Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Guide is the Thing

If Dungeons & Dragons lies at the heart of our hobby, then it is as tripod formed by the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In the past, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has always been the book needed to run the game. The Player’s Handbook provided rules for creating and equipping characters and assigning spellcasters their spells; the Monster Manual  listed NPCs and monsters to kill; and the Dungeon Master’s Guide provided the actual rules to run Dungeons & Dragons as well as being a guide to running the game. With the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition that has very much changed because Wizards of the Coast has made the RPG far more player oriented, shifting the rules necessary to play the game to the Player’s Handbook. What this means is that a group could pick up the Player’s Handbook and their dice and the Dungeon Master could run a pre-written adventure, such as ‘The Lost Mines of Phandelver’, to be found in the Dungeons & Dragons, Starter Set, without the need to reference either the Monster Manual or the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ownership and study of the Dungeon Master’s Guide though, enables the Dungeon Master to do a whole lot more, only some of it involving the application of new rules.

The three-hundred-and-twenty page tome is divided into three parts—‘Master of Worlds’, ‘Master of Adventures’, and ‘Master of Rules’. This represents a narrowing of focus as the book moves from the broadest view of a Dungeon Master’s campaign down to the narrowest, from the very nature of the universe and the planes and the gods who rule over them down to the contents of a dungeon chamber. So essentially it moves from the big picture down to the finest of brush strokes, starting with the default assumptions about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign—gods oversee the world, much of which is untamed wilderness, and the world is ancient, riven by conflict, and fundamentally magical. From here it looks at options that change these assumptions—is the world mundane or known or with few monsters or possesses just the monotheist faith? All of these change the fundamental basics of a campaign, whose physical geography is explored in the guidelines for mapping it out, politics and government, languages, as well as ways to make it dynamic by adding events that shake up the campaign. Numerous options are given this in a number tables that can be used as is or as inspiration for the Dungeon Master to develop.

The world also fits in a larger framework, that is the multiverse. This expands upon the discussion of Dungeons & Dragons’ Cosmology in the Player’s Handbook, giving options as to how rearrange and organise the Planes as well as exploring how to traverse them and what dangers and wonders might be encountered. This includes both the Astral and Ethereal Planes, the Inner (Elemental) Planes, as well as the Outer Planes. There are some nice nods to the past here, notably the Isle of Dread of X1, Isle of Dread fame and a discussion of Sigil, City of Doors, the inclusion of which begs for Planescape to be presented in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This first section feels very much like a mish-mash of different elements and this is highlighted by the discussion of the types of  fantasy from heroic fantasy and swords and sorcery to war and wuxia possible in Dungeons & Dragons. Not in its inclusion, but in its placement at the end of the section after examining campaign events. It feels very much like it should have been placed much earlier in the book.

The middle section, ‘Masters of Adventure’, is all about the elements that go towards creating an adventure. This includes types of adventure—location or event based, mysteries and intrigues, and the creating of encounters and NPCs, the latter also covering the creation of villains. Besides tables for their schemes and methods, villains are also given two options—the Death Domain for the Cleric and the Oathbreaker as the antithesis of the Paladin. These are worthy inclusions, having been part of Dungeons & Dragons ever since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. These rules also nicely compliment the later section detailing the modification of monsters and NPCs.

Given their role in the game, it seems odd that dungeons do not get a chapter of their own, but rather they are part of a chapter devoted to adventure environments in general. Their location and purpose, hazards—including traps, and more are discussed, but so are the wilderness, settlement, underwater, and aerial environments. These complement the mechanics given in the Player’s Handbook, but certainly in the case of dungeon design, it feels as if there could be much more space devoted to it. Beyond the dungeon, there is a chapter on activities between adventures. This includes activities for the Dungeon Master, such as linking adventures and tracking the campaign, but is primarily concerned with the activities of the player characters. There are traditional activities like building a stronghold, but also carousing, crafting (and selling) magical items,  and running a business, plus sowing rumours! 

Rounding out ‘Master of Adventure’ is the longest section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with more than a third of its pages being devoted to treasure. Initially, just gems and coins, but soon it presents a long list of magical items. All of Dungeons & Dragons’ favourites are here, from Adamantine Armour and Alchemy Jug to Winged Boots and Wings of Flying. Each of the items receives a beautiful illustration and is nicely detailed, but what really stands out about so many of them is their redesign. A great many can only be used daily or if they require the expenditure of charges, then such charges are few in number, but are topped up daily at dawn. Such items will probaby cease to work if they run out. So a Wand of Magic Missiles has seven charges and can cast Magic Missile for single charge or at a higher level if further charges are expended. At dawn it gains between two and seven charges, but if it ever runs out of charges, there is a one in twenty chance of the wand crumbling to dust. Many items also require ‘attunement’ for someone to properly use them, for example a Ring of Protection, Wand of Fireballs, or a Mace of Smiting. Since there is a limit of three attuned items, a character is not as free to swap and change the magical items he can use as he might have been in previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

The long section also presents sentient magical items as well as artefacts. The latter includes various examples, such as the Book of Exalted Deeds and the Book of Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, and the Wand of Orcus. These are fantastic write-ups of some iconic items that are further improved, if ever so slightly, by various beneficial and detrimental properties that vary from user to user. They also mean that such artefacts are different from one campaign to the next. The great thing about magic items in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is that they are still powerful and will still help a player character on his quests, but barring some of major items, they are not too powerful and their use is limited. 

‘Master of Rules’, the third section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is obviously about the rules, but is not necessarily all about the rules. There is good advice about running and playing the game at the table as well as handling the Difficulty Class for tasks and skill checks, roleplaying, social inspiration,  and Inspiration—arguably the one true innovation in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Handling combat, from initiative to mobs, is discussed as are chases, diseases, poisons, madness, and Experience Points. Throughout options are given in each case and the likelihood is that the Dungeon Master will find one or more to his liking.

The majority of the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide come in the book’s last chapter, the ‘Dungeon Master’s Workshop’. This presents rules variants for handling replacing each player character’s proficiency bonus with proficiency dice, using Hero Points to make a game an epic campaign, and adding Honour and Sanity Points as new ability scores for campaigns where personal honour and mental states matter. Adventuring options add rules for fear and horror for darker games, adjustments to how healing works for grittier games, and with addition of firearms, explosives, and alien technology, a Dungeon Master can set his campaign in the modern age or take it into the realms of Science Fiction much on the mode of S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Further options allow for Plot Points as per lots of other RPGs, combat variants such as  weapon speed, disarming, morale and so on. There are also rules to allow the Dungeon Master to design his own magic items, monsters, races and subraces, spells, classes, and backgrounds. Notable amongst these is a spell point system for those spellcasters who prefer a more flexible magic system versus the traditional Vancian style magic of Dungeons & Dragons, and the guidelines for modifying monsters to individualise them, in particular, being able to add a Class to a monster. This is much like Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and enables the Dungeon Master to make his antagonists and NPCs more capable and potentially more memorable. 

Rounding out the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a series of four appendices. These start out with yet more tables, this time for the creation of Random Dungeons, from rooms to their trappings—a staple that first appeared in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The next gives lists of Monsters, by both environment and by Challenge Rating, the latter sorely missing from the Monster Manual as a means for the Dungeon Master to better design antagonists and foes for the player characters to face. The third appendix gives some rather nice sample maps, whilst the last is yet another list, this time of ‘Dungeon Master Inspiration’, of both books to read and games to play. The list is surprisingly contemporary in its selection and thought, covering the creation of both games and fiction, as well as history and gaming theory. The list is indicative of how much even the designers of the world’s biggest roleplaying game have been informed by more than just Dungeons & Dragons.

Although the Dungeon Master’s Guide is not as profusely illustrated as the Player’s Handbook or the Monster Manual, there is lots of full colour artwork and all of it is of a very high standard. It continues the realistic style seen in the first two books, in particular, the illustrations of the Dungeon Master’s Guide very many magic items are excellent. The writing is also clear, easy to understand, and accessible.

It is difficult to really find true fault with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but there are perhaps two issues that may be seen as faults with the book and its content. The first is that for all of the ideas, suggestions, options, and variants, there is no great depth to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Rather it presents a good overview and a few solutions to any question it raises rather than going into any great detail. So this may leave the potential Dungeon Master somewhat lacking should he want more information on particular aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, world-building, since there are no subsequent books that explore such subjects in detail. At least not yet for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Of course this avoids the issue of there being too many rulebooks, but it may leave the neophyte Dungeon Master wanting more when it comes to further information. This then is the second issue with the Dungeon Master’s Guide—it is not written with the neophyte Dungeon Master in mind and it may well be an intimidating volume. All three-hundred-and twenty pages of it. 

As the book aimed squarely at the Game Master—or Dungeon Master—for the world’s first and leading roleplaying game, the expectations for the Dungeon Master’s Guide are understandably high, and that following the high bar set by the quality of the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual. Further, the new design of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition with its shifting of focus so that the game’s rules are in the Player’s Handbook, means that the Dungeon Master’s Guide has to do something else and still do it well… So the Dungeon Master’s Guide is very much more a guide book than a rule book—though rules are given alongside numerous options—and is full of good questions and equally good answers that should stand the Dungeon Master in good stead when it comes to making Dungeons & Dragons his game.