Up until mid-2005, sequels to D&D sourcebooks were reserved for the Monster Manual. Whether this was a deliberate trend or the idea hadn’t occurred to Wizards of the Coast, the potential to reestablish the core rules and publish amendments was passed over. Until the Dungeon Masters Guide II. Two full years after the DMG’s 3.5 revision.
Few sourcebooks had as much potential to hit or miss as the DMG II. The Player’s Handbook had finite material to cover because it establishes the rules to make the game work. The Dungeon Master’s Guide had to explained the abstract side of the game, administering creativity and managing players. There is so much advice to give on the subject, as well as room for more tips on designing cities, dungeons, and running campaigns.
On the other hand, this sourcebook could ride the coat tails of one of the games established and essential rulebooks. Because this could be seen as much of a necessity to run the game as a core rulebook, the DMG II would sell well regardless of content. I bought it hoping for one of the best sourcebooks released to that date, but feared a cleverly disguised splat book with limited use.
At a Glance
Hate the cover. It’s the same old story. I like my covers to be thematically linked. Every cover in both the first and second Complete series had the same profile box format. The Races Of series all had dynamic adventure scenes that took up most of the cover. And the core rulebooks, including the sequels to the Monster Manual, featured full cover artwork reminiscent of an ancient tome your character might come across in his adventures. So for the DMG II to steal the profile box format is very disappointing. Furthermore, one of the only defining features of the somewhat generic devil on the cover is his piercings. Piercings make me squeamish. There are only two positive things I have to say about the cover: the fire effects, especially the orange steam between the devil’s toes and muscles, looks fantastic; unlike the brown cover in the preview pictures, the actual cover shares the predominantly blue colour of the DMG.
The artwork within the covers is sparse. There may be more full text pages than any other colour D&D sourcebook. One of my favourite pieces of artwork in this or any sourcebook is Ron Spencer’s shop scene on page 96. A bandaged and bloody adventurer tries to sell an emerald idle to a shopkeep who is not impressed. It’s a touch more colourful than it should be, such is Ron Spencer’s style, but the expressions the characters exchange are priceless and make me wonder how generous I am to my players by always buying their wares.
Ginger Kubic drew a piece of art on page 140 of Hoskin Lashti, owner of the Silver Raven. It’s a simple illustration of a well groomed female halfling. I like her bemused expression and colour scheme. Halfling nobility and upper class is rare.
There are two great illustrations of masters and apprentices on facing pages, 176 and 177. Vinod Rams drew a humourous interpretation of a master wizard enjoying giving his apprentice menial tasks like carrying his scrolls. Raven Mimura went a different route, illustrating PH sample monk Ember training with her old master in a candlelit dojo.
Another amusing illustration, this time by Franz Vohwinkle, can be found on page 188, where PH sample barbarian Krusk has opened a tavern and is arguing with his neighbour, fellow half-orc bar owner Gronka. Finally, let’s all admire Ed Cox’s aptly named Terrible Cyst on page 249. An overflowing pustule that rots and kills everything in its vicinity.
On the downside, there are two pieces of artwork that bother me. They are more than inspired by Lord of the Rings, they are complete copies. The D&D game does owe much to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the occasional direct homage finds its way into the sourcebooks and game sessions. However, when one book contains both Steve Ellis’ unscrupulous advisor (pg 85) and Ed Cox’s Eye of Al-Ghantra (pg 112), it makes the entire game look like an LotR rip-off.
Every D&D player is different, which makes every D&D gaming group very different. The DMG II does a great job acknowledging this and offering advice for handling the varied tastes of your group. There are some fundamental rules for playing the game and there are some preferences a DM has to be conscious of. The book handles this separation perfectly.
The first three chapters of the book look at important aspects of DMing, from the specific to the basic. Chapter 1: Running the Game gives advice for a DM at the game table. Chapter 2: Adventures gives advice on planning the adventure between sessions, as well as a whole batch of creative traps (trapped weapons are brilliant) and complex encounters. And Chapter 3: The Campaign helps novice and experienced DMs design campaigns with consistent and original flavour. Vitally useful is information on medieval society. D&D may be a fantasy game, but it has medieval technology and atmosphere. In lieu of reading history books on the era, DMG II offers insight into who the important figures at the time were and what professions might be found in a city.
Most gaming groups have had to deal with the rogue PC stealing from the party or having to deal with a stubborn paladin. The sidebars on these and similar topics really understand recurring problems at the gaming table and give great advice of dealing with such problems.
Sample Complex NPCs
The original DMG provides sample NPCs for all the base classes. The DMG II does what a good sequel should and takes the same idea to another level, providing multiclass or prestige class sample NPCs. Common villains like Blackguard and Cultists are always useful on the fly.
The DMG II suffers from long winded explanation. Going into detail how to outline terrain on the battle grid is not helpful to anyone with an iota of imagination. And the sample Magic Events go on forever. Even the highlights of the book I outlined would be better if they were trimmed and more content was added. Useful information would be more accessible if it were concisely written. For example:
A sample city could be a valuable tool for a DM. Sadly, Saltmarsh lacks important design notes to help a DM make a city of his own. The DMG is weighed down by nearly forty pages of an outline that is only valuable if you plan on running this exact city in your campaign.
From my review of the Dungeon Master’s Guide: “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…”
From the introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide II about the inclusion of Magic Items: “We haven’t forgotten that players spend as much time with the ‘blue books’ as the DMs do”
Trapped weapons. Cursed weapons are all fine and good, but you can really only spring them on your players once, and at high level. Trapped weapons offer a similar but different threat, one appropriate for lower level characters.
Mobs. Massive battles have always been problematic because of the book keeping. Mobs take the existing rules for swarms and applies them to larger creatures.
Sample Treasure Hordes. Once again, an idea taken from the DMG and expanded. Prerolled treasure hordes for encounter levels 1 through 16 make handing out standard rewards easier. Why they stopped at EL 16 is a bit puzzling, but it’s still a handy couple of pages.
I’ve busted out a few sample complex NPCs in a hurry. And the terrible cyst played an important role in my latest campaign.
I wish I liked it more. If this were the book I wanted it to be, it would be by my side whenever I DM. The Dungeons Masters Guide II can be a real help to beginning DMs, which makes it the opposite of a good sequel. A lot of the best advice it offers conflicts with my style as a DM. I assume DMs that have great note-taking skills can employ much of the advice within this book, but I improvise when others plan.
If You Liked This Book…
The Rules Compendium is a DMs best friend, speeding up sessions by answering rules questions the DM might not have memorized.
The Environment series has loads of information useful to a DM looking to set his adventures in specific locations. Best of all is Dungeonscape with design advice that should have found it’s way into the DMG II.
Release date: June 2005
Date reviewed: January 16, 2008