D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide Review – Wonderfully Useful (to the Right People)


Designed by Jeremy Crawford, Christopher Perkins, and James Wyatt.[1] For Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Published by Wizards of the Coast. Released December 2014. A copy was provided by Wizards of the Coast for review.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide released a month ago, and after a month using the book we’ve concluded that the core game of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is complete. That’s not to say that the DMG is the end-all be-all for the 5th Edition system, it’s very useful, but has limitations that hold it back. It’s not the full-scale system toolbox that many were hoping it would be, and its customization advice is just that – advice, not mechanics – in some places. It also lacks vital information on teaching new players to DM, glossing over that subject in favor of content more immediately useful to experienced players. Things like randomizing adventure seeds, coming up with interesting non-player characters, creating custom monsters, and adding firearms to your game are at the fore of this book, broken down into three parts: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. Each of those segments has a few chapters, each completely packed with content to the point that art is comparatively rare outside of the magic items or monsters sections.That’s not to say this thing is sparse, or ugly, the book is wonderfully edited, well laid out, and beautifully directed – and it sports a good index to boot. However, on finishing the book it’s clear that while many critics – myself included – thought that this system would hinge on the DMG, the DMG just confirmed what we already knew D&D 5th Edition to be. This is a living history of D&D, a collection of what the game has been so far. Perfection, not innovation. Options, not prescriptions.

dungeon masters guide dungeon design

World & Game Design

The first major part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide deals exclusively with creating a world and a campaign to play in it, running from major ideas like how magic fits into a fantasy world to which potpourri of deities you’ll be using when you play. It’s a key section of the book, helping new and old players understand where fantasy worlds work, don’t work, and can be bent without breaking. Basics like inventing languages, religions, nations, and peoples get two to five pages each. There’s also a healthy amount of information about changing D&D‘s defaults – say there’s only one God, for example. How to fit magic into your world gets a brief summary and a few major examples – things like raising the dead and teleportation – to highlight impacts on societies. Once you’ve decided how your world works, there’s a twenty-five page section on “Creating a Multiverse” that, while it addresses making your own worlds in brief, really functions like a miniature Manual of the Planes in explaining the odds and ends of default Dungeons & Dragons cosmology. It’s a fun and interesting addition, and should really help newer players to understand the role of characters like clerics or paladins in the greater scheme of things.

Really, despite its other contents, what the Master of Worlds segment addresses is how to play the kind of fantasy you want in the kind of world you want. Its various sections on structuring a campaign, be it an intrigue, adventure, episodic, or sandbox style of game, are invaluable to new DMs and helpful refreshers for old hands. The most surprising and welcome segment of the first chapter is one on “Flavors of Fantasy,” telling the various ins and outs of Fantasies you can play with D&D and how you might customize your game to do so. This isn’t a short list, either, with segments on Heroic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Intrigue, Mystery, Swashbuckling, War, and Wuxia. There’s advice for both simply changing how you describe actions and going further, actually changing the rules, to adapt towards any of these fantasy styles. This is, perhaps, the most definitive section of the book, saying that Dungeon Masters are not to play the game as it’s assumed to be played, but as they’d like to play it.

[1] With additional development by Mike Mearls, Robert J. Schwalb, Rodney Thompson, and Peter Lee.

Randomize Your Everything, and Do It Well

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has always been the true province of D&D‘s infamous random tables, and this edition is no different. The guidelines for generating adventures, NPCs, and dungeons are all stocked with charts and tools for coming up with either a character on the fly or a bit of inspiration for a stuck DM. There’s even bits like quirks for NPCs, tavern name generators, urban encounters, and a whole appendix that’s simply a (remarkably thorough) random dungeon generator.

That’s not to say that these are tools without any instruction, since the same section with this cornucopia of arbitrariness is also the part of the book that deals in rules for adventures, what an appropriate encounter looks like, and such minutiae as traps or special powers for villains. There’s a chunk in here of great advice on how to use downtime between adventures, too, giving some life to the moments of your game where weeks or months pass “uneventfully.” The adventure generation advice in particular is great, with a section detailing kinds of adventures – like Dungeon Crawl or Investigation – and how to implement them. Combined with the advice on generating types of campaigns, this section of the DMG outlines not just the art, but the process of actually designing your game, something past editions have lacked good guidelines for. Helping DMs know what to do with the session-to-session contents of their game is valuable use of page space, and well written to boot.

Rules, From Treasure to Madness

As befits the book for the person handing out all the loot, there’s about a hundred pages – a third of the book – dedicated to, you guessed it: Treasure and Magic Items. There’s the standard stuff, like how much loot DMs should hand out for what kind of encounters, and randomized tables to make it all nice and surprising. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the third edition DMG, but organized more usefully into individual categories for single monsters or for whole encounters. The magic items themselves range from the standard, banal D&D staples like +1 Swords and Rings of Protection to more exotic additions to the pantheon of Wondrous Items like the Alchemy Jug – which can produce a few gallons of a variety of liquids each day. (It’ll get most use, I expect, from adventurers producing two gallons of Mayonnaise each day. Trust me on this one.) There aren’t too many surprises here, from the tables of gems and art objects by value to the artifacts. The real money is in the short, sweet section entitled “Other Rewards,” where DMs can get inspiration for giving their characters land, properties, divine blessings, favors, and other such story-based rewards with a bit of mechanical weight. Here also is a chunk of advancement options for characters who reach beyond 20th level, gaining Epic Boons that allow them to break a few rules – perfect for those long-term campaigners who just didn’t manage to finish off their stories at the 20th level point.


The contents of the Master of Rules section segue out of treasure, handing over the torch to a few pages that would have been much better placed in the Players’ Handbook, since they seem like basics for everyone to understand and not just the DM. The section deals with when to roll dice, what to resolve with ability checks, and when to call for attack and saving throws. While it seems like a good idea on the surface to leave these kinds of calls up to the Dungeon Master, it’ll be the source of more than a few arguments at the table for many groups composed of newer players simply because there’s not good baseline to refer back to. On the other hand, the ideas of success at a cost, degrees of success or failure, and critical successes or failures, all make appearances in this advice as rules variants – and they make most sense here, alongside this rules advice.

There’s also rules that run the full gamut of optional additions or corner cases. Things like house rules, exploration, social interaction, damaging objects, combat additions, chases, siege equipment, diseases, poisons, madness, and when to deal out experience points. Of those, some are useful, others (Diseases, say) seem like rules minutia that just won’t get much use. Lots of people were waiting for the section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide on deeper grid or hex-grid combat using miniatures, and it’s present, but will likely disappoint the hardest-core of miniatures gamers. They’re serviceable, but not perfect, rules that address basics like range, cover, and movement, but leave a lot of the details up to individual DMs to arbitrate. The other standout is definitely the advice on adapting the experience points system to how your game runs, using a milestone system, a system based on sessions played, or a system based on non-combat encounters. These are things D&D players were doing anyways, so it’s pleasing to see some official guidance on the matter.

dungeon masters guide creating a race

Creating Your Own D&D

The final chapter of the DMG is by far its most useful and interesting one, containing a laundry list of variants for the core game rules, rules for creating new monsters, and guidelines for creating new spells, magic items, and character options. There are variants for the ability scores and proficiency variants, which while strange to most players will prove invaluable to those who’d like a more streamlined game without skills. Options customizing things like healing, or adding combat choices like leaping onto a foe or knocking them down, help the game immensely by dialing in on the kinds of fantasies advertised in the earlier chapters of the book. This is where you’d find your rules to achieve high-flying wuxia action, or your gritty swords-and-sorcery world where losing a limb in combat is a real danger.

Creating a monster is the real star of this section, and players of Fourth Edition D&D will feel right at home. While as we saw in the Monster Manual monsters in Fifth Edition are more art than science, the math behind the monsters becomes abundantly clear. There’s a chart for attack strength, damage, armor class, and hit points by challenge rating of monster. If you need a quick-and-dirty critter, this book can get you one in a handful of minutes – easily enough that once you know the rules you can make one up on the fly. There’s also a more detailed creation process, letting you make monsters just like those in the Manual, complete with a cornucopia of special abilities and the monster to use as an example when crafting the rules for them. There’s even a cozy bit for former Third Edition or Pathfinder players, with guidelines for adding class levels to monsters. (Oh, and if you need help finding them, there’s an Appendix of monsters by environment and challenge rating, rectifying the Monster Manual‘s great sin.)

Slightly more disappointing for the big customizers and house rulers among the D&D fanbase are the sections on creating new spells, magic items, and character options. The options for spells boil down to a few sentences saying “Base new spells on existing spells” and a chart for damage. The chunk on creating a new Magic Item gives you much the same advice, but does give you a bit of math on what kinds of power should go along with what rarity of magic item. The chunk on creating new character options is realistically misnamed, because it’s much more like a list of ideas for what you might want to change, or ideas for changes you can make without breaking the game, for races and classes. There are two really invaluable rules in here, the section on changing spells-per-day into Spell Points, and the section on creating new character backgrounds are both short, sweet rules sections that don’t disappoint one whit.

So How Does It Stack Up?

The truth is that this is a book that’s for experienced D&D players of all stripes. Where new players will be better off getting a Player’s Handbook and a D&D Starter Set, this is the book that’ll likely win back players of older editions or other games into the D&D fold not with new flashiness, but with familiar tricks. True to the mission of 5th Edition, this book lets you play your kind of D&D and not anyone else’s. As a veteran player, this book drew me in like neither of the others, making me want to really get a campaign off the ground as soon as possible. It’s packed with possibilities not in the form of how-to precision mechanical customization or corner case rules for every moment, but in the form of guidelines about how the existing rules work and how you can make them work for you. To that end, the book is stretched thin, introducing new content and going back over the content of the other two books to cover gaps and turn over loose stones. Some folks will likely get what they want in an inevitable DMG 2, and some won’t ever be satisfied until they have concrete rules for everything, but that’s the real question about this game now. I want more, this book made me want more, so where does D&D go now?

Bottom Line: The DMG s greatest strength is its greatest weakness – it covers so many useful topics that it has to do some of them a disservice.

Recommendation: It s a must-buy book for 5e players, but I don t expect I had to tell you that. If you’re still fence-sitting on this edition of D&D, leafing through this book will tell you whether you can twist it into something you want to play or not.



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