Friday, May 15, 2015

Tommy's Take on D&D 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I have reviewed the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual and the Hoard of the Dragon Queen...but I got sidetracked before I reviewed the Dungeon Master's Guide. Honestly, I think this review is going to be a bit better than it would have been, because the first impressions have washed away, and I've been using the book in play since it was released.
ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM DISCLAIMER: Nothing to report here. No affiliate links and I bought it with my own money.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The book retails for $50, but you can get it for less all over the internet. It's a stocky 320 pages that contains no *essential* rules, but tries to act as guide to unlocking 5th Edition.

Part 1: Master of Worlds is all about setting up your campaign, even if you are using an established campaign. Yes, they say in plain English that if you are using Forgotten Realms, that it becomes yours from the moment you start running it and the adventures affect the world. This chapter attempts to look at campaign creation from both the top down and the bottom up, beginning with the overall world concept as well as just beginning with a small settlement. Guidelines are provided for advancing up in factions, random charts for massive, world-shaking events, and even a breakdown of the tiers of play (based on character level) and how they are envisioned to interact with the world. There's even a section breaking down various "flavors of fantasy" (like Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Wuxia, War, Intrigue and so on). Forgotten Realms examples are prevalent in this section, seemingly cementing it as the unofficial baseline for D&D.

The second chapter in Part 1 is no substitute for a Manual of the Planes, but it does dive into the multiverse and give ideas for building your own cosmology, beginning with the popular Great Wheel but providing numerous examples, some taken from other settings, some from real world version even ditches planes altogether, in favor of physical locations called Abyss, Mechanus and so on. Each plane gets an entry, as well as an idea about what visiting said planes might entail. A better overview than I recall from most DMGs but it will take a little elbow work to flesh this out (or an old Planescape collection).

Chapter three dives headlong into random adventure tables and how to create random encounter tables. There's a banal set of rules for "balancing" encounters and how much XP should be earned in an adventuring day, but I can tell you from experience that the Challenge Rating system best.

NPCs get a whole chapter, including a Loyalty score that you can use for NPCs traveling with the party, plus two villainous character options: The Death Domain for Clerics and the Oathbreaker path for Paladins (with handy Redemption sidebar). Oh, and random tables to roll on for generating features for NPCs (including villain schemes and methods).

Chapter five is *full* of charts for creating dungeons, but also covers wilderness adventures (including tables for the weather conditions), and rules for foraging food in the wild. More random charts are included for generating towns on the fly, as well as guidelines for traps and underwater games.

Chapter six is all about downtime, from planting adventure seeds through building forts, carousingg or running a business.

Of course, treasure and magic items have to be addressed. One key thing worth noting here is that +4 and +5 items are off the table altogether, and a much bigger emphasis is placed on making items more special. Along those lines, many items require attunement, preventing you from just loading up on stacked items. A lot of old classics are here, but the most interesting thing is that many items are usable by a wider variety of classes, such as any class being able to use wands. Sentient weapons and artifacts make a return as well, and there's a great section on giving characters Supernatural Gifts (like Blessings or Charms), Marks of Prestige (commendations that carry weight among the people) and even Epic Boons (these are huge, and are also recommended for advancement after Level 20, such as ceasing to age, increased walking speed or even immunity to scrying).

Part 3 dives into rules, and this is what made a huge impact on our game. My players had been "okay" with 5e until we used the tactical combat rules from Chapter 5 to restore options like Flanking, We also adopted Proficiency Dice, which replaces flat proficiency bonuses with dice that step up as you level up, and Hero Points, which can grant you an extra d6 on a roll. 

Optional rules for Honor and Sanity are presented here, as are healing variations for those who want a grittier or more epic game. Firearms and explosives also appear here, with more combat options (again, many of which we adopted, such as System Shock and Morale. 

Guidelines are provided for creating monsters, races, classes, spells, backgrounds and magic items but, aside from monsters, most of the advice boils down to "don't overthink it and use what's already out there as a guide".

Appendices include random dungeon generators, monster lists by environment and challenge rating, sample maps and DM inspirational reading.


- A lot of the information provided is very basic stuff that experienced GMs have read for *years*. Thing is, in theory, this will be the first DMG for a lot a DMs, so they still need to read this.

- I strongly suspect that the Challenge Rating system is completely busted, and the XP per day stuff, as well as the XP Budget to build an encounter just stick out like a sore thumb against the fast, loose and "just go with it" style the rest of the book embodies. In fact, that was the biggest revelation for me: The almost blatant admission that there was no deep, complex, underlying math to the system that I was going to break if this guy had a breath weapon and that guy was imbued with shadow (long story).

- Attunement is such a lovely thing, and the system no longer tries to balance for a magic item economy.

- Options, options, options. Especially by the time you reach Part 3, you are full of options to play with, from tactical combat to spell point systems to lingering injuries. Use what you want, dump the rest. I've used a lot, but there's still soooooo many more I want to incorporate (and probably will if we have another campaign).

- Proficiency Dice and Hero Points are both things that I like, in theory. In practice, I think I may dramatically overhaul them. With bounded accuracy keeping Armor Classes lower, getting an extra d6 on a die isn't usually a huge thing, especially when you're rolling a d8 or d10 alongside your d20. Plus, rolling a 1 on your proficiency die is basically your skill failing you. Next campaign, I may tinker with returning to proficiency bonuses, but combining the die escalation of Proficiency Dice with the extra die effect of Hero Points...makes using them a little more worthwhile.

- All. The random. Tables. How can I, of all people, not love a book FILLED with random tables. You could cook up almost a whole campaign off of those things. Just magnificent.

Was the DMG the key to making me love Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition? No. I was already in love with the Player's Handbook. However, my players weren't completely sold until I instituted the rules tweaks (proficiency dice, hero points and tactical combat), so it was certainly the key towards making them love D&D, and it did help me understand that the designers were truly willing to put a lot of power into the hands of DMs like myself, in the hopes that we wouldn't screw it all up.

Yeah, I'm a fan.