Tabletop Review: Dungeon Master’s Guide (Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition/D&D Next)

Dungeon Master’s Guide (Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition/D&D Next)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $49.95 ($29.97 on
Page Count: 320
Release Date: 12/9/2014
Get it Here: (Or your local brick and mortar store)

Well here we are with the third and final core rulebook for D&D 5e. If you somehow missed our reviews of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual or any of our other Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition coverage, feel free to check out the D&D section here at Diehard GameFAN and get yourself caught up. Now then, if you want a quick summary of the new DMG here it is – The book is awesome, so go buy it. If you want a more in-depth reason as to why you should add this to your ever-growing collection of tabletop gaming books, then read on and discover what all awaits you within this weighty tome!

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is divided into three parts with a total of nine chapters. There is also an introduction, four different appendices and a large index to help you navigate the book. In many ways the Fifth Edition version of the D&D DMG is similar to those that have come before it. The book focuses primarily on helping the reader run a game for his or her gaming crew. There is also one hundred pages of treasure and magical objects (all of Chapter 7) and even help for an enterprising DM to create their own monsters, spells, magic items and dungeons. The book is extremely newcomer friendly while also providing a lot of great information for people who have been playing D&D since the days of the white box. It’s certainly an extremely useful book for anyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons to own, even if you’re never going to run a game yourself. The three page introduction gives a brief overview of the three parts of the book, but the last page, entitled “Know Your Players” is great advice for gamers of all experience levels. It’s a reminder that no two people roleplay in the same exact way. One member of your group might only do hack and slash dungeon crawls while another might be used to talking head intrigue games like Vampire: The Masquerade. Still another might be used to investigation based games like Call of Cthulhu. Here you find some excellent tips on making a group come together and how to give each player what they like/are looking for from your game. Brilliantly done. The disclaimer on the legal jargon page is also hilarious. Take the time to read it.

Part 1 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is called “Master of Worlds” and it has two chapters: “A World of Your Own” and “Creating a Multiverse.” “A World of Your Own” starts off with a bang referencing the golden age of AD&D 2e’s many campaign settings – Ravenloft, Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun and of course the big three that have been around since 1e – Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. It was wonderful to see all of these settings mentioned, but also to have them used as examples regarding how diverse and unique a D&D game can be. The game talks about the usual common traits between D&D worlds and also a reminder that you can shake things up however you want. Several pages are devoted to fleshing out the religion(s) of your world but the bulk is about designing your own homebrew campaign from the topography to the races inhabiting it. The fact the DMG is starting off with a discussion on homebrewing a world is a very different take from previous DMGs and it’s an impressive gambit to say the least. By starting the book off with an attempt to get a Dungeon Master to think about designing their own world rather than a premade one gets the imagination flowing and also helps them to realize all the little nuances that a world needs but that some DMs tend to forget. Currency rates, weather patterns, how magic works, town sizes and forms of government are all discussed in this first chapter. After that, the chapter discusses campaigns and types of play. You’re given advice on how to build adventures and a full campaign for your new world. All of this is done in a really helpful manner that will have many of you sketching out ideas for your own 5e world before you’ve even finished the book. The chapter ends with a look at different play styles, the types of adventures befitting characters at different levels and different ways the fantasy aspect of D&D can be portrayed, from swashbuckling tales like Richard Lee Byers’ The Reaver to Kara-Tur’s Oriental atmosphere. This was a wonderful way to start off the book and I loved how the emphasis was on making D&D your own rather than the old “follow the rules EXACTLY” attitude that was once espoused in the 70s.

“Creating a Multiverse” talks about all the different planes that are in the general D&D campaign setting. The Material Plane, the Inner and Outer Planes, the Positive and Negative Planes and the Transitive Planes are all covered in this chapter in great detail. You’re given examples of how the default generic D&D setting uses these and examples of why you should have planes in your homebrew game. Discussions on how to travel to these planes are also provided. While the section is really well written, it’s not without controversy. This chapter places the one time Demiplane of Dread(Ravenloft) clearly in the Shadowfell and also reveals that the Dark Powers behind Ravenloft are residents of this plane. It also definitively states that the domains within the Demiplane of Dread were created as prisons for each of the Darklords that inhabit them (previously it was one of many theories), which removes a lot of the mystery and conjecture of the setting and the powers than govern it. I can hear the legion of fans of this campaign setting gnashing their teeth and flexing their fingers to complain via keyboard on the Internet already. It is what it is though. It’s not like Ravenloft has been properly used in a decade, but if someone manages to convince WotC to do a 5e campaign setting, they can always go in and change this little faux pas. It’s similar to what happened to The Phantom Stranger in the New 52. For decades he was purposely undefined to add mystery and intrigue to the character. Now his origin in set in stone. People were PISSED at first and now they’ve come to accept it as THIS version of the Phantom Stranger. Will Ravenloft fans be the same? Another interesting aspect of this section is that while planes are covered the concept of “Crystal Spheres” and space is not, even though Spelljammer is occasionally referenced in this book. Finally the book lists the seven core worlds of the material plane. Toril, Oerth, Krynn, Athas, Eberron, Aebrynis and Mystara. Sorry, no Hollow World. It’s great so see Birthright and Mystara given equal billing with some of the “a-lister” settings of D&D and I can only hope we might see some Fifth Edition campaign books or supplements for each of these.

Part 2, “Master of Adventures” is the longest of the book’s sections and you know you’re in for a great read when the title page is a Tarrasque sacking a castle while a group of adventurers try to take it down. This is followed by a full page picture of another group of adventurers attacking the dancing hut of Baba Yaga. Oh, the memories. The art is this book is fantastic and well worth looking at, but this one-two punch might be my favorite out of all three core rulebooks for Fifth Edition.

Anyway, our third chapter is “Creating Adventures” and it’s roughly twenty pages of what you might expect. This chapter is clearly geared towards less experienced DMs, but that doesn’t mean those of us that have been running games for decades should turn our noses up at it. There are pieces on the pros and cons of published adventures over homebrew ones and vice versa. There are some fun d20 random adventure creation charts and tons of dialogue on how to properly frame big events, making sure the PC goals are clearly defined and whether or not you should use Random Encounters. It’s a pretty straight-forward chapter that everyone should read as its some great universal advice regardless of what gaming system or campaign setting you use.

Chapter Four is “Creating Non-Player Characters.” It’s only ten pages long and again, it’s straight forward advice directed towards less experienced or new DMs. Right away the chapter brings up the difference between “Quick NPCs” who don’t need full stats and a deep background attached to them and “Detailed NPCs”. The guy putting new horseshoes on the party’s steeds will probably never need to have his life written done in epic prose format, nor will he be fighting monsters any time soon. Meanwhile the hireling the party has to carry their treasure might need stats, especially when he tries to run away with all the gold because you made him Neutral Evil. Again, you are given a bunch of randomization d20 charts to flesh these guys out along with an optional mechanic for loyalty. The chapter also includes a large section for Villain NPCs, which are antagonists really but that’s all semantics at this point. You have a page and a half random Scheme/Methods chart that you can use to flesh out your generic bid bad of the adventure you quickly cobbled together. You could create an Orc Witch Doctor who seeks to conquer the local town for its rich farmlands and plans to do it via straight up oppression of the locals (Actual rolls on the charts by me.). The last two pages of this section are about Villainous Class Options such as the Death domain for clerics and Oathbreakers (anti-paladins/Blackguards). Very nicely done!

“Adventure Environments” is Chapter Five and it’s one of my favorite chapters in the book./ I was always a big fan of the Wilderness Survival Guide and the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide for 1e AD&D and this chapter was definitely inspired by those books. Although this is only about two-dozen pages long in comparison to two full supplements on the subject, this chapter does a great job with the space provided. Again you are given some more random charts to help flesh out your dungeon and some information about the ecology of a dungeons (as in what creatures make sense and where). Features and Hazards are also covered. The Wilderness sections talks about the long walks/ride that inevitably occur in a D&D game and how to handle them. Should they be treated as stock footage in a movie or should you cover each hour of the journey with detail? Both approaches are covered but usually the best option is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Concepts like crossing thin ice or dealing with low oxygen in high altitude environments are looked at in this chapter, as is the importance concept of foraging for food and water on long trips. You can only eat so much hardtack after all. Unique environments such as underwater and sky based locations are also discussed. These sections are a lot of fun to read through, as are the four pages on how to use traps in dungeons. These pages also gives sample traps and ideas of where to place them ala the old Sphere of Annihilation trick. Perhaps the most interesting part of the chapter are the three pages devoted to random settlement generation. These are fun to monkey with even if you don’t actually use them in a game.

Chapter Six is entitled “Between Adventures” and it’s a short eight page piece on what to do in your downtime. You can use this to flesh out characters’ stories and backgrounds, drop hints for the next big adventure/campaign and give players slice of life outside the rigmarole of dungeon crawling. There’s some great examples of what to do between adventures, from running a business (Maybe your dwarven fighter is a blacksmith by trade), crafting magical items or even building a stronghold/keep once you have enough money. The chapter ends with the old optional Training rules. If you’re unfamiliar with this, it means you can’t level up until you’ve trained with a higher level NPC/character. I never liked this idea personally but it’s fine to see it revisited for those that do.

The last chapter in Part 2 is “Treasure.” This is the hundred pages of various items that you can find in a dungeon, dragon horde or locked chest. These items range from mundane jewels to magical swords and decanters of endless water. Besides the usual items you have information and charts for mixing potions, creating sentient weapons, random charts for magical item background information and what happens when you try to wear one boot of elvenkind and one boot of striding and springing. Good stuff from beginning to end. You’ll also find a section devoted to artifacts like the Book of Vile Darkness and the Hand of Vecna, but the chapter ends with the idea of rewards that are neither physical nor monetary. These are things like titles, land grants, but also supernatural blessings and Epic Boons for characters that hit 20th level.

The third part of the book is “Master of Rules” and these two chapters are the bits that used to be at the front of previous Dungeon Master’s Guides. I’m sure people will have their own opinions on the chapter order in this DMG but I like that the other stuff is up front. It’s putting an emphasis on storytelling and fun over rules-lawyering and mechanics and I’m okay with that. Chapter Eight is “Running the Game” and it talks about how to keep things rolling in the face of unexpected occurrences and how to improvise on the fly. The chapter starts off with some great advice such as making sure the players all respect each other and are there to play the game first and foremost. It also brings up rules on rolling the dice, such as whether or not to use a screen. There are pros and cons to screen usage and the DMG is pretty even handed towards both methods. There’s also the usual commentary on what to do is a key player is missing a session (or sessions) and how to help new players become accustomed to the game. There’s also a frank discussion on dice and what to do with them. Do you let them dictate the game and allow no fudging or second chances? Do you roll dice rarely and let character actions and their player’s descriptions determine success or failure. Do you take the middle route of both extremes? The DMG looks at all three options in a neutral fashion but ends things with a VERY important reminder – the dice don’t run the game – the DM does.

Also in this chapter are topics like encouraging roleplaying over roll-playing (Thank Cthulhu!), giving awards for inspiring roleplaying or ideas rather than just XP for killing, how to do social interactions, making combat more descriptive, using miniatures instead of imagination, and how to do chase sequences. There are a lot of neat rules and mechanics here. Heck, the chapter even has Seige equipment and information on going mad Call of Cthulhu style (as opposed to Ravenloft style).

The ninth and final chapter of the book is Dungeon Master’s Workshop. These last thirty pages cover how to create you own….well, everything. There are guidelines for monster creation, weapon creation, spell creation and even new character options such as races or classes. There’s also a lot of rules variants. These include things like Troll Lord Games’ Castles & Crusades siege engine option for giving ability check proficiencies, Hero Points similar to those in the old DC Heroes game by Mayfair or Fate and even honor and sanity checks. The Sanity option comes right from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu rather than the old Ravenloft version from 2-3.5 Edition D&D and it’s the second version of determining madness in the DMG! For those who prefer the Ravenloft method, immediately after are 5e versions of the Fear and Horror checks! This chapter really does pay homage to not just older versions of D&D but other popular RPG options that are out there…even if they don’t name the competing products. You’ll also find plot points, which are kind of a reverse DM Intrusion from Numenera, and some new combat options. This is a pretty fantastic set of options and it makes sense to close out the book with this so as not to overwhelm new or less experienced DMs who are just getting a hang of the basic mechanics in D&D.

BUT WAIT – THERE’S MORE! We still have to talk about the appendices! Appendix A is twelve pages of random tables for dungeon designing. Appendix B is “Monster Lists” and it is composed of two types. The first set of lists groups monsters by ecology/environment and the second lists monsters from the Monster Manual by Challenge Rating (CR) which 3rd Edition D&D fans have been clamoring for. Appendix C is six pages of example maps and Appendix D is “Dungeon Master Inspiration.” These are books to help you learn the history of D&D, RPGs in general and books that will help you run games better. Everything from Jon Petersen’s Playing at the World to the old Blue Books from AD&D 2e are in here. This is a fantastic list of books people. Of course, a lot of you own some, if not all of these already…

So there you go. Three thousand words on why the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide is fantastic, as well as a quick synopsis of the sheer amount of content you’ll find betwixt its covers. Wizards of the Coast have done a phenomenal job here with the core rulebooks for Fifth Edition and the DMG is no exception. It’s definitely a must own for D&D fans and even a must read for gamers who like RPGs but don’t play D&D. Who knows? The sheer quality of the content here is so amazing that the DMG might win someone of you back to brand that started it all. This is just in time for the winter holidays, so if you’re looking for a top notch gift to give to the gamer in your life, the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide is a top notch choice.



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3 responses to “Tabletop Review: Dungeon Master’s Guide (Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition/D&D Next)”

  1. […] Dragons Player’s Handbook, with the Core Rulebook acting as a combined Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. Don’t worry though, unlike that other venerable role playing game, Call of Cthulhu still has […]

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