Review – Dungeon Master’s Guide (D&D 5E)

dmg-5e-coverFor many a year, Dungeons & Dragons has used a three core book system – Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. And it’s always been in that order – PHB primary, DMG secondary, Monster Manual tertiary – in sense of importance, and often in order of release (I fondly remember going to three different 3E launch parties for the successive books). The latest edition of the game (formerly known as Next, officially just D&D, often referred to as 5E) messes with that hierarchy, with the Monster Manual arriving second (back in September) and the Dungeon Master’s Guide arriving third.

The fifth edition DMG is a full-color, 320-page hardcover. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is organized into three sections, based on three core DM tasks – creating worlds, creating adventures, and running the game. Two notable subcategories in there include some rules options and the all-important magic item list.

To address the DM’s role as Master of Worlds, there are sections on building your own world and on the multiverse. The world-building section, spanning about 35 pages, provides advice not only on building the world itself (gods, maps, settlements, languages, organizations, and magic), but also on how to generate the overall plot of a campaign that will be set in that world. Additional content covers different play styles (hack and slash, immersive storytelling, and the default of somewhere in between), how play varies over different character levels (local heroes, heroes of the realm, masters of the realm, masters of the world – the first two, covering levels 1-10, being in this writer’s humble opinion, the core of D&D play), and different flavors of fantasy and how they interact with D&D (the default heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery as seen in Dark Sun, epic fantasy as seen in Dragonlance,  mythic fantasy, dark fantasy as seen in Ravenloft, intrigue, mystery, swashbuckling, war, and wuxia).

npc2-dmg-5eThe section on the multiverse (covering about 25 pages) presents several different ways a DM might organize the planes in his or her campaign (if they enter into the campaign at all), how player characters can access and travel between the planes, and also presents the default D&D view of how the multiverse is organized. Using this Great Wheel framework, the DMG provides basic rules for the astral plane, ethereal plane, the feywild, the shadowfell, the four elemental planes, and the 16 outer planes (Mount Celestia, Bytopia, Elysium, the Beastlands, Arborea, Ysgard, Limbo, Pandemonium, the Abyss, Carceri, Hades, Gehenna, the Nine Hells, Acheron, Mechanus, Arcadia). The outer plane descriptions are of necessity very brief (except the Abyss and the Nine Hells, the core Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil planes), but they present enough information to get an idea of the plane and include one mechanical effect of being on the plane. And, just because I anxiously await the return of Planescape, the folks at WotC again wet my appetite by referencing Sigil.

As master of adventures, the DM will find about 55 pages on creating adventures, including NPCs and environments. Topics covered include necessary elements of a good adventure (appropriate threats, something to keep each of your players interested, surprises), adventure structure (including some random tables you’ll probably only use as lists of ideas for the hook, goals, climax, and so forth), and random encounters. The NPC section is largely a list of tables of NPC attributes that you, again, can use as randomizers, but will more likely just use as idea generators. In addition to standard (non-combat and villain) NPCs, this section also includes the rules for including NPCs in the party, either as followers/hirelings or as GMNPCs. There are also some Evil mechanical options for character classes, such as the Paladin Oathbreaker.

magic-item-tables-145The environment section again includes some tables for creating dungeons or wilderness areas (an appendix has a complete random dungeon generator), or settlements, but also includes crunchier information on secret doors, environmental hazards (webs, molds, extreme heat or cold, quicksand, ice, etc.), and unusual environments such as water- or sky-based environments. There also a delicious array of traps, covering basics like pits and projectiles, plus the ever-exciting giant rolling boulder of doom.

Further, this chapter is where the DM will find information on how to build an appropriate combat encounter, based on the xp level and number of monsters involved. Also of note (although tucked in an appendix, not in this chapter) is an index of monsters by challenge rating (you know, the one that we said should have been in the Monster Manual), and an index of monsters by environment.

In addition to the content on how to build an adventure itself, this chapter also covers how to handle downtime between adventures, including what a PC might accomplish during downtime (and how much that might cost, or earn).

eks1ft6w7pgo7jxt85cxThe thing every player will immediately turn to in the DMG is the last section of this chapter – treasure! Experienced players will note a general reduction in both the quantity of magic items and the bonuses available from them. This section provides information on what sort of rewards characters will tend to have accumulated over certain levels, and it feels like the party getting +1 weapons is the sort of thing that might happen after four levels, not something that’s definitely going to happen before you hit level 3. Magic items are also much more “special” – not only are you not going to get a bunch of extra ones, but you can’t just unload them for cash at the nearest village (this is in keeping with the notion presented in prior core books that mundane gear looted from your random dead goblins is worthless, not something you load in a wagon to sell off later). Any sort of generic magic item can be spiced up with minor properties. And the scale of permanent bonuses stops at +3, not +5 (in keeping with the design intent that bonuses be flatter, with a much wider range of enemies able to credibly threaten each other, given sufficient numbers).

The full range of classic magical items are covered, from every-campaign mainstays like the Bag of Holding to the “I remember this one but I’ve never actually had it appear in a campaign” Apparatus of Kwalish to the “yeah, right, you can have that when we’re about to end the campaign” Vorpal Sword. Sentient items and artifacts are covered as well, so you can inflict the Eye and Hand of Vecna on the PCs if you’re so inclined. There’s even content on non-treasure rewards for players – supernatural abilities, marks of prestige such as titles and land, and (for the really scary PCs) epic boons. Overall, the treasure section clocks in at about 100 pages, almost a third of the book.

FigurinesWondrousPower1The final section presents information for the DM as master of rules, leading off with a 25-page chapter of tips on running a session. Here the DM will find advice on meta topics such as table talk and how closely to hew to dice rolls, as well as more nuts and bolts matters like determining appropriate difficulty class for tasks, handling Inspiration, roleplaying interactions with NPCs, tracking monster status/hp during combat, and diseases/poisons/insanity.

This section also houses a variety of optional rules modifications, such as turning flat proficiency bonuses into a proficiency die, eliminating skill/tool proficiencies in favor of a smaller number of broader proficiencies, honor and sanity scores, making healing more or less available (or that make rests more or less available) to increase or decrease the difficulty of repeated combat (usually for flavor purposes), more modern technology, initiative variants, more combat action options (such as disarm, shove, or tumble), and lingering injuries. This chapter is also where you’d go for a detailed discussion of how to create your own monsters, and also suggestions for creating magic items, backgrounds, and other mechanical components.

As one might expect, the full utility of the DMG will vary based on the experience of the GM using it. If you’re new to being a dungeon master, then material on crafting your own campaign, designing NPCs, adventure pacing, different styles of play, etc., will be pretty handy – it’s well-presented, and easy to digest. On the other hand, if you’re an experienced GM and/or you’re mostly playing out of published adventures, then this sort of content isn’t going to add much for you – if you’re experienced, then basic advice will mostly be things you’re aware of, and if you’re using published adventures/campaigns, then you mostly won’t be designing your own material. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some value in a refresher on the basics, but it’s just the nature of the beast that some types of DM will get more out of this sort of content than others.

Other content will be valuable for any sort of DM. At the top of the list is, of course, the list of magic items, which is fairly indispensable tool in the DM’s kit. Tips on creating combat encounters of an appropriate level are another necessity, and I think that having just that one rule per plane and a brief description goes a long way towards letting a GM more easily take the heroes to other dimensions. The writing is crisp, the art is good, and I didn’t notice any errors in the graphic design or layout.  The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide should be an excellent tool for a newer GM (or one getting back into the hobby), and still of value to those more experienced at the craft.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

Leave a Reply