D&D 5E In Search Of: The 5e Dungeon Master's Guide

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Lost civilizations, extraterrestrials, myths and monsters, missing persons, magic and witchcraft, unexplained phenomena, and unread roleplaying game books. "In Search of..." forum posts are traveling the internet, seeking out these great mysteries. This thread was the result of the work of scientists, researchers and one highly-skilled Snarf.

We have all heard about it. Maybe there are even a few of you reading this that claim to have seen it. Perhaps it was the deep in the jungles of the on-line retailer Amazon. Or maybe it you saw it skulking in the shadows of your own hometown, at some gamestore. There might be even be a few, a cursed few, who claim to have a copy of it on their bookshelves.

The Dungeon Master's Guide. But what is within the bindings of this cursed book by the mad mage Abdul Alhazred? Many intrepid parties have attempted to pierce the veil of secrecy, rumor, and terror that lie between the bindings of this book.

Most have died.

A precious few, those that have not died, or been driven insane, or complained that all the pages were blank, simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "Dunno, Something 'bout magic items, I guess?" Well, today, for the first time since the opening of Al Capone's vault, we are pleased to present something that no one has seen before. That's right! In Search Of has sent a team of scientists, occult researchers, trained martial artists, and three fishmongers into the DMG so that we can report back to you ... once and for all ... what is in the DMG. Be forewarned .... the following knowledge might change your life forever. Some mysteries should remain mysteries.


1. The Purpose of the DMG
A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.

The book that the 5e DMG is most similar to is, probably, the 1e DMG. It is not so much a step-by-step guide to anything, so much as it is a collection of DM-facing rules (such as the magic items) combined with numerous options and variants and ideas- in short, it's much more of a selection of options and ideas for a DM than it is anything else. In this way, the DMG is not prescriptive (telling your how to DM) so much as it is descriptive (explaining how other people DM, and providing ideas and options for a campaign or adventure).

For that reason, it has nine chapters divided into three parts; playing on the "Master" in DMG, it divides the chapters into "Master of Worlds" (explaining how to create settings, with rules about maps, towns, campaigns, tiers, and different planes in the multiverse), "Master of Adventures" (explaining how to create and run adventures and NPCs, the different types of adventuring environments, treasure, and what happens between adventures), and "Master of Rules," (which has the ideas and rules for running the game, along with specialized rules, optional rules, and how rules can be modified).

Finally, there are four appendices- the first is the random dungeon appendix. The second is a monster list. The third is a collection of maps that can be used. The fourth is similar to Appendix N/Appendix E, except that instead of a list of fantasy fiction, it contains a reading list of books that are helpful for creating (mapmaking, performing, etc.).

The key to understanding all of this is that the DMG does not seek to tell a DM how the DM should run a game, or what type of campaign the DM should run. Far from it- it is agnostic as to the style of play the table uses. This is seen from the beginning, on page 6, when the advice given to the DM is to know the players, and seven types of player preferences are provided (Acting, Exploring, Instigating, Fighting, Optimizing, Problem Solving, and Story Telling).

This open-ended approach pervades the book; for example, in describing designing religious systems for a campaign setting, the DMG explicitly details how campaigns can have everything from loose pantheons, to tight pantheons, to monotheism, to dualistic systems, to mysterious cults, to animism, to avoiding deistic systems completely.

Where you can also see this open-ended and descriptive approach flourish is in how the DMG chooses to approach rules. The section on dealing with rolling dice is both illustrative and instructive (pp. 236-37). The section starts by stating, "Dice are neutral arbiters. They can determine the outcome of an action without assigning any motivation to the DM and without playing favorites. The extent to which you use them is entirely up to you." From there, it then lists three options for dice rolling- Roll almost everything, roll dice as rarely as possible, or something in between. Importantly, it also goes through some of the advantages and disadvantages of different techniques.

Right there we see both the great advantage as well as the disadvantage of the DMG. On the one hand, as an actual text to prescribe a single way to play, or even for someone who has never played a single game of D&D (or seen a single game of D&D) to pick it up and start playing? It doesn't work ... at all. A brand new DM who never played, was unaware of youtube or twitch, and didn't get a starter set ... well, they would have little to no idea how to choose their own favored method to roll dice, or to choose the religion for their campaign setting. On the other hand, it served a much more important purpose - it provided both a toolbox, as well as being open-ended to allow most people to play D&D the way that they wanted to. Because the DMG didn't prescribe a playstyle, it also couldn't be weaponized against people that don't play that way!

Do you fudge rolls on occasion? The DMG allows it. (p. 235)
Do you think fudging is wrong, and roll in the open? The DMG allows it. (p. 235)
Do you want social interaction to be free form? The DMG allows it. (p. 244)
Do you want social interaction to use rolls for social abilities. The DMG allows it. (p. 244)

2. The DMG as ToolBox
Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

While we often discuss homebrewed rules on enworld, most people are unfamiliar with the sheer number and variety of suggested options in the DMG. Most people have heard something about there being a "gritty healing or something or other" rule, but here's a few to remind you that the DMG has resources that you might want to familiarize yourself with:

Alien Tech: It's all about the Barrier Peaks! (p. 268)
Automatic Success: Characters succeed on any ability check with a DC less than or equal to the relevant ability minus 5. (p. 239)
Automatic Success Take 2: Character succeed on any ability check when they take 10x the amount of time required. (p. 237)
Degrees of Sucess/Failure: You can have success at a cost on marginal failed rolls, or degrees of failure, or critical successes or failures (instead of all-or-nothing). (p. 242)
Healing Surges: If you want a more heroic feel, or don't have much magical healing. (p. 267)
Loyalty: Is your NPC henchman going to stab you in the back, or the front? (p. 93)
Personality Proficiency: Instead of skill proficiencies, you are proficient in ability checks related to your personality. (p. 264)
Plot Points: Allows players to have narrative control. (p. 269)
Proficiency: Use dice instead of static modifier. (p. 263)
Renown: Fame? I wanna live forever, I wanna learn how to use an optional rule to track my standing within an organization. (p. 22)
Sanity Points: If you want to go a little more Lovecraftian (p. 265)
Social Interaction: Can be either free-form or rolled. (p. 244)
Speed Modifiers: Getting gritty with initiative. (p. 271)
Spell Points: Want a supererererererer socererererererer? (p. 288)
Spending to Train: Spend time and money to gain a level. (p. 131)

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamentally, the DMG presents rules and options that would allow a DM to finetune their game in ways that run the gamut from a nearly diceless and free-form experience to a heavy-combat experience focused on miniatures with more advanced tactical rules, along with ideas and instructions as to how to modify rules. But just as important as the many, many, many variant rules in the DMG is the entire vibe of the DMG- it is not about telling people how to run their own game, as much as it is giving tables the inspiration, tips, and tools that they need to make a game their own, while preventing others from telling you that you're doing it wrong.

3. Conclusion.
It’s a classic … something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Now, you might want to argue with what this intrepid team has found! But you can't. Because .... no one reads the DMG. You might as well argue with my description of the mating habits of the sasquatch.

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I often find the 5e DMG approach of options to be great.

The explicit flexibility for running social encounters diceless or with dice is greatly appreciated.

However there are areas where I would appreciate an actual baseline, particularly in running grid combat.

When I am running a combat I usually try to keep the pacing brisk so people feel some tension and sense of action. When I stop to look up a combat rule because I am not sure which way things are supposed to consistently work, it is particularly frustrating to be told "here are multiple options, do what you want!" and have to try to think through ramifications on the spot.

How many squares does a circle area of effect cover? Can an effect center on a point between squares or for grid purposes does it need to be in the center of a square? When someone does a five foot wide lightning bolt diagonally does it hit just full diagonal squares and not touch the in between half touched squares and so it can go between two adjacent people or does it affect everyone whose square it at least partially touches?

These are the types of things it would be nice to have defined answers I can quickly look up, apply, and move on with during a quick paced combat.

Yes. All that information is in the DMG. Much of it is buried in stuff that might not seem relevant to someone looking for it. Much of it is poorly thought out or at least does not do what the book says it does. There is approximately zero actual guidance as to why a DM would choose to run a game a specific way or use a specific variant rule.

It is or at least can be a very useful book. It also is or can be completely useless.


Loves Your Favorite Game
How many squares does a circle area of effect cover? Can an effect center on a point between squares or for grid purposes does it need to be in the center of a square?
DMG P. 251
Areas of Effect
Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.

But yeah, lightning/lines aren't covered. The Xanathar's rules (P. 86/87) are much more thorough.


But could its contents be organized better for newcomer GMs? That's the question going forward with One D&D.
IMO, the DMG shouldn't be written for newcomer GMs - they're better off being pointed to the Starter Set and the "how to DM" videos that of course WotC have on their various channels. (I mean, surely they must have such things, and they're really easy to find...?)

IMO, the DMG should be aimed at DMs of intermediate skill - they should be assumed to have already run a game or two, know more or less what's what, and therefore the goal should primarily be to provide practical tools and experience to help them make their games better. So provide lots of tools to reliably construct encounters/adventures/campaigns of various types and styles, discussions of player and DM types and motivations, and so on and so forth.

(And the DMG probably shouldn't be aimed primarily at expert DMs either. Partly because they probably know it all anyway, but mostly because such DMs are inevitably very much the minority.)

My hopes for the new version of the game are mostly pinned on this new DMG. Alas, those hopes are fading.


DMG P. 251

Yeah, without looking it up before posting I knew I was risking that example being actually defined.:blush:

It is a bit weird and counterintuitive though for radius effects centered on a creature to shift the center to a square corner.

It would have been useful to have examples of the various radius circles to unambiguously show which edge squares are at least half covered.

I go with a house rule to use 4e style grid squares for radius, showing that magic is lovecraftian and uses non-euclidean geometry and is easy to apply quickly on a grid.
But yeah, lightning/lines aren't covered. The Xanathar's rules (P. 86/87) are much more thorough.
And provide contradictory options with no baseline! Use the template option (page 86) and get the half squares. Use the token option (page 87) and don't.
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B/X Known World
Great post, Snarf. Glad to see your team of researchers hard at work.

Since editions don’t matter and it’s all one D&D now…

If people want a toolbox of optional rules, read the 5E DMG.

If people want to learn how to run the game, read the 4E DMGs, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, and the WEG Star Wars GM Handbook.

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