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D&D 5E The 5e DMG Part 2- The Purpose of the DMG

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.

1. Introduction- What Does "No One Reads the DMG" Actually Mean?
So my undying love of Leonard Nimoy, long-running jokes, and the many nifty and obscure things tucked away in the 5e DMG led me to write the following recent post-

Alas, it appears that a few things may not have been readily apparent to everyone. The primary one is the refrain of, "No one reads the DMG." Now, there are many people that take that quite seriously. If no one in the history of ever has read the DMG, then what use can it be?

As such, and with an exceedingly heavy heart, I must now report to you the truth- there are, in fact, people that have read the DMG. For example, the people who wrote it (the DMG was not, as I previously reported, written by the mad mage Abdul Alhazred ... my researchers will be flogged until performance improves) probably read what they were writing at some point. And I must state that I might have read it at some point as well, given that I was providing pinpoint citations to actual pages. It might also happen that people may have looked up things like ... oh, how magic items work, or the Oathbreaker class, or ... you know ... stuff. So why did I write that, and why do you keep seeing this refrain?

It's a joke.

It's been a joke for a long time. At this point, it's just a callback. It refers to the fact that people on enworld will refer to rules and "how to play" and debate it endlessly, without realizing that the issues that they are talking about are actually covered in the DMG.* Of course, this isn't just true with the DMG- I remember a post that was six years after the publication of the PHB telling us that there was an option for customized backgrounds, and people still can (and do) argue about the effects of spells or how to multiclass mostly because they haven't read the text of the PHB recently. That's ... that's just part of the D&D experience. As I wrote before, on this topic, the reason why this tends to happen even more with the DMG is the following:
1. Generally, the DMG of most editions tends to be under-read.
2. The genius of 5e is that it appears similar to prior editions; the problem with 5e is that it isn't the same as prior editions.
3. Most people assume that (other than things like magic items) everything they need is contained within the PHB.
4. A lot of people still learn to DM by playing; so when they first start to DM, it's not like they read the DMG cover-to-cover.
5. Since so much of the DMG is filled with tips and variant rules and ideas for building custom worlds and adventures, a lot of people assume that it is stuff that don't need or won't use and never bother really digging into it.
6. If you don't know what's in there, it can be hard to find (the 5e index issue).

*Much like the truism that anyone that complains about someone else's grammar usage will inevitably make a grammatical error in the complaint, so too is it true that anyone who attempts to list a lack of features in the DMG will inevitably and accidentally list something that is in the DMG. ...or so I hear. @Voadam - does that seem right? :)

With that established, I will now make explicit what I thought was already clear in the prior post. Given that most people chose to discuss whether the DMG is (or is not) successful at onboarding brand-new players, I thought this second post would be helpful.

2. D&D is Not Like Other Games- How New Players Learn to Play D&D.

I will make this brief- there is no "wrong" way to learn to play D&D. But D&D, due to its uniquely dominant position in the market (especially if you add in "D&D variants" from prior editions to PF to OSR) is able to on-board new players in a way that is different that any other TTRPG.

Almost every other new game that comes out has to use its rulebook to explain how the game is played. If you purchase Snarf's new game, Disco Party Athletes, you had better be able to understand how to play from the ruleset- because you're unlikely to find a game already happening, and I'm not making any youtube explainers. D&D is not in the that position; it has legions of players, a multitude of DMs, numerous websites and forums, a plethora of youtube channels and twitch streams and tiktoks, and another (synonym for lots and lots that I'm too lazy to think of right now) of online groups to play with, along with AL (if that's in your area). There are so many resources for new or beginning players that on-boarding new players into D&D has never been easier- hence, the stratospheric growth of D&D in the last eight years.

Moreover, D&D also sells starter sets (for the truly new players and DM), essentials, and has both the Basic Rules on-line for free, as well as instructional videos for learning how to play and how to DM. The core three books (PHB, DMG, MM) are not for "teaching you how to play D&D if you've never heard of D&D or RPGs before" but are, instead, best thought of as reference books. You refer to them as needed.

Looking at the core three books as teaching you D&D as a system, teaching a brand new person how to play the game- that's probably not the best use of those books. While they certainly can be improved to make them better organized and more intelligible for new players, given the ways in which players onboard now, it would be a waste of pages to "teach newbies how to play" using the books. IMO.

3. So What is the Purpose of the DMG?

Allow me to quote from the prior post-

While I assumed this was pretty explicit, I will now be 100% clear. You have to remember the timing of the release of 5e, and the issues with the D&D playerbase at the time. First, you had 2e, which emphasized a much more narrative style of play (building on the "Hickman Revolution" and away from "Gygaxian Skilled Play")- which was very popular for some, but not for other. Then you had 3e, which both revitalized D&D, but also caused many within the hobby to turn away at the increasing emphasis on RAW (3e was what led to OSR). Then there was 4e, which had a definite point of view that some people loved, and others were not as fond of.

5e's DMG can be seen as a reaction against prior editions in that way- it is quite specifically not going to tell DMs how to to run their games. If you like fudging, that's cool. If you don't, that's cool too! If you want to roll behind a screen, have at it! If you want to roll in the open, that's nifty! If you want to run traditional dungeon crawls, we're going to list dungeons as the first environment and put a random dungeon generator in the appendix. If you don't, we're not going to really privilege it over anything else. Maybe you're one of those old-school "Adventures make levels the old fashioned way ... THEY EARN THEM." Cool cool, the DMG will have rules for spending money and time on training to gain levels. Maybe you're one of those tables that likes to ensure that players get to have narrative control over scenes or complications? Cool cool cool. The DMG will have plot points.

Do you want extreme and gritty meatgrinders? The DMG has your back with slow natural healing, gritty realism, healer kit dependency, and lingering injuries.
Do you like heroes that champion over the odds? The DMG has you covered with Epic Heroism, Hero Points, and Healing Surges.

Do you run combats using ToTM? The DMG says that players "often rely on your descriptions to visualize where their characters are in relation to their surroundings and their enemies." It even provides handy tables for targets in area of effect.
Do you run combats using miniatures? The DMG has you covered there, too.

And so on. In the end, the primary purpose of the 5e DMG (other than, um, to sell books) was not to onboard brand-new DMGs by insisting that they play a certain way. It was to affirm. The way you are playing? Whatever that might be? That's right. You're doing it right.

This is what gets lost in some of the conversation about the DMG. The DMG (unlike videos, or starter sets, or any of a number of other resources) ... it's not supposed to onboard new DMs by telling them how to play. At the time, it was supposed to provide reassurance to everyone- that they were doing it right, and that they would be welcome in 5e. Which, while not 100% successful, has appeared to be overwhelmingly successful. While people complain about the DMG not serving a particular purpose as well as it should, it is a rare day that someone quotes the 5e DMG to another person to say that they are playing D&D wrong.

But maybe, just maybe, that's because no one reads the DMG. :)

ETA- some links I posted in the other thread if you are a new player/DM:

Basic D&D Rules | Dungeons & Dragons

This is why I get so worried about a re-write of the DMG. I'm afraid they're going to take what the DMG isn't (a teaching tool for new players, and a reference to the "right" way to play), and make that what it is. I have no use for that hypothetical book, and in fact think its existence front and center would be a detriment to the game.

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This is why I get so worried about a re-write of the DMG. I'm afraid they're going to take what the DMG isn't (a teaching tool for new players, and a reference to the "right" way to play), and make that what it is. I have no use for that hypothetical book, and in fact think its existence front and center would be a detriment to the game.

I agree. Any attempt at showing 'how you should play' or even showing pros and cons of various styles will almost certainly come across as gatekeeping. D&D paints fantasy with a very broad brush and doesn't even assume that you're using one of the "official" worlds. If I'm playing a Conan rpg, then there are certain themes and elements I expect to exist because the characters and locations of that setting lean into it. D&D doesn't do that though and any attempt to show the "Why" of what you're doing is destined to fail. If I'm going to run a Lord of the Rings game, some suggestions on how to make the world feel like Middle Earth would certainly be helpful. There's no such assumed setting for D&D; not even Greyhawk or FR (and even those two are very different from each other).

The core books should be rules and options only. Leave the advice for the setting books, where leaning into a certain playstyle is more acceptable. D&D is too broad and, even if an idea looks good/bad in print, there's no guarantee that it will be that way at anyone's table.


Follower of the Way
That was a lot of words to make a mostly circular argument.

"The DMG isn't supposed to teach people to play because the DMG isn't supposed to teach people to play."

You've made the assertion. The only even moderately meaningful argument you've made that it is true is that D&D is special because it's big, and being big means it doesn't have to teach people anything, it can rely on others to do that for it. This is a rather poor argument, and there's a lovely demonstration of exactly why this is a flawed approach in a parallel medium: MMORPGs.

See, for a long time, there wasn't a single biggest MMO. Many contenders lay claim to the title of "first MMO," including Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online, EverQuest, and even Meridian 59 (a game most folks have never heard of today.) But in those wild and wooly early years, each game was catering to some subset of interested gamers. EverQuest and Ultima Online could exist simultaneously because they offered qualitatively different experiences without strictly stepping on one another's toes. This left a metastable environment where new options could arise and try to corner a new niche in the space.

Then everything changed when the World of Warcraft Nation attacked.

WoW took the MMO community and the wider gaming landscape by storm. A big game from a respected company, with big money. It conquered the MMO space. To succeed as an MMO, you had to either beat WoW at its own game (make a "WoW killer"), or you had to reinvent the wheel...and investors were leery of risky experiments on something as expensive as an MMO. Everything became WoW clones, and WoW reigned supreme.

Compared to the games of its day, WoW made some steps to ease onboarding...but has done very little since then. For a while, yes, its sheer weight could overcome this issue. But this forced players to rely on third-party addons, and created a culture of elitism and even snobbery; it is worth noting that the current game director, Ion Hazzikostas, got his start with WoW as the raid leader of a guild...called "Elitist Jerks." It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but the irony has worn off and a rather sad sincerity has replaced it.

Creating a DMG that is only and exclusively a "reference" manual, that has and wants no part of actually teaching, is setting yourself up for failure. It is making the exact same presumptions that have led to numerous failures throughout history: it is the presumption that your work is too big to fail.

It can work. WoW was king of the hill for over a decade. But it never works forever. It is much, much better--a long-term investment, rather than a short-term convenience--to prioritize the onboarding process and providing help to the new blood. Forcing the new blood to jump through extra hoops and pay extra money for the privilege of getting to actually be taught how to do things is not only a poor growth strategy, it is a poor maintenance strategy even if you want to just idle in place. Financial success is a Red Queen's race: you must run as fast as you can just to keep up; if you want to advance, you must run at least twice as fast as that.

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