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Saturday 20 December 2014

RPGPundit (mini-)Reviews: D&D 5e Dungeon Master's Guide

This is a short review of the 5e DMG, which I received for having worked as a consultant on the D&D project.  As with the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual before it, I think I can give a fair perspective on the DMG in spite of having been involved in the creation of the 5th edition.

The 5e Dungeon Master's Guide is a very nice hardcover book with full color cover and interior illustrations.  Published by Wizards of the Coast, with a team of writers and designers.  The cover features a fearsome Archlich, a good villain for representing the duties of the DM (to provide challenges and world-details).

So as with the Monster Manual, one of the big questions I'd really like to address here is just how does this DMG stack up against the various previous ones?  Though really, there's only one worth comparing it to, the DMG to define all others: the original 1e AD&D DMG.

I would say, from my point of view, that while the 5e DMG still doesn't manage to out-do the original Gygax DMG, it comes closer than any of the other editions ever did.

So, I think that I might have to go into more detail about many of the various parts of the DMG and my opinions on those parts in other blog entries.  But for now, what I will say is that the reason I think this DMG in particular is so good is because it shares with the 5e monster manual the quality of being 'street legal'; the sections that are purely theoretical are overshadowed by the large amount of material that is user-friendly and instantly playable.

There's sections that are clearly made to serve novice DMs, and of course that's great and useful, because we hope that a lot of first-time DMs will be using this book.  But rather than linger on some kind of tutorial, it gets right into the action lof providing quick assistance to DMs (novice and experienced) with material they can use in a rapid and practical way. Random tables, always a favorite of mine, abound.  And in some extremely interesting manifestations never seen before in a DMG: event tables, random adventure generation tables, random villain tables, wilderness feature tables, random settlement tables; as well as a few that have been around before, like random NPC tables, dungeon generation tables or urban encounters.   You have all the sort of things you need if you want to run oldschool-style play.  The book drips with immediately usable material.

The book is also (wisely) set up in such a way that it is useful in many respects for any type of D&D-style game, not just 5e in particular.  While there's obviously a lot of stuff specific to 5e, rules (and optional rules), so much of the world-building material is usable for pretty well any edition of D&D (or Pathfinder, or non-D&D fantasy games for that matter).

The organization is fairly impeccable too, and we see some innovations in the book that really should have been set up this way all along.  For example, for the first time the planes (in their traditional D&D cosmology) are detailed IN the DMG, rather than in a planar book (though obviously some planar adventure series or setting book could be made to expand the material).  There's also a whole section of optional rules made to modify the game to fit the type of campaign you want; and these are done quite well.  In respect of utility and organization, there are moments where you can even dare to speak the heresy that the 5e DMG outdoes the AD&D equivalent.

But there are, of course, areas where it does not. This DMG is far from perfect (none was, mind you not even the 1e DMG).  There are things the Gygax DMG offers that the 5e DMG does not.  Actual random encounter tables by terrain (there is one, a 'sample' one, in the 5e DMG, but that's it), for example.  But probably the biggest flaw to my first view is in the way treasure is handled.  In the book, the treasure tables are completely geared to "challenge rating", the worst possible scenario. There's no consideration given to the type of monster, whether they're animals, intelligent, undead; in other words whether they would be naturally treasure-hording or not (or what types of treasures they'd have).  And of course it means that you remove the sandbox-element of having a low-level monster that just happens to have a priceless gem or powerful artifact, or a big-time foe with little more than a few coppers.

There's a lot more I could add, in either direction, but on the whole way more positive than negative.  I'll say that if you're old-school, in spite of the few hiccups, on the whole you'll be likely to find the DMG extremely satisfying.  If you're running something other than 5e, but still fantasy, you are likely to find this book useful even so.  And of course, if you are running 5e... this book is NOT indispensible.

That last bit is the stunning twist at the end. Something worth not forgetting.  This is the first time in the history of the D&D game where the DMG is strictly optional (as indeed, ALL 3 main books are). It represents a radical shift in conception, and I think it is likely that it informed the design of the book.  If anyone can just download the Basic PDF and play the official core (uncrippled, fully usable) D&D, then that means a couple of things: first that you have to make a DMG that does not have a format of "obligatory" material, of stuff that you have to know or use to even play.  Second, I think that a lot of the awesomeness of the 5e DMG is specifically BECAUSE of that; since it was not having to be about obligatory-rules, this edition of the DMG was 'freed' to be way more about inspiration.

Finally, that's the term: inspiration.  There have been 4 official D&D DMGs now (4e doesn't count, I declare Damnatio Memoria on the whole thing), plus several other DMG-like books for related games/editions.  Some have been good, some have been bad, some technically well-designed, some badly disordered, some have been boring, most have been 'usable' without doing anything really awesome.
But of all of these books, there are only two that I would immediately and unequivocably classify as "inspiring": the Gygax 1e DMG, and this book right here.

That just about says it all when it comes to whether you should get it.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best

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