Tag Archives: review

Dungeon Masters Guide: Chapter by Chapter

Now that’s done, here’s the individual chapters all linked in one place. Let me know how it went for you.

Chapter 1: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/dmg5-chapter-one-reviewed/

Chapter 2: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/dmg-chapter-2-creating-a-multiverse/

Chapter 3: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/dmg-review-chapter-3-creating-adventures/

Chapter 4: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/dmg-reviewed-n-to-the-p-to-the-c/

Chapter 5: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/03/dmg-review-save-the-environment/

Chapter 6: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/dmg-in-review-inbetween-knights/

Chapter 7: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/dmg-review-its-another-kind-of-magic/

Chapter 8: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/dmg-review-open-the-box/

Chapter 9: https://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/dmg-reviewed-hackers-guide-and-the-conclusion/


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DMG Reviewed: Hackers Guide, and the conclusion

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:

Proficiency dice
Skill variants
Hero points
Honor and Sanity
Fear and Horror
Alien Technology
Plot points
Massive damage

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.


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DMG Review: Open the Box

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

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DMG in review: Inbetween Knights

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!


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Into the Undercroft

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.

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DMG Review: Save the Environment

There are three biggies when it comes to adventure locales: the dungeon, the wilderness, and the city. Chapter 5 helps the DM bring them to the table for 5th ed.


This is another chapter which, to be fair, has been done to death across more than the various D&D editions. It’s a staple of articles, blogs, and every other GM toolbox publication out there. But, what we get here is good, succinct and crucially, relevant.

The dungeon section gets stuck straight into tables to roll on or seek inspiration from. They include, location (including exotic), creator (including sub tables for cults and religious groups, alignments, and class), purpose and history. Then some advice for inhabitants and playing off factions.

It’s finished off with a run down of fixtures, fittings and hazards, which is a bit dull really. Sometimes this DMG does this, it zooms in on some sections (rules for doors) but stays vague and loose on others. I think this is a preference thing rather than a focus thing. But for me it means skimming a few bits to be honest. Also, not much on stocking the thing at this point, and for me, the monsters can have an effect on the design so probably bear that in mind. And being really picky, the sample map doesn’t make me want to explore it, and that’s a rare feat indeed.

Wilderness. Rather than head directly to nuts and bolts we get a couple of essays on travel-as-montage and an hour-by-hour approach. It’s a good read. After that it’s back to the tables to stock your maps. They include: monuments and weird locales, as well as brief discussions on lairs, ruins, strongholds and settlements.

And then the ghosts of previous editions rise with the inclusion of detail for details sake with weather tables for temp, precipitation and wind. Ok, it doesn’t take up much room, but really? The wilderness hazards are more like it, because I can see them getting players interested. More so than “rolls… Yeah it’s light rain today, a few degrees warmer than is usual for this time of year”

Now, back in the day, each of those environments merited entire hardback volumes all to themselves. I say merited, I never personally got much use out of them. What’s presented here is a call back to that, but it’s brief, to the point, and easily skipped if you like. I’ll take that.

Settlements. Again, a classic subject with city books and town guides galore. This DMG hits the randomiser button again for settlements themselves, and the buildings as well as the random encounters you could have within them. It’s all fine, and I rolled up a couple of samples, and they got the grey matter firing. As with the other sections, this doesn’t work as a read, but it does work as a tool to be used. I like that. This stuff is designed to see DMs get dice and note paper out and actually start doing the thing that DMs should be doing, creating. It’s something that I’ve slacked off on in recent years, but this book really encourages it.

There’s some more stuff in the chapter. Brief looks at under/sea and airborne locales, and then traps. Traps? Here? Yep. You can tell the age and or edition of choice of a person by their approach to traps. From the early days of Grimtooth, to the 4e approach of them as a combat component. This book rolls them into the environment chapter on the basis that they are part of the scenery I guess. There’s no hint of xp for defeating them, which is a change. We get eight examples, which is perhaps a little mean, but they act as templates for your own flavour as well. Still, seems a little cursory.

Only a couple of chapters to go in the Mastering the Adventure section now, and I can see how the individual chapters all hinge off of one another. I’m learning as I read (and after 35 years behind the screen I didn’t know I’d still be learning) and I’m keen to read more so I can pull all the threads together. Even now, I reckon I’ve got enough to create my own world and campaign, and that’s quite a big deal.

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DMG Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse

What do you mean ‘creating a multiverse’? Usually, this is created for us, and sits above the material world like a bigger, better, more adventurous version of the setting we have to come up with from scratch.


I love the planes as expressed throughout D&Ds history. They are really fleshed out by now, with their own setting best exemplified in 2nd eds Planescape. I’ve always found it odd that campaigns are expected to be made up from scratch (or bought off the shelf) but that the planes are the ultimate destination, and that one DMs planes will be much like another’s. At the same time as all bets are off as far as fantastic locations are concerned, the big story becomes more straight jacketed by its supplements.

Until now. Just as in Chapter 1, it’s now the default for a DM/group to make decisions about their multiverse. Plenty of examples here, including wheels, trees and axis, and others. The planes are described briefly, but they’re all here, in a gazetteer format. Each location has a quick optional rule to help enforce its otherworldliness, and the logistics of travel and survival are addressed. Basically, you get a mini Manual of the Planes inserted into your DMG.

I love it. None of it is particularly new, but it’s all to hand and distilled into its most gameable and easy to digest chunks. The book is at pains to note the sheer optionality of the work. Pick and choose as you feel, and when you feel. You won’t be ‘wrong’. Sure, it doesn’t go into massive detail, but it doesn’t need to. If you like what you see here, then the older sourcebooks will fill in the gaps, and they’re on D&D Classics on pdf.

That’s the end of part one of the new DMG. If you follow it to the letter, you’ve just created your setting, including the multiverse it sits in. Not bad for 68 pages.


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