for their first game. Likewise, it's easier for a starting DM who has no idea how strong everything is yet. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Nov 22 '19 at 7:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Only reason I didn't go into more details about the player handbook is because it was never part of the question. It was dungeon master's guide vs starter set. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Nov 22 '19 at 7:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Theik do you think that a module might be a better option than both of them? If so, I think that would improve your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Nov 22 '19 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like In your case, it sounds like you don't even have the Player's Handbook, so the Dungeon Master's Guide would be a terrible first purchase. should be the big bold part. Not It Depends. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Nov 22 '19 at 20:52
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The DMG is the least useful of the core books

First, welcome to 5th edition D&D, the learning curve isn't too steep for this system and you should be able to pick it up fairly easily. Before I get to the main part of the answer there is something I would like to clear up.

Unlike other systems which publisher all the important rules in a single Core Rulebook or similarly named tome, D&D chooses to split its rules across the three main rulebooks. The Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) and the Monster Manual (MM). In an ideal world a DM would have access to all three of these but some are more important than others.

First, you need the Player's Handbook. This book contains all of the core playable races, character classes, spells, feats and equipment. Without this book your players won't be able to make characters or look up their abilities. At my table it is by far the most used book of the three.

Second, I suggest getting the Monster's Manual. This may be contentious but I (and my friends that DM) find the MM more useful than the DMG. The MM contains the stats for all the creatures and enemies your party will encounter throughout the campaign. With just this book a good DM can run entire campaigns with very little preparation.

Finally, there is the Dungeon Master's Guide. The DMG is the book for all the other stuff. Rules, guidelines and DM specific advice that the players don't need to see. It has world and campaign building advice and bunch of extra rules and advice that you don't really need for running the basic game, but come in handy later. Personally I very rarely use the DMG at my table and only occasionally reference in between sessions. I firmly believe you can get by without owning it at all.

There is also the Basic Rules contain a reduced version of the three main books and can also be a good starting point. It contains just enough that you can decide if D&D 5e is the game for you, but not so much that you don't need to buy the books anyway.

What is the Starter Set?

The starter set contains:

  • 64-page adventure book with everything the Dungeon Master needs to get started
  • 32-page rulebook for playing characters level 1–5
  • Pre-generated characters, with character sheet
  • 6 dice

These are the absolute basics and everything you need to get started playing D&D 5th edition. See Difference between DnD 5e Starter Set and Basic Rules for more information.

So which should you get?

You seem to be deciding between the DMG and the Starter Set but didn't mention having access to the PHB. In my opinion it is more important to get the PHB and MM than the DMG. Since the Starter Set contains basic versions of all three, this is probably a good choice, particularly if you don't own the correct dice.

If you combine the Starter Set with the Basic Rules you should be able to play for a while without major issues. When you start wanting more options, first look into getting a copy of the PHB, then MM and finally the DMG and/or other expansion books.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As someone who has piggy-backed off of the D&D Beyond shares of a DM who has everything to help run a campaign of my own, I can vouch that when I have to look something up, I'm not sure that I've ever hit the DMG. All the rules you need are really in the Player's Guide, non-standard classes are in their expansion books, and if you're running a canned adventure like Dragon Heist, the relevant monster stats are reprinted in the adventure book. \$\endgroup\$ – T.E.D. Nov 22 '19 at 14:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I find the DMG not only less useful than the Monster Manual, but less useful while actually DMing than Xanathar's or Volo's. It's not that I don't like the DMG, it's just that if you don't have a play style that uses lots of random tales, are okay having your own house rules rather than their recommended optional rules, and come up with your own magical items, there is really no need for it. Good to have but rarely used. \$\endgroup\$ – Benjamin Olson Nov 22 '19 at 23:43
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Start with the free Basic Rules

The basic rules are available freely online. Start with them. They are laid out extremely well, and websites are far more convenient to navigate than books. You can search, use hyperlinks, copy and paste text, easily share content with others, there are a lot of advantages.

They are also available as a pdf here.

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Given you are already experienced roleplayers, the Starter set may not quite be what you want. However, it does come with an extensive adventure, pre-generated characters, some rules and dice. If you want to very quickly sit down and start playing - say within a day or two of getting it - it will let you do that.

Note that there's also the Essentials Kit, another boxed starter-style set, which may possibly be a better choice if you do want something along those lines. It's also set in the same area of the default setting as the Starter set, indeed even based around the same town, allowing you to combine the two boxed sets if you're so inclined. (It may not have been translated, however, not yet, anyway.)

If you want to make your own campaigns, the DM's Guide is definitely important, but the most essential of three core books is the Players Handbook. Ideally you'd have all three core books as a DM.

If money is an issue, meaning you can only afford to buy one book or one boxed set right now, note that both the Basic Rules and the System reference document can be printed or copied for personal use (it says so on every page of their pdfs) and their pdfs can be downloaded from the above links to Wizards' website. While they have a fair bit of overlap, each has some material the other doesn't. If you go this route, read the Basic Rules first; add material in from the SRD once you have a handle on the Basic Rules. Most of their content is from the Players Handbook or the Monster Manual, but there are some parts of the DMs Guide as well. I don't know which languages these may have been translated to.

You can play for some time with those resources, but you'll still probably want the Players Handbook quite soon.

There's some debate over which book is best to have next, but many DMs would say the Monster Manual is the next most critical book for a DM to have.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ MM perhaps depends on what campaign you are running? For Dragon Heist, I found they put the stat blocks for all the monsters in the appendices of the adventure, so I really didn't need the MM at all. \$\endgroup\$ – T.E.D. Nov 22 '19 at 14:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're running a (sufficiently) pre-prepared adventure then naturally you may not need the Monster Manual. But by the same token you shouldn't really need the DMG. \$\endgroup\$ – Glen_b Nov 23 '19 at 0:17
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The Starter Set is really aimed at people who are entirely new to tabletop role playing games. Since you are not, I think you will be better off skipping it and going directly to the full game.

The full rules obviously contain more to digest, but they're also well-written and designed for people learning how to play. And, the Starter Set isn't really a building block in the sense that it's something you'd keep using — it's basically meant to be replaced. So you save money by not getting it.

Be aware, though, that you need more than just the DMG. The Player's Handbook is really where you should start even as a DM, because that's where most of the fundamental rules are. (It's not just player options.) And while less strictly necessary, the Monster Manual is part of the core rules too.

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