Adventurers League 101: The "PHB +1" rule

: Dungeons & Dragons

The Adventurers League is the official organized play program for Dungeons & Dragons. The official Adventurers League group on Facebook has over 22,000 members, who ask questions about and share tips for League play. A separate Facebook group, the Dungeon Masters League, is devoted to discussion of running League games.

One aspect of Adventurers League play that confuses new and experienced players the most is character creation—in particular, the "PHB +1" rule. This article aims to provide an all-in-one resource explaining the rule and how it applies to creating Adventurers League-legal characters. It's not intended to be a defense of or justification for the PHB +1 rule, though I personally approve of the rule for League play.

Information about the PHB +1 rule comes from the Adventurers League Player's Guide (ALPG) and the Adventurers League FAQ. At the time of writing, the current ALPG is version 7.0 and the current FAQ is version 7.1; references in this article refer to those versions unless otherwise noted. Both documents are available in the Adventurers League Player's Pack, which is a free download from the Dungeon Master's Guild website.

Before the PHB +1 rule: Story origins

For the first three seasons of League play, characters had a story origin based on the storyline season. The story origin set limits on which sourcebooks were allowed for character creation and advancement; starting with the second season, Elemental Evil, you could choose which story origin you wanted to use when creating a character.

The Tyranny of Dragons story origin allowed you to choose options from the PHB and Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which offered two background features meant to tie characters into the storyline. The Elemental Evil story origin added the Elemental Evil Player's Companion (EEPC), a free PDF that that provided more character options. The EEPC also introduced the first character race that is restricted in League games: the Aarakocra was restricted because it grants a fly speed at level 1; the League decided that low-level adventures would suffer if characters could fly at will.

The Rage of Demons story origin removed the EEPC from the list of allowed sourcebooks and added Appendix A of Out of the Abyss, which had some new optional background features. The EEPC was intended to complement the previous season's storyline, but the removal frustrated some who wanted to be able to use the EEPC in addition to the new background options.

The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (SCAG) was released during the Rage of Demons season and added new character options. The League issued an addendum to the ALPG that retroactively added the SCAG to existing story origins. The addendum also restricted the variant "winged Tiefling" option, for the same reasons the Aarakocra was restricted. Players of existing characters could rebuild their existing characters once, regardless of level, to give them the opportunity to try the new options presented in the SCAG. (Rebuilding characters is discussed later.)

The Curse of Strahd story origin removed Out of the Abyss from the list of approved sources and added Appendix A of the Curse of Strahd hardcover, which included a complete background: the Haunted One. By this point, players and DMs alike were getting confused. Why can my new character use the SCAG but not the EEPC? Why do I have to give up the EEPC as an option for spells just so I can use the new Haunted One background? Why can I choose a "story origin" from older seasons at all?

The PHB +1 rule

With the start of the Storm King's Thunder story season, version 5 of Adventurers League Player's Guide did away with story origins and replaced them with a new rule. From page 2 of version 5 of the ALPG:

In addition to the Player's Handbook however, you may also choose to use one other resource from those listed below to build your character. If you do so, please indicate your chosen additional resource on the first 'Notes' entry of your character's logsheet. As new player resources become available, they will be added to this list.

  • Elemental Evil Player's Companion
  • Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide
  • Volo's Guide to Monsters

Volo's Guide to Monsters (VGM) was added to the ALPG before it was released. The League released an additional reference guide, also available in the AL Player's Pack, that restricts the races in VGM to specific factions. The Tomb of Annihilation season added Xanathar's Guide to Everything (XGE) and the "Tortle package" to the list of approved sources, with the note that the Tortle package is considered part of XGE.

As of the end of 2017, the list of approved sourcebooks consists of:

  • Elemental Evil Player's Companion
  • Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide
  • Volo's Guide to Monsters
  • Xanathar's Guide to Everything and the Tortle package

The PHB +1 rule restricts the pool of available options for your character to the PHB and your extra sourcebook (your "+1"). For purposes of character creation and advancement, other sourcebooks do not exist. Options that appear in more than one sourcebook (such as the Goliath race from the EEPC and Volo's Guide to Monsters) are discussed later.

A player does not have to choose their +1 when they create their character, but their choice of +1 is locked in once they use an option from a sourcebook other than the PHB. Players with characters who used a story origin that allowed more than one sourcebook had to choose one of them, modifying characters as needed to comply with the new rules.

Exceptions to the PHB +1 rule

There are four (and a half) exceptions to the PHB +1 rule.

Backgrounds. A character can use backgrounds or variant background features from any approved sourcebook. This includes creating a custom background using features from existing backgrounds. In previous seasons, the League created its own custom backgrounds to allow players to more easily tie themselves into the season's storyline.

Scribing spells. The PHB +1 rule prevents characters from gaining spells from other sourcebooks as part of character advancement, but characters can acquire spells from other sources by scribing them into their spellbook (Wizards), Book of Shadows (Warlock with the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation), or ritual book (Ritual Caster feat). Players must follow all other rules for scribing spells and use the Copying Spells downtime activity (ALPG p.3). Characters who gain access to Wizard spells without having a spellbook, such as Eldritch Knight Fighters and characters who take the Magic Initiate feat, are still bound by the PHB +1 rule.

Adventurers League Certificates. The Adventurers League offers certificates as part of special events. Some certificates allow players to use otherwise restricted character options: the "Cleric of Kelemvor" certificate allows a player to create a Cleric character using the Death domain from the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG). Other certificates allow players to create characters using the Aasimar ("Blood of Angels") and Eladrin ("Spirit of the Community") from the DMG.

Certificates may also allow additional exceptions to League rules: the "Batiri Exile" certificate allows a player to use the Goblin race from VGM but requires them to be a member of the Emerald Enclave instead of the Zhentarim. The "Awakened Mind" certificate allows the player to use the Mystic class from the Unearthed Arcana article on Psionics—the only case to date of League characters being allowed to use playtesting content that has not been officially released by Wizards of the Coast.

Page 5 of the FAQ states that certificates that offer access to new character options also grant an exception to the PHB +1 rule for that specific option only. A player with a "Blood of Angels" certificate could create or rebuild an Aasimar character using options from XGE and be legal for League play.

DM Quest Rewards. DM Quests were introduced in the Curse of Strahd storyline season. They present minor objectives for running Adventurers League games and award in-game benefits to DMs who complete them. Information about DM Quests can be found in the Adventurers League DM's Pack, which is a free download from the Dungeon Master's Guild website.

Some DM Quests grant DMs who complete them the ability to create characters using otherwise restricted character options. The "King of the Ordning" quest from the Storm King's Thunder season allowed a DM to create a character using the Aarakocra race, and the "Death's Master" quest from the Tomb of Annihilation season allows both the Aarakocra and winged Tiefling options; both quests also grant the new character enough XP to start at 5th level. The "Cursed DM" quest from Tomb of Annihilation allows a character to use the Death domain from the DMG but doesn't grant bonus XP.

As with certificates, DM Quest rewards grant an exception to the PHB +1 rule for the specific character option awarded.

The half option: rebuilding your character. Players can rebuild characters (ALPG p.4), allowing them to experiment with or fine-tune a character concept. You can only rebuild a character of 4th level or lower; once the character has played a session as level 5 or higher, the option to rebuild goes away. (Page 5 of the FAQ states the free rebuild option for characters of any level offered by the addendum for the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide expired at the start of the Rage of Demons season.)

Some DM Quests allow DMs who complete them the opportunity to rebuild a character of 5th level or higher. The "Chultan DM" quest from the Tomb of Annihilation season allows you to rebuild one character of 10th level or lower, and the "Master Chultan Guide" quest allows you to rebuild one character of any level. Earlier seasons had similar quests, but they had to be started or completed during their storyline season.

Rebuilding a character doesn't allow you to ignore the PHB +1 rule, but you can change your +1 when you rebuild. This option was added to the ALPG starting with the Tomb of Annihilation season; previous seasons did not allow you to change your +1. The rebuilt character must still abide by the PHB +1 rule, unless one of the exceptions described above applies. If you rebuild a character so it no longer has an option for scribing spells (spellbook, Book of Shadows, or ritual book), you lose access to any spells gained by that option from sources outside your +1. This applies even if the rebuilt character could otherwise use them: you can't scribe spells into a Wizard spellbook from XGE, then rebuild into an Eldritch Knight Fighter and keep those spells unless you also make XGE your +1.

Things that are not exceptions to the PHB +1 rule

Cantrips. While characters can scribe spells into their spellbook from other sources, cantrips cannot be scribed and are therefore not exempt from the PHB +1 rule. Some listings for spellbooks in Adventurers League adventures include cantrips; those listings are incorrect and do not grant characters the ability to learn those cantrips.

Options that appear in more than one sourcebook. Volo's Guide to Monsters reprints the Goliath race from the Elemental Evil Player's Companion and provides an updated version of the Aasimar race from the Dungeon Master's Guide. Xanathar's Guide to Everything reprints all of the spells from the EEPC and the Way of the Sun Soul, Mastermind, and Storm Sorcery class options from the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. (The EEPC PDF was later updated to incorporate changes and errata presented in XGE.)

Based on comments and questions in the AL Facebook groups, some people believe you can switch your +1 without rebuilding if your character currently only uses material present in both sources. This confusion may have come from a misunderstanding of page 5 of the FAQ, which states that you must use the most recently-printed version of a spell or class option if it appears in multiple sourcebooks, even if that source is not your +1. However, the League admins have stated that you cannot switch your +1 without rebuilding.

The revised Ranger from Unearthed Arcana. Wizards of the Coast released an Unearthed Arcana article for a revised Ranger class in August 2015. The introduction for the PDF states that "Both [the original and revised Ranger] will be legal for D&D Adventurers League play, and players of existing Ranger characters will have the option to swap to the revised version." Some people have taken this to mean that the revised Ranger is legal now, but a previous part of the introduction makes it clear that option only applies to the final version of the revised Ranger:

If this iteration of the Ranger, or a future revision of it, grades high enough, our plan is to present it as a revised Ranger in a future D&D sourcebook.

Variants of existing races. The Elemental Evil Player's Companion offers two new subraces, the Gray Dwarf (Duergar) and the Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin). The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide reprints the Deep Gnome and offers the Ghostwise Halfling, new variant racial characteristics for Half-Elves, and new variant racial characteristics for Tieflings.

Although these sourcebooks offer new options for existing races from the PHB, they are not eligible character options unless you take that sourcebook as your +1.

Races, feats, and spells in general. People frequently ask in the AL Facebook groups whether races, feats, or spells in general are exempt from the PHB +1 rule. It's not clear where people get these ideas from—Misunderstanding something they heard from another player? An illegal house rule or incorrect ruling by a DM? Wishful thinking?—but making those options exempt from the rule would eliminate the main reasons for the rule to exist!

The future of the PHB +1 rule

As new sourcebooks are released, players have called for changes to the rule: expanding it to "PHB +2", exempting races or feats, or doing away with the PHB +1 rule entirely. The League admins review the community feedback in the preparation for each new season, but they have stated that no changes to the rule are planned any time soon.

Wizards of the Coast is the ultimate authority when it comes to the format of Adventurers League play. In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, they endorse the PHB +1 rule as a recommendation for shared RPG campaigns:

Player's Handbook plus One

You should think about which products players can use to create a character. The Adventurers League specifies that a player can use the Player's Handbook and one other official D&D source, such as a book or a PDF, to create a character. This restriction ensures that players don't need to own a lot of books to make a character and makes it easier for DMs to know how all the characters in the campaign work. Since a DM in a shared campaign must deal with a broad range of characters, rather than the same characters each week, it can be difficult to track all the interactions and abilities possible through mixing options freely. We strongly recommend this rule for any shared campaign.

With this endorsement, players and DMs should expect that the PHB +1 rule will stick around for a while.

NOTE: I posted an update to this article: The state of "PHB +1" sourcebooks for Adventurers League in July 2018