2014 has been a good year for fans of Dungeons & Dragons. This fifth edition of the series took a unique approach in releasing its books in staggered fashion over several months – and at long last the final book in the series – the Dungeon Master’s Guide – has dropped just before the end of the year. Odds are, if you purchased the first two core books – the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a no-brainer choice at this point. However, for those on the fence about whether or not to spring for this collection of gaming books, I can safely say that the Dungeon Master’s Guide rounds out a balanced collection of high quality tomes for tabletop gaming enthusiasts and is well worth the look.
I have said all along that the Dungeons & Dragons system is really more of a guide than a hard and fast set of rules. I used it over the years to help form a MUD called Kingdoms of the Lost, and covered a variety of different plots from real-life interpretations of the gaming group cast into a magical world to science fiction and horror trappings. My favorite tome has always been the Monster Manual has always been my favorite and that holds true today for the fifth edition. The different races and histories combine with the illustrations to create a series of stories for those who really want to let their imaginations mull the possibilities.
The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide have always been a bit more sterile to me, in that they provide rules and background, but seldom the kind of context that in and of itself helps me to spin stories just be reading them. The Dungeon Master’s Guide in particular is built as a reference book. You are not meant to read it cover to cover and come away with the feeling that you have just completed a work of art or a deep literary experience. That being said, this edition feels like it nails the context of the game better than in recent editions.
First and foremost, the structure of the Dungeon Master’s Guide jumped out at me. It is segmented into a trio of sections called Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures and Master of Rules. I was surprised to see how the chapters actually made sense and flowed together to create a surprisingly readable experience (I said it was not necessarily meant to be read cover to cover, that did not mean I was not going to do so). While the Master of Worlds may feel like it is geared towards the novice Dungeon Master, it still makes for interesting reading as it discusses the different types of fantasy settings and common themes.
As you progress through the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I got the feeling with this edition that the writers really wanted potential Dungeon Masters to embrace the idea that I have been espousing throughout my reviews – that this is your world in the end and you have the freedom to adjust as needed to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for both you and the players. It is an excellent read if only because it helps potential Dungeon Masters examine what they are doing at a higher level before delving into what is next – the nuts and bolts of any campaign.
Once you move into the next section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you start to get into charts, tables and the game’s balance. Here the book tries to help you establish rules that will govern your world and give order to the gaming session itself. My favorite part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is almost always the magical items, and this fifth edition does not disappoint as it provides not only an exhaustive list to choose from, but some absolutely gorgeous illustrations and text that help give life to these rarities. Entire stories can and should be built about retrieving some of these items. Once again, they help provide inspiration and guidance, but leave so much flexibility for the Dungeon Master as well as the party.
In fact, this is one of the areas where the Dungeon Master’s Guide fares best. Hoard of the Shadow Queen and The Rise of Tiamat are both very solid modules that have specific endgames in mind. As a result, they provide excellent structure but a lack of flexibility for those sessions where players inevitably wish to travel off of the beaten path. There were moments where allowances were made, but only occasionally and seldom with the kind of open-world flexibility that modern world video games have helped to inspire. If you are looking for a video game equivalent, I would say that the above two modules were akin to the first two Dragon Age games. You could hit specific locations that each had mostly linear paths to follow until your party reached the end. The fifth edition and how the Dungeon Master’s Guide works within the current system feels more aligned with Dragon Age: Inquisition. It encourages inspired thinking by the players and a sense of wanderlust and adventure. Of course no guide can completely prepare a Dungeon Master for everything nor should it, but this guide fares better than the prior campaign materials on that front.
Once you get to the last pages of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you will enter discussions about how to handle some of the real challenges found in running a session. These can range from rules lawyer-ing over how a roll should be handled to players who use out of character information to impact what their characters do in the game. Basically, they help give a Dungeon Master some coaching advice on how to deal with human nature.
Here we also dig deep into the numbers. Not the most exciting part of any campaign, but from things like the stats used to truly ‘build’ an NPC to their morale in battle. The Dungeon Master’s Workshop may be the most interesting segment of all. It clocks in at chapter nine and is really everything one would need to know about adding new rules or creatures to a game that have a proper balance within the Dungeons & Dragons framework. The tables are very accessible and the possibilities are limitless. Of course that is the case whenever one is applying their imagination to something, but here the workshop serves as an excellent tool for maintaining balance while encouraging creativity.
Of course while the workshop might be the most fun aspect of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Appendixes are going to be the most useful. Here Dungeon Masters have a considerable amount of knowledge at their fingertips, which is handy for those times when a player throws them for a loop and you have to come up with something on the fly. This part of the book is indispensable and while it in and of itself brings nothing new to the table, it is the finishing touch on a tome that is far more accessible to new players than some of the prior editions.
That really has been the theme of this fifth edition release. I got my start back with 2nd edition roughly twenty years ago. It was not the smoothest of learning processes, but I loved the potential to create and share those adventures with friends. This was a regular part of our weekend activities for years through college and served as the springboard for much of my subsequent writing and the creation of my MUD.
This fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons succeeds in both appealing to veteran players by providing some new content and streamlined mechanics while offering accessibility to new players. I started my oldest two kids off on the adventure provided with the Starter Set months ago and now they are hooked. I do not believe a weekend has passed since where they have not hit me up about playing now – and at eighteen and fifteen I could not be more excited that they have joined me in my love of roleplaying adventures. These same materials have proven quite handy with the sessions I hold with my old friends from college that used to play second edition with me a couple of decades ago.
The quality of the art and the construction of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is top-notch, and the content within its hard covered pages has proven useful over extensive play sessions. I am looking forward to seeing what else comes out for fifth edition in the future and hope to see the same commitment to quality that we have so far with this staggered introductory release.
Review by Nick