What’s the difference between a handbook and a guide? A handbook, like Dungeons & Dragons’ (D&D) first core rulebook the Player’s Handbook (PH), is an outline of rules with explanations of what they mean and how they work. A guide, like the second of D&D’s core rulebooks, the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) is advice on how to apply a handbook’s rules on other, less cut-and-dry levels.
“Dungeon Master” (DM) is probably the most ridiculed term in all of Dungeons & Dragons by non-players, but even the players that can laugh at themselves take this term seriously (outside the occasional Dungeons & Dragons animated series reference). You can’t be a Dungeon Novice, or Dungeon Administrator. For everyone to have fun playing this game, the sessions must be run by someone creative, able to express ideas, improvise, interpret rules, and read people. The game’s designers were not exaggerating when they named the enforcer of rules and nurturer of campaigns a master.
At a Glance
This is my favourite D&D manual to look at. If the core rulebooks were actual books the Player Characters (PCs) came upon in a library, the Player’s Handbook (PH) would belong to a scholar, the Monster Manual (MM) to a villain, and the DMG to a wizard.
The powder blue of the cover is such a treat to look at, beautifully contrasted by the gold that represents metal parts. Having a planet as the focal point is brilliantly appropriate, and visually grand. Golden land that doesn’t match the shape of any of Earth’s continents, and a deep blue water complimented by the similar jewels that surround it. What a cover. Even the D&D logo is integrated into the colour scheme.
The only negative think I can say about this cover is the title. The font used makes the D look like a stylize O. Regardless, the Oungeon Master’s Guide’s title makes up for this by actually including an apostrophe. As a writer and fan of punctuation, I always appreciate when apostrophes aren’t neglected in favour of a cleaner look.
Between the covers isn’t always so interesting. The first few chapters are text heavy. Chapter 1: Running the Game, starts strong with a great picture of Krusk forcing his way into a beholder’s chamber to illustrate the “Kick in the Door” style of play. It’s a fun visual gag that the rest of the chapter could have benefited from, especially the example of play. Other chapters at least benefit from charts to break up the monotony, and towards the end of the book there are some gorgeous illustrations of the Prestige Classes and Magic Items.
This is a mighty thick book, and that is particularly impressive given how few player options are offered. Chapter 1: Running The Game and Chapter 2: Using the Rules may not be the game’s most visually dynamic chapters, but they certainly cover everything someone trying to run their first game should know, including some nice optional rules with explanations about why these were not made official. Chapter 3: Adventuring outlines a plethora of less important but very useful information to ease planning a session in advance.
Not all the rules in D&D are about how to kill things (just some of the best ones). So it’s nice to see rules that encourage using alternatives. Rules about the weather and climate expand game play even if they aren’t as dynamic as, say, rules about grappling. There is an example given that a rogue chooses to move silently past a Minotaur deserves just as much XP as the fighter who chooses to kill it.
In second edition, my friends and I made up our own magic items. There were some useful (self-extending rope ladders), some fascinating and bizarre items (a mattress of holding that the PCs could use to enter a pocket of breathable water), but mostly weapons that weren’t designed with enough forethought that ended up taking over the game. We continued in this way into 3rd edition, but eventually broke down and read the magic weapon section of the DMG. Our game improved instantly. Players started making shopping lists and saving their gold for eventual purchases. Weapon abilities versus price is balanced, keeping things in line (although leaving the most desirable items out of low-level price range). I do wish there were a few more inexpensive staffs, however. And there are some wand-related issues that will be discussed later.
Not to say there are any crude images or lengthy discussions about sex, drugs, and rock n roll. It’s just that a lot of the content doesn’t fit the theme of Dungeon Master’s Guide. It feels like the game designers were sorting game content into three separate piles. Monsters naturally went to the Monster Manual. Rules and player options to the Player’s Handbook. And rules for running the game went to the DMG. Once they were done sorting, they saw that the PH pile was three times that of the DMG. So they lowered their standards.
“Do we really need spells and magic items in the PH?”
Magic items go to the DMG.
“Prestige classes aren’t really basic rules.”
“The Leadership and Improved Familiar feats take up an awful lot of room.”
In effect, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is actually the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Advanced Player’s Options. I do prefer one core rulebook with multiple personalities than two core rulebooks with padded content. But I still miss the “Don’t let the players read this book” mystique that the DMG ultimately loses because the players will eventually shop for magic items or become curious about prestige classes.
If the PH is a crunch book with some fluff, the DMG is a fluff book with some crunch. Unfortunately, while the PH successfully blends the two, the DMG falls short in some areas. Who can use wands? How? What exactly happens to a character during the incubation period of a disease? Why is it cheaper to buy a potion than it is to brew one? There are many questions that just aren’t answered within these pages.
There is a section of Chapter Four: Non-Player Characters that should be invaluable for DMs but is instead a huge tease. Sixteen straight pages offer NPC Statistics that would be great for impromptu fights if all the information was present. Need a standard 10th level Fighter and don’t have time to pick all those feats? Curious what to find in a moderately powerful Wizard’s spellbook? Wondering just what a Bard can do as it advances? None of your answers will be found here. Instead, the class tables from the Player’s Handbook are reformatted with slightly more information, but hardly enough to pick up and play. There are fifth level and fifteenth level samples that do the trick if you want specific NPCs, but that just doesn’t fill enough of the need.
What I find most disappointing is that this was a chance to create villains on par with the PH NPCs. “Sample 5th Level NPC Druid” is a lizard folk with crocodile NPC, which is cool, but how much cooler would he have been named Murkwad with his trusty swamp friend Hate? For example. Add an accompanying portrait and the well for future sourcebook artwork has been dug.
Stuff Falling on Other Stuff
There is a tiny section in the glossary that details how much damage is taken from falling, and how much is taken from having something fall on you. I so love having these rules available. I created an entire encounter based around these rules, where a colossal black dragon and huge silver dragon wrestling in the sky fell onto the PCs camp site and steam rolled towards them.
In my experience, people love offering alternate ways things can be done. Normally, these are not better or worse, just different. Wizards of the Coast chose their method of doing things, like rolling abilities, and put that in the PH. Then they took all the rejected formulas and put them in the DMG, in case there was another method a player might prefer. This move was brilliant. The rules then became flexible. Maybe not as flexible as character creation, but it certainly reinforced the idea that D&D was a cooperative game that bent to the preferences of those that play it.
There is so much to discover in the DMG. With so many magic items, I’m still finding new ones for my weekly game and regular character. And I love referencing environments and weather information to offset the routine. Ultimately, a session can go by without a DMG, but it’s smoother with one.
I’ve never played any DMG Prestige Classes, but I’ve had a couple in my party. The Mystic Theurge, one of 3.5’s biggest controversies, is actually a balanced and interesting class that acts as a walking average between wizard and cleric. The Dragon Disciple, on the other hand, is such a mess of prerequisites and abilities that don’t amount to anything. Other prestige classes, like the duelist and eldritch knight, have been effectively replaced by new base classes in the first Complete Series. Looking back, the sixteen prestige classes introduced here do not meet the potential of the idea, as the hundreds of new and better ones since have shown.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide is Dungeons & Dragons’ nervous system and intellect. It outlines the best of what separates a pen and paper role-playing game for even the best computer game or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. A good portion of it is helpful suggestions or rules the players don’t need to easily reference that are great to read but don’t need to be memorized. And another chunk of it is advanced rules for experienced players. Together they may not make the tastiest sammich, but they’re certainly delicious separately.
If You Liked This Book…
Definitely pick up it’s sequel, the Dungeon Master’s Guide II. A lot of ideas are expanded upon and the two books compliment each other well.
Advanced DMs should look into Unearthed Arcana for an entire book of optional rules that nicely respond to gamer feedback.
I’d also recommend the Book of Vile Darkness for older DMs. There is no better book on creating villains and employing evil.
It’s a bit futile to mention this now, but the recently cancelled Dragon magazine was also a wonderful avenue to new game material that could be plugged into any campaign. I’m sad that such a cornerstone of my gaming lifestyle will no longer be on store shelves, and curious to see the online resource that is replacing it.
Which edition of the DMG is this a review for?