The circle is complete. Wizards of the Coast has released its 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, and with that book the trio of books that has formed the basis of Dungeons & Dragons for decades is united again in a new edition. Earlier this year, WotC released the 5th edition Player’s Handbook and followed it up with the 5e Monster Manual. Based on reviews and fan reaction and my own informal discussions with numerous players during my own Adventurer’s League gathering every Wednesday evening, the opinion seems to be that the 5th edition is a welcome return to traditional dungeon crawls and role playing to satisfy veteran players while bringing in enough new content and rule updates to freshen up the game and make it welcoming to new players. These reactions, however, have been based on the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and the handful of ready-made adventurers that have been offered up to dungeon masters and players through the Expeditions and Encounters events. The 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide has been the most obvious missing element, but no longer. It’s here, and you can expect dozens and dozens of reviews to begin popping up as new and old DMs begin to explore the book’s material and share their thoughts and experiences. Mine will follow shortly, but before I head in that direction, I want to take a brief look back at the original DMG.
The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
The earliest advertisement I can find for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) Dungeon Masters Guide (no possessive apostrophe in that version) was found in the November 1979 issue #31. It was a black-and-white advertisement placed inside the issue and not offered in full-color on the inside front cover or the back cover. It featured a traditional fighter and magic user facing off against an Efreet with the stereotypical female in the grips of said creature and dressed in almost non-existent armor and showing plenty of flesh. 1979, remember.
Note: One quick and interesting read is the short interview with E. Gary Gygax in the August 1979 issue #28 of Dragon magazine regarding the release of the AD&D DMG and how it affected OD&D and the “why” response for AD&D even being necessary. Also of interest is that up to issue #31 there were very few mentions of AD&D (even though the AD&D MM and PH were already out) although issue 30 featured the first AD&D module advertisement for S2 White Plume Mountain and issue #31 had an advert for AD&D T1 The Village of Hommlet. Once the AD&D DMG hit the shelves, however, the floodgates opened and Dragon magazine would begin offering AD&D articles for years and years.
My parents had provided me with the D&D Basic Set and, after seeing my friends and I enjoy the game so much, they gave me the AD&D DMG as a gift a year or so later. I was the only player for some time to own the DMG, and that started me on the path of being the DM most of the time. I didn’t mind. I ran a mix of both AD&D modules as well as my own custom adventures. If I had to guess, I’d estimate I read the entire AD&D DMG probably three to four times over a number of years. I didn’t read it front-to-back but just once… maybe twice. I don’t think it was really designed to be read like that, but 7th grade classes were often extremely dull and I needed something to fill the time…
I loved the DMG, but I can easily admit that the 236-page book was a mish-mash of tables, reference material, and artwork. At the time, it was all we had and we loved it… but decades do allow for a more critical view. The book lacked a formal chapter breakdown… instead, the book was just one section after another with no apparent logic to the order of topics. Alignment was followed by a discussion of Money that moved into Armor that merged into Hirelings. Some topics were heavily favored (Psionics, for example) while others sometimes received a laughable mention — Mirrors, for example, get an entire header (MIRRORS) but only a single sentence (page 60) related to their existence and use in an adventure! Charts were EVERYWHERE, including an individual To Hit chart for each class and a Saving Throw chart for over a dozen materials (ceramic, cloth, etc) against a dozen attack methods (acid, electricity, etc.). I realize that a small number of DMs likely used each and every chart at some point in their games, but I imagine most DMs just made quick decisions about many events and skipped the tedious details. Artwork ran from humorous cartoons (complete with text punchline) to amazing multi-page spreads such as the one that begins on page 170 (generating a random dungeon) and continues to page 173. Having thumbed through the AD&D DMG a few times over the last few weeks, it’s been fresh in my mind as I read through the new version and notice how different are the two books.
I still have my AD&D DMG — I had laminated the cover just after I received it, so it’s weathered the years well. (My PH and MM also survived, but my PH was more frequently used by my players and the bottom of the spine has some minor damage.) It sits on the shelf along with my AD&D PH and MM, a handful of surviving modules, and my original D&D Basic Set box. I have fond memories of both playing and DMing with the AD&D ruleset, and even though the AD&D DMG and its content is mostly out of date… I remember flipping and flipping and flipping through the pages, looking for inspiration, something new to throw at my players. I don’t remember exactly when I closed the DMG and shut down my role as DM, but that’s probably a good thing… most likely it wasn’t intentional, and that final game was played with the thought there would be another… and then something changed. If I’d known I wouldn’t be DMing again (for many decades), I probably would have dropped into one amazingly long funk. Instead, the books were lovingly boxed up by my mom (while I was in college) and put away. Time passed… about 20+ years, in fact.
For the past 15 weeks or so, I’ve been playing a half-elf sorcerer in the Adventurer’s League Encounters event (and I just reached level 4). The Encounters event is intended to be a conduit for new players to discover the game and learn the new rules, and I’ve watched (and enjoyed) as a dozen or more players completely new to D&D have sat down and explored and fought and laughed together. There have been enough versions of D&D between AD&D and the current 5th edition, that I consider myself a “new” player. I was able to jump in much faster than some players with no previous experience, but there were still a lot of things to learn. As a player, I’ve been enjoying the 5e rules, their simplicity in many areas that were once complex. I’ve triggered a trap here and there, saved the day once or twice with a proper spell, and contributed to the Tyranny of Dragons storyline.
But so far, I’ve yet to return to the DM chair.
And I’m hoping to change that soon.
The 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide
Now, with the new 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide in my hands… I plan to be ready. With 7th grade English class loaded back into memory, I picked up my copy of the 5e DMG and am tearing through it, front to back. Bring it on, WotC. Me DM again? As Jack Burton would say… I was born ready.
The 5e DMG is 320 pages in length and is filled with full-color artwork that is both inspiring and relevant to the content that surrounds it. And look at that cover! Yeah, that’s the archlich Acererak. Note his promotion from demi-lich in the S1 Tomb of Horrors module for AD&D. I mean, seriously… the dude was amazingly dangerous and powerful to begin with, and now he’s moved from a Challenge Rating of 18 to a 21? The original Tomb of Horrors would seem like the Teacup ride at Disney World compared to his lair now, I imagine…
But enough about the DMG cover…
The DMG is broken into three parts, with nine chapters in all plus four appendices and Index. (You can view the Table of Contents here if you’d like a more detailed look at how the content breaks down.) Unlike the AD&D DMG, the organization of the material within the 5e DMG is ultimately much more logical and (IMO) useful.
Part I offers two chapters. Chapter 1 is all about defining your (the DM’s) world and campaign setting. (And I have to tell you — the full-page illustration that graces the Part I intro-page is beautiful and so utterly defining of a dungeon romp.) It’s a fast read, really, and has some thought-provoking discussions that will help you create the 10,000 foot view of your world — its rules, its religions, its reason for being. I particularly enjoy the section on creating a campaign from scratch, with its easy to use random charts for generating a world shaking event, for example, or rolling up a major discovery that will have long-reaching effects on your players. I also loved reading the sections on finding a Play Style (pages 34-36) and the flavor of fantasy a DM wishes to offer up (pages 38-41).
Chapter 2 (pages 43-68) was a fun read, but my only criticism here is that I’ve never found details on planes all that useful – Astral, Ethereal, Shadowfell, and many more… Inner and Outer Planes… I am 100% certain there are DMs out there who will absolutely LOVE this discussion and all the ideas it generates, but my adventures never went that direction. Still, it’s there should I change my mind, and the section wraps up on the known Material Planes that are so familiar to veteran players — Krynn, Oerth, Toril, and many more.
Part II takes on five different chapters, and these grabbed my attention during the first skim through. If there are going to be charts, then these are the kinds I want. Random charts to generate goals for short and long campaigns, charts to generate random encounters in a variety of locales — wilderness, air, underwater, etc. Charts for generating living, breathing NPCs and the villains who are quickly and easily fleshed out. Need to generate a quick settlement for an impromptu adventure? Page 112. Need a fast side-quest to burn an hour while waiting for another player to show? Page 81. Got a dungeon created but no motivation on who built it or why? Page 102. Been wondering about how that Downtime works and what your players can do between sessions? Chapter 6: Between Adventures offers dozens of ideas, all capable of generating additional adventures and adding plenty of backstory to your players’ characters. Love magic items? Don’t worry – there are TONS of unique items here (along with some returning favorites), complete with amazing artwork and details on how they work. Over 79 pages of items, not counting the 18 pages covering sentient magic items and creating your own. Oh, and half a dozen pages on gifts, charms, marks of prestige, and boons you can award players.
Part III closes out the book with two chapters. Chapter 8, Running the Game, is the second longest chapter in the book (after Chapter 7 that covers treasure and magic items). This is the behind-the-scenes stuff that can make a DM shine. Discussions cover everything from saving throws to inspiration to fudging the dice to roleplaying NPCs. So much fun stuff in Chapter 8! There’s a section on running a chase. Yeah, drop a chase scene into an adventure (pages 252-254) and you’re going to get the DM of the Year award. Other Chapter 8 topics include using miniatures, tracking monster HP during combat, tossing in disease and madness risks to characters, and much more.
Chapter 9 is titled Dungeon Master’s Workshop, and… wow. So many variant and optional rules for DMs to consider. Want more randomness in combat? Toss out the +2 Proficiency for level 1-4 characters and instead assign a die roll to be used each time. Bring in Hero Points to give your players a dwindling number of points that can be applied to dice rolls. When they’re gone, they’re gone, and you only get them back when you level up again. Do your players wants some added depth for their characters? Add in Honor and Sanity as two new Ability Scores — shades of Call of Cthulhu where characters can go mad after seeing too many sights not meant for mortal eyeballs. There are healing variants, rest variants… and my favorite, Initiative variants. There’s one option (Initiative Score – page 270) that streamlines combat by ordering combat based on 10+Dex mod to determine order. Yet another option (three in all) called Speed Factor that seeks to remove part of the predictable nature of Initiative order and add complexity based on a per-turn re-roll, type of action taken, weapon used, and a few other factors. Page 269 introduces Plot Points, a way for players to have a little control over the game and keep a DM on his/her toes by introducing little changes in the story by burning their Plot Point. I like that one! Chapter 9 winds it all up with sections on creating new monsters, new spells and magic items, new races, and new classes.
The appendices are also of interest. Appendix A provides a much more streamlined set of charts (12 pages) for creating a random dungeon (compared to the 26 pages of charts found in the AD&D DMG). Appendix B lists the monsters from the Monster Manual using two different methods — by environment and by Challenge Rating. Appendix C offers up six pages of full-color maps (dungeon, ship, cellar, etc.) for use in your games or at least for inspiration… and they’re just pretty to look at, to boot. Appendix D adds to the list in the 5e Player’s Handbook of good non-fiction resource books. A short 4-page Index closes up the book.
The AD&D DMG was invaluable as a source of reference during my early DM days. It offered up plenty of hooks to get my players involved, and there are an amazing number of pages in the book that are almost worn thin from the number of times I probably referenced them. (Plenty of handwritten comments and underlined bits, too.) It’s real power, though, was in how serious things got when I pulled the book out of my bag. It signified game time. Adventure, danger, and fun… all at one table. There were many adventurers where I hardly referenced the thing… other gatherings where my players kept me busy as I looked for some clarification or assistance in making a ruling. I both loved that book… and hated it at times. It could be inspiring for two hours and completely frustrating the next few.
And now the new 5e DMG is here. I’ve not yet had a chance to sit down at a table with a group of players as their DM for the night, but it’s coming. It took me almost two full days to grab bits of time here and there (kids, you know), but I finished it. Front to back. There are parts I’ll likely never use… and some parts I expect to reference over and over and over again. Yep… it’s a DMG.
But not just any DMG.
This 5e ruleset has completely won me back, and I’m so happy to be welcomed back to the game with what is an obvious labor of love by the crew at Wizards of the Coast. This is the Dungeons & Dragons I remember playing… with a few changes here and there. New classes. New races. Some changes in combat rules. And the 5e DMG has made me remember just how much fun I had running adventures. It’s given me a great platform from which to get started again, and boy do I plan on diving in deep.
You successfully open the door, and it creaks inward and to the right. Those shuffling sounds are now getting louder, and an odor of decay is making your eyes water. Okay… everyone, roll for Initiative.
Additional links to my previous D&D/AD&D articles:
* Creating My 5th Edition D&D Character
* A Little History With Your D&D?
* Thoughts on the 1970s/80s D&D Basic Set and the 2014 D&D Starter Set
* A Tale of Two Handbooks – 1978 AD&D Players Handbook vs 2014 5e PH
* A Tale of Two Monster Manuals — 1977 AD&D vs 2014 5e D&D