D&D 5 Review: Dungeon Master’s Guide

dmg-5e-coverThe Dungeon Master’s Guide is the third and final book of the core rules of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. With its release, the core rules are at long last complete. Or as complete as an edition can be. WotC has already released a web enhancement for the DMG: a list of all the magic items by rarity. And lead designer Mike Mearls has already promised to digitally release two new races cut from the DMG (the kender and warforged) as well as the Battlesystem mass combat rules. And I’m sure there is a wealth of content from all three books that needs a home. So the core rules are complete-ish.

What Is It

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is 320-page hardcover book of rules and advice for running a D&D campaign. While it was designed for 5th Edition, much of the advice on adventure design and worldbuilding is edition neutral (or even system neutral), making this a decent read for any game system. The book includes all the necessary rules for building encounters, awarding experience, and handing out treasure. But there are also pages of optional rules, variant rules, and advice on running the game.

Unlike the last two (or three) editions, the 5e DMG is as big as the Player’s Handbook. It is a hefty tome. There’s a full 320-pages of content, not 318 and a couple ads.

The Good

Photo 2014-12-04, 5 58 44 PMBefore the book really starts, before Part One, there is the breakdown of player types. It’s giving out essential information in the introduction. That’s the type of book this is.

As a worldbuilder, I love the entire first section of the book (Part One: Master of Worlds). It touches on designing a fantasy setting, campaign, adventures, and so much else. It starts with worldbuilding, including some decent advice on pantheons, governments, towns, and the like. There’s even some nice and simple descriptions of the types of game you can play, which elegantly breaks down the difference between heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, and swords & sorcery. While mostly content I’m overly familiar with, there was the occasional gem of an idea that fired the imagination and made me want to plan a new adventure.

The first section also includes the “Dawn War” pantheon of 4th edition, although its inclusion here feels like it was crammed in after being forgotten (read: omitted) from the PHB. But reasons aside, for those who wanted it, here it is. Clerics of the Raven Queen rejoice.

The DMG includes a quick gazetteer of the planes, with an excellent map of the Elemental Planes. Each plane only receive a small amount of detail, but the section is decently sized (there are a lot of planes). Each of the Outer Planes even gets a small optional rule based on how its influences or affects visitors. I’ve seen smaller write ups in DMGs, so this seemed comprehensive enough. Sadly, there’s no map of the Outer Planes, despite a couple different configurations being described. While the Great Wheel is in the PHB, a visual demonstration (or two) of an alternate configuration would have been nice.

There’s a lot more advice in the book than hard rules, and the advice is generally nicely done. I enjoy the focus on running an adventure or session rather than running “The Game”. Most of the adventure design advice was unexciting to this experienced DM, but I think it would be of use to a rookie. And there’s a really sizable section on being a DM. Larger than I was expecting really, with good advice on when to asking checks, handling checks and saves, and granting inspiration or advantage. While much of this section was “meh” to an old timer like me, it’s always good to remind yourself of the basics.

What rules that are present are decent. The encounter building rules emerged from playtesting in a usable state. Unsurprisingly, playtesting and mass peer review works. Encounter building can be a little complex when dealing with groups of enemies, but when pitting your PCs against one or two foes at a time the rules are fairly simple. So, really, you opt into the complexity. Good encounter building is almost an art, so there’s no choice but a little complexity: you either have simple rules or you have rules that work. And, really, perfectly balanced encounters are less necessary in 5e, so once you get a feel for your PCs I imagine these rules will quickly become guidelines if they are consulted at all.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of optional rules. However, there’s not as many as I was expecting, as so much was made of this DMG being a “hacker’s guide” and 5e being a modular edition. But that’s a failure of my expectations and not the book. Mostly. (More on that later.) There are some key optional rules I was looking forward to and most are nicely handled. And there are options and variants I wasn’t expecting, which is nice.

I could spend pages listing my thoughts on the various optional rules, the rules I’ll be using, the rules I’ll be tweaking, and the like. But I’ll limit myself to a few gems. As a Ravenloft fan, I love that fear, horror, and madness received a place. There’s even an optional Sanity statistic for games that make regular use of the mindbending. There’s a decent range of healing options as well, which either increase or decrease healing, as well as options that modify rests. Combined, you could have a healing lite-game where hit points have to be carefully rationed, or a much more heroic game where injuries seldom last longer than a scene.

And the random tables. Great Gygax’s Ghost, the tables. Random NPC traits, random dungeons, magic items (both awarding and designing a backstory), the results of running a business, weather, and even some random encounters. There’s a wealth of randomness in this product. You could built a random city built atop a random dungeon, and start playing a Greyhawk-style delve with almost no prep.

The Bad

Photo 2014-12-04, 5 59 51 PMThe cover is just okay. The third in a series of “just okay” covers. This time the colour scheme is purple, to contrast with the red of the PHB and the Blue of the MM (which is off for me, given the 3e PHB/DMG were red and blue respectively while the 4e books were blue and red with the MM being green). When I saw a preview of the cover I assumed it was a lich killing an adventurer, making it feel interchangeable with the Monster Manual. But looking closer it’s a mastermind lich raising an undead minion, which works thematically. But I would rather have seen said lich being more of a mastermind and observer and less active. The 4e DMG cover is the perfect combination of passive observer and potential menace. Still, the framing is good and the cropping/zooming is less obvious, making this the best cover of the core books (excluding the Starter Set).

In a related complaint, the inside description of the cover name-drops the undead dude on the front as “the archlich Aczerak”. Overlooking the fact an “archlich” is a rare good aligned lich, Aczie is a freakin’ demilich, not a lich. The demilich. That’s like putting Meepo on a cover and identifying him as “a small sized lizardfolk”. There’s so many other Name liches or necromancers it could have been. Azalin for example. But it’s not just an unfortunate naming, as the lich on the cover has a necklace in the shape of the leering devil face from the Tomb of Horrors (the first of three appearances in this book).

The primary sin of the DMG is one of brevity. It touches on a LOT of topics, but they only get brief amount of pages. And much is the loosest of advice or infuriatingly general. There’s a lot of “no duh” comments. For example, the book describes different types of fantasy but doesn’t offer suggested rules or ways of accommodating that style of play. There’s no suggestions for how to take the rules and play a swords & sorcery style game.

There’s a dearth of advice on how rules changes affect classes, and no talk of modifying class features for those changes. The book is vague on the player’s side, instead focusing on changes to the base rules. (Almost as if expecting more PC content and not wishing to render itself outdated, despite almost exclusively referring to monsters that made it into the Monster Manual.)

There are a number of omissions in the book. The classic “DM’s Best Friend” of a +/-2 modifier is absent, being solely replaced by advantaged/disadvantage. I like adv/disadv, but sometimes you want to increase the range of success/failure and not just the odds, and sometimes you want a couple bonuses to stack. There’s also no equivalent of 4e’s Page 42: a unified table of DCs and damage per level. (DCs are actually static, with “hard” being the same across all levels.) These tables exist in the book but are spread out, and very compacted in scope: a level 4 character is given the same damage range as a level 2. There are experience variants for milestones (read: quests) and social encounters, but nothing for exploration, gaining treasure, or other achievements. There are no alternate experience charts for faster/slower advancement, or even suggestions/advice for people who don’t want to rocket through levels. There are no rules for skill challenges or complex skill checks (first seen in 3e and a big part of 4e). There’s something like three diseases in the entire book. Oh, and there are no wands of cure wounds: the “happy stick” is no more.

A cheat sheet page would have been awesome. But I imagine they want to sell DM Screens…

Traps are especially poorly served. The two small pages on traps simply does not provide nearly enough rules and advice on the subject, neglecting to mention how to determine the detection or disabling DCs of traps, or if you should award experience. (RAW… no, so a trap-heavy dungeon like the Tome of Horrors awards negligible xp to survivors. This skews the risk:reward ratio for such endeavours.) There’s no solid advice on designing your own traps and only eight examples (in fairness, there are more in the random dungeon section, but just names). Traps are a big part of the exploration pillar of the game and sadly not well supported, which is particularly bad in an edition with a nostalgic slant; traps were a huge part of 1e/2e.

Looking back through the articles on designing 5e, there was a wish list written of potential optional rules.

Not all the planned options made it in. Omitted options include: encounter resources, alternate methods of xp (beyond advice), fantasy firearms (i.e. non-historical), managing strongholds (beyond upkeep), kingdom building, mass combat, variant critical hit rules, critical fumbles, hit locations, armour as DR, and sea battles.

There’s also no hit point variants like wounds/vitality. And during a panel Mearls and Crawford talked about an AEDU module, which is a no show. And the much vaunted “tactical play module” is a little bare bones, mostly involving using a grid (with cover and flanking) and some optional actions.

The Ugly

Photo 2014-12-04, 6 00 15 PMAll magic items alphabetized. There’s no sorting of magic items into type or slot used. So if you’re wondering if that health based item you wear around your neck is a phylactery or necklace be prepared to hunt. Even the web enhancement only separates items by frequency and not type. I foresee spreadsheets with lists of magic items being popular.

There’s an evil cleric option and evil paladin option, but the necromancer wizard makes it into the PHB and there’s no blighter druid.

Making NPCs is a lot of work. If you’re building an orc wizard you build it like a PC it then compare its AC, attacks, and damage numbers to a table to figure out it’s Challenge. So if you need a CR 10 creature and want it to be a wizard, be prepared to fiddle with the design again and again – possibly levelling him up and down – to get the numbers where you want.

In contrast, there’s nothing that makes building a PC more complicated. Optimizers are one of the seven types of player, but are pretty underserved by this edition. People who like building characters don’t have much in the way of options for customizing. The lack of “building” is what makes 5e the hardest to sell to my table, as many spend their free time building characters and planning their current character.

There’s no alternate treasure tables for low/high magic. The starting equipment on page 38 suggests that you can award different amounts of treasure but there’s no advice telling DMs how much more/less treasure to award on an adventure-by-adventure basis. It’s easy to hold back treasure, but knowing how much more to add for high magic games is tricky, as is knowing how more/less treasure will affect encounters.

Lingering wounds suck. It’s too easy to lose a hand eye. Yikes! I just want bruises and non-crippling broken bones. Something that gives small penalties that build up until the PC heals, but doesn’t blind someone after a couple bad rolls. I want lingering wounds at a “4” and they’re giving me wounds turned up to “8”.

As a personal pet peeve, I dislike how domains of dread are presented. It’s the same as in 4e where each domain is part of that world’s shadowfell, which means they’re world specific (as each world has its own shadowfell). So there’s no patchwork quilt of Ravenloft.

The back of the book is filled with maps, which is pure wasted space. I’m sure twelve-year-old Jester David would have loved them, but past-me started gaming prior to the Internet being what it is, and a quick Google image search will produce farm more maps. The maps are neat, but as a web enhancement or art gallery feature. I look at those six pages (plus the monster lists and monsters by terrain pages pulled from the MM – useful so long as WotC never published another product with monsters) and then I look at the big long list of content there was no room for and those pages seem… less desirable.

One omission I want to call out is advice on changing rules. There’s advice on adding content, and a little on adjusting content, but none on changing the rules themselves. There are lots of optional rules, but no advice on making your own optional rules or designing house rules, which is a pretty HUGE . Some advice on why the rules are the way they are and the nuances of how the game is designed is pretty damn essential to a good hacker’s guide. It’s absence really hurts the book.

The Awesome

Photo 2014-12-04, 5 59 19 PMThe DMG manages to include simple epic play. It’s a little like the d20 variant “E6” where you gain small buffs with xp in place of levels. With a little expansion it could easily lead to demigods or Basic D&D/Mystara immortals. WotC isn’t always the best at expanding on stuff they introduced in earlier books, but the boons, charms, and blessings are neat enough that I hope we see more in later books.

There are rules for riding large creatures. Almost every single game I’ve ever played two things have happened that the base rules almost never cover: someone has tried to “mount” a dragon or other large monster, and someone has tried to get drunk. 5e lacks the latter but it’s sooooo nice to see the former (and, if push comes to shove, the poisoned condition works for being drunk).

I love the extra downtime options. Building and owning a keep or inn is one of those things that is seldom covered by the rules, or gets really complicated. These rules included are super simple but work.

And, of course, no review of 5th Edition is complete without fawning comments of the art. There are some great pieces, like Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut, the tarrasque battle, and all the art for magic items. While much of the book is a little art scarce, that’s because there is a craptonne art for the magic items. Something like a half (or maybe even two thirds) of the magic items have pictures. Of the magic item artwork, the portable hole picture is excellent, as is the art for the shelves of potions, which was so awesome it was previewed on the WotC site (and is currently my iPad’s wallpaper).

Final Thoughts

5th Edition is a strong contender for my favourite edition. The Players Handbook was decent, if just an expansion of the Basic rules. And the Monster Manual was simply fantastic. At the end of the day, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is an excellent book, but it also a somewhat flawed book. The DMG is a worthy addition to the edition, but not the best DMG ever and arguably the weakest book of the three core books.

The advice and optional rules are excellent. But the book tries to do a lot and doesn’t quite cover enough topics, and is not comprehensive enough on the topics it does discuss. But, as complaints go, wanting more is a not a bad complaint to have (but it is still a complaint). This is a book that leaves you wanting so much more – which makes it more of a shame we’re unlikely to see more any time soon.

For new Dungeon Masters, both new to the game or just new to DMing, the book should be more than adequate. It does a decent job of teaching the running of the game and managing of the table. It’s an empowering book that fosters creativity as much as rules knowledge. It emphasises story and DM adjudication in all the right places, focusing on being the arbiter while also promoting fairness. I think, more than other DMGs, this product will help teach people to be good Dungeon Masters.

There’s are numerous examples of omitted content, like rules for critical fumbles, alternate xp and magic item tables, making house rules, and many other topics. The more you look at the book, the more you realize what isn’t there. However, there’s still a decent amount of optional rules, so the absences are less felt.

While the idea of a DMG that is equal parts how-to-play guide, worldbuilding book, and hacker’s guide is a nice idea, the amount of content requires makes fitting everything in a single book impossible. Which makes me sad, as I was such a supporter of the idea. Focusing on the main rules and essential optional rules while also planning an Unearthed Arcana or other dedicated book of customizations might have produced better results. Hindsight is 20/20 in that regard.