A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

So, as you can probably tell, I failed NaNoWriMo spectacularly, and along with it my plans for a development diary for my Ghartha project. I’m disappointed, but it is an unfortunate reality that we generally need to put our jobs before our hobbies, and holiday season is definitely the busiest time of year for mine.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as the Dungeon Master’s Guide is finally here! This tome of all three of the holy triad is the one I’ve been looking forward to the most. I am a tinkerer, enjoying twisting the rules this way and that, and always get more pleasure from running a campaign than I do from playing. With the rumors of a “tinkerer’s manual” on the winds of, well, the internet, my expectations for this book (especially after the first two) were very high.

Well, how did it do?


A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

So this is it, the final volume. The 5th edition of this game has been a very different release from the last edition, and the edition before that even. Not altogether smooth, but definitely with a more optimistic reaction as far as I can tell. It is the edition of the modern era, though it has no digital utility whatsoever at this point. The disappointment I feel about the ending of Dungeonscape (though they do live again with this Kickstarter, and I urge you to try to help them fund their project) doesn’t extend into the game itself, but it is a misstep, or else not a step forward, to be sure. But in all, I feel like it’s been a good release. A trickle of releases, actually, rather than an explosion. Rather like a morphine drip as opposed to a shot.

That’s a weird analogy. Moving on.

When the DMG was delayed, I was exasperated. I’m not a patient person to begin with, and the staggered release meant I’d be waiting a month between releases anyway, so when it got delayed (for presumably good reason), I could feel my own enthusiasm fray a slight bit. That’s probably unfair, as the Basic Rules covered pretty much what you NEEDED to run the game. But the DMG isn’t about what you need. It’s about the tools and knowledge to make what you want.

Does this volume provide that? And does it also continue the aesthetic triumph of the first two books?


The first thing you notice when you flip through this book is that it is a bit denser than the first two volumes. There is less space given over to both art and, well, space. They packed it in, sardine style. Given the purpose of this volume, I found this to be a good thing. I want everything possible when it comes to this part of the game. I think they should have written more little bits in the margins. However, your mileage may vary, and from a new person’s standpoint I can see flipping through this book a bit intimidating. The PHB was the entrance, but this book is the actual rabbit hole, so to speak. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this book to a completely new player, and this is just from the standpoint of the way the book looks. It means business. Probably best to start with the Starter Set for the DM ropes.

The art included in this book is, however, gorgeous. A lot are given over to pictures a bit more broad in focus than the other books, which makes sense. Parties in large landscapes, as well as plenty of physical objects (like Magic Items) are on display. There are a few individual characters, but generally the focus of the art is on a scene, or an object. There are no clunkers that I can find (unlike the MM, which ranged from wonderful to horrendous), but as mentioned it seems like there is less art in all, or perhaps that is just in comparison to the amount of raw text.

Digging Into It

This volume had to stew a bit in my brain pan. Whereas with the PHB I knew very quickly how well it worked as a volume, this book is much more a DMs constant companion outside of the time set aside to play than the PHB is to the player. There are things tucked away hidden in chapters that you may come across on your third reading, and as a book it is simply and strictly more esoteric than the other two. Does it work as a guide to Dungeon Mastering? Does it work as a tool for creation? As a font of ideas and creativity as the Monster Manual was? We’ll see, section by section.

The book is divided into three major segments, and includes appendices in the back. (Whee!) It begins with a couple of pages explaining the sections as well as recognizing how different players derive pleasure from RPGs. That part is succinct, and may be useful, though I’ve found any such categorizations never entirely accurate.

I will say that this was the first book of the trilogy that I found it difficult to read front to back. I really wanted to flip through it at random, or to simply skip straight to the end where the Dungeon Master’s Toolbox was. I forced myself to do it, however, though I do not think that is the best way to read this book. I really do think it’s better served as something to read from any point at your leisure or need.

Part 1: Master of Worlds

This section is made up of two chapters, one based on world building and the other on the multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons.

World Building is, in my unsubstantiated opinion, the bread and butter of Dungeon Mastering. It is the draw, the addiction. The reward to the ego from the act of world creation is huge, and to me will always be an ocean of dopamine. Starting with this chapter is a great idea, because it’s throwing it right in your face. This right here, this is the good stuff.

The chapter is fairly extensive for a Dungeon Master’s Guide, though not near as high level or steeped in the minutiae like books dedicated to the subject, like the magnificent Kobold’s Guide to World Building. However, it’s more than enough to get the neophyte DM started, and goes into surprising detail on things like religion and commerce.

My favorite bit of this chapter are very detailed statistics on typical medieval fantasy settlements, like villages and cities, including populations, how many organizations are available, and things like that. This will be incredibly useful as a starting place for even experienced DMs.

They also go into detail on campaigns themselves here, their make up and themes as well as how to shake them up. Already you’ve got some random tables thrown in just for that, and random tables always make me happy. The discussion of genres is neat, though I feel like throwing anything Asian into Wuxia is a tad generalizing. It does provide a handy table on converting the more western oriented weapons of the game into Chinese and Japanese counterparts, for those hoping to provide an eastern flair to their games.

The Multiverse chapter is less up my personal alley, but it does a very thorough job on explaining the planes and what they do, and providing rules for particular planes to give them a bit of crunch to flavor the session that takes place there. It also provides good guidelines on creating your own planes and multiverses so as to not to have to stick with the Great Wheel (or tree, or flower pot, or what have you). Planescape lovers will find treats in this section, as The Outlands and Sigil are mentioned, though not in very great detail. I do wish they would have spent a bit more time talking about these areas as well as a bit more on the Far Realms; I’m a Lovecraft fanatic and would have liked to see a bit more inspirational material on the subject of cosmic horror. But, then again, this isn’t Call of Cthulhu, so I don’t think I can mark them for including the little bit that they did.

Part 2: Master of Adventures

This part is by far the largest segment of the book, and arguably the most important for the DM. It gets into the nitty gritty of preparing your sessions, your encounters, your adventure areas, and things like that. This includes a very robust chapter on magic items. This chapter is huge, by the way, and seemingly never-ending your first time through.

We start off with discussions on adventures, discussing key elements like villains, introductions, climaxes, and general ways to set them up based on the sort of adventure you’re running. I think this chapter does an excellent job guiding the initiate through the process, and it doesn’t speak in absolutes. It seems to go out of its way to provide the DM with the ideas and creativity without setting things into stone.

Encounter building is finally here, and it’s easy enough to understand. I like the duality of having an XP budget and having challenge ratings. The budget helps you build a fair encounter, and the CRs are a nice guide to appropriate monsters to use to fill the budget. An ogre might fit into your XP budget, but it’s CR tells you that it’s probably not a good idea to throw it at a group of level 1 PCs. Unless you’re hoping to throttle the wizard to death.

The chapter on creating NPCs is much more than I anticipated, and provides a lot of direction on creating well rounded ones for your campaigns. There are plenty of tables provided to help generate motivations, talents, flaws, and other personality aspects of your NPC, as well as good guidelines on playing them. This chapter also provides two new character options, meant more for NPCs but usable by PCs with the DMs say so: the Oathbreaker Paladin (a black knight sort of thing), and the Death Domain for Clerics (looks like what it sounds like). Both useful additions, and both look fun to play.

Until the magic item section, the rest of the segment is given over to building adventure environments. This provides guidelines for wilderness mapping, for traps, and for pretty much anything you need to know to create your adventure settings. There’s not too much here on doing good dungeons (luckily there is an appendix that makes up for that, however), and the guidelines again seem more idea oriented than set in stone. I actually feel like that is a weak point here. They provide good information on why a dungeon is where it is, who are good candidates to inhabit it, and some useful tools on mapping it, but it feels a little too lean for my taste, especially when the Dungeon is sort of one of the icons of D&D. As mentioned, however, there is an appendix we will speak of later, so hold your judgement here for now.

One complaint I had about the Player’s Handbook is that it introduced a great idea to the game, that of Downtime, and then didn’t do as much with it as I think it should’ve. Well, we now know why: all the good stuff was put into this section. Everything I wanted is here, from building and maintaining strongholds to training to gain experience, and all kinds of stuff in between. It provides details on running a business, on crafting magic items(!), as well as a very thorough random table to use if you simply want to carouse about town. It doesn’t go into high level detail on these things, but rather provides rules to deal with them that are simple and won’t take away too much from all the adventuring stuff you’re supposed to do. It’s a very interesting chapter, however, and I look forward to using it to create my own downtime activities for PCs.

Then we get to the book within a book, the Magic Items section. This section reminds me of the Monster Manual, because each item seems to provide whee bits of creative inspiration. More than a simple table of numbers, these magic items all seem to be complete story objects. It’s packed to the gills with hundreds of different things to throw into your world for the PCs to find, as well as tables to give them out randomly from treasure hoards. The one complaint I have is that it just seems too big for me. There are other parts of this book that I would have loved to have seen expanded upon (we’ll get to those later), and I would have gladly sacrificed some pages of magic objects to do it. It’s not a quality issue: the items are well done, and as mentioned seem ready to plop down into the game. They just seemed to have gone overboard a bit, at least in my opinion. I should note that I use magic items sparingly (being able to do so in 5th edition was a major plus for me), so this is perhaps my bias showing.

All in all, I feel like this segment (including the magic items) of the book was well done, and is probably going to be the most useful to a Dungeon Master.

Part 3: Master of Rules

So this is the section I was looking forward to the most. There are plenty of optional rules sprinkled throughout the volume, but this section is supposed to be the toolbox for the DM.

It starts off with some guidelines of table etiquette, like dealing with metagaming and rules discussions. Good little kernels of advice that many new DMs should read carefully. It then goes on to deal with useful clarifications and theory for the use of ability scores, from the perspective of someone running the game. It is basically what we saw in the PHB simply detailed a bit to give the DM the right sort of idea about when to call for rolls, to figure out if something needs to have proficiency added, etc. It also goes into some detail about inspiration and ways to use it.

This chapter also adds in some neat optional rules, like adding madness, poisons, and diseases into your game. It also includes a rather robust chase scene mechanic that looks like it’d be a lot of fun to utilize. In general, however, this chapter is about running the game, and it does a good job of going over the main things a DM will have to deal with at the table.

Then we get to the creation stuff. This chapter is all about OPTIONS, and is the thing I wanted to get to when I first opened the book. It’s a smallish chapter, but I probably have a lot more to say about it then I did other sections. I won’t go over every single option, but highlight ones I like or dislike:

First, it gets into ability options, providing alternate ways to handle skills. It has the play test’s proficiency dice system, in which you add a die to your roll instead of a static number when you are proficient depending on your level. I like this mechanic a lot, and it will probably be my default skill mechanic. It also has a simplified system where you get proficiency in two abilities instead of having it broken down into skills. I’m not much of a fan, as I like the distinctions skills make.

It also introduces two new ability scores to the game: Honor and Sanity. One seems to be more for Asian influenced games, the other for Horror games. The mechanics of these are simple enough, but I think they can be used to good effect. It would be interesting to create classes that have these scores as features (such as an occultist for Sanity or the obvious Samurai for Honor), that confers bonuses or flaws based on the score. These scores also have conditions in which they can raise or lower, meaning they will fluctuate much more than the other default 6 ever do.

It goes into some fear options, as well as some healing variants to make the game more fantastical or gritty, depending on your tastes, and I think they do a good job with slow natural healing for those who dislike regaining all of their HP with a night’s rest. That with the new injuries option could make for a very lethal game indeed.

Other highlights include: alien technology, guns, Speed Factor initiative systems (think 2e, but simpler, though just barely), alternative combat actions like marking and disarming, cleaving for everyone when facing weak foes, and morale. Overall, it covers a lot of ground here, and I’m pretty happy with what we’ve gotten here so far. I do wish we had more, however. I was hoping for mass combat rules in particular, as well as some more robust kingdom management type of rules (Birthright!), but these are wishes rather than needs. Still, as mentioned earlier, I would gladly trade in a few pages of magic items for more options.

Monster Creation in this book looks fairly robust when you read it, but the true test is actual use. I sat down and used it to create creatures, deciding on trying to create Moogles, a popular creature from the Final Fantasy video games. These are mole-bat fairy things that are usually helpful to heroic sorts, and I figured they’d be easy to make.

I like that they include a quick system, as well as a more in depth system, to make monsters. The first simply has you pick a target CR and adjust minor things, recheck the CR against the adjustments, and sends you on your way. The other gets down into the nitty gritty and goes backwards, by having you create stats and abilities for it and then checking to see the CR afterwards. In the creation of my moogles, the system seems to work pretty well! The only hiccup I saw was no clear guidelines on adjusting CR for healing magic, though it’s easy enough to tweak based on what else is here. There is a very useful table made up of a bunch of abilities from the Monster Manual, allowing you to drop those on your monster and adjust the CR accordingly. I like the system, though I will need to work with it more before really knowing how balanced it is. Considering how simple the base rules are, however, I don’t feel like it can be that unbalanced with the CR framework they have in place.

The book also includes guidelines for creating spells, magic items, backgrounds, subclasses, races, classes, and all sorts of stuff, but these are not nearly as robust or set in stone as the monster creation rules. These are exactly just guidelines: just some signposts on the way to playing around with it yourself, and mentioning that any of these things will need good testing to really know if they work well. It includes here rules for Aasimar and Eladrin as well, nice little treats for fans of both 4e and 3e, and I will most certainly be using both myself. These guidelines, however, I do wish were a bit more robust. It may be the nature of the rules themselves that disallow them from being more detailed, but after the monster creation rules, I did feel a bit disappointed in how slim and abstract they were.

Still, I will be using them myself on stuff for this blog, so maybe I’ll be happier with them in practice? Who knows?

Before continuing, here are my quick and dirty Moogles if you are curious. They are meant to be helpful towards PCs rather than adversaries, and are intended to be short term henchmen types:

Moogles (pictures here)

A moogle is a fey creature that resembles an adorable cross between a mole and a bat. Its fur is white, and it possesses a red ball looking appendage hanging from a standing antennae on top of it’s head.

They are very shy, and tend to avoid contact with most beings. Tales tell, however, of Moogles taking great interest in heroic individuals, and have been known to utilize their strange dance rituals for the benefit of a particularly good-hearted adventurer.

There are two sub races of Moogle, one acclimated to forest environments that tend to be friendlier and wiser, celebrating the mystical side of nature. The other live in caverns, and are a bit more physically oriented and a little less mystically oriented.

If an adventuring party is near a moogle or a moogle settlement, they will be watched by the moogles. If the moogles determine they are good-hearted and kind, they will help the adventurers, usually with their dance magic.

Forest Moogle
Small Fey, neutral good
The forest variety of moogle is less timid towards outsiders than it’s cavern cousin, and knows sacred dance magic to cure hurts and diseases.
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 11 (3d6)
Speed 30 ft./30 ft. flying
8 (-1) 16 (+3) 10 (+0) 14 (+2) 16 (+3) 16 (+3)
Sensespassive Perception 12
Skills: Insight +5, Performance +5, Survival +5
Languages: Understands Common, Elven
Challenge: 1/2 (100 XP)
Smallstaff. Melee Weapon Attack:+1 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.Hit:2 (1d6-1) bludgeoning damage.
Smallbow. Ranged Weapon Attack:+5 to hit, 30ft./120, one target.Hit:6 (1d6+3) piercing damage.
Dance of Recovery: 1/day, the moogle can engage in a mystical dance. Any friendly creature within 30 feet of the dancing moogle recovers 1d8+3 Hit Points, and are cured of any non-magical diseases. The moogle must dance for his or her entire turn, giving up his or her standard action, move action, and any reactions until the beginning of his or her next turn.

Cavern Moogle
Small Fey, neutral good
The cavern moogle is more timid towards outsiders, and tends to be stockier and more martially adept than its wise forest cousins, though it knows sacred dance magic to inspire heroism.
Armor Class 12
Hit Points 17 (3d6+2)
Speed 30 ft./10 ft. flying
12 (+1) 14 (+2) 14 (+2) 12 (+1) 14 (+2) 12 (+1)
Sensespassive Perception 13, Darkvision
Skills: Perception + 3, Performance + 3, Survival +4
Languages: Understands Common, Elven
Challenge: 1/2 (100 XP)
Smallspear. Melee Weapon Attack:+4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.Hit: 4 (1d6+1) bludgeoning damage.
Stone. Ranged Weapon Attack:+5 to hit, range 30ft, one target. Hit: 4 (1d4+2) piercing damage.
Dance of Heroism: 1/day, the moogle can engage in a mystical dance. This dance mimics the effects of a Bless spell cast as a Level 2 Spell, and the Moogle may not target itself.
Spear Jump: If the moogle makes an attack after having moved 10 feet while flying, it’s smallspear attack has advantage and deals an additional 1d6 of damage.

The Appendices

As with the other two volumes, this book has a healthy set of appendices. And, like random tables, I love appendices.

The very first one is the Random Dungeon Generator. This thing is where you should look to learn a bit about dungeon design, to get down and dirty with the elements that make up a good one. I’ve yet to use it, but it looks near perfect for the task, and I’m overjoyed in its inclusion.

Next we get a set of monster lists, listing the monsters from the MM by environment as well as by CR. This is a useful one as well, but one that really should have been in the Monster Manual itself. A small matter, but waiting to include it here was a mistake in my opinion.

Then we get an appendix filled with maps. These are maps of dungeons, a wind mill, a boat, and some overland ones. Useful if you need a quick map, or else want an idea on how to draw them yourself.

And lastly, like the PHB, we have a list of inspirational reading. These works are all about storytelling, world building, and creative pursuits in general. I’ve not read most of the ones on the list, but I will certainly be using my Kindle to check them out.

The Verdict and a Reflection

I mentioned before, in one of my earlier reviews, that I dislike graded reviews. Numbers or scores might be useful for a quick judgement, but I hate writing with them. I like to see a product or a work as a whole, with good points and flaws, that cannot be easily put on a linear scale of worth. Obviously all three of my reviews for the D&D 5th edition product line have been positive; I am a huge fan of the ruleset, and I feel like as an edition it has lasting power and a very solid and simple core.

As far as the books are concerned, I think I would place them from favorite to least in this order: The Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Monster Manual, and the Player’s Handbook. Generally this is probably because of my focus in the RPG realm, but also because I feel like as volumes at the table (or between sessions), I feel like the DMG and MM are simply more powerful than the PHB. I really like the PHB, don’t get me wrong, but it is weighed down by some indexing issues and by the fact that it is very trim in comparison to the other two books in raw good stuff. If that makes sense?

Obviously this has a good reason: the PHB needs to be straightforward and of single purpose in order to be easily used to create characters. I do hope at some point it’s worth is decreased even more by a robust digital toolset.

As an aside: Isn’t it strange that between D&D Classics and DDI, 5e is the edition LEAST supported by digital means? You can get any other core book as a PDF, and DDI is a very powerful tool for playing 4e. This is a serious issue, as I see it. In this day and age, I believe the smartest move would have been to have some sort of digital offering right out of the gate, beyond the Basic Rules anyway. (Though the Basic Rules being available for free is a very bright note on an otherwise discordant digital sonnet.)

Reflecting on this edition now that the three core books are out, I am optimistic. The Starter Set was a very strong adventure, though I’m not a big fan of the Tiamat adventures (I will be reviewing those soon). But where do we go from here?

Well, the plans seem to be to release two campaigns a year, in the vein of Adventure Paths ala Pathfinder. These will include (sometimes) options for characters based around the themes of the particular campaign. I’m not so sure I like this idea. I would much prefer full campaign setting volumes with options, and smaller adventures that can be strung up into campaigns. Considering how well the Tiamat adventure works (not very well in my opinion), the future of these adventures doesn’t seem too bright. However, with only one out right now (between two volumes), perhaps it is too early to judge that.

As I said, however, I am optimistic. I feel like as an edition this one makes more fans of D&D happy than the game has in a very long while. Using the rules, it is possible to play a wide variety of ways, and if the newer campaigns are better than the launch campaign, there’ll be an extensive set of new options waiting for us.

What else is there to say? D&D at this point seems to be flying pretty high, and as a fan of role-playing games, it’s good to see the grand father of them all on top again.

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