WotC Drops the Big One! (A Pre-Release Review of the 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide)

The fans have been ever so patient… The D&D Player’s Handbook has been in their hands before GENCON 2014… and the Monster Manual appeared on store shelves about a month later. But the third Core rulebook has been absent for months now, with only tantalizing glimpses of its secrets released to the community. Well the wait is finally over! On December 9th, only a couple weeks away, the new 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide will be released to Dungeons & Dragons fans the world over. The triumvirate of Core rulebooks will finally be complete, and Dungeon Masters the world over will have their own resource for D&D 5e at last! And now in this pre-release review, even more will be revealed about the nature and content of the newest release from Wizards of the Coast for the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons line – Welcome to the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide!

D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (5e)

  • Lead Designers: Jeremy Crawford, Christopher Perkins, and James Wyatt
  • Designers: Robert J. Schwalb, Rodney Thompson, and Peter Lee
  • Cover Art: Tyler Jacobson
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2014
  • Media: Hardbound (320 pages)
  • Price: $49.99 (Available for pre-order on Amazon.com for $29.97)

The D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is the third hardbound core rulebook released for the 5th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide presents a wide array of content to assist a game master to run a 5e D&D campaign, including crafting a world setting and a multiverse, as well as designing adventures and non-player characters. Additionally, the new D&D DMG discusses locales and environments, what to do between adventures, and treasure and rewards. There are also fine details discussed here about running a D&D game, tables for random dungeons, maps, and more!

Production Quality
The production quality of the new 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, much like its predecessors the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual, is truly magnificent. Considering the authors listed in the credits of this book - as well as their combined years of game mastering, game design, and D&D lore knowledge – this new D&D DMG cannot be anything but exceptionally well-written. The core rulebook’s layout and presentation are equally exception, and it presents a ton of diverse content in such a way which is useful to both advanced and beginning game masters.

From a purely physical perspective, the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is another big book, weighing in at about 2.6 pounds. Like the two other core rulebooks of this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D DMG has a very sturdy binding and heavy cover panels which will let the book lay open on the table or desk with ease. Again, the covers of this new rulebook are slick and glossy, with illustrations front and back in full color. The book’s pages are decent weight and are of smooth texture, good for thumbing through when looking for a particular page.

Organizationally, the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide has a detailed table of contents and a full index to make referencing fairly easy for the Reader. Tables are presented with alternating shaded lines to make them easier to read, although the shading color changes from chapter to chapter and ranges from gray-tones to reddish hues. It’s a bit of a discontinuity, but one could argue that it makes tables stand out when flipping through the rulebook rapidly – perhaps a good feature given the plethora of tables found in this new D&D DMG. And once again, WotC’s use of artwork in the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide transforms the rulebook from a mere utilitarian resource to the pride of one’s gaming collection. The Art Directors at Wizards of the Coast are again deserving of recognition for their work in soliciting and selecting illustrations for this new core rulebook, and to the artists themselves – too numerous list here – for contributing to make the D&D DMG a really remarkable reading experience. The cover art portraying the evil lich Acererak, infamous for his Tomb of Horrors, imparts a creepy vibe to the new rulebook. Within the pages are tons of great art pieces, particularly in the treasure section where dozens of illustrations depict a wide range of magic items to be discovered by the heroes. There is even a collection of fantastic maps in the back, in full color, presenting several different adventures sites – an abandoned windmill, a couple of coastlines and islands, a ship, and a trio of dungeon delves!

Everything a Dungeon Master needs…

Just as it was on the front cover of the D&D Player’s Handbook, the new 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide bears a single sentence to describe what lies within its pages:

Everything a Dungeon Master needs to weave legendary stories for the world’s greatest roleplaying game.
This statement is for the most part quite true, and the new 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide covers a lot of game mastering territory in its 320 pages. In scope and design, the topics and content covered in the new 5th Edition D&D DMG are quite reminiscent of the old AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. To some veteran DMs out there, a few of the tables and references in this new DMG are almost exactly as found in the older book. It’s no secret that WotC has been looking to older gamers as well as new to pick up on this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and fans of 1st Edition D&D are going to find some nostalgic bits here and there in the 5th Edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

It is important to note, however, that this new DM resource is not merely homage to the “old school” of D&D. There is plenty of new material, and content borrowed from more recent editions of the franchise. As much as the recently released D&D Player’s Handbook contained design elements of both OSR and newer game mechanics, so does this new DMG contain concepts and content from D&D both old and new.

The new 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is organized into three Parts, nine Chapters, and four Appendices to cover everything from building a multiverse to handing out treasure to running combats in unusual locations, and a lot more in between. The three Parts encompass three of the responsibilities that every Dungeon Master must shoulder to some degree or another – Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. It’s interesting to note that the latter Part of the book is actually the shortest, covering only fifty pages or so – this would seem to suggest that the rules light design paradigm is still in effect and the DM is not going to be burdened with a ton of rules to memorize.

Most of the pages in this D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide focuses on guiding DMs to create and run solid adventures, which no doubt will be something many gamers can appreciate. First off, there is a very brief Introduction, which gives DMs an overview of the book and a quick run-down on the Player types one might encounter at the gaming table. Then the D&D DMG launches into building a setting in two chapters – Chapter 1: A World of Your Own and Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse. The first chapter covers the features and assumptions that D&D fantasy worlds operate upon, such as how magic works, mythical races, gods and pantheons, and the like. The chapter also covers basic mapping concepts and systems of government, not unlike the old AD&D DMG covered. But there is new content, for instance, in the discussion on building factions and organizations – and there are examples here like the Lord’s Alliance and The Zhentarim – along with rules for renown. There are even ideas for types of campaigns to build, ideas about the “flavors of fantasy”, and even how to use existing weapons in a Wuxia campaign with a little reskinning and renaming. While perhaps not a definitive guide to world building, the first chapter covers a lot of good theorycraft on the subject in about thirty pages of text and tables.

The second chapter focuses on the multiverse, with the planar landscape and inhabitant being the main topics. Here is found an assortment of planar lore from the oldest editions of D&D with the inner and outer planes, as well as more recent planar concepts like the Shadowfell, Feywild, and Far Realms. While the chapter suggests that a DM can pick and choose from a variety of cosmological/multiversal options, the new D&D DMG provides a bit of knowledge about the inner and outer planes as they have been known in previous editions for the most part – including the various worlds of the Material Plane such as Toril, Oerth, Erberron, Krynn, and more.

Part 2: Master of Adventures
focuses the various aspects of adventure and quest design into five chapters: Chapter 3 Creating Adventures, Chapter 4 Creating Non Player Characters, Chapter 5 Adventure Environments, Chapter 6 Between Adventures, and Chapter 7 Treasure – This does a fairly thorough job of covering most of the major “chores” DMs face when designing adventures for a campaign. Just a few of the cooler highlights from Part 2 include random adventure creation tables to spin up a fairly good adventure framework on the fly, the rules necessary to create encounters and random encounters, more random tables for creating an NPCs along with villains and their schemes, still more random tables and ideas for creating dungeon locales, wilderness adventures, and settlements/cities, plus ideas on running adventures and encounters in the air and underwater. There are rules for handling character upkeep, maintenance, lodging, training costs and times, and character businesses in Chapter 6 Between Adventures, but some DMs will likely want to pick and choose from among these systems or possibly re-work them to have them make sense for their own campaign worlds.

But probably the biggest and most exciting section of Part 2 for many D&D players and DMs is Chapter 7 Treasure! Here there are scores of magic items, the vast majority of those from the prime time of AD&D and 2nd Edition D&D. There are random tables for generating mundane treasure hoards of coins, gems, and jewelry, based upon the challenge rating of the encounter. There are also random tables for adding quirks to items, along with mishaps from reading scrolls and mixing potions. If this sounds familiar to gamers familiar with older editions of the D&D DMG, well it’s probably working as intended then. There are also rules for handling magic items, including a rule about attuning powerful magic items to characters to use them - which is limited to three incidentally. Presumably this rule is to help less experienced DMs from falling into the “Monty Hall” trap, but it might feel a bit like a heavy handed contrivance to more experienced game masters. The magic items are listed in the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide alphabetically, with the random tables (labeled A through I) arranging magic items by relative power level when determining a treasure hoard.

What really makes this section of the book special is the combination of great artwork depicting many of the magic items listed (like the 3.5 Magic Item Compendium), coupled with the nostalgia factor of reading so many magic items from the older editions now updated to D&D 5e. There is even a section in the new D&D DMG for Artifacts and their properties – anyone want the Hand and/or Eye of Vecna or Axe of the Dwarvish Lords in their campaign?

The last Part of the book contains only two chapters on Running the Game and the Dungeon Master’s Workshop. The former chapter does not really introduce too many new rules, but more or less rehashes the existing rules with a little more enhancement for the DM. There’s also some advice here on the finer points of handling a gaming group, game table etiquette, and using minis.

A list of sample poisons and diseases are also presented here, along with madness effects. And the concepts of Inspiration and Experience Point rewards are given a bit more coverage than what was in the Player’s Handbook. The final chapter entitled the Dungeon Master’s Workshop contains all sorts of options and variant rules which DMs can add to their campaigns as appropriate. Some more interesting examples include optional rules to replace Proficiency Bonuses with Proficiency Dice, add Hero Points to the game, Honor or Sanity as ability scores, different ways to handle Resting and Healing, and other optional ideas. There are also rules for DMs to build new monsters, create new magic items, or even design a new Background to use in their campaign.

At the very end are some pretty cool Appendices which might come in handy for DMs from time to time. Appendix A contains a re-boot of the random dungeon creation tables from the original AD&D DMG along with encounters, random tricks and traps, and even noises and furnishings. Appendix B is a list of creatures found in the Monster Manual, listed by prevailing terrain type, along with a list of monsters by challenge rating. Appendix C has the aforementioned full color maps for use in adventures and campaigns, and Appendix D contains a list of books which might be of use for DM inspiration on writing, game design, and medieval history.

Overall Score
: 8.7 out of 10.0

Conclusions

As Dungeon Master’s Guides go, this new D&D 5th Edition one is a strong contender for the top spot. While it might be claimed that there are quite a few similarities between this new DMG and the older AD&D DMG, it would be hard to argue that the original penned by Mr. Gygax isn’t a darned good template for what a DMG should be in order to be successful at guiding Dungeon Masters in their trade. The book looks and feels fantastic, and it certainly has some wonderful writing between the covers. And just as importantly, the new D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide presents a lot of good useful content that DMs will be able to go back and reference time and again as they lead their players into better and more developed worlds and adventures. It’s a worthy successor to the line of Dungeon Master’s Guides down through the editions, and well worth the price to have as a treasured resource for this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Editorial Note
: This Reviewer received a complimentary playtest copy of the product in hardbound format from which the review was written.

Grade Card (Ratings 0 to 10)

  • Presentation: 9.25
  • - Design: 9.0 (Fantastic design; wonderful writing; lovely layout)
  • - Illustrations: 9.5 (Eye-popping artwork; awesome selection of illustrations in the book)
  • Content: 8.75
  • - Crunch: 9.0 (Great rules enhancements; tons of DM craftiness; Random Charts FTW!)
  • - Fluff: 8.5 (Great solid fluff; more theory-craft than lore in many cases)
  • Value: 8.0 (Decent price for a ton of material for any DM to use!)
 

Comments

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I've emailed [MENTION=85633]Neuroglyph[/MENTION] to let him know.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

rjfTrebor

Villager
did it really have zero negatives worth mentioning? this reads more like a thank you note to WotC for an early copy.
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
I was going to stay home tomorrow and avoid the crowds. But now I will blame [MENTION=85633]Neuroglyph[/MENTION] for compelling me to drive to the (extremely crowded) game store and buy this. ;)
 
did it really have zero negatives worth mentioning?
If it's anything like the DMG from previous editions, the negatives won't be apparent until a year from now, when you realise you haven't used it for anything other than magic item descriptions.

(Which, to be honest, shouldn't be surprising - after all, we've been playing the game for months now without having the DMG at all. So how vital can it really be?)
 
"While it might be claimed that there are quite a few similarities between this new DMG and the older AD&D DMG, it would be hard to argue that the original penned by Mr. Gygax isn’t a darned good template for what a DMG should be in order to be successful at guiding Dungeon Masters in their trade."

Think I found a typo. That should be "is" rather than "isn't", right?
 

Emirikol

Villager
I would argue that Gygax's verision of the 1e DMG was a near perfect concept for what gaming is. Although he didn't bore us to tears with prose-style "how to run a game" DM advice that infects all game-master's books nowadays, he did one thing that was outstanding: he created a DMG that was full of infinite possibilities to inspire the GMs imagination. I used to look at all those charts, and info, and the starter sample dungeon..and the random dungeon chart.. and think to myself, "I have LIMITLESS ADVENTURING under my fingertips!"
 

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