The Dungeons & Dragons PHB 5e: An Analysis of Message and Meaning

The following is a “lab report” from my ENGL 3340: Technologies of Text class at Northeastern University, discussing the message of the medium of, naturally, a role-playing source book. It originally appeared at as a blog post assignment on September 10th, 2014, and is being reposted here for posterity. I had not actually read through the PHB 5e at this point, and the following is based on a quick flip through the pages and examination of the cover art, so as to give my perceptions on the product as someone who may be picking up the book out of curiosity in a store.
Note: I am going to assume that the person picking this book up knows that it is a game reference and not a novel, simply because it would be found in a hobby gaming store, in the tabletop games section of a large bookstore, or in “Toys & Games” on Amazon or in other similar online stores.

The History

On January 10th, 2012, game company Wizards of the Coast announced that it was developing a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Following the 4th edition rules release in 2008 which caused quite a schism within the community, and and with many players switching from D&D to other systems like the Pathfinder RPG (Paizo Publishing, LLC), Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and more for their fantasy role-playing “fix”, Wizards of the Coast needed to make a statement: that D&D is here to stay, and is still the king of the business that it started back in the 1980’s. A lofty task indeed, as it is projected that Pathfinder sales had edged out D&D from that top spot years ago (though hard industry sales data is scarce and closely held).

While the Starter Set and Basic Rules were released in August 2014, most prior fans felt the edition wasn’t truly released until the first of the three classic, “Core” volumes was released in September 2014: the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, or as it is affectionately referred to, the PHB 5e. What follows is an analysis of the PHB 5e‘s bibliographic message, based on the front cover’s illustration and text, the physical quality of the item, and a brief glance at the visual content. These are elements that someone picking up this book in a store would be likely to notice and comment on, and thus it is through these elements that the product’s message must be immediately conveyed to ensure the customer’s parting with their $49.95.

PHB 5e CoverThe Cover

As the first face of the system that D&D players will likely see when they’re at their friendly local gaming store or bookstore, the PHB has an important, threefold job to do:

  1. Entice new players to pick it up off the shelf in a bookstore and start learning about tabletop role-playing games.
  2. Convince players of other editions that 5th Edition D&D is an exciting, positive addition to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise.
  3. Convince purchasers of this volume that they should also purchase other products for this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons

As a member of the role-playing community (both player and occasional designer of RPGs), I would argue that the first piece is far more important than the second or third (more on that at some other time; short version of the argument is that grognards are set in their ways, and if they already have a favorite edition, there’s no point trying to cater to them as a major market). Thus, the cover needs to convince a new player that D&D is an exciting hobby worth purchasing.

As mentioned before, this is not a cheap book. $49.95 is a high price to pay for a game experience (especially given that the “Core Rule Set” for a D&D edition is three books; the PHB, Monster Manual (MM), and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) are all recommended for a full play experience). Despite industry precedents of high prices for hardback RPG tomes, fifty dollars is quite sizable. The D&D PHB 4e would only set a buyer back $34.95, and while Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook is suggested at $49.99, you don’t have to buy three books at that price; only two (the Core Rulebook and the $39.99 Bestiary). This can prove to subtract from the message of Dungeons & Dragons as being an accessible game, especially for new players unfamiliar with the actual usage of this book.

As for the actual cover imagery, the book depicts a battle scene between a swordsman and spellcaster of some sort engaged in battle with an iconic D&D monster, a massive Giant (named “King Snurre”, according to an explanation on the Credits page). (The Starter Set got the dragon, in case you’re wondering why the core book of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have the titular scaled beast adorning it). The scene is far more dynamic than the previous edition’s cover, and prominently features the spellcaster actually engaging in an activity that adventurers in D&D participate in often: fighting monsters using magic. 4e’s PHB only featured two characters posed as if for battle, but didn’t have any indication of what they would actually be fighting or doing with their swords and spells on the cover. The dynamic illustration gives a strong message of players of the game taking daring feats such as leaping headlong into the path of a rampaging giant. It almost begs the question, “Which person interested in the fantasy genre wouldn’t find that cool?”

The subtext at the bottom of the front cover reaffirms the message being sent by Wizards of the Coast of D&D‘s important place in the industry with a bold claim: “Everything a player needs to create heroic characters for the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” As the game is nearing what I view as a do-or-die period in history, this short line of text can calm and remind players of their own positive experiences with the brand.

The cover serves to illustrate that D&D 5e, and more specifically the Player’s Handbook 5e allows one to, as the back states, “Arm yourself for adventure.” The tools a would-be tabletop game adventurer needs are implied to all be contained within the book’s pages, and the image shows that these adventures will be glorious, exciting, and worth playing– all important pieces of enticing a new player to buy the game, or convince an existing player to switch editions.

The Bottom of the PHB 5eThe Physical Quality

As a roleplaying game reference, this book is likely to see a lot of abuse. Many a book has succumbed to spilled soda or had its pages smeared with the cheese of a thousand crushed corn chips, and as one of the leading companies in the business of tabletop games, (between both their D&D franchise and the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering), Wizards of the Coast knows this reality well. This is reflected in the print quality of the Player’s Handbook 5e itself. Though some customers have noted flaws in this first print run of PHBs, my copy seems solidly constructed, with a sturdy, glued binding, strong corners, and a thick, tough cover. The hardback spine looks like it could stand up to years of opening and closing without issue– an important feature for a reference book. The pages of the PHB are a good weight with a slightly glossy feeling and no transparency, and the ink is distinct on the page. This high-quality print job, while not unexpected in a $50 book, suggests that Wizards of the Coast’s products are meant to be handled for a long time to come.

Found in the Fighter section

Found in the Fighter section

The Visual Content

Unlike most video games, tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons do not feature graphics to let players visualize the scenarios characters are in. Most of the game takes place in the “theater of the mind” as spurred by verbal descriptions of characters, settings, and conflicts. Thus, each player’s “vision” of what is happening in the game may be slightly different from the rest of their group around the table. Because of this reliance on the players’ imaginations, Wizards of the Coast put plenty of inspiring content into the PHB 5e. While the original Dungeons & Dragons featured black and white art, the art contained in the 5th edition book is full-color and, in my opinion, absolutely gorgeous.

Rather than take one set style throughout the book of what characters in a D&D game might look like, there are several styles of art featured, depicting characters (even ones of the same race/class combination) from a multitude of perspectives. The game tries more than any other edition I’ve seen to appeal to everyone who may be playing it, irregardless of gender, ethnicity, interests, and more. After a quick flip-through of the book, I’ve noticed several improvements that will help D&D 5e’s core book appeal to a wide audience, especially of new gamers.

The book also features many improvements over past editions that help it drive its message of being the best RPG on the market today home. While many of these may be seen as simply artistic choices or points of clarification of little consequence, in reality several offer a glimpse into the social and societal impacts of the game.


  • Each class of character (a class being the fundamental concept of what a character is, such as Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard) features several options of what a character of that class might look like. For example, rather than just featuring the smirk-and-a-dagger gnome Bard “Gimble” from the PHB 3.5 (pictured below), the PHB 5e features three varied members of the Bard class: a female elf minstrel with lute and flowing coat; a male halfling performer tightrope-walking from building to building above a bustling marketplace; and a human scoundrel with numerous piercings examining an inscription on a vine-covered wall in a lost ruin. This diversity serves not only to include more peoples’ imagined image of what a Bard can be, but also provide inspiration for character concepts among new and veteran players alike.
  • There are a wide variety of cultures represented, from the Persian-armored, dark skinned Fighter, to the Soldier archetype in the Backgrounds chapter clad in traditionally-styled samurai armor.
  • [Mostly] gone is the “bikini mail” armor of past source books’ female character examples. While the armor still is mostly stylized and far from realistic (bare midriffs are still a thing that crops up occasionally, sadly), women’s armor as depicted is now almost as functional-looking as that of the men. This is important to the inclusive message of D&D, as in the past, sexist views of female characters in fantasy had abounded (I don’t even want to think about Mialee’s armor in the PHB 3.5…), and set D&D apart as a “boys’ game,” despite the fact that many girls play as well. This levels the playing field between players of different genders who may be looking to get into the hobby, and are looking for exemplary images of what they want their characters to be.
  • The game is no longer as “whitewashed” as it had been in the past. The iconic Human in the Races chapter (race being used to describe different species of humanoids in D&D such as Elf, Human and Dwarf), is a female person of color, for example. This is HUGE for the gaming community, as in D&D 3.5, for instance, the only non-white character represented as “iconic” was Ember, the Human Monk (1/11). In 5th Edition, there’s at least three non-white characters in the Class section: the Fighter, Warlock, and Wizard are all clearly non-white. 3/12 is not bad for a start, especially when the traditional “Shining Knight” class (the Paladin) is played by a gray half-orc in this book.

I fully support diversity in the gaming community, and feel that it’s good Wizards of the Coast finally is supporting it as well through their artistic choices. When someone can look through a book and find a picture that closely resembles them, or even someone they know, they are more likely to feel a connection to the product, and more inclined to feel good about playing the game, in this case. These elements all help the D&D Player’s Handbook 5e succeed in spreading a message about inclusion, fun, and cooperation; after all, if a human, a dwarf and an elf can work together to save the world, so can we as gamers!

In Conclusion

Overall, the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook delivers a compelling message of the fun that awaits any who take the time to purchase and read through it. By displaying a dynamic and exciting first impression of the hobby on its cover, and then delivering images of diverse heroes that will be interesting to a wide audience early and often, it is likely to get players energized about Dungeons & Dragons, and to tell their friends about the book as well. Further, the book’s impressive quality and size assure that it will be a staple at role-players’ tables for years of gaming to come.


Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”
-Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 5e