Just as every game needs a Dungeon Master, all dungeon masters need their own tricks, tools, and options. While not strictly essential to running a game, the Dungeon Master’s guide is a brilliant set of tools to make the job easier and more interesting. At 320 pages filled with art that evokes a sense of adventure, the book is both an intro into Dungeons and Dragons in general and a collection of ways to get the most out of it.
Among the tools the book consistently uses, I am most surprised at the depth of its random tables. For items, environments, weather effects, villains, towns, adventures, and beyond, the DMG provides ways to randomly roll for them. They succinctly provide you with a list of all the benefits D&D has to offer, but with a bit of imagination they also provide fresh adventures that will keep your table enthralled. A DM short on time and decent at improv could put an entire campaign in just a few minutes. I highly encourage taking the time to play around with these. Your imagination will be spilling over with ideas from the results.
To help give you everything you need or want, the book contains a plethora of optional rules to tailor the game to your own style. Whenever an option is introduced, the DMG takes the time to explain the math and design behind it. The devotion to transparency is an excellent sign on behalf of Wizards of the Coast. The more you know about the game, the better you can make yours. This results in not only better players and DMs but better designers. RPGs are always meant as a collaborative creative experience, and are now more so than ever.
The book begins with a discussion on world-building. It touches on the appropriate tone of your game world and how to influence that with setting material. Religion, maps, kingdoms, towns, and the right scale of the game are explained, but also the details necessary to flesh out these aspects. The goal is to make your world more vibrant, detailed places. Languages and levels of magic get introduced, but particularly useful are Renown rules for tracking your characters’ loyalty with various in game factions.
The DMG takes time to discuss some of the basics a campaign that will be elucidating for a new DM if unnecessary for a seasoned one. Most of us know by now the significance of flexibility and keeping your player’s varying styles in mind. Personally I would prefer if this were front-loaded into its own introductory chapter, largely so it would be easier to bypass, but the designers try to break it up into later sections. That is not to say it is wholly unappreciated. The DMG explains the themes behind low, epic, mythic, and other fantasy to help DMs decide which is best for their game. While I had these things in mind already, I am pleased that the writers took the time to make sure we were aware of our options.
After world creation we move on to the planes of the D&D setting, from the dark mysteries of the Shadowfell to the pulsing heat of the Plane of Fire. The overview is extremely brief, but they make note of special properties and locations in each world. You also get sample encounters or adventures for each plane, and rules for interplanar travel. While sure not to satisfy a fan who, wants a proper campaign book for one of the established settings, I am encouraged by the care shown to the game’s roots.
The next section goes through the process of creating adventures…which sounds very similar to the beginning. I find it a strange layout choice to separate the campaign and adventure chapters in this way, but I do see some logic. This chapter is devoted to some of the nuts and bolts of individual adventures, like planning encounters and creating a memorable villain. The tables for side quests, sudden twists, and moral quandaries shine brilliantly. Encounters can be spiced up with weather effects or unusual environments to boost their memorability.
NPC creation rules follow a similar vein, with tables for random descriptors, abilities, personalities, ideals, et cetera. DMs are made instantly aware that even the random tavern wench can have her own goals and life story. For special NPCs they introduce optional loyalty rules as well as the concept of villain classes, in the form of the Death Domain Cleric and Oathbreaker Paladin. These are the only offered which is frustrating, but I get the sense they are meant to to introduce the idea for DMs to develop for themselves.
Next is a section on adventure locations, devoted specifically to creating dungeon environments, which is a misleading term. There was a time when D&D players could expect to travel to literal dungeons: areas beneath castles full of traps and treasure. “Dungeon” has become a term of art, meaning an interesting area of exploration. These tables help give your areas histories and unique properties. Now your adventure areas will feel alive, tied to their own past and the beings that live there. The survival rules differ by environment types to create diversity for your adventure. I particularly enjoy the rules for creating your own settlements, though I am vexed as to why this is not in the world building section in which kingdoms and town are explained. See, the rules are fine, merely in places I find counterintuitive. Included is a trap list which, while brief, effectively illustrates their optimal mechanical purpose. I also have a special place in my heart for the tavern name generator. All the cliche you have ever wanted in a neat little package to delight for ages.
Then the book explores the time between adventures, in terms of down time and linking plotlines. I appreciate the book reminding us that our characters are people with complex goals rather than just statblocks. You can grant your characters real growth in this time, like allowing them to learn an additional language or skill if they spend the time.
The treasure list that follows, with 64 full pages devoted to magical items alone, is a thing of pure beauty. The campaign seeds you get from these items alone make it worthwhile. There are random equipment lists broken up by rarity, environment, and other qualities if you need a sudden reward, but those are minor aids next to the magical items. Most are illustrated in beautiful detail; the mechanics and stories associated will throw your mind into an adventure generating frenzy. Not all are weapons or armor. Returning are old favorites like the bag of holding and magical rope, and there are lists of minor properties you can add to mundane items to spice them up.
Rules for sentient items and unique, epic artifacts show up here if you need them. Some old favorites appear that will please long time fans. (It seems our friend Vecna needs to keep a better handle on his body parts.) The book also explains ways to grant non-item rewards, like a religious boon from a helpful deity or territory claimed by the characters.
Following up is a discussion on more tangible aspects of running a game:setting DCs, calling for rolls, and resolving rolls with interesting consequences. Again we have a section that could have been covered somewhere else and some DMs won’t need, but it is well written enough to be inoffensive.
Optional miniatures rules are outlined here, for both grid and hex compatibility. They are perfectly adequate, not adding anything particularly unique. If anything, they strip aspects away, simplifying things in ways that will likely frustrate some. Wizards is only continuing in the same philosophical vein with which they made the entire game, and I can hardly fault them for making the miniatures rules as headache avoiding as the rest of the game.
Rules for fear, insanity, chases, poison, and (because why the hell not) siege weapons follow, as much for fun as utility. All of these rules are somewhat rudimentary, but it only makes them all the easier to implement, especially together in the same game.
The final chapter is a fantastic section devoted entirely to optional rules. The number of optional rules already introduced throughout the book make this odd, but they are certainly enough to tailor your game for the feel you most want from the experience. There are some great combat options and rules for adjusting lethality. You can change the time period with the highly limited though serviceable table for tech from other periods. Any homebrewer would be happy with the discussion on scaling/creating monsters, classes, backgrounds, and more.
The appendices are quite nice, with random dungeon map tables, monster lists by CR and environment, and a few random maps, just to give you that extra boost in quality. The index seems perfectly useful, which is especially necessary given the odd organization in the book.
I can’t say that anyone truly needs this book, except perhaps from a brand new DM. This is a bit odd, as only an experienced one could put it to its best use. Nonetheless, the book is just overflowing with tools, options, and ideas. Anyone could find something to add to their game. For those on the fence, glance through a friend’s copy and get a sense of it. If you run published adventures the utility will be starkly reduced, but you could make them your own with the myriad of extra options. For all those out there with a copy, roll a random adventure, get playing, and enjoy yourselves. With this book, it’s hard not to.
Published by: Wizards of the Coast
D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide
Published by: Wizards of the Coast
Ages: 14 and up
Mechanics: Role playing