Review: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Dungeon Master’s Guides have to serve so many masters and cover so many topics that it’s almost a failing venture even before you’ve written the first word. That makes them hard to review, too, but in the case of 5th Edition’s entry onto the DMG scene, it’s actually been a pleasure. Taking the shortest path to cover every topic imaginable, this edition’s guide for running the game is chock full of functional advice, sleek mechanics, and an unreal number of random tables, optional rules, and variants that can inspire, inform, or redefine how you run a D&D game. It’s dead sexy to look at, too!

Rating: Content 5/5 and Form 4/5.

Buy the hardcover at Amazon

Reference the website version of the Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules, or download the PDF here.

Read on for the full review!

Dungeon Master's Guide Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Content (5/5)

The Dungeon Masters Guide is always a tough book to review, and I bet that’s because it’s an even tougher book to write. You’ve got new folks coming to D&D for the first time, sophomores coming from just one other edition of D&D to this new one (and “edition” in D&D terms is like the differences between an apple and psychometry: just totally different!), and you’ve got the grognards and edition warriors coming out of the mists of legend to check out the new beast on the block. It has to serve so many masters, cover so many topics, and somehow channel the best of rules mechanics, guidelines, functional tips, and enforcing social contracts. You almost can’t win.

The folks who wrote the DMG pulled out all the stops. Let’s see how it all stacks up.

Part 1: The Top-Down Approach

Part 1 of the DMG tackles the big-picture stuff, which is worth your perusal even if you run published campaign settings, as it covers a lot of ground from the nitty-gritty (Factions, languages, how settlements work) to the more theoretical (play style, overarching campaign-shattering events).

The first chapter is an exercise in taking the big-picture stuff about creating a campaign setting that looks and feels like a Dungeons & Dragons world, figuring out a playstyle that inspires both DM and Players with “I need to go on an adventure right now!” and doing it all in about as few words as possible. It’s successful for the most part, at its best when covering the importance and particulars of nailing down an accessible tone and world so players can show up at your table and have fun gaming, but the brevity means that certain subjects — mapping a campaign world, Factions and the benefits of rising in Faction rank, and alternative campaign milieus — really become more about missed opportunities, forcing DMs that interested in world-building to seek out other resources. Granted, there are resources APLENTY on the intarwebz, so it’s hard to fault the book for that.

Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse is really just a guide to the existing “Great Wheel” cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons, updated for 5th Edition with a couple of nods and advances born out of the massive 4th Edition retcon of the multiverse. It doesn’t do a lot in helping a DM create their own cosmology — certainly not like previous editions’ Manual of the Planes or similar titles — but it does greatly simplify the mechanical influences of bizarre planes and realms controlled by deities or foreign concepts. In this way, it is very inspirational: every plane receives a unique Planar Trait that can alter some mechanic, or how spells work, or something else that’s usually pretty big in scope, but without a ton of record-keeping.

Parts 2 & 3: The Moving Parts

Part 2 covers the “everyday” issues of adventures, starting with the structure and style of adventures, moving on to populating them with interesting Non-Player Characters (NPCs; if you didn’t already know that acronym, I’m curious how you even came to a niche website like this) and adventuring sites, stocking those sites with ways to kill the player characters, and then moving into downtime activities and rewards. It takes up the bulk of the book, and for good reason: not everybody’s going to be building their own campaign setting when D&D already has over a dozen of those available second-hand or through the Dungeon Master’s Guild, but every DM is going to need how to make an adventure work, whether it’s a published adventure or one they homebrew themselves.

Develop Your NPCs In Six Easy Dice Rolls!

Develop Your NPCs In Six Easy Dice Rolls!

Going chapter by chapter is silly, because we need to address the coolest thing in the DMG right frickin’ now: TABLES! There are oodles and oodles of tables, few of which offer a ridiculous number of options, but all of which provide fantastic inspiration for creating every aspect of an adventure, so much so that you could literally leave every decision up to a random roll. In fact, that’s exactly what James at GeekDad does in an series of articles. But if you like having total control, the options presented are married with the text in such a way that you can just as easily choose one of the entries or feel inspired by what’s there. Even if you do end up rolling a few things, it’s obvious there’s a conscious effort to keep each table complete unto itself, which keeps you from accidentally rolling up contradictory information or finding bizarre dead-end choices.

Need help breaking a story? Refer to the random plotlines, villain goals, and events. Flesh out your NPCs — whether they are villains, patrons, allies, or lowly tavernkeepers — with a bevy of tables. Introduce plot twists and come up with some evocative or generic encounters, all using tables as your final answer or as your inspirational guide.

But watch out! If you’re not terribly in tune with random tables (or D&D in general), you may miss the fact that you can use many (most? all?) of these tables for many, many purposes besides what they say on the tin. The issue this creates is that you may find yourself rolling on the NPC Interaction Traits table and getting one of the 12 results over and over again, which seems like the opposite of fun. Except you could’ve just as easily taken that sagely NPC and said, “Hmmm, I bet rolling a Personality Trait on the table in the Player’s Handbook for the Sage Background would be a little more germane.” And you’d be right. And it’s not just an issue across books — thinking about what’s in the DMG vs. the PHB — but an issue internal to the DMG itself. NPC Villains alone have tables in the Creating Adventures chapter (under Location-Based Adventures) and in the Creating Nonplayer Characters chapter (under Villains, appropriately). The Random Dungeons chapter at the end of the book necessarily relies on the Creating Adventures chapter as well, regularly calling back to tables found nearly 200 pages previous. There’s no index of tables (and certainly some organizational issues if you rely on tables during gameplay), so I made such an index and included it in the Optional Rules & Random Tables Index release at Dungeon Masters Guild.

/shameless promotion

Okay, back to the review.

DMG Traps section

Mmm, strawberry sauce for my fro-yo!

Part 3 includes a chapter on Running the Game followed by the Dungeon Master’s Workshop. This is where you’re going to see the most variant and optional rules — the Workshop is ultimately just a collection of variants and options — but also how some really basic stuff works in play, which honestly I think would’ve been better served earlier in the book, as this stuff is absolutely necessary for running just about any adventuring situation ever.

Finally, there are appendices for Random Dungeons, Monster Lists, Maps, and Dungeon Master Inspiration.

You know what? That’s a LOT of stuff. Let’s cover it out of order and all jumbled together. Trust me, it’ll make sense.

The Good

One of the best parts of this book is the “How to Use This Book” section, which is one of those sections that people might glance right over, but which new DMs should read because of the ground it covers. Part of the reason a lot of new or prospective DMs get overwhelmed is because they are looking at the page count of the PHB and then see another 317 pages of DMG on top of that and think, “Dear god! I have to read all this?!” And the unqualified answer is actually, “Absolutely not, no!”

Running Forgotten Realms? Then pretty much the entirety of Part 1 of this book is barely worth a skim. Running the adventures for Adventurers League at your local gaming store? 98% of the stuff in this book that says “optional” or “variant” rules are only going to muddy the waters, confusing you about what’s necessary to run the fast and furious convention-style sessions that makes AL a great intro but a bad long-term campaign plan.

The point is, there’s so much in this book that gets covered and yet your typical Dungeon Master only needs to know a small fraction of it at any given time. To point to a fact, look at how much of the DMG is included in the Basic D&D rules. The answer is “encounter building rules” and “magic items.” And it’s not even all of the magic items.

Breadth of Coverage

We just mentioned the breadth of topics covered by the Dungeon Masters Guide; well, that breadth is a good thing. For example, there are 16 pages (p. 71-87) covering how to create adventures. This includes:

  • Location-based adventures
  • Event-based adventures
  • Mystery adventures
  • Intrigue adventures
  • Shaking up the adventure with moral quandaries, plot twists, and side quests
  • Character objectives (basically, win conditions for encounters outside of “kill everything”)
  • Encounter building (individual encounters, daily budgets by level, etc.)
  • Building random encounter tables

The breadth of subject matter when it comes to creating adventures is huge, yet in a relatively small amount of space the DMG proves how jam-packed it is. Keep in mind that there are multiple random tables to inspire or roll up some results (and explanations for those tables’ entries where necessary), as well as ample discussion for each topic.

Putting on my “I’m new to this hat” is very difficult after 30+ years of playing D&D, but I really felt like they covered everything in enough detail to get things rolling right away. As an experienced DM, it was clear that they were all about providing functional advice and leaving out crazy conceptual gaming theory: this is D&D, after all, so if you’re not here to run a D&D game, forget about you! I very much see that as a positive thing.

Depth of Coverage

In such short spaces, the DMG is able to cover a subject with a lot of depth, too. In just 4 pages, you’ve got everything you’ll ever need to add value to Non-Player Characters that directly help or even join a party: followers, adventurer NPCs, optional rules for Loyalty, contacts, patrons, hirelings, and extras. That doesn’t even include NPC character creation, villains, and the adventure-creation specifics of how to use the villains you create. That’s a sickening amount of depth for every subject the DMG covers, and yet it’s there, and it’s good.

Old hats won’t find much of anything missing (except the Random Harlot table!) and new DMs now have everything they could ever need to adjudicate this sort of thing without hauling extra books or requiring complex subsystems.

Brevity

I keep mentioning the “small amount of space” or “in just X pages!” for every subject in the DMG, and it’s because all of the writing takes the shortest path to cover each topic. To a degree, this might miss out on the nuances of some subsystems like the optional rules for Renown in the section on player character Factions, but the rules are succinct where there are rules, and the guidance, tips, and tricks are functional.

New DMs have enough to deploy these rules and ideas at the table immediately, and experienced system-tinkerers have more than enough to start adding to things to their tastes.

The New “Cool”

Chapter 6: Between Adventures really feels new and fresh in a Dungeon Master’s Guide, compared to editions past (even if it’s not entirely true that this stuff is new). It covers linking adventures, campaign tracking tips, handling recurring expenses (first appearing in the Player’s Handbook), and new downtime activities for player characters to engage in (as well as how to create even more activities). Rarely has this stuff been codified in this fashion, using explicit underlying systems. The bad news is that it’s specific enough that it may offend some tastes (something every new iteration of D&D finds a way to do), but luckily it’s so exposed by being in this chapter that the systems can easily be modified. I assume this may create issues with how to balance Eberron’s Artificer class, but that remains to be seen.

The Bad

There are some things that are just plain old missing, or downright bad. As you’ll see, however, they are such an insignificant piece of the DMG pie that I didn’t have the heart to even knock off a star from the Content section of this review, so…that should tell you something. I’m the kinda guy who hates a perfect score because nothing in the world is perfect outside of videos of kittens and baby goats, but there ya have it. The DMG is that good.

But not truly perfect and here’s why:

Stunts

In the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (2008), there’s a near-legendary system on page 42 that covers stunts and improvised maneuvers/powers. It may very well have been one of those things that was way cooler to read than it was to implement, but it exposed the underlying assumptions about expected damage output, DCs, and the whole At-Will/Encounter/Daily Power format that 4th Edition D&D characters and monsters used. Such a thing isn’t to be found in the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide…at least not so blatantly.

With a little cleverness and some page-flipping, DMs can make use of the trap rules (featuring saving throw DCs and damage severity by level) and the new spell creation rules (which features single- and multi-target spell damage by spell level) to create a similar stunting system. Reading into the expected monster stats by challenge rating helps a little, too. All well and good, but it’d be nice to have seen a repeat in clear and certain terms, rather than having to hack something together and hope you remembered to carry the 1.

Trap Stat Blocks

Like the spells in the Player’s Handbook, traps have a barebones “stat block” that obscures most of the common traits in the body text, including:

  • Wisdom (Perception) check to spot the mechanism of the trap.
  • Intelligence (Investigation) or other DCs to pick up additional information about the trap (if any).
  • DCs for checks used to disable the trap, as well as the consequences for using gear other than thieves’ tools.
  • Damage, conditions, and Saving Throw DCs.

That’s pretty annoying, as most of that stuff is universal across traps. Instead, you have to read through paragraphs of text to pick this stuff out.

More Indexes!

The DMG offers several Monster Lists (we’ll chat more about this in a second) that act as a useful reference for stocking dungeons and ruins with monsters of the appropriate challenge rating, but with all of the topics that the DMG covers so well, it’s crappy that there aren’t even more of these types of indexes, or that they fall a little short. An index of all the random tables, a checklist of all the optional rules in the DMG and PHB, including page references on the Monster Lists…let’s just say that the guide is lacking on organizational tools, which is one more thing that tends to trip up new Dungeon Masters more than old. If you want new blood for the game, you gotta make it easier for people to step into the role of DM for a session, and a 317-page book filled with a thousand subjects and a billion random tables is a pain in the butt to argue as being “easy” even though it’s a fact that DMing kinda is easy. It’s a hard sell. Add on the page count of the PHB and the need to reference monsters in various sections (not all of them are in alphabetical order, since they may fall under “parent” entries like Animals or NPCs), and you’ve got yourself a perfect case for the DMG including good organizational tools. But it doesn’t.

The Weird

There’s some stuff that’s just a little…interesting.

Appendix B: Monster Lists

As I said, there’s a whole appendix with lists of monsters, first by environment, then by Challenge Rating.

The environments listed are:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark (subterranean)
  • Underwater
  • Urban

Make sure your adventures conform to that, and you’re good to go. If they don’t, it’s not hard to get familiar with the monsters and repurpose a table or build your own. All of these environments feature the monsters organized by Challenge Rating, so populating your wilderness and dungeon environments with appropriate or near-appropriate encounters is a cinch. Why this info isn’t repeated in an ecology section in the Monster Manual is beyond me, because that’s one of the (relatively few) faults with that book, but I digress.

Notice a big frickin’ problem? Yeah, it’s the lack of page numbers. Not a single monster has its page number noted next to it, which is a blessing if the Monster Manual gets laid out differently soon, but is a pain in the butt for GMs who refer to the lists but maybe aren’t familiar with the monsters that well, and thus have to go hunting down the monsters in the MM either by page, table of contents, or index. It’s not terrible, but it’s not good either. Grouping monsters by their parent entry, or at least moving Animals and NPCs to their own notation within a table might have been a good start, at least.

Appendix C: Maps

There’s a bunch of maps included in the back of the DMG, and they cover a wide gamut of places:

  • Wind mill
  • House
  • A dungeon that looks vaguely similar to the Lost Mine of Phandelver (from the D&D Starter Set)
  • A dungeon and cave complex featuring an underground river/lake
  • Two coastal cities/towns, one with a very unique “multi-island, river delta” layout
  • A cave complex
  • A double-masted boat’s deck plans
  • A dungeon partially collapsed into a ravine

These maps are cool and evocative, and probably useful in a lot of given situations. But they are surprising both for their placement — about 200 pages after various sections on mapping — and for what they don’t include, like temples, castles, a manor house, oversized dwellings (all of the noted dungeons are 5-foot square corridors and tend towards tight spaces with only a few rooms that are a bit more open), and maybe a few bigger overland maps at the campaign or region scales noted earlier in the DMG.

Now, I’m doing the book a slight disservice with this critique, because if you thumb through the book you will find that several pieces of artwork actually act as maps on the sly. There’s a great piece that is an isometric rendering of an entire walled city, and there map sections of the Forgotten Realms complete with hexes. But in most cases, these are placed as if they are pieces of artwork, and so you might have text or other images running through them, or parts of the map cut off entirely to make way for section breaks.

None of this is a huge loss for internet savvy folks who can google up a map in a fifth of a second, or experienced DMs or illustrators who conjure up their own creations. But for the new DMs, there will be instances where showing is better than telling, so I think it would’ve been better to cut back on some of the bigger art pieces throughout the book in order to make room for more of that sort of thing.

Cover of the Dungeon Master's Guide

Cover of the Dungeon Master’s Guide

Form (4/5)

Singing the praises of the physical format of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is easy. It’s a joy, bound in the protective seals of arcane spellcasters and printed lovingly with the positive energy of the Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia.

What?

I’m saying it’s awesome. Just awesome.

Behold some artwork:

The Modron's March!

The Modron’s March!

And look at this piece. Reminds you of a certain scene near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, but with all the right “this is what makes D&D different” twists.

Dwarven Citadel from the DMG

D&D in the Mines of Moria…A Whole Lot Moria Monsters, that is!

And here’s where we knock off our one and only star: the text is so easy to smudge! I’ve made ample use of the Monster Stats By Challenge table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but all it took was lightly rubbing my finger along one row of the table to reference something and the row beneath my finger smudged like the dickens. Whatever printing stuff they are doing, it’s inky and liquidy and quite frankly the same thing happened to me while reading Curse of Strahd, so obviously the quality control hasn’t improved yet.

Resources

Errata for the Dungeon Master’s Guide. There’s also some other official Wizards of the Coast documentation pertinent to the DMG:

On the topic of conversion guides, there are a number of sites, people, and automated tools that handle conversions to 5th Edition in different ways, from many different sources. Here’s a good sampling; you’ll have to figure out which ones work best for you:

Improved indexes for the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. (Actual indexes at Github.) I’ve also created an Optional Rules & Random Tables Index, which gives additional advice on when and where to utilize the optional and variant rules found through the 5E books.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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