So during my holiday I ran into a person that was interested in 4E, but was put off by the number of books available. I can totally understand. If you browse the available books there is a ton of material from WotC, and it looks like things will keep being released well through 2010, some being relatively core-related (like MM3 and PHB3). There is a lot out there, so if folks were on a budget and interested in taking the plunge into 4E, where would they start?
Core essential buys – No surprise saying the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual would be a solid first buy. Along with some dice you have just about everything you need to play. I’d even consider fudging the whole battle map and just run a game with token minis on a table.
Solid buys – I’d add the PHB2 to the list on the next book to buy. I think with those 4 books, players have a ton of options to make up characters. I feel the PHB is a little limited in choices and sorely needed a few more races and classes to choose from (something I can agree with 4E naysayers).
The Adventurer’s Vault is another book I’d consider picking up. In those pages are more equipment, rules on vehicles and mounts, and tons of new magic items. It also provides rules for alchemical items. I think potions and such were something sorely missing in the core rules. AV has a lot of options for a DM, and also can serve as plenty of examples if a DM wanted to home-brew an item (much more so that the limited selection in the PHB).
Good things to pick up later – Monster Manual 2 is something I’d look into buying next. It’s great to have more bad guys at the DM’s fingertips. I think between those 2 books, a DM can have a lot of material on hand to craft up some fun dungeons. Not necessary, but a good buy.
I’d add the DMG2 to that list also. Again, it’s not necessary, but there is a lot of good information in the book that just about every DM can gleam something from. I’d consider this a low priority buy, but worthwhile if the cash was available.
I’d put AV2 also in this stack. Again, the second Adventurer’s Vault is just a reference for more magic items. I think if you had a group of players helming characters from PHB2, they might appreciate some of the new magic items in this book. By all means I think this is a very optional buy, but a good one to pick up sometime.
Stuff not to bother with – Everything else. Yup, I think just about all the other books are optional or so campaign specific, there is no real need to pick up any of them. I can see the power source books (Martial Power, Divine Power, Arcane Power, etc.) as fair buys if you had players totally bored with the options in the PBH(s). Everything else I see as fluff material or campaign specific books.
Granted if you really enjoyed Eberron, you’d likely want to pick up the books. But if your group is not running that campaign there is no real sense in buying them. The same could be said for the Manual of the Planes. I think Open Grave and the Dragonomicon are also very campaign specific. Yeah, it might be useful to buy if your campaign was dealing heavily in these topics, but for the most part I would not bother.
So those are my choices. Four to five books I think could hold you over for your entire D&D career. Maybe you’d want to pick up 1 or 2 more. And if you really wanted to jump into a campaign setting, possibly 1-2 additional books. I think trying out 4E is a lot less daunting than what is currently available. I’d be interested to see what else folks would consider necessary buys (or things to drop all together).