Review by Art Schmidt
Every gaming nerd in the world has stories about their first D&D game, their first (and usually favorite) edition played, their first character, first group, etc. I won’t bore you with any of mine (I’ve got some pretty awesome ones, though!) but suffice to say I have been playing D&D since before the hardbound books, so it’s been a long time. My first Dungeon Master’s Guide was the 1st Edition book, all two hundred and thirty-two glorious, black and white, densely packed pages of it. It opened up worlds of possibility for my friends and me. We spent endless hours exploring magical realms of perilous danger and heroic adventure.
I ran most of the games, as I had the Dungeon Master’s Guide (or “DMG” in gamer parlance) and a burning desire to create my own worlds. We played the printed adventures, or modules, and then I created my own. The DMG was a great help in this, chock full of tables, charts, and endless descriptions of magical items, weapons, ancient relics and fearsome villains. I do not know how many tablets of graph paper I went through in my teenage years, but I always had some pages tucked in my text books, my folders, or folded up in my pockets, covered in lines and boxes representing mines dark and deep, full of orcs and dragons and swords of flame.
Having spent the majority of my gaming years running games, versus playing characters, I have owned and used every edition of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide (except for 4th Edition, and to be honest that’s not out of any dislike for that system but due to a lack of desire of any of my gaming group at the time to make the move from 3.5). And I’ve loved them all, though at varying levels of love. The original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) Dungeon Masters Guide (note the lack of the possessive apostrophe; this was 1981 for sure) was a genuine first love, wide-eyed and unjudging and incapable of believing we’d even been blessed with such a magnificent gift. It literally opened up worlds of imagination for millions of gamers world-wide. Never mind that the book itself was a jumbled mess of disparate information, random thoughts shoveled into a solid form so quickly that no thought was given to organization or flow. It didn’t even have chapters, but did we notice or really care? Heck no!
2nd Edition was more like Puppy Love; it all looked good on the outside and added in a lot of things we thought we wanted, and we knew we were supposed to love it because we loved the game. But the mechanics weren’t completely sewn together and there were some issues with over-powered spell casting classes.
3rd Edition was a nostalgic love; it was a brave new departure from the old standard but the system was broken from the get-go. The wildly popular Edition 3.5 was a rebound love; 3rd Edition was dysfunctional and a rough break-up, and 3.5 was a welcome bowl of ice cream and a warm blanket. And it worked very well. But after years of fluff and bloat, the system became unwieldy and overly complicated. Especially so for players and DMs who wanted to focus on story, but had to acquiesce to players who wanted to min-max their way to a War Hulk or Shadowcraft Mage build which everyone knew would eventually break the campaign (and the story!).
And now here comes 5th Edition. I have to say that after being inundated with millions of rules and options in the 3.5 series of books, that 5th Edition is a welcome shift back to a simpler game that is very accessible yet retains more than enough depth to entertain most experienced players. And that’s what the game is all about at the end of the day, isn’t it? Not about building the most powerful character, or being able to slay a dragon on initiative and claim first dibs on the treasure. It’s about having fun with your friends, and in my experience that means laying down a good story.
And the 5th Edition goes a long way toward that end. Yes, there is a massive list of the standard treasure items (Chapter 7: Treasure), which takes up exactly 100 pages and makes up a third of the entire book. And yes, there are rules for running adventures underwater and on other planes of existence, normal fare for any DMG worth its weight in quarters. But, there is also a very comprehensive, some might even say exhaustive, set of guides and charts around building your campaign. Not sure what kind of world to run, but want to avoid the published worlds which everyone loves (and already knows)? There’s a dozen or so charts and guides for you. Want to create a dungeon but uncertain how to bring it to life? There’s a long set of sections and tables to help you figure that out (and you get to roll dice while you’re at it!)
Chapter 1: A World of Your Own and Chapter 3: Creating Adventures, go farther than any previous edition of the book in assisting DMs with world building and creating and running individual scenarios for their players. Not sure what the climax of your scenario or campaign should be? There is a chart designed to provide you with a random, though standard, story hook for that (“Adventure Climax,” pg 75). Not sure what form of government the kingdom your adventurers will be starting in has? There is a chart to assist with that (“Forms of Government,” pg 18). Can’t decide what type of campaign you want to run, or what types there are to choose from? A quick read through the Section “Flavors of Fantasy” (pg 38-41) will help you out, and there is even a chart to help you determine what kind of campaign you want to run (Low Magic, Standard, or High Magic, pg 38).
The 5th Edition DMG goes out of its way to help any struggling dungeon master build a decent campaign world and adventures, and that is its purpose after all. But it seems in some ways to contradict the startlingly sparse information in the “Tyranny of Dragons” campaign books, which are the only individually published 5th Edition campaign materials from Wizards of the Coast so far. Published in two parts, “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” and “Rise of Tiamat,” the layout of those books, especially “Rise of Tiamat,” almost seem to assume that the person running the adventure already has a wealth of experience.
High level campaigns are by nature loose and more “open world” (to use a video gaming term) than lower level adventures. In starting scenarios, the characters can be led from one boxed scenario to another with little difficulty or resistance from the players. But as their characters grow in wealth, reputation and personal power, they are naturally going to want to stretch their wings and play outside the box, so to speak.
“Rise of Tiamat” provided a framework for this type of adventuring, but in many spots it was very thin. An inexperienced DM could easily get lost trying to follow the suggested chain of events, which were laid out completely differently in the chapter and sections than they were in the story flow, and with few rules around managing the “in between” spaces around political meetings and faction negotiations, it was a bad campaign experience waiting to happen for the uninitiated DM and his neophyte players.
In contrast, the 5th Edition DMG provides a plethora of help for any DM struggling with almost any aspect of their campaign. The rules are very well laid out, and it is obvious that WotC put a ton of effort into this edition. The free PDFs they have been publishing, which are basically the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide “lite,” are helping to make the game more accessible to those who want to try it out but don’t want to shell out fifty bucks for each book in order to give it a try. The campaign supplements published with the Tyranny of Dragons books go a long way to bridge the gap, and its great that WotC makes them available for free online (especially since the DMG just came out this week but the campaign books have been out for several weeks). However, the flip side of this is the expectation that to play a game you’ve spent $30 on (for just a single campaign book, assuming you’re using the free PDF rules online), means you still have to download two 30+ page supplements, one for each book in the campaign (Hoard of the Dragon Queen supplement available here; Rise of Tiamat supplement available here. That’s a lot of supporting material, but then again it offsets the cost (i.e. freebies).
Aside from the world-building guides, rules for running adventures in odd locales, and gobs of cool treasure items and drawings, there are also two nice sections tucked away in the back of the book for expanding and customizing your campaign. Chapter 9: Dungeon Master’s Workshop (pg 263), contains character and rules customization information which can give a DM a lot of flexibility in running the game the way they want to. A lot of folks were expecting some prestige classes or guide information to be in the DMG, but it’s not there. However, there is a nice-sized section on customizing options for your players not tied to class or race. For instance, there is a good summary on pages 288 & 289 on using Spell Points versus the traditional spell slot system. On page 265 is a simple but efficient description of how to incorporate Hero Points into your campaign, another popular variant. There are also combat options and guides to creating your own monsters, spells and magic items to keep them consistent with the existing rule mechanics. Very good information!
And then there are the appendices. Appendix A: Random Dungeons contains the normal tables for creating, you guessed it, random dungeons. Included are random encounter and dungeon dressing tables which, when combined with the Monster Manual and the random Treasure tables in the DMG will enable anyone with a basic understanding of the rules to run a dungeon crawl off the cuff. Appendix B: Monster Lists provides the categorization of monsters by challenge rating which everyone bemoaned as “missing” from the Monster Manual (but provided by WotC as a free PDF online), as well as other useful information on monsters and their statistics. Lastly, Appendix C: Maps contains a nice variety of highly detailed and useful maps that are well worth a long look. In fact, they contain such attention to details that this reader wonders if they came from some forthcoming campaign materials.
Overall this book is a no-brainer for anyone who wants to run a 5th Edition D&D campaign. It has very few drawbacks and contains all of the information that experienced DMs will expect, as well as very well thought-out guides for the newbie game master. The layout is nicely planned, and though it is a reference book and not meant to be read cover-to-cover, the chapters flow nicely and the information is well laid-out in a thoughtful manner. And I like the “disclaimer” at the beginning of the book which has been the development team’s standard on all of the publications for 5th Edition so far. Very nice, indeed!
The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons & Dragons is available at Amazon.com and other fine online stores, as well as your local book retailer. The Tyranny of Dragons campaign books, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat are also available at Amazon.com as well as your local book store, as are the other two D&D rule books, the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual.