Build With, Not Without, 5E's Books

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons books are phenomenal. Wizards of the Coast are focusing on quality, not quantity with this edition and it’s showing. The books are useful to all folk, from Players and Dungeon Masters to readers and worldbuilders. That last word, worldbuilders, is what we’ll be focusing on right now. I’ve recently experienced an epiphany: worldbuilders should build on D&D 5E’s books, instead of constantly, completely reinventing them. This might seem obvious or simple, but I’ve been dumb to the concept for quite awhile. Let me explain…

A Solid Foundation

I’ve started rereading the core rulebooks for 5E, starting with the Player’s Handbook, while building my world. As I was whizzing through the chapter on race, I realized how much work has gone into all of these creatures: what they look like, their cosmic histories, common characteristics, hooks for Players or Dungeon Masters, and much more. And while I love my D&D world being unique, if all of the races outlined in the Player’s Handbook are not recognizable in my own world, what’s the point of it? I realized that I want a new Player in my campaign to be able to pick up the Player’s Handbook, read through the race chapter, and pick a race they think sounds cool without it being completely dissimilar in my setting.

There’s so much there: dwarves live in clans, humans are ingenious and widespread, high elves are aloof and wood elves are xenophobic, halflings live in human lands and pursue simple desires...use it, don’t trash it! Unless you’re going for a one-of-a-kind setting like Dark Sun or Eberron that lays out all of the similarities and differences to a “regular” D&D world, use the Player’s Handbook and all the other 5E books as a solid foundation. Build with, not without, these great resources.

Of course, your world’s history will be different — that makes it your world. It might have different gods and places, villains and monsters, but it should stem from the great 5E books. In addition, all the races outlined in the Player’s Handbook can have their unique quirks in your setting, something I call flairs and twists.

Flairs and Twists

Your world is your own and while I think as worldbuilders we should use the D&D books as a basic foundation, we can add a variety of interesting aspects to our setting without hindering it. Here are some examples of flairs and twists in my world:
  1. Halflings originally lived in the jungle and migrated to a vast plain with their dinosaur mounts. They’re now nomadic herders. They’re like the halflings of the Talenta Plains of Eberron. Lightfoot halflings are those who left this life and traveled to human lands, while stout are the subrace who stayed true and continued to roam the peaceful steppe.
  2. While rare, tieflings and aasimar can be of any race, not just humans.
  3. Dragonborn can be bred from the spilled blood of an ancient dragon.
  4. Most mountain dwarves are hated as much as gray dwarves (duergar) for allying with the draconic Kothian Empire and betraying the other common races. When their dragon allies turned on them, they had nowhere to turn and almost died out.
  5. Wood elves don’t usually worship deities, but spirits of the wild instead.
  6. High elves dabble in psionics.
  7. Hill dwarves serve as protectors of the ruins of the last, great dwarf civilization.
  8. Barbarians are far more common across Eldar because the world is wild.
  9. Tabaxi, lizardfolk, aarakocra, and urson (bearfolk) descended from lycanthropes.
  10. Gnomes were responsible for most of the major breakthroughs in arcane magic, including the mastery of airships, the creation of the warforged, and the construction of multiple lightning rails. Can you tell I enjoyed Keith Baker’s Eberron setting?
Lots of these examples stay true to their description in the core rulebooks and just add an extra twist. Sometimes, that’s all you need to make something compelling! The books provides lots of room for us to do this.

Not a Problem

All this being said, this is, of course, my opinion. My advice doesn't need to be followed and it won't be by many. But this epiphany has helped me tremendously. I'm building a world for me and my players to create stories and go on adventures in; as are you. You can make it be anything you want, but not utilizing the built-out, amazing content in the 5E books is silly to me. From the earliest pages of the Player's Handbook to the chilling locales within Curse of Strahd, there are tons of things to steal or build on.

Read and Reference

It’s stunning how many folks haven’t read the core rulebooks — I urge you to do this, at least once. There are tons of ideas captured inside these pages for both Players and Dungeon Masters. I’m currently rereading all of the 5E books, starting with the Player’s Handbook and ending, probably, with Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus when it comes out. Personally, reading over the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide (if you’re a DM) once a year is must. They truly help your game and your worldbuilding.

Some of you might be asking: where do I find the time to do this? It’s true, life is busy nowadays, but there’s always a time to read. I think I’ve found a great tactic, too! Instead of scrolling through social media (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram) for a few minutes throughout the day everyday, pick up a D&D book! You can use the physical book or download a copy onto your phone or computer. There are no excuses! There’s time to read these fantastic references and guides, you just have to make it.

In Summary

Instead of completely remixing the content inside the D&D books for your world, build on it:
  1. Use the 5E books as a helpful guide for you and your players. Try not to make your world too different, but do so if you really want to! Just look at the success of Dark Sun, Planescape, and Spelljammer!
  2. Add some unexpected twists and turns to your races, classes, and monsters.
  3. Constantly reread and reference your books! They’ll give you tons of inspiration and content.
Thanks for reading. Check back next week for my next article. If you're interested, I wrote a brief rundown and speculation piece on WOTC's next adventure; check it out!

Until then, farewell!

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  1. i love these tips about reading the core rulebooks, since i have a friend that has been playing dnd for 3-4 years without picking up any of the books. he was always against them, and know after getting the dm's guide in a present, he has been brimming with ideas and plans
    now i can give him the players handbook without feeling pushy against not using the books.

    1. I'm glad! Everyone should, at the least, read the Player's Handbook cover to cover. It's great that your friend finally saw the light with your guidance.