Over the years, none of the Dungeons and Dragons manuals has changed as much as the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It began as a tome of potent secrets, to be jealously guarded from the feckless eyes of mere players. Were a DM so inclined, he or she could prevent the players from...
Over the years, none of the Dungeons and Dragons manuals has changed as much as the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It began as a tome of potent secrets, to be jealously guarded from the feckless eyes of mere players. Were a DM so inclined, he or she could prevent the players from even knowing how their to-hit rolls matched up against armor class to establish the results of a sword-blow or bowshot. Experience point values for monsters, the effects of magic items, even simple rules for movement remained the purview of the game-master.
As the game grew, and more and more options arose for building characters, the basics of play moved into the Player’s Handbook, and the DMG relinquished XP values to the Monster Manual and most of the combat rules to the PHB. In the process, it morphed into a nuts-and-bolts toolbox, starting off with rules on combat management, followed by practical sections covering environmental hazards, towns and villages, NPC generation, NPC character classes, and so on. In both 3E and 4E, it opened with a narrow focus and gradually got wider and wider in scope, with the culminative chapters advising the DM on how to run a campaign and build a world.
The new edition does exactly the opposite, and therein lies its genius.
If there’s one thing that D&D is always about, it’s the experience of stepping out of this world and into another. The fifth edition DMG establishes how important that notion is by putting the world- and cosmos-building chapters up front. Creating a fantastical environment for players to adventure in and journey through is no longer something you eventually get around to by the end of the book; it’s front-and-center as the DM’s first responsibility. You don’t arrive at the “It’s Your World” headline half or two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the book: it’s on the opening page of Chapter One.
From world-crafting, the book moves into storytelling, with chapters on designing and running adventures, populating them with colorful personages, and linking them with character-oriented downtime. It’s important to note that the magic item catalog resides in this section, because in this version of D&D magic items are not just buffs for players to enhance their characters’ abilities with; they’re the payoff for stories, and they’re explicitly supposed to feel unique, with their own origins and stories attached.
To create that feeling, the new DMG does what no other ever has: it copiously and beautifully illustrates the magic item section with free-standing images of the items themselves. The drawings spread across a third of every page, luxurious close-shots with nary a character in sight, making it plain that these are not mere accessories, but truly objects of sorcery and enchantment. If you’re an old-school gamer and you have any kind of sentimentality to you, you owe it to yourself to go a bookstore and have a look. The illustrations are so glorious they have to be seen to be believed. I literally got choked up looking at the dozens of perfectly imagined rings, robes, rods and staves around the 200-page mark. It’s natural to expect a cool picture of a flametongue or some figurines of wondrous power, but the art directors for this book went the extra mile and found artists who could render wands and rings jaw-dropping.
Of course, even the most beautiful rulebook – which this one is – ultimately succeeds or fails on the basis of its gaming content. Here too, the new DMG is a remarkable success.
Tables and charts are a longtime staple of RPG books in general and DMGs in particular, and this case is no exception. What is unusual is how richly imaginative and story-driven many of the tables are. The table of magic item quirks doesn’t just customize the game effects of items; each entry provides a sense of background and reality, or a dash of personality to spur creative role-play. The 3.5 DMG had a table of 100 NPC traits. In 4.0, there were two tables for mannerisms and appearance. Here, the tables for generating NPC details stretch across six pages and provide specific game-applicable hooks for motives, methods, and personalities that simultaneously provide quick tools to generate unique antagonists and also a source of inspiration for jumping off in any number of story directions. Even the table describing costs for magic item creation is a story driver, because when you do the math (one day of work for every 25 g.p. in an item’s manufacturing cost), you find that legendary items take about 54 years for a 17th level mage to craft. Who has that kind of time? Obviously, only an elf, a particularly obsessive dwarf, or some spellcaster of a shorter-lived race who has learned the secret of near-immortality. A vorpal weapon is therefore not just a set of game mechanics that let you lop off heads on a natural 20 – it’s someone’s life work, or at the very least an elf archmage’s long-term hobby.
In short, every element of this book – the art, the rules tables, the text, the graphic design – has been carefully designed to make you, as a dungeon master, want to be your most creative. To imbue your campaign and its adventures with all the potential these pages promise. You may disagree with some of the specific choices – perhaps you’d rather enable adventuring characters to craft a ring of invisibility by taking a few months off from dungeon-crawling. But as always, the book actively encourages you to throw out whatever doesn’t suit your needs.
My group is in the final stages of a massive campaign from another game, but I’m bursting over with excitement to put this book to use at the first available chance.
And yes, for the first time in ... what, 20 years? ... the belt/gauntlets/hammer combo lets you kill giants instantly. If that means something to you, get this book.