I have no D&D/RPG experience at all (although I've read this site extensively) so I'm starting from scratch. I was planning on buying the PHB, the starter set, and extra dice. Including the Internet, are those books enough material to start playing with my friends, one of whom has the starter set? Or should I get the MM and the DMG?
The easy part: pencils, paper, a few sets of dice, yes. And you don't need to go much beyond that.
The starter set is designed for you.
The Starter Set Rulebook covers the basics of combat, adventuring, and spellcasting. There aren't character creation or customization chapters; all of the info that you'll use is contained on the starter set's character sheets themselves.
The adventure module, "The Lost Mine of Phandelver," has lots of good notes in there to you, the DM. It's explicitly written as a "learn to DM" adventure: it reminds you of relevant rules, points you to pages in the starter set rulebook for reference, and steps you through the different play "modes" you can expect to tackle.
I suggest you proceed with the starter set before even cracking open the PHB, and certainly before buying the MM or DMG.
The PHB has lots of wonderful material in it. Too much for a first-time DM or player to really wrap their head around. Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford knew every word in the PHB, DMG, and MM when they decided to create the Starter Set for you. Take advantage of their wisdom.
I'm currently coaching a first time (teen-aged) DM as he does this--using only LMoP and the Starter Set Rules--and the reduced decision-space is wonderful. In a room where people are still occasionally grabbing d12s for attack rolls it helps to trim down to the bare-bones.
And start generating your own wisdom.
Keep a pad handy when playing for jotting down questions, ideas, notes. Every time you feel like you're making something up on the spot, jot it down. Every time you think "that was cool or "that sucked" jot it down. Talk to your players later about this list. Ask for their thoughts. When a situation seems especially sticky see if we've already tackled it. Or ask a new question. Heck, even if you never go back to the pad, you'll be learning what you like and what you don't. That's wisdom.
Then why ever buy ___?
First off, there are the basic rules freely available from Wizards of the Coast. They'll make a great step up when you play your next adventure: your players will have more options for characters (still only 4 classes, but 20 levels; limited races and backgrounds), gear, and higher-level spells for your Clerics and Wizards. As a GM you'll have 50+ pp. of monster/NPC stats and a few pages each of design advice and magic items.
Next, the SRD is an interesting second step. It's a middle tier between the starter set and the core books, and it's free. So no reason not to look there and see how that helps you. It gives you much of the system material from the PHB and MM, dropping some chunks (almost all feats, some monster groups) and all of the artwork and flavor. There's not as much from the DMG, particularly in the cosmology and game design portions, but there's a good selection of magic items.
PHB: Many more options for characters (races, classes, levels, archetypes, feats, backgrounds, multiclassing...), equipment, and magic (spells for more levels, classes). More fleshed-out adventuring rules. Great artwork, flavor text, and an index that's occasionally helpful.
MM: 300+ pages of lore, stats, and well-crafted antagonists. And the artwork: I print off a color copy of a "players' reference" for each thing they're likely to encounter.
DMG: One half of it is magic items, one half an examination of the "default" D&D setting, one half customizing things: making new monsters, races, designing encounters, adventures, campaigns, and so on. In my mind it is the apex of D&D: it doesn't just instruct you on how to create adventures and campaigns within an existing game; it goes further and breaks down the game. It begs you to go beyond its pages and create your version of D&D.
If one of your friends has the Starter Set, that's all you need to get started, for the whole group.
A set of dice each would speed things up, and the PHB would give you more character options, but if you're not sure if D&D is the game for you, that's enough to start.
There are also some free rules PDFs available from WotC that provide you with some of the content from the PHB, DMG, and MM:
- Basic Rules - Apart from the core rules information, Parts 1–3 of this PDF give you the most iconic D&D classes and races, and a small selection of spells, and Part 4 gives you a small collection of monsters and magic items.
- SRD - All the races from the PHB (but only one subrace of each), and all the classes (but only one class option template for each), and a good selection of spells, monsters & magic items.
- Elemental Evil Player's Companion - All the spells referenced in the Elemental Evil adventure that weren't in the Basic rules, and a few new races.
- There are also supplements for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Rise of Tiamat that detail all the spells, monsters, and magic items referenced in those adventures that weren't in the Basic rules.
(I have created an index of all the above PDFs that you may find useful)
If you're not going to be the Dungeon Master, the Player's Handbook and some dice are all you need.
If you're going to be the Dungeon Master, the adventure in the starter set has everything you need for the first couple of sessions of play. The DMG and the MM are important to have after that, but you don't need them immediately.
- Basic Rules (PDF or printed out) or the Starter Set.
- Dice or some other randomizer. Minimally, one standard 6-sided die and one 20 sided or 10 sided die will do.
- Writing implements & media and/or digital text software and computer
Everything else is pretty much optional.
Elucidations and elaborations follow on the subjects...
The D&D Starter Set is a good starting point - it includes most of the basic rules, and has pregenerated characters (with more available online). (It is missing the character generation and encounter balancing rules, plus some monsters, but includes a good adventure to start you off.)
Likewise, the Player's Handbook includes a lot more options in character generation than do Parts 1–3 of the D&D Basic Rules, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual include a whole lot more magic items, monsters, and optional rules than Part 4 of the Basic Rules. Nothing essential, but a lot that's useful.
Many of us grognards have, at one point or another, faked a die we lacked. Lots of ways to replace dice.
The most common is to use 1d20 and 1d6 to generate the other die-rolls.
- d4: roll d20, 1-5=1, 6-10=2, 11-15=3, 16-20=4
- d8: d20 and d6 - D6 1-3=low, 4-6=high.
d20: 1-5=1 or 5, 6-10=2 or 6, 11-15 = 3 or 7, 16-20 = 4 or 8
- d10: 1d20 1-10 read as 1-10; 11-20 read as if 10 lower.
- d12: d6 & d20.
d20: 1-10: low, 11-20=high.
d6: 1=1 or 7, 2= 2 or 8, 3=3 or 9, 4=4 or 10, 5=5 or 11, 6= 6 or 12.
- d3: d6, 1-2=1, 3-4=2, 5-6=3
- d30: d20 as d10; d6 of 1-2 = as d10, 3-4 as d10+10, 5-6 as d10+20.
- alternate d8: as d10, but reroll 17-20.
- alternate d12: roll 1d20 - reroll 13-20.
- use a deck of cards... pull all the Kings. Joker always means reshuffle.
- d4: Clubs = 1, Diamonds = 2, hearts = 3, spades = 4
- d8: Clubs = 1 or 5, diamonds = 2 or 6, hearts = 3 or 7, spades = 4 or 8.
Card of rank 1-6 = low, 7-Q = high.
- d10: 1-10 = face value; JQ = reshuffle.
- d12: 1-10 = face value, J=11, Q=12.
- d20: 1-10 of Diamonds or Hearts = Face +10
1-10 of Clubs or Spades = face value
JQ of any suit - redraw.
Having the polyhedrals helps, but really is NOT needed.
Imagination is the single most important thing. If you can't bring the descriptions to life inside your head, as a DM, you won't be able to impart the situation to your players. But, if you're asking the question, odds are, lack of imagination isn't going to be real issue. (Too much might be, but that's a whole 'nother answer to a very different question.)
Fundamentally, one can do a lot of D&D activities solo, but the general consensus is that it takes at least one other person to actually be playing D&D. (Some have convincingly argued that 3 is the minimum, or 4, but that's sophistry. Play with one DM and one Player is quite different in some ways, but is still, as far as I care, playing D&D.)
One can have too many players, too... but where that line is drawn varies from person to person. For some, it's player #4, for others, it's player #27. And for some (like me) it varies by game. D&D I can cope with 7 but not 10+; 8-9 if the right group. I have run RPG's with up to 14 players myself; D&D isn't well suited for it in my opinion, but E. Gary Gygax often ran games with more than 15 players.
- 4+ colors of pens or colored pencils, or sharp crayons.
- Paper — blank and/or gridded — for drawing maps
- Paper — lined or blank — for taking notes
Note: I have nothing against digital information storage in general, but I have a strong distaste of it at the game table.
If going digital, you probably want a decent object-based graphics program, and a word processor, and strong familiarity with both. A virtual tabletop can be a great tool, even for a face to face group, but it can also be a distraction par excellence for others.
Grids can be square, triangular, or hexagonal - I have used all three at various times. Trigrid is used for 3D views. Square grid is traditional for battles, and traditionally either 1" or 1/2" = 5' on the table, and 1/4" or 1/5" = 5 foot for notes. Hexagons are traditional for overland maps, usually in 1/5", 1/4", 8mm, 12mm, or 16mm center-to-center/face-to-face for overland maps and/or GM's maps; When used as a battlemat, either 16mm or 1" hexagons, sometimes 1.25". For overland maps, the hexes range from 1 mile to 30 miles per hex; for battle maps, 5' or 10' per hex.
Ungridded battlemaps work fine, if you have some rulers handy... Or use them only symbolically.
Tokens of some kind are particularly useful if one uses battlemaps. 15mm and 25mm are the traditional scales, with 28mm to 30mm being more recent, and used interchangeably with 25mm figures.
Other token types in use include cardboard chits (called counters; often stolen from a character scale board wargame), spare dice, paper "miniatures" which stand up, 8mm, 10mm, or 12mm gaming cubes, 1/2" or 1" circular bits of metal or wood, glass beads (numbered or color noted), post-it notes, marks on a whiteboard, marks on a transparency or page protector with an overhead pen, coins, stickered coins or washers, spare buttons from the sewing room, chess/checkers pieces...
Not needed, per se, but often useful, even if not using gridded movement in combat.
It depends a bit on what type of story you want to tell. If you're going to tell a story in which playable races are the only adversaries they're going to meet then there is no need for the MM.
In my opinion, the DMG is a great book in and of itself. I would recommend the DMG to any DM even if they were not planing on running a D&D game, just because it is a good book about being a game master. During my games I only use the DMG to find loot.
So if you're looking at the absolute minimum you need, I would say the Player's Handbook and a few dice, but I highly recommend the DMG especially since you're new to it all.