For Dungeon Masters of all stripes, new and experienced both, the DMG2 is a must-have and will challenge the ideas of even someone who regularly dispenses advice on running RPGs (such as myself). This is the first 4e book that I can recommend to non-4e players for the strength of the first chapter alone. Plus, for 4e DMs, you get an extension of all that came before in the original DMG.
I must admit that I wasn’t impressed with the DMG from 4e, especially compared to its predecessors. I was told by other reviewers who liked it (and disliked the other two books) that it was a great primer for new DMs, and that may very well be true, but for someone who has as much XP as I do on running games, the only highlights were page 42, up-leveling/down-leveling monsters, and treasure parcels. The DMG2 builds on all that information and brings a lot new to the table while developing the concepts established in the original book.
Chapter 1: Group Storytelling
This chapter is worth the price of admission alone, and from what I understand, is primarily the work of Robin Laws, no stranger to the world of writing about game mastering. Highlights of the chapter include the section on “Branching”, which talks about how the success or failure creates different options for how to progress with a story, and by introducing interesting complications into a story even when the PCs fail. There’s some resemblance to the GUMSHOE RPG, which should come as no surprise as it was also written by Mr. Laws.
The chapter continues with collaborative ways with your players to structure your campaign. There are suggestions on how to tie your PCs together with a theme and get motivations out of them, as well as establishing interrelationships between the PCs. (All things I did when starting my last campaign.) There are also suggestions on how to creative a collaborative plot with your players, and how to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of such a game. (You’ll hear that idea done a little at the beginning of one of our podcasts.)
The chapter closes with some more mechanical options for making “Companion Characters”: those characters that can fill in missing roles from a party, act as henchmen, or represent that random NPC who joins up for just one quest. There’s also some mechanical guidelines for temporarily adjusting a PC’s level to fit in with a group of a level more than two levels higher or lower.
Chapter 2: Advanced Encounters
“Encounter As Story” represents something that I’ve long advocated in 4e combats as a way to cut down on “grind.” However, they don’t just give “outs” to ending combat early, there’s plenty to work with when planning out your stories.
“Player Motivations” continues developing the list from the DMG (and explored elsewhere, even if the motivations had different names) by providing more tips for appealing to that player type, as well what kind of encounter types those players enjoy, and somewhat oddly, where the ideal seating is in relation to the DM. Many of the player types are backed up by a sidebar of how that player type can be appealed to in the adventure from the first DMG, “Kobold Hall.”
Amusingly, there’s also a sidebar in this section for “Achievements” ala Xbox or WoW.
Also addressing the long combats, there’s a section on “Encounters and Attrition” that talks about pacing, dissecting the flow of an encounter, and ways to push encounters forward by using momentum, rewards, deadlines, and prohibitions. There’s also a sidebar for making long fights… not about extending the length of a standard 4e fight (that few would want) but for tying together situations where there are reinforcements, time-sensitive chases, and so on.
Getting back into the mechanics, there’s a bunch of terrain (mostly magical) that spices up a battlefield, then “terrain powers” which are terrain features that can specifically be activated by PCs or monsters… from the classic chandelier to a rope to swing on.
Notably missing from the first DMG, we get trap creation rules, which reprints page 42 for reference, and some more sample traps (including new trap roles that mirror monster roles: elite, minion, and solo.) My favorite new trap: the infamous rolling boulder. It includes this line: “Tactics: This trap is straightforward. The big boulder rolls down, crushing all in its wake.”
“Pulling it all together” finishes the chapter by giving you a sample encounter that has monsters, terrain, and traps.
Chapter 3: Skill Challenges
It kicks off by reprinting the basics, which has all the post-errata skill challenge DCs. We also get to see an example skill challenge as if it were in play, which should help some struggling with the idea. This is followed by some ground rules for designing skill challenges from a plot perspective, and some alternatives to skill challenges.
“Skill Challenges in depth” gives a number of different models of skill challenges that definitely complicate the mechanic and make them sort of a skill-based minigame for complex scenarios. Examples include skill challenges that evolve in stages and that branch off, as well as skill challenges that don’t just use skills for successes. There’s also a sidebar on “Transparency and Skill Challenges” which covers the same ground as my article on Overt vs. Covert Skill Challenges and comes to the same conclusions.
“Skill Challenge examples” is, as expected, more pre-made skill challenges, almost all reprinted from other sources. It does include my favorite skill challenge from Through the Silver Caves. The last example is truly impressive, which states up front that it stretches a skill challenge to the extreme, and takes up a massive 4 pages.
Chapter 4: Customizing Monsters
“Monster Themes” are like mini-templates that can be applied to a linked group of monsters. For example, a dungeon full of cultists of Demogorgon could all get two heads or lashing tentacles, or a you could use “Those who hear” to represent a group that has been touched by Far Realm entities.
There are more templates too, and not just the traditional “X mixed with Y” types, also ones for humanoids like Grizzled Veteran and Mad Alchemist. There are also templates for all the PHB2 classes for when you really want your PCs to bash a Bard. The end of the chapter has corrected rules for making elites and solos based on the MM2 monsters, as well as rules for making new minions (hooray!)
Chapter 5: Adventures
“Alternative Rewards” is a system for mechanical benefits for characters that enhance their abilities that are NOT magic items: divine boons (gifts of the gods), legendary boons (benefits of having a destiny or other story based events), and grandmaster training (training from more experienced masters, like kung-fu techniques.)
“Item components” give suggestions for divvying up a a treasure parcel into components that can be used for making specific items, in case you want to give more of a “recipe” feel to magic item creation.
“Artifacts” give you more suggestions on using artifacts in the game, as well as MOAR ARTIFACTS. There are some new ones, but also old favorites like the Cup and Talisman of Al’Akbar and The Rod of Seven Parts (which includes a new explanation of what the Wind Dukes of Aaqa were and what Miska the Wolf-Spider was to fit into 4e.)
“Organizations” are suggestions for putting factions/groups into play for your games, and a few (but not many) examples.
“Campaign Arcs” gives some suggestions for campaign models that make suggestions for overall arcs, separated by tier. Some are traditional (there are rifts opening to other worlds) and some are more out there (time travel!)
Chapter 6: Paragon Campaigns
“Paragon Status” gives advice on running Paragon-level games and what themes are appropriate. Let me say it again because it also appears here: Time Travel! Also epic wars, world-hopping, and alternate realities. That’s the kind of crazy stuff I love in my D&D and love to see it supported in print- there was support in 2e but I don’t remember much in 3e for meeting evil versions of yourself on an alternate fantasy world. The masters of war section in particular will be useful to many since it gives multiple ways to resolve battles in the 4e framework, including skill challenges (an idea we’re familiar with.)
“Sigil, The City of Doors” is a write-up of the iconic city that first appeared in Planescape in a similar fashion to how the DMG described Fallcrest. This is my one big disappointment with the book: it may be because I was spoiled by the original setting, but the amount of detail here of the city pales in comparison and feels incomplete and fairly lifeless. Additionally, one cast-off line destroys my favorite part of Sigil, as the factions are completely done away with. There’s also little Sigil art, though there is a pretty good map, yet I’m left wanting some DiTerlizzi. There are a few sample urban encounters, but they are fairly generic and certainly don’t seem unique to Sigil.
“Gate-Towns” describe all the locations that sit on the edge of portals to other planes, the concept of which should be familiar to Planescape fans, but adjusted for all the new planar locations.
The book finishes with “A Conspiracy of Doors”, an 11th level adventure centered in Sigil. Just as with “Kobold Hall”, there’s not a lot of story to the adventure, focusing on helping the Planar Trade Consortium.
That’s a lot packed into this book that I’ve described, but I’ve got news for you: there’s more than what I’ve described in this review. There’s sections that I didn’t describe, and tons and tons of useful advice crammed into the sidebars. This is a book packed with all kinds of advice and tools for Dungeon Masters (and game masters of all games) that could give something to even the most experienced of dungeon masters. Even though I consider myself very well read through Dragon articles, blogs, and so forth, and even though there is plenty in the book reprinted from other sources, I consider this a must-have book for the way it’s presented. The DMG 1 may never come to my game table again with this around.
Also, as a personal side note, big congratulations to Yax of Dungeonmastering for his contributions to the book. It’s really awesome to see a blog that you followed from the start lead to something as exciting as getting your name on sidebars in a Dungeon Master’s Guide.
You can read some exclusive previews from other bloggers if I haven’t yet convinced you: