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D&D Dungeon Master's Guide Review - Wonderfully Useful (to the Right People)

Jonathan Bolding | 12 Jan 2015 12:30
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Randomize Your Everything, and Do It Well

The Dungeon Master's Guide has always been the true province of D&D's infamous random tables, and this edition is no different. The guidelines for generating adventures, NPCs, and dungeons are all stocked with charts and tools for coming up with either a character on the fly or a bit of inspiration for a stuck DM. There's even bits like quirks for NPCs, tavern name generators, urban encounters, and a whole appendix that's simply a (remarkably thorough) random dungeon generator.

That's not to say that these are tools without any instruction, since the same section with this cornucopia of arbitrariness is also the part of the book that deals in rules for adventures, what an appropriate encounter looks like, and such minutiae as traps or special powers for villains. There's a chunk in here of great advice on how to use downtime between adventures, too, giving some life to the moments of your game where weeks or months pass "uneventfully." The adventure generation advice in particular is great, with a section detailing kinds of adventures - like Dungeon Crawl or Investigation - and how to implement them. Combined with the advice on generating types of campaigns, this section of the DMG outlines not just the art, but the process of actually designing your game, something past editions have lacked good guidelines for. Helping DMs know what to do with the session-to-session contents of their game is valuable use of page space, and well written to boot.

Rules, From Treasure to Madness

As befits the book for the person handing out all the loot, there's about a hundred pages - a third of the book - dedicated to, you guessed it: Treasure and Magic Items. There's the standard stuff, like how much loot DMs should hand out for what kind of encounters, and randomized tables to make it all nice and surprising. It's all vaguely reminiscent of the third edition DMG, but organized more usefully into individual categories for single monsters or for whole encounters. The magic items themselves range from the standard, banal D&D staples like +1 Swords and Rings of Protection to more exotic additions to the pantheon of Wondrous Items like the Alchemy Jug - which can produce a few gallons of a variety of liquids each day. (It'll get most use, I expect, from adventurers producing two gallons of Mayonnaise each day. Trust me on this one.) There aren't too many surprises here, from the tables of gems and art objects by value to the artifacts. The real money is in the short, sweet section entitled "Other Rewards," where DMs can get inspiration for giving their characters land, properties, divine blessings, favors, and other such story-based rewards with a bit of mechanical weight. Here also is a chunk of advancement options for characters who reach beyond 20th level, gaining Epic Boons that allow them to break a few rules - perfect for those long-term campaigners who just didn't manage to finish off their stories at the 20th level point.

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The contents of the Master of Rules section segue out of treasure, handing over the torch to a few pages that would have been much better placed in the Players' Handbook, since they seem like basics for everyone to understand and not just the DM. The section deals with when to roll dice, what to resolve with ability checks, and when to call for attack and saving throws. While it seems like a good idea on the surface to leave these kinds of calls up to the Dungeon Master, it'll be the source of more than a few arguments at the table for many groups composed of newer players simply because there's not good baseline to refer back to. On the other hand, the ideas of success at a cost, degrees of success or failure, and critical successes or failures, all make appearances in this advice as rules variants - and they make most sense here, alongside this rules advice.

There's also rules that run the full gamut of optional additions or corner cases. Things like house rules, exploration, social interaction, damaging objects, combat additions, chases, siege equipment, diseases, poisons, madness, and when to deal out experience points. Of those, some are useful, others (Diseases, say) seem like rules minutia that just won't get much use. Lots of people were waiting for the section in the Dungeon Master's Guide on deeper grid or hex-grid combat using miniatures, and it's present, but will likely disappoint the hardest-core of miniatures gamers. They're serviceable, but not perfect, rules that address basics like range, cover, and movement, but leave a lot of the details up to individual DMs to arbitrate. The other standout is definitely the advice on adapting the experience points system to how your game runs, using a milestone system, a system based on sessions played, or a system based on non-combat encounters. These are things D&D players were doing anyways, so it's pleasing to see some official guidance on the matter.

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