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!

Generating a campaign setting: Motivation

Forgotten Realms v3 campaign settingD&D Fifth Edition appears to use the Forgotten Realms as the default setting. For me, however, FR just comes with too much baggage: an intricate history, many novels of existing lore, and the sense that this world already has its heroes. Players will tend to see the world through their own lenses after playing through so many other games in that universe. Since Wizards of the Coast clearly has all sorts of copyrights and trademarks around this world, we can’t publish much in terms of derivative work.

I recently sponsored two different campaign setting books on Kickstarter, Southlands by Kobold Press and Karthun by Exploding Rogue Studios. Neither should arrive for quite some time. The target dates are in May and November 2015, respectively.

So what campaign setting should I use for a Microlite20 campaign? I started developing for the as-yet-unlaunched Madness of Iliasha campaign to fill this hole, but this calls for something simpler. A plane of existence with no surface world has lots of implications that need a bit more thought. The work I’ve done thus far can still find application, though, by connecting to another more typical setting in the future as an underworld in sort of a “hollow earth” model.

Dwarf Fortress World Generation ScreenOne of my favorite games ever, Dwarf Fortress references lots of common fantasy tropes and does a fantastically detailed job of world generation. In fact, most of the creatures not procedurally generated already exist in the d20 SRD. Many of them even have simplified Microlite20 versions already! This allows me to spend my time filling in or adusting remaining details with other tools instead.

The next post in this series will discuss how to get started in using DF as a campaign setting tool and some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.

Madness of Iliasha: Campaign Concept

Underdark artAs previously noted, I have begun work on a fresh campaign. Using the working title Madness of Iliasha, I have included elements from the Underdark and Deepholm. This means a fully underground world with no concept of a “surface”, filled with mind flayers and aboleths and fungi and stone elementals.

I intend to run it more or less “old school”, which (for me) means:

  1. Lots of generated elements rather than individually crafted
  2. Deadly for adventurers (player characters)
  3. Less concern about encounter balance and more about fitting a theme
  4. Players and GM shaping the world together
  5. Emergent narrative through gameplay and interaction
  6. Sandbox exploration of the world via hexcrawl
  7. Hexes for “outdoors”, squares for “indoors”

However, I am adjusting a few other elements from the old days, particularly turning the fantastic racism and sexism way down. We can imagine subterranean cities in worlds suffused with magic, so we should be able to imagine universes where your actions, not your ethnicity and gender, play a larger role in determining your identity and reputation. In fact, I have united all the “humanoid” races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes) so that they are just different flavors of “human”. Some individuals may hold racist opinions and even take actions based on those, but in general the societies are not organized along those lines. Conflict still exists, naturally. But rather than base it on “race”, instead we have factions competing for resources. These power struggles won’t always impact the adventurers, of course, particularly at low levels. But they will progress on their own and bring the world to life, very similar to Dungeon World fronts.

I still have lots of planning infrastructure to build. Because much of the world will come from random generators, for example, I have started gathering from other sources, hacking them to fit, and in some cases building from scratch. Each region has:

  • Hex map (6-mile scale) for exploration
  • Random encounter tables for the different terrain types (e.g. fungal forest versus crystalline fields)
  • Points of interest (e.g. significant monsters, cities, mines, dungeons) with a few sentences each.
  • Initial quest hooks

Right now most of the first region, Ositrailum, already exists. I haven’t yet completed customizing the randomly-generated map to a nicer-looking one, because presentation counts. The terrain-based random encounter tables will come next, plus a few special events I will make available throughout the region. Dungeons will mostly come from the gorgeous work of other mappers like Dyson plus occasional randomly generated maps. Donjon has my favorite dungeon generator but I will end up customizing heavily based on material from other sourcebooks.

While I won’t actually launch until my Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign concludes, Madness of Iliasha excites me tremendously for 2015.