Initial Impressions: Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Kyle holding his DMG

Happier than I should be

I went down to my friendly local gaming store this morning and picked up the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. (They had a 15% discount on all D&D stuff, which gave a little extra bit of unexpected happiness.)

A full review of this book would take significant time due to the density and amount of material in it. But I wanted to see right away how to build & modify monsters. I also have been looking forward to learning how to distribute treasure (especially magic items). This post mostly discusses those two areas. Other brief impressions include:

  • I see Robin Stacey in the credits. More Microlite20 love.
  • The art matches my expectations and deserves its own post. In fact, it probably even exceeds them. During my upcoming business trip, I could spend hours on a plane just examining the illustrations. I recognize a few of them from earlier products. The goblin illustration on page 107 comes directly from the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
  • Yay for “low-level followers” and “hirelings” – torch bearers! This doesn’t contain nearly enough information for me, though. I will need to refer to older DM guides for this sort of thing.
  • Successfully noticing and bypassing a trap should provide XP. I don’t think that the book gives any guidelines for that, or even credence to that idea. I may have missed it, of course, in the brief time since I acquired the book.
  • Reaction rolls on page 244. As a rule, I don’t like to roll for social interaction. But since players “spend” some power to have those skill and ability scores, I can’t just ignore it, either. These guidelines will help a little.
  • HEX RULES!!! I spent many years playing war games, both tabletop and computer-based. So I have a special love for maps using hexagons and the tactical play they create even if I don’t like using D&D as a tactical game itself. Come to think of it, this may help me get into that mode when it fits.
  • The Madness section on page 258 will assist me greatly with the upcoming “Madness of Iliasha” campaign (spoilers?).
  • Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration looks like an “Appendix N” with more specificity. The list largely consists of non-fiction books with a few true classics in the greatest possible sense. For example, in addition to lots of books by Gary Gygax and TSR, it includes Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Monsters and CR

Page 312 sample mapSince the Monster Manual came out, I have wanted to roll up my own monsters. Other DMs have already started, of course, but they have far more experience at it than I do. The section “Creating a Monster” in Chapter 9 starts on page 273. It discusses reskinning, including minor changes such as adding special traits or switching weapons. The section also includes a table on Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating. For each rating, the table lists the proficiency bonus, armor class, hit point range, attack bonus, damage per round range, and save DC. This table fits those situations where you just need something quick, such as an on-the-fly conversion.

Then it has a procedure for “Creating a Monster Stat Block”, allowing us to brew up a full-fledged monster. That procedure has 20 steps, some of which themselves have several parts. Obviously this requires much more effort than the process for games like Microlite20. But as the introduction to the whole section notes:

Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.

This zooms in on the abbreviated process described before. It discusses things like damage and special traits in far more detail. We also have a Monster Features table that covers two full pages. Finally the section discusses the mechanics of creating NPCs from scratch (not the preview section on mannerisms and backgrounds and such).

Magic Items

Illustration of an adventuring group reviewing a mapPlayers get excited to see the actual magic items themselves. People like me get excited to see how we can distribute them. Chapter 7 (“Treasure”) should satisfy us both.

The distribution frequency for magic items in this edition in particular has confounded me a little. Page 135 shows a “Magic Item Rarity” table showing the expected character levels per rarity type. For example, common and uncommon items correspond to all characters starting at first level. But rare items typically go to characters at fifth level and higher. Of course the text makes clear that DMs should do as they wish according to what fits their campaigns. The book only makes suggestions, not rules.

For more specificity, of course, the book has several treasure tables. It has four different Individual Treasure tables for different CR ranges. The same applies to the Treasure Hoard tables. Gemstones and Art Objects have several different tables by value. Some of these tables refer to Random Magic Items of various types. You can enhance those with tables on magic item flavor (e.g. What Is a Detail From Its History?). Between this and Appendix A on “random dungeons”, I should have no trouble populating environments generated by Donjon or using maps created by other people.

Time to go tweak tomorrow’s adventure!

Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

I picked up the Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the old BECMI D&D edition (aka “the Red Box”) a few days ago. Most of the OSR products I’ve read didn’t have enough guidance for this rusty old DM.  What better source for guidance on running an old-school game than the actual old-school guidance?! The rest of this post consists of my thoughts as I took notes during my second reading. It isn’t really a review in the critical sense but in the “let’s go back over what’s here” sense.

The Most Important Rule: BE FAIR. That fits, since we control everything about the world and universe in which the characters exist. The world itself may not be fair, but our rulings should be consistent and even-handed.

Hewlett-Packard 48GX

“An electronic pocket calculator is helpful.”

Quite a few pages consist of “your first game”. Actually, this game is first for the DM, which comes after the solo game in the players guide that teaches the initial rules. The players go after some magic user named “Bargle“. Most of this doesn’t apply to my games or needs. The map of the dungeon’s second level looked interesting, though, and would make a great candidate for conversion.

The rulebook includes advice on issues like arguments and complaints. That reminds the reader that RPGs are social in ways most other games are not. Given the age and inclinations of the target audience for D&D (especially at the time), I suspect Gygax and even Mentzer felt themselves in something of a fatherly position.  Related to that, the rulebook gives advice on providing clues appropriate for the player skill and experience level, including the admonition that “extreme danger with no warning is not very fair.” ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES! Also, the Deities section obliquely refers to some sensitive issues and takes a diplomatic approach: “The DM should be careful not to needlessly offend players and current beliefs should be avoided.”

For the first time, I finally understand how early editions treated demi-humans. Dwarves consisted of both a race and a class, so that all dwarf characters basically act like Gimli: short, squat fighters all up in your face who know everything there is to know about stones and gems and dungeons. Most modern players probably would not like this. Generally speaking, I don’t either, but there’s a certain mindset where I can see that working.

Experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice.

See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.

Reaction rolls seem like a core mechanic in this old edition. I’ve seen these in Microlite20. If the new Fifth Edition DMG doesn’t contain something like this, then I will likely incorporate some version of it in my games. Often I just roleplay the NPCs and “select results” as discussed above, but a little unpredictability in some situations can go a long way.

Lost spell books? Now that’s evil. I wouldn’t do that to a player unless they actively did something that clearly would result in losing the spell book. “I throw my spell book at the fire elemental.” “Um… okay.”

Mapping SymbolsMapping has changed considerably in the last thirty years. I don’t think most groups really treat it as a player skill anymore. Certainly those of us who primarily play online on Roll20 or similar can’t do this effectively without significant restructuring. Perhaps allowing one of the players to draw on the map…? I do like the old-school concept of player skill mattering at least as much as character skill, and this fits into that philosophy much as the clues discussion does.

During the play of the game, a player will eventually try something not explained in these rules… Be sure to write down any rules you create, and apply them fairly to everyone.

If by “eventually” we mean “within the first five minutes”, then sure! Otherwise you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to TSR with a rules question. Things about the 20th century I don’t miss include SASEs and snail mail.

Timekeeping still presents a challenge for me outside of combat rounds. I’d hoped for some guidance here but it honestly doesn’t help much:

You may simply make notes on the time used during an adventure, or you can create a system (check marks, boxes to cross off, etc.) for keeping track.

Transferring characters remains a touchy subject. I just had a player ask me about it this past weekend, in fact. For some sorts of campaigns, it would feel odd just for narrative reasons. It could also create the perception of fairness issues with other players. But in other cases it might work fine, and so Mentzer gives some guidance on balance considerations.

Then the book goes into some lengthy monster references, including stat blocks and reactions and everything else. The treasure tables, though, really come in handy for me. I frequently find an old-school adventure I want to use that refers to “treasure type H” or something. Now I can cross-reference that.

Dungeon stockingFinally we have some guidance on dungeons, especially adventure motivation. The table on stocking dungeons reminds me of the so-called Barrowmaze method. But now I know the real source, because the method here is to roll 1d6 twice. The first roll tells you what’s in the room (e.g. a trap or a monster) and the second roll tells you whether the room has treasure.

I still look forward to getting my 5th Edition DMG in two days.The material in this rulebook will help fill in any gaps, plus provide additional stuff for my Microlite games.