It seems to be a truism of modern D&D: all players really need to buy a copy of the rules, learn them, and have them at hand during the game. Why should all players need to do this to play well? Only one person needs to buy a boardgame for a group to play it. Only one person needs to buy a deck of playing cards and a book of rules for poker, bridge or other standard card games. Why should D&D be any different?
This is especially true when people used to play (TSR) D&D all the time with only one set of rules for the group. A player could sit down and create a character in a few minutes and provided he was not playing a spell caster, only need to reference the books to fill in his character sheet with his chances of success in combat and with his short list of character class based special abilities. Even if they played a spell-caster, all they needed from the rulebook was the details of the spells their character actually knew. As their initial spells were determined randomly determined by the GM and caster’s had to find additional spells in the game in treasure, they did not need to know about all the spells in advance to pick the best. A player didn’t need to know the details of the rules in play either, as all he had to do was tell the GM what he wanted his character to do in “real world terms” (as opposed to “rules-speak terms”) and the GM would tell the player either the result of his action or what roll was needed for success.
Many players of TSR-era D&D played for months or years without ever reading (let alone buying) a single rulebook. IMHO, this the way D&D rules should be written. It makes the game far more accessible to casual players who don’t want to spend a lot of money on the game. It makes the game accessible to casual players who have the time and interest to sit down an play for a few hours every week or two, but lack the time and/or interest to read and study multi-hundred page rulebooks between play sessions.
While hardcore D&D players may want to read and study every page of every D&D rulebook they can get their hands (and may not be able to understand why someone would want to play D&D without doing so), such players are a minority of gamers. Just as those who buy a new computer RPG with a 40-150 page rulebook and sit down and study that rulebook before they play are a minority — most people install the game and start playing, leaving the rulebook (and probably even the installation guide) in the box.
If D&D Next is to have a good chance of attracting new players to the game, I think WOTC is going to have to give up on the idea that every player needs to give them a good chunk money to buy the books and have the time and interest to study and learn them to play well (or even to play at all). D&D Next needs to return to the idea that the game can be played and played well with only one player in a group (usually the GM) buying the books. Sure, if a player ends up really liking D&D Next, he or she probably will eventually get a copy of the D&D Next version of the Player’s Handbook, but players should not need to buy any D&D books just to be able to play (and play well).