Review: “Dungeon Master’s Guide” for “Dungeons & Dragons” 5th Edition

DnD_DMGBack when D&D 3e came out in 2000, the Player’s Handbook came out before the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide (which is why, thanks to the OGL, there was a 3rd party monster book available for sale the day the PHB was out but not the official MM.) The Player’s Handbook contained an insert that gave more information needed to run the game, including some sample monster stats. Later printings of the PHB, after the other two books were released, removed those pages.

The 5e releases were similarly staggered, with some free online PDFs serving the same purpose of that original insert. There are a few basic magic items and the encounter building guidelines, but not a whole lot else. I’ve been running the new D&D game for a few months now, and there’s been a few parts that I’ve had to improvise that I was looking forward to the DMG (mainly the rewards and improvised actions). After all, I’m an experienced dungeon master, so it’s the rules bits that I respond more to than the advice on how to run a game.

Well, I’ve got the Dungeon Master’s Guide in hand now. Does it fill in the gaps? Is it more for new DMs, experienced DMs, or all? What about all the rules modules discussed earlier in development?

The Basics

The 5e DMG is 320 pages. Two of the biggest chunks are the magic items (though compared to 3e and 4e, it feels like magic items take up a lot less space comparatively, but I don’t have my books here to check) and the section on the planes, which is practically a Manual of the Planes by itself. It’s divided into three parts: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules, with each having its own subsections. There’s a brief introduction about the role of the DM, and it breaks down a few of the player types, drawing heavily on the Robin Laws player types which were a focus on the 4e DMG2.

Every section is packed with a variety of topics. The book feels very dense with information, eschewing parts that take up a lot of space. For example, it’s pretty light on art compared to the other books, and there’s almost nothing in the way of stat blocks.

However, there are tables. Lots of tables. Whether you’re planning out your campaign map, figuring our overarching plots, or just figuring out the results of the PCs having a night on the town, you’ll find a table somewhere in here for it. Like the background tables in the PHB, nothing about the tables are binding (and you’ll only use a fraction of them depending how your game runs) but when combined you can get a lot of mileage out of it.

Likewise, many of the rules listed throughout the book are optional, though in different ways. There’s both rules for “use this if you feel it’s appropriate” like social interaction rules and detailed tracking rules, but also variant rules that are campaign decisions like facing rules and the return of weapon speed.

If nothing else could be said about this DMG, it’s that there’s a lot in here. Instead of going deep into most subjects, the coverage tends to be more of an overview, while also covering a lot of different topics. The book covers so much, in fact, that while I try to cover much of the book in here, there’s plenty that goes unmentioned. Instead of an extensive section on how to run the game, you’ll find different parts about planning the world, how to interpret dice, how to improvise, and so on. If you read it from cover to cover, you’ll find plenty to learn from, whether you’re a new or experienced DM. However, in the introduction itself it recommends starting with the basic set if you’re a new DM, so that might be a clue that this isn’t an ideal onramp into D&D.

Master of Worlds

The Master of Worlds section focuses on the macro levels of your campaign. It starts with a lot of talk about core assumptions, moving quickly into discussions of deities. It includes the “Dawn War” pantheon, AKA the set of deities from 4e. Several of the deities use the Death domain which is also defined in the DMG. There’s also discussions of alternatives to the “Greco-Roman style” of deity pantheons, including monotheism, animism, and divine philosophies.

The next section is about mapping your campaign, which is where the many tables begin, starting with the random form of government table. There are broad strokes about settlement types, commerce, currency, and discussions of factions and an optional system to track renown within those factions. There’s about a page of discussion on the role of magic in your campaign, and discussing some of the big questions of magic, including widespread teleportation circles and raising the dead.

The next section covers the actual planning of the campaign, before going into a number of tables for inciting incidents and other campaign-driving events. There’s a lot of seeds of planning within these tables, though they aren’t something you’d generally roll on in the middle of a campaign and have occur suddenly (unless randomly rolled volcanic eruptions are your kind of thing.)

There’s some discussion of playstyles, and the different levels in play, including some recommendations on starting wealth for higher level characters. Then there’s a discussion of different campaign styles, referencing the big D&D worlds as examples. For instance, Forgotten Realms is heroic fantasy, Dark Sun is sword and sorcvery, and Ravenloft is dark fantasy. Included in this list is wuxia fantasy, which wisely eschews the outdated “Oriental Adventures” terminology. There’s a number of substitute names suggested for wuxia, including different names for Chinese or Japanese-inspired campaigns, as well as class options (a ninja is just a monk Way of Shadow, for instance.)

dmg_excerpt5The next chapter is the Manual of the Planes-type chapter mentioned earlier, starting with an awesome image of a great modron march. The traditional planes and planar models of D&D are presented (for the pre-4e versions) as well as a number of alternative cosmologies. There are mentions of the different planar structures used in different campaign settings, though I didn’t spot any reference to Spelljammer and its “all campaign worlds in crystal spheres” setup. Each plane gets about a half page writeup of its own, usually including an optional rule for representing an important part of the plane. Including all the planes we know from Planescape, the 4e Shadowfell and Feywild made it in, but not some of the changed planes like the Elemental Chaos. If you know the planes from previous editions, everything in here should look familiar, and it serves as a good primer for everyone else.

Master of Adventures

Ready to plan your adventures? There’s lots of tables to help you, including everything from random goals, villains, moral quandaries, and plot twists. It reminded me a lot of the adventure generator Chatty DM wrote up for the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide (which is a good thing.)

There’s slightly expanded rules from the free PDF on appropriate encounters. Almost nothing in the system behind it has changed, and I still find the process of figuring out an XP budget for an encounter to be pretty clunky. However, it does cover a lot of ground, accounting for encounters like multiple waves of enemies coming, dealing with smaller or larger parties, and mixing in other elements so it’s more interesting than a standup fight. It’s not the ease of encounter planning I was used to in 4e, but it is robust and it works.

Next up are NPC rules, including giving them their own abilities, ideals, bonds, and flaws, just like a 5e PC. There are discussions on using built NPCs as “monsters” AKA combatants, which largely refer to the create a monster section later in the book. There’s also a section on villains, their terrible schemes, and villainous class options.

The next chapter covers mapping, from building a dungeon to sketching the wilderness and conditions for traversing a variety of environments. There’s another section on settlements here, giving you tables for making some on the fly, whereas the either section was more about them in the context of an entire campaign.

Following that is a section on traps, breaking them out into different types of traps. There are simple traps and complex trap options, mostly being different in if it acts on its own with initiative or not. There’s a variety of sample traps, many of which have different options as well, that cover the common types. As you might expect, traps have a variety of ability/skill checks in order to deal with them. If you need everything from poison darts to a big rolling sphere, it’s here.

The next chapter briefly covers downtime activities, which are basic rules and costs for doing things like building your own stronghold, running a business, or just partying in town. The rules for selling magic items- which I’m pretty sure are designed to be an ordeal to discourage it- are included here as well.

Sweet Loot

Next comes treasure, which as I mentioned, was one of the main parts I was missing while I was running my campaign. There are classic treasure tables that list random money payouts based on challenge rating ranges for monsters, and the ever popular gemstone descriptions by monetary value.

dmg_excerpt2Then, of course, there’s magic items. The concept of magic item rarity makes a return here, clearly delineating picking up a random potion of healing and the Deck of Many Things. The concept of attunement is introduced, suggesting a limit of magic items for characters to reduce the “Christmas Tree Effect” from some previous editions. There’s a few tables that give more life to magic items, letting you determine who created it/was intended to use it, what it’s history is like, what quirk it has, and an extra minor property. Also, the return of scroll mishaps and potion miscability for when you’re really desperate and start chugging different potions.

Magic items are presented in a big, long list, not bothering to separate into weapons, armor, wondrous, etc. anymore. Magic weapons and armor only goes up to +3, which does a better job of making them a requirement for leaving up and keeping with the “bounded accuracy” concept. Many of the famous items make appearances here, plus a few new or variants. That means you get both your Appartus of Kwalish and Alchemy Jug (that can produce copious amounts of mayonnaise, just the thing for encountering dire turkey sandwiches.)

There’s a solid 54 pages of magic items, ending with a section on making intelligent magic items, with all that entails, and a few examples of classic intelligent magic items.

Artifacts get their own section, describing what makes them different from magic items. What’s interesting about the way they’re presented here is that they have slots of random properties (both beneficial and detrimental), so the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords in my campaign may have some abilities that are different than the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords in your campaign.

The end of the chapter contains alternative rewards: boons that grant special abilities without being actual items as well as story rewards like titles and land. This is a welcome addition for instances where you don’t want to give away items (that might just get sold later) and instead grant personalized powers to PCs based on what they’ve done in the campaign. It also has a list of Epic Boons, which are abilities that can be gained beyond 20th level. It’s a short section but it’s what you get for epic level adventures, until a full sourcebook comes out.

Master of the Rules

The chapter on running the rules contains a lot of the nitty-gritty of DM advice: when to call for a roll, how to address metagame thinking, what the different ability scores cover, etc. There’s a sample chart of difficulty classes (which are just increments of 5 from 5 to 30), some suggestions about giving advantage and disadvantage to roll, how to award inspiration, and so on.

There’s a section on introducing extra results into d20 rolls, including “success at a cost” which is a staple of other RPGs like Fate Core. Though it’s just a short section, it’s a welcome addition that can open up the swingy d20 resolution system to a lot of other possibilities.

Some rules for other common situations follow, including traveling, tracking, and breaking stuff. There’s a section for social interaction rules, which remind me most of the 3e Diplomacy rules, and I find a bit bland, especially compared to other social interaction rules out there. It’s also emphasized that they’re totally optional, and it also includes a section on suggestions for good roleplaying.

A bit on battles is also in this section, which include suggestions on using tactical maps (both squares and grids), and optional rules for flanking, facing, and diagonals. There’s also some chase rules, which have some fun elements (chase complication tables) and some annoying tracking (tracking exact distances at all times for multiple creatures.) Finally in this section, there are assorted rules for poisons, diseases, siege weapons, madness, and XP alternatives.

Honestly, I found this section largely disappointing, with a few exceptions. There’s nothing that really covers the same spirit as skill challenges did, which for all their problems in implementation in 4e, were an area of the rules that D&D could use. (Our experience hosting the Skill Challenges page and its popularity showed that.) The social interaction rules, which are one of the “three pillars” of D&D in 5e, seems to get a short shrift. A lot of the tactical combat rules was cut from the book, which we knew in advance, but is still a bit lacking. While it’s hard to complain in a book that is otherwise packed with so many options, there’s a few glaring holes where the expectation was built up.

Additionally, there’s no equivalent to the famous “page 42” of the 4e DMG, one chart that showed appropriate damage by level and appropriate difficulty classes. Those charts exist (and are largely more simple in this edition) but it would be nice to have one catch-all page.

Tools in the Workshop

Chapter 9 is the Dungeon Master’s Workshop, and it’s where the most rules variants and rules creation parts are in the book. This is the chapter that 3rd party publishers (assuming there will be any) will be referring to most often.

There are options for dice in place of a proficiency bonus and eliminating skills altogether, both of which were tested out as part of the open playtest process. There are also Hero Points as an option in the same way they were used in Eberron and Unearthed Arcana in 3.5e. There’s a number of smaller rules changes, like adding ability scores for honor and sanity and introducing fear and horror into games.

Multiple variants are there for healing and resting, since the base options of hit dice/healing after a long rest aren’t right for every campaign. Versions for less healing for gritty campaigns and more healing for heroic options are there.

For your Barrier Peaks and Red Steel games, there are rules for firearms, explosives, and alien technology (including art that originally appeared in my Barrier Peaks Dragon magazine article.)

If you want to really introduce some narrative control into your game, there’s a system for introducing Plot Points (not to be confused with the aforementioned Hero Points) that allow players to introduce complications into the story of the game. There’s even an option here to eliminate the DM role and make Plot Points an engine for shared-DM responsibility.

For the rest of the variant rules, there are combat options that include different ways of handling initiative (including the return of weapon speed), more combat options like disarming, tumbling, and marking, long term injuries, massive damage, and morale.

dmg_excerpt3Next up is the section on creating your own monster. I haven’t delved into it too much. The first glance is that it’s very indepth, though there’s plenty of helpful tables to guide you along the way. It looks like you can do a lot of calculations by hand on a system simliar to making a character, or use a quick reference chart to approximate many of the steps. For your own campaign, the latter is almost certainly sufficient, while published products may require a lot more vigilance.

There are also guidelines for designing your own spells, magic items, race/subraces, class/subclasses, and backgrounds. I say guidelines because they’re a lot less rigorous than the monster creation process and require more judgment calls. There are still rules behind them- there’s standards for how much a spell does per level it is for instance- but ultimately there’s a lot of “take something that already exists and modify it.” The one big change here is a spell point system, if you want to replace any class’s Vancian-style casting with a more flexible system.

Appendixes and Ending

The book ends with a few appendixes. Appendix A is the section for random dungeons, Appendix B is monster lists by environment and challenge rating. Appendix C are some random, unlabeled maps, and Appendix D contains inspirational reading for DMs, including some favorite game design resources of mine.

So, to recap, this is a DMG that is packed. It covers the basics of what you expect to see in a dungeon mastering manual, plus D&D world information (like the section on the planes), and lots of options, variants, and rules building to allow a lot of customization to your D&D game. It’s got oh so many tables, which are easy to ignore if you’re brimming with ideas and provide plenty of inspiration for when you need it. It’s text dense, while at the same time, is brief in trying to cover so many topics. There are a number of areas that I was hoping for more, and I can’t see it being the best tome for teaching new DMs, though I think it’s going to be very effective in teaching players who are trying to make the jump to DM.

Is it the best Dungeon Master’s Guide I’ve ever read? Probably not. Its strengths in the variety of topics covered is also one of its weaknesses, where you’ll be left wanting in some areas. It will, however, cover tons of needs, including ones you didn’t know you had. It’s not quite a “hacker’s guide” of D&D that was hinted at in earlier previews, though there’s lots of that to get you started and plenty of advice to empower you to experiment with your campaign.

It’s a must-buy for 5e DMs, though that much I probably didn’t need to tell you. Like the other two 5e books, it’s very well executed, and gives you the greatest hits of D&D, in everything from magic items to the planes.

The question I’m left with now that the three core books are out is: what’s next for this D&D?

The Dungeon Master’s Guide releases in Wizards Premiere game stores on November 28, and in wider release December 9. A complimentary copy was provided for review purposes.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Excellent review. I’m looking forward to hopefully picking this up by the end of January at the latest.

  2. ArashiNoMoui says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m thinking I need to take a look at it for my 13th Age game. 🙂 we are hitting a lull and some random inspiration would be nice.

  3. Melquiades says:

    Great review, thanks. Any pointers on these “other social interaction rules out there”?

    • Something like Burning Wheel is on the opposite side of the scale if you want the rules for social challenges with heavy rules for it. Even something like Fate has options that treat social “damage” as equally viable as other types, and encourages you to bring in parts of your character’s personality.

  4. If this isn’t the best DMG released, what would you say is?

  5. “Additionally, there’s no equivalent to the famous “page 42″ of the 4e DMG, one chart that showed appropriate damage by level and appropriate difficulty classes.”

    The chart you’re looking for is on page 274. It shows appropriate damage, HP, save DCs attack bonus, etc by CR. It’s every bit as useful (if not moreso since you basically don’t need a Monster Manual anymore).

  6. Daniel S. says:

    Does it have castle building rules and hireling costs?

  7. By chance, are there any new rules included in the DMG that talk about creating characters above level 1? I’m working on a one-shot for much higher levels and until I receive my DMG this week, I’ve got my players waiting to equip their PCs with any magic items until I get a chance to review what might be suitable for them.