Now that’s done, here’s the individual chapters all linked in one place. Let me know how it went for you.
Chapter 9, the final chapter, and it’s time to tear up the rules and reassemble them in a manner of your choosing. This is where all the options reside for your 5e campaign settings (with a small s). There’s quite a few. Here’s the list:
Honor and Sanity
Fear and Horror
That’s quite a list. Some of the options are very obvious to be honest. For example healing and rests. Simply changing the timing and durations of these takes you from Epic to Gritty, and you don’t have to be a games developer to work that out. On the other hand there’s some weird stuff, like Speed Factors for initiative, which is up there with Facing for sheer who the heck asked for that? And then there’s the little surprises, like Plot Points which are a pretty modern device to see in D&D, and Trait Proficiency, which basically turns the game into Fate. Well, mostly, but it’s still a big step for this traddest of trad games.
There’s definitely some things I’d use from this menu, and some of them I saw back in early playtests. Other things are mutually exclusive (strangely the sanity rules don’t mix with the fear and horror rules), or a bit out there for regular campaigns (alien tech anyone?). This isn’t the kind of thing I imagined back when the designers were talking about a modular approach where fans of every edition could sit next to each other and play the same game happily. It could never have been that, it was an impossible goal. It does give the DM some levers, and if used will absolutely colour their campaign. But let’s not kid ourselves, these are optional hacks, not replaceable modules.
For the inveterate tinkerers there’s now a meaty section devoted to custom building your own 5e content. Without any news on an OGL or fan policy, this is largely for the home DM or more likely the person with the collection of old stuff they want to convert. This gives us the maths behind monster creation. Does it work? Don’t know, I don’t have the time or inclination to try it out to be honest, and with all the monster manuals I have to hand, I doubt I ever will. Similarly with magic items. Given that this very book contains hundreds of the buggers, I can’t see any pressing need for me to add to 40 years of D&D content. Same with classes, backgrounds and races, for similar reasons. Look, it’s all there and it appears to go into some depth if that’s the sort of thing you like. Bet you liked the crafting stuff from earlier too right?
And that’s it! Almost. Just a few appendices to go.
Which is exactly where they manage to take book that had started great and then been slowly downgrading to merely good over its course, and make it awesome. Here’s why.
This book has been like a chat with a DM mentor for the past 300 pages. Often it’s been a bit scholarly, and sometimes maddeningly vague. It’s given us loads of further reading, and told us not to worry about anything except the story. It’s had lots of tables, but hasn’t shown us what they can do. Finally, in the appendices, we get the bits that make the whole game work. For starters, random dungeons. When these appeared in 1e, I tried and tried to make them work, never could. These tables do work, and they produce actual maps, that make sense, that you can play with. And they’re a little game themselves for the lonely DM. Such fun. It’s not just there to fill a sheet of graph paper either. It gives you all the things to stock the place with. Essentially, it takes all the starting advice from Chapter 5 and goes bigger (monster motivations) and smaller (contents of a container) at the same time.
Appendix B pulls a similar trick, except this time it makes your previous purchase of the Monster Manual entirely worth while. These are the lists by terrain type, and by challenge rating. Now you know what to do with all those beasts, and where to find them. This was a shocking omission from the MM, but seeing it here, it all makes some sense now. It’s the right place.
Speaking of which, Appendix C gives you 9 unkeyed maps, of various generic locales. For the harried DM these are gold dust. Yes, the Internet is full of amateur efforts (and strangely this DMG makes zero reference to the online world) but these are the real business. Useful, and bound to appear in a lot of home grown campaigns.
Lastly (excepting an index) Appendix D is a sibling to the original Appendix N from AD&D, the inspirational reading list. It’s only a page, and although I don’t recognise many of the titles, the ones I do see, I can’t help but agree with. You see, since the original DMG we’ve had near 40 years of GMimg advice, and it’s become something of a well documented art by now. I don’t think this DMG will ever turn a poor DM into a good one (you need the 4e version for that) but at least it knows it’s limitations and feels confident enough to steer you towards other works on the subject. Good for them.
I feel like this book should have had a foreword/afterword. I’d have liked to hear directly from the current custodians of the line now that the core trinity is finished. I know they did some last minute work on this book, but I hope it made it better. I actually think it could have done with a light trim in some areas, and expansion in others, but hey, we’re all armchairs editors when it comes to D&D right?
My final thoughts? There’s so much to admire here. It’s not perfect, and that shows up most starkly when it tries to be all things to all DMs. Which is 5e all over. But it does do exactly what it says on the back cover “entertain and inspire your players”. To achieve that, first of all the book had to entertain and inspire me, to which I can do nothing but admit, it did. Welcome back, D&D.
Chapter 8: Running the Game. Now we’re getting to the nitty gritty. At this point the DMG wants to take the DM through the possible levers to pull or buttons to push in their games. Before that though, a brief discussion on how to address real life issues, like table talk, or odd group sizes. Thankfully we don’t get any nonsense about ‘bad’ player types, or much drama about real life conflicts. Good. A D&D book isn’t the place to learn grown up relationship skills, no matter how high your Cha or Wis.
Best bit? Right at the start, the authors lay out what they see as the three absolute fundamentals of the table contract: foster respect, avoid distractions, have snacks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is 5e in a nutshell. Simple, straightforward, inclusive.
Similarly there’s then advice on the nuts and bolts of the DMs job, making judgement calls, with consistency and accuracy. This includes Inspiration, a new rule for D&D. I’m glad it gets expanded treatment here, in the PHB it was trotted out as an obvious given. It’s not, it’s new, it’s terrifically effective, and with the tweaks and options offered here, potentially a real campaign changer. Like it.
This chapter so far is essentially the DMs commentary track for the PHB rules, so it’s a bit stop/start in its subjects. I think I’d have liked to hear what other DMs actually do with their campaigns, some real examples. Everything here is offered as sound advice, but perhaps we could have had some fleshed out consequences, or at least war stories.
The combat stuff is ok. I know many of us were expecting a full on ‘module’ that might bring the tactical game up to 4e standards. This isn’t it. It’s some nods in that direction, and it does drop the design curtain a bit too. You can see improvised damage, and some mobs stuff as well as a bit of guidance on using minis. Flanking gives you advantage. Simple enough. Facing gets a section, and I’m not sure who was cheerleading that particular bell/whistle. And then a chase rule. Like almost every chase rule ever presented in an rpg, this one doesn’t do anything that a well prepared, or a talented improviser type DM wouldn’t do. It provides a couple of tables for complications. Shame. I know that Paizo managed a lovely sub system for Pathfinder, and there’s plenty of other places to look for inspiration too. Should have done better.
And then siege equipment. Told you it was a bit random.
Poisons and diseases get a story based treatment, meaning low on rules, high on consequence. I’m cool with that. Beating both for word count is the section on Madness, which is a long overdue addition to the core rules. It’s genre appropriate stuff, which needs the sanity rules (presented later, oddly) to fully implement. A pc driven to madness has more story implications than one confined to bed with poison or disease, so I think they’ve got this about right.
Lastly some obvious xp options (faster, slower, or not at all. Fighting, talking, or development based) and we are done.
All decent and workmanlike advice for actually running the game, which is what you’d expect. It runs into an issue in that it expands on stuff presented in earlier chapters, and relies on later ones to fill out what it’s saying now. So, a transitional chapter, and not a straight read for that.
Next up: the Hackers Guide to D&D
Magic items, love them or hate them, they’re an intrinsic part of the whole D&D experience, and always have been. Like Vancian magic, they are a big sacred cow, and probably one of those things that turn as many people off of D&D as much as turn people on. Certainly among my circles of non D&Ders, that’s the case. With items, they’ve had a storied history through the editions, which I won’t regurgitate here, except to say they’ve been in and out of the DMG and PHB like a fiddlers elbow in recent times.
Fifth ed puts them straight back into the hands of the DM. It’s not even optional. There’s no wish lists, there’s no price lists and the whole magic item economy question is brushed under the (flying) carpet. We get old fashioned tables to roll on, with categories that map to pocket change/lair hoard, seperated by chunks of levels. Loads of entries, and magic items crop up pretty regularly among them.
Items are categorised from common (healing potions are in the PHB equipment list remember) through uncommon, rare, very rare and legendary. Cursed items make a comeback too. The thing that’s really different is the idea that the categories are really only a tenuous guide (well, if you’re rolling on the tables you’ll get a kind of flattening of the power curve over time). I say that because the text comes right out and says, if you want a first level character to obtain a Ring of Invisibility, go right ahead, you’ll get a great story out of it. And this ring is proper Invisible too by the way, none of the riders and caveats and dampeners that 4e put on so many things. Similarly, there are no warnings about Monty Haul campaigns, or about breaking the game with too many +3 Holy Avengers. It’s all back in the DMs hands, and off you go, enjoy yourself.
I think that’s a fine notion. In fact I think it’s great. Fact is, I’ve been too concerned as a GM with balance and being conservative for too long. So what if the party get hold of the Eye of Vecna? The advice is right, how can we not get a great story out of that? It’s good to see the official books loosen up their approach I think. Where they do put a balancing element back in is with Attunement, a rule that says a Pc can only have a max of three items attuned to them at once. Seems simple enough, and avoids all discussion of slots. That said, not every item requires Attunement, far from it. I’d need to read the chapter more closely but I can see the PC Christmas Tree has not been chopped down entirely yet.
The reason I haven’t read the chapter too closely is that basically it’s a giant list, and my eyes always glaze over with those. Worse, WotC took a bland approach to the problem of how to write up items that have been through at least four editions already: they kept it dry and mechanical. The items have no colour text or history at all, they are described entirely in rules terms. What they get instead is a wide array of nicely done colour art pieces. Not everything gets a pic (potions don’t, yet they’re the only ones to get a description) and some of them are a bit cartoony or garish for my tastes, but they do break up the wall of rules.
It’s a shame. I get why WotC did this. This is already the biggest chapter in the book by far and flavour text would only increase that (or reduce the munger of items). But I can’t help but regret that decision. Coming off the back of the wondrous Mordenkainens book for 4e, which is a list book designed to entertain and inspire, this is a step back to mere reference work.
Book ending those items are some inspirational entries though. There are tables to flavour up your items, with quirks and histories. Nice, but functional. Later, there’s the real good stuff, the sentient items and the artifacts. For me, D&D always gives these too short a shrift and they contain all the real magic and wonder. For sentient items, they’ve again kept it simple (they use the three mental stats) and provided some old school examples in Blackrazor, Wave and Whelm from the venerable module White Plume Mountain. And Moonblade too. Good to read these, lots of memories.
For artifacts, the list is short, but good (and evil too). We get full write up of the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Books of Exalted Deeds and Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the Orb of Dragonkind, the Sword of Kas and the Wand of Orcus. There are rules, and properties and all that, but basically all bets are off with artifacts. That’s why I like them, they scream story, and challenge, where let’s face it, the longsword +1 just doesn’t.
Wrapping up the chapter, some more lists of possible rewards from supernatural gifts, to medals, to titles, to epic boons. It’s a comprehensive resource of goodies, no doubt. I guess as DMs we will just have to sprinkle all this stuff into our campaigns and see what happens. I can see all kinds of consequences to all this kit and boon, and I think the players will lap it up, but overall?
I left this chapter not terribly inspired and a little weary. It’s the first chapter that is of absolutely no use to non D&D fans (until now this has been as good a GMs guide as a DMs one) and it seems like a bit of a burden for me rather than an assist. Where is the discussion on low or no magic? Or high? Not here. What happens to the rules when you hand out a +3 item with Bounded Accuracy? How do scrolls work exactly? What do PCs spend all their treasure on? None of these things are fatal, but I don’t want to break my campaign answering them after the fact. I think I need to be as. Brave as the author, just do it, and make it part of the tale.
Well, that’s part two done. Looking forward to the toolbox stuff still to come.
Chapter 6. What they call interstitial activity. In vocab school or very posh artisanal games I guess. For our needs, the bits between the dungeons. There’s a swiftly despatched essay on linking and foreshadowing, but then it’s on to the meat. Making and Do-ing.
Back in the day, there were all kinds of things characters could do when they were not actively adventuring, like build towers, or gather followers, that sort of thing. Largely this acted as a way to relive them of the stupid amounts of cash that they would acquire from the modules. As well as that, it was about some kind of Endgame, or Lord level play, which was something for PCs to aim for. Now, that never was a motivation for me and mine, not then, not now. We play D&D for loads of reasons, with heroic adventure top of that non existent list, and grinding out a day job as a carpet seller isn’t on there.
I don’t begrudge anyone having these things if that’s what they want, it just seems like a lonely kind of fun to me. Crafting. Professions. Training. All very real, but who wants that level of reality in their fantasy? Who am I kidding. Loads do, see Pathfinder. To make it work for me, I simply need to bring those activities back to the centre of the gaming. Building a stronghold won’t be the plot of the scenario, but it could absolutely be a backdrop or springboard to such. That’s where this DMG shines, it makes the accounting actions gameable.
It runs as a kind of expansion to what the players already got in their handbook. The list now includes; building strongholds, carousing, crafting, training, planting rumours and others. Each gets no more than a para or two (rather than the entire supplement each would have produced before) and occasionally some rulesyness in the form of a chart or table. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit in the PHB, so I wonder how many players will spontaneously ask for carousing results without being aware of these rules?
I should mention crafting in particular. This sort of activity, backed by rules, is the sort of thing that gets fans very exercised indeed. Fora have these little blooms of magic item economy threads every now and again. Like crafting itself, a very isolated kind of fun. I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter, but essentially, your wizards aren’t encouraged to be manning the lab benches so much any more. What rules there are, are simple, and refer you directly back to the DM should you try to destabilise the world they spent the first five chapters setting up.
Odd chapter. If this downtime stuff is your thing you might feel shortchanged. For me, it’s just about right, and gives me enough and no more. As a precursor to the next chapter, it works. And as the next chapter is the Magic Items one, I’d better get cracking. There’s a lot of them!
I ran a game at Dragonmeet this weekend. It turned out really well, and I got some great feedback from my players (all old friends, and it was great to get the band back together for that)
I tried something new to me, a game with very limited prep. I usually go overboard and type up what’s almost a publishable scenario, along with all the trimmings. It’s good, but a high overhead for a one off game. For this, I fancied using Fate Accelerated, and really going with the advice in the book, and just coming up with interesting and dramatic characters with hooks, in great locations with things to do. Sounds easy.
For a setting I went with an all time fave of mine: the D&D afterlife. It’s been part of Planescape, Spelljammer and really every campaign world ever written. The mortal worlds are all very different, unique to each DM, but once into the planes? That’s where the canon kicks in. I am unlikely to get a vanilla D&D game off the ground to cover the multiverse, but I wanted to hit a few high points in the one off and take in a few sights.
The idea of having all the PCs dead at the start of the game just tickles me anyway, but I thought it a good hook for a Con session. I always liked the notion in Wraith of ghosts floating about carrying their death wounds before they got to their permanent afterlife. In D&D, this is a temporary situation for any adventurer. I wanted to see what would happen if the people the PCs left behind tried to get them back with Raise Dead or Speak With Dead spells? What about if it were bad guys? Would the PCs want to move on, or stay as ghosts to protect their loved ones? Interesting dilemmas, and not ones I wanted to personally resolve in the prep. Let the play decide.
Making characters was fun. I didn’t want to do full char gen at the Con, even with a simple game like FAE. Too long, or more likely, choice paralysis. Nor did I want to do full pregens as a big part of Fate’s fun is the group making the decisions. So I mooted a card based idea, and ran with it in the end. I wrote 6 high concepts onto cards and let the players pick.
This got great buy in straight away. None of this is set in stone and I deliberately wrote Aspects with flex in them. Then, Troubles, on another six cards, and again with plenty of flex and some obvious conflicts written in.
At this point the players were brainstorming away and looking at each other’s picks. This was a big plus for me. Usually with pregens, players are so intent studying their own paper that they don’t pick up on the other PCs. With this, everyone was super aware of the party, all of it.
Then I put out some rules in the form of some pre picked Approach numbers, written on cards, taken straight from the FAE book. (see page 10). Easy. Then I killed the entire party.
I asked if the guys wanted to choose their deaths or go random. As in life, randomness won out. I handed out 6 cards: Stabbed! Suicide! Crushed!poisoned! Eaten! and Burned! Then the guys each took turns to narrate their deaths, with me throwing in a few facilitating questions along the way. Within seconds we had a pirate captain found swinging from his neck in the rigging of his own ship, witnessed by a prisoner chained in a cage on board. Who was poisoned by his lover in a game gone wrong. Who was eaten by sea monsters. Who fed on the survivors of the sea battle that crushed the cleric. Who couldn’t save the warlock from being stabbed below decks. Or the diviner who didn’t see his own end coming by swallowing acid.
I gave out some generic stunt cards too, but actually they weren’t effective. I should have either completely filled them in, or bette, left them out entirely. The game wasn’t long enough to accommodate them. And perhaps I should have done a card for stress and consequences too, but nothing too big a deal really.
So after 20-30 minutes we hadn’t rolled a dice but there were 6 players and one GM bent fascinated over the table looking, plotting and imagining. A great start, and one I had no real idea what I was going to do with. The only solution, call a comfort break, and pull out my 6 plot cards.
More on that another time.
I’ve got this sneaky fondness for the OSR, or as I know it, the way I played back in the day. Some of it makes me chuckle, some of it raises a wry grin, while other bits make me slowly shake my head. Occasionally I come across something that makes me simultaneously reminisce about the past and be excited for the future. The Undercroft does that.
It’s a zine. Remember them? Home made publications full of scratchy drawings and enthusiastic articles and house rules, usually never made it into double figures? Well, they’re back, and they’ve been back for a while. The ubiquity and relative cheapness of home publishing makes these a newly viable project, and one that works on a different level to that of a blog or a pure pdf. You can scrawl notes in the margins if nothing else.
Dan Sell is an old mucker of mine. We hadn’t bumped into each other in years despite having mutual friends, and as it turns out, a mutual love of fantasy RPGs. A chance reunion online led to him sending me review copies of his labour of love and I’m so glad he did.
Issue 1 kicks off with syphilis. Did I mention this is FRPGs through the lens of Lamentations of the Flame Princess? Yeah. It’s all creepy and grim and fungal. Having disease as your opening salvo tells you all you need to know really. Halflings+athletes foot=eeeww.
Ever read an article about Lawyers in FRPGs? Not like this you haven’t. Dan serves up the bastard love child of Plunkett & Macleane and Rumpole of the Bailey, but set in the world of Locke Lamora. It’s finished off with a d30 table with 90 entries to get you an answer when you get to make your one call.
Finally, a short scenario that showcases a custom monster, the corpse lion. It’s full of eye widening details, that you can sprinkle all over your usual GM patter. Example? “Three corpse lions dragging a polar bear towards #25. It’s almost dead and can’t do much more than growl”. The adventure doesn’t really have a structure, and certainly no defined plot. Instead, it’s built out of sensations, and ones that will stick in players minds for a long time. Gleeful in its insouciance.
Look, the whole issue is designed to make your players hate you, while all the time grinning and mock bemoaning their precious PCs fates. If you like Lamentations… then I’m pretty sure this will tickle in the same horrogenous zones.
This stuff smacks of the sort of thing we used to get in magazines back in the day, and fanzines even backer in the day. Yeah, you see blogs that purport to cover this sort of thing, but they’re more ephemeral and often more interested in quantity than quality. If you want a decent read, that will give you ideas to use or delete as appropriate, and something to have on your actual physical shelf, then look no further. Well actually look here on Dan’s blog, and Dan will sort you out. Tell him I sent you.