This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.
In each installment of “Using the Books”, we will be discussing the chapters subhead-by-subhead, topic-by-topic of a selected official 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons hardcover book.
A word of warning: these will be covered in a pretty deep, analytical way that some may find pedantic. Others may find that I focus in on the wrong content, or that the content that’s covered is obvious. That’s to be expected. I’d ask that if you dislike the way I’m covering the books, please let me know by commenting and letting me know how can improve—after all, this writing means nothing if I’m not providing some sort of benefit.
I will specifically be looking at how the book is written from the words that are given on their pages. I will not be looking at the books in a RAI (rules as interpreted) fashion, despite it being my personal way of using them. I find that by looking at the books and explaining them RAW (rules as written) is more helpful in that those who also use RAW will find a deeper understanding in this series and those who use RAI will likely have interpreted their own version of the rules anyway, so any prattling on my part would be ignored.
I may lightly cover RPG and general game design theory in an effort to explain a particular mechanic, so bear with me when those situations arise.
Note: I’m going to be using both the 8th printing of the physical Player’s Handbook alongside the digital version of the PHB on DNDBeyond.
You may be surprised to learn that the word “hero” or “heroes” shows up exactly zero times in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook.
Despite the insistence by many that 5th Edition is a heroic game, there is no written example in the introduction (we’ll keep track as we go through the book) that calls the player characters this.
They do, however, say the following:
In the Dungeons & Dragons game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends). Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city, a haunted castle, a lost temple deep in a jungle, or a lava-filled cavern beneath a mysterious mountain. The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure.
The difference between adventure and hero may seem minimal, but this distinction is important to describe the kind of gameplay that the writers are attempting to enforce. You aren’t a champion, you’re a scrappy wanderer—one who gets into trouble and finds gold to spend in towns.
In fact, the introduction explains—before it tells you what the core mechanic of the game even is, or how to make a character, or how to even use the dice—that you might die. And then it’s up to the players and you to determine whether they bring you back or you roll up another character.
Depending on who you are and how you’ve played, this may be shockingly different than how your games go. It may be totally different than how you’ve imagined the game, by definition, should go.
A roleplaying game, by its very nature, should have a clear and understandable intention with its tone and genre. I don’t mean whether a game is horror or action or romance, but whether the mechanics of the game help propel the designer’s visions at millions of tables. This is why language matters, even when describing a character and what they’re doing within the confines of the game.
Worlds of Adventure
It is explicitly mentioned in the beginning of the book that:
The many worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game are places of magic and monsters, of brave warriors and spectacular adventures. They begin with a foundation of medieval fantasy and then add the creatures, places, and magic that make these worlds unique.
While this is contradicted in later chapters (in later sections of this very intro, even), it sets a sort of precedent for all future features. The items, races, magic, and equipment that are presented in the book are included due to this assumption that you’re working with a medieval foundation—something that harkens back to the original Chainmail rules and Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor.
Additionally, the description of the multiverse is here—DND’s way of connecting all the varied settings that have been introduced over the past 40 years. This is a helpful inclusion at the beginning of the book, as it allows for characters and locations from other settings to be added and removed at the whim of those at the table.
Skipping over the “Using This Book” section, we arrive at …
How to Play
Here we learn the adjudication loop of DND (as well as most other TTRPGs):
1. The DM describes the environment.
As explained in the PHB:
The DM tells the players where their adventurers are and what’s around them, presenting the basic scope of options that present themselves (how many doors lead out of a room, what’s on a table, who’s in the tavern, and so on).
It is important to note that, even in the official text, the DM is to provide a “basic scope of options that present themselves” to the players. The idea being that, if given enough options, the player’s feel as though they have a number of choices so as not to feel as though they’re simply following along on a track.
2. The players describe what they want to do.
Interestingly, the PHB gives an example of what used to be the “caller” in older editions of DND. Essentially, the caller was a player with the role of speaking on behalf of the party to the DM. They don’t explicitly call it that in the 5th Edition of the game, but they do call back to it in this way at the beginning of the paragraph which I found interesting.
One specific section that I want to highlight is as follows:
Sometimes, resolving a task is easy. If an adventurer wants to walk across a room and open a door, the DM might just say that the door opens and describe what lies beyond. But the door might be locked, the floor might hide a deadly trap, or some other circumstance might make it challenging for an adventurer to complete a task. In those cases, the DM decides what happens, often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action.
I’ve bolded that particular section because it doesn’t specifically say who is rolling the die. Certain situations may call for the DM to roll behind the screen to determine action resolution, or multiple players to roll multiple dice to hit a certain threshold.
3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.
This step cycles back into step 1, as outlined fully in the PHB, creating the core mechanic loop of the game.
One thing specifically to note regarding the third step in the loop is that the “basic scope of options” outlined in the first step should be changing based on the game dice or results of the actions in the second step. The third step is informed by the results and, therefore, should create new situations that did not exist before those results were determined.
The book explains the nomenclature of the dice in the game (d# representing some number-of-sided die). I do find it interesting that the game specifically goes into detail on how to roll percentile dice, d3, and d2. Percentile, understandably, should be explained prior to having someone roll it because it requires two dice rolls.
However, in rolling a d3, it is stated to roll a d6 and divide by 2 (rounding up). It’s that rounding up that is strange, given that in a few sections we’re going to be told explicitly that when dividing a number in the game you’re supposed to round down if it would result in a fraction. This difference, in my opinion, is one of many that confuse a decent amount of players—to the point where I feel that simply specifying that 1–2 is a 1, 3–4 is a 2, and 5–6 is a 3 would be preferred over the rounding.
Similarly, the d2 is handled in a way that feels as though it could be simplified further. Flipping a coin effectively performs the same thing as a d2, after applying the 1 and the 2 to one side respectively.
The d20 is given its own section, as it is the main die that is being rolled in gameplay. We get a brief explanation of how to roll the die in relation to the abilities on a given character sheet, specifically how to make ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls.
Two specific notes here:
- This section reiterates that when making rolls related to ability, you are making ability checks—not skill checks. While on the surface these seem like the same thing, it is specifically worded this way to allow for skills to be applied to the abilities they do not necessarily fall under—for example, a Strength (Intimidation) check. I feel as though this section is one of the most overlooked in the PHB, to the point where some players and DMs think that you can only make skill checks (which are not a thing, according to the PHB) using skills associated with their respective abilities.
- Roll results are intended, as per the game rules, to be binary. They are either a success or a failure—no in-between. As mentioned in the PHB:
If the total equals or exceeds the target number, the ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is a success. Otherwise, it’s a failure.
Skipping over Advantage and Disadvantage, which is explained more in Chapter 7, we learn one of the core assumptions the game wants you to make when provided with new information or mechanics: the idea of specific beats general.
In it, we are told that any specific rule supersedes any general rule. If a rule tells you your speed is 35, despite your speed normally being 30, the specific rule wins out. In most cases, as described in the book, magic is the common cause to any exception to these rules.
The book describes adventures as follows:
The adventure is the heart of the game, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. An adventure might be created by the Dungeon Master or purchased off the shelf, tweaked and modified to suit the DM’s needs and desires. In either case, an adventure features a fantastic setting, whether it’s an underground dungeon, a crumbling castle, a stretch of wilderness, or a bustling city. It features a rich cast of characters: the adventurers created and played by the other players at the table, as well as nonplayer characters (NPCs). Those characters might be patrons, allies, enemies, hirelings, or just background extras in an adventure. Often, one of the NPCs is a villain whose agenda drives much of an adventure’s action.
I’ve bolded those three areas to reinforce that the PHB is explaining that these are required for an adventure to be an adventure. One thing that many DMs get hung up on is creating a plot—something I’ve mentioned before in other blog posts:
Note, however, that the PHB doesn’t tell you to write a plot. It tells the DM to present something to the players. And while pre-written modules are completely closed if read as written, there is nothing explicitly in the text that says you must have the entire story written before playing.
This is a core issue with how a lot of DMs approach storytelling and adventures in their games. They tend to write a lot ahead of time, then get flustered when the players either go off-track or don’t follow the script.
But, if we apply the rule that specific beats general, what we have is a vague idea of what an adventure can be along with the vague instruction that it must be a story with a beginning, middle, and end—which is immediately superseded by the rule that the DM must provide the players with a scope of options for them to pursue.
The idea, then, is that the story is the entirety of the adventure when finished. Meaning a DM does not (and should not) have the entire story mapped out before their players—otherwise, how are the players able to make their own decisions regarding the scope of options? And if we are to keep those decisions meaningful, the DM must be prepared to allow the adventure to go off-track.
One thing I will say is that a DM requires foresight, or being able to look ahead of what the players are doing and saying to reach the adjudication required after their actions are declared. This, in my opinion, is the story. What is told after the players have made their actions and their decisions have been set into stone. It is not something prepared beforehand, rather, it is being written at the table in real-time.
Of course, a DM would want to have a general plan of what is going to happen in a given session, which are the fantastic locations and rich cast of characters they make ahead of time. However, these things don’t need to be placed statically—they can be dynamic in that they appear or disappear based on the party’s actions in any given moment. They are not scripted, rather, they are prepared on the side just in case they should appear.
The Three Pillars of Adventure
Aside from the adjudication and action resolution mechanics, the final core “mechanic” of DND pertains to the the three pillars of adventure: exploration, social interaction, and combat.
Social interaction and combat are relatively straightforward—one describes the talking and roleplay that happens between the members of the party and the characters in the adventure, while the other is rigidly defined in its own chapter later on in the book.
By far the most confusing pillar for most DMs and players is the exploration pillar. The PHB reads for exploration:
Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.
This is a section where I feel the book does an injustice by calling the pillar the “give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result”. This is, essentially, the adjudication loop as described above and I don’t think anyone should be faulted for reading it as such.
The second paragraph helps illuminate somewhat what the designers were intending, specifically that exploration applies to wilderness and dungeon situations. While this is technically correct, the lack of clear explanation to what is actually supposed to happen at the table is reason enough to understand why so many people have issues with this pillar.
We’ll discuss the exploration pillar in greater detail in Chapter 8 of the series, in which we will hopefully get a better idea of how it actually works at the table and why its necessary.
The Wonders of Magic
Interestingly in this section we are told, rather explicitly:
In the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, practitioners of magic are rare, set apart from the masses of people by their extraordinary talent. Common folk might see evidence of magic on a regular basis, but it’s usually minor — a fantastic monster, a visibly answered prayer, a wizard walking through the streets with an animated shield guardian as a bodyguard.
This assumption seems to go against higher-magic settings like Eberron, where virtually everything is suffused with some sort of magical energy. I can’t help feel as though this also gives DMs (and players!) an uphill battle in how to explain why a player character can cast magic.
It also sets a strange precedent in game where the characters are, starting at level 1, already strange and set apart from the common folk. This seems to go against the idea that the player characters are adventurers, not heroes. After all, how else would you describe people going into dangerous places to fight dangerous powers with somewhat rare magic other than heroic?
While it makes sense to have magic not be immediately accessible to everyone in the world, it does seem a strange practice to immediately call it rare—considering everyone in the party is going to see magic all the time.
Alright, that’s the Introduction of the Player’s Handbook! Next article, we’re going to be analyzing Chapter 1: Step-By-Step Characters.
I’m thinking that after we talk about the Player’s Handbook—something I don’t expect to be finished with until at least November—we’ll be walking through the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Then, whenever that is finished, we’ll work through Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Before we run, however, we must first learn to walk. See you next time!