Review: Dungeon Master’s Guide (5e D&D)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 28, 2014

dmg-5e-coverIt’s finally here: the third and final core book for 5e D&D – the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Let me tell you it was worth the wait. This books if fantastic. It is 320 pages of everything I was expecting from the 5e DMG. If you’re planning to stick with 5e then there’s no question, you’ll want this book.

I’m going to go through the highs and lows of each chapter. The DMG is massive and there is a lot of great material here. I can’t possibly do it all justice so I’m going to really try and focus on the things that I felt were worth noting; the things I’d want to know if I was reading a review of the 5e DMG. If you have questions about any of the things I discuss or you want to know about something you thought was in there but I didn’t cover, leave me a comment below.

After I’ve had my piece I’ll give you my final thoughts on the book and then it’s up to you to decide if you want to buy it or not.

General Observations

Before I get into each section and each chapter I want to make a few general comments. First of all I love the style of this DMG. Each section gives you just enough to get the point but not so much as to bog you down in rules and specificity. There is a tremendous emphasis on sharing the general concept and leaving it to you the DM to decide on how to reach the specific. Imagination is more important that hard rules. This is the case throughout every chapter of the book, for better or worse. Personally I think it’s great. It’s one of the things I’m enjoying most about 5e. Show me the way and then let me walk the path on my own. I don’t need you to hold my hand. I may stumble along the way, but I’m going to have a lot of fun in the process. Keep that in mind as you’re reading this review and as you’re reading the DMG.

dmg-coversThe art in this book is fantastic, starting with the great cover. The are in the DMG is everything I’ve come to expect in a 5e rule book. After seeing the exceptional job done in the PHB and Monster Manual, I expected nothing less. The full splash pages are beautiful and really give you a sense of what D&D is all about. The fantasy worlds and creatures come to life on every page. There is a little bit of art that was borrowed from previous publications, but I can certainly forgive that.

To say there are a lot of table in the 5e DMG is an understatement. This book is packed full of tables. Every section has tables to help the DM use the mechanics quickly and easily. All the tables reminded me of the original 1e DMG, whihc was a good thing.

Part 1

Chapter 1: A World of Your Own

If you’re a new DM who’s never played before or you’re a player who hasn’t played in a very long time then this chapter provides a great introduction to world-building. If you’re an experienced DM and you’ve played any previous edition of D&D in the last few years then you can skip this chapter.

For experienced DMs the only things that you may want to take a look at quickly is the section on Factions & Renown and Tiers of Play. Although these sections are only three pages each, there is some new and interesting material in there.

The Faction section lacks the details about special missions we were hoping for, which was disappointing. The Renown section talks briefly about attitudes of members and perks. There is new rules on losing renown and new rules for how to use renown for pious characters to measure their devotion. The rest of what’s covered in these sections pretty much repeats what we already know from other 5e sources.

The Tiers of Play section names the four tiers:

  • Levels 1-4: Local Heroes
  • Levels 5-10: Heroes of the Realm
  • Levels 11-16: Masters of the Realm
  • Levels 17-20: Masters of the World

There is also guidelines for beginning play at higher levels and an interesting sidebar that recommends how much equipment, money and magic to give PCs starting above level 1 in low magic campaigns, standard campaigns, and high magic campaigns.

Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse

If you’re an experienced DM who’s ever flipped through a Manual of the Planes (any edition) then you can likely skip this chapter too. It’s essentially all the good stuff from every Manual of the Planes condensed into 25 pages. It’s very useful if your campaign spans the Multiverse, but for everyday adventures, especially the kind you generally see at low levels and introductory play, this is too much too soon. I will call out the great 2-page write-ups on the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Sigil. This is all I was interested in and what was here was enough for now.

Part 2

Chapter 3: Creating Adventures

This is where the DMG really began to pay dividends for me. The chapter begins with a good breakdown of what makes a good adventure and then talks about the difference between playing a published adventure and one you make up yourself. From there we get helpful hints and many great tables that present numerous options detailing the different types of adventures, complications like plot-twists and side quests, how to create encounters with a strong focus on objectives and monsters, and how and when to use random encounters. This chapter covers how to manage XP budgets to create suitable encounters for your party’s level. It’s brief, but it covers the basics.

What this chapter really illustrated for me was that each section give you a very brief recount of what the intent is, but it leaves the specifics to the DM. This edition is light on rules, and heavy on imagination. They provide framework and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks as appropriate for your gaming group. We’ll continue to see this throughout the DMG in every chapter.

Chapter 4: Creating Nonplayer Characters

The chapter begins with eight tables that let you quickly throw together memorable and unique NPCs just by rolling some dice. Then we get a three pages on NPC party members and hirelings which is something we never got in the official 4e books. There’s a nice optional rule here about using a loyalty score to determine what NPCs will and won’t do in the face of danger.

Then we move on to villains where three more huge tables give the DM plenty of options to choose or roll when they need a quick villain that’s not your standard bad guy. The real gem in this section are the Villainous Class Options. The Cleric can chose the Death Domain and the Paladin can choose Oathbreaker. These are set up like the class options in the PHB, but are skewed for evil PCs. These look very interesting and will make experienced players salivate with delight at the prospect of playing these builds. The Oathbreaker in particular can actually atone and change back into a good aligned Paladin, but it’s a difficult undertaking. Fortunately there’s a DM sidebar to help adjudicate this eventuality. Assuming you want to give up your ability to control undead, your Aura of Hate, or your level 20 Dread Lord status.

Chapter 5: Adventure Environments

If you’ve never played D&D before then this is an important chapter because it talks about campaigns that take place in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or in an urban setting. It talks about how to describe these settings, how to map them, how to fill them with challenges and monsters, and how to survive in the harshest of environments. However, if you have played D&D before then this is another section you can pretty much skip until you need it.

The four pages on Adventures in Unusual Environments, like underwater or in the sky, are nice to have and were entertaining to read through. But the real high point of this chapter for me was the final four pages which were all about traps. After a very brief overview of how to use traps, there are 11 great sample traps. I’m sure all DMs will find clever and creative ways to use these deadly traps in their campaigns soon enough.

Chapter 6: Between Adventures

I think what we all want to know is what can I do with my downtime days? The DMG gives a few additional options beyond those already described in the PHB.

  • Building a Stronghold: Spend 60-1,200 downtime days and 5,000-500,000 gp and you’ve got yourself a brand new stronghold.
  • Carousing: When you want to party like it’s 1999 then spend those downtime days on some serious partying.
  • Crafting Magic Items: Aside from the time and resources required to actually acquire the materials that the DM decides you need to make your magic item, you have to spend some downtime days.
  • Gaining Renown: Want to rise through the ranks of your faction? Spend some downtime days to make a name for yourself.
  • Perform Sacred Rites: Pray long enough and you’ll get inspiration for it. How much is up to the DM.
  • Running a Business: Adventuring is hard work, so when the monsters are defeated come home, relax, and work at your day job.
  • Sell Magic Items: In a world with few magic items there are fewer still who can afford to buy them. It takes many downtime days to find a suitable buyer. Maybe you should just keep the item?
  • Sowing Rumors: Now the Bard and the Rogue can put those social skills to work by slandering your enemies and making the party sound more heroic than they really are. The bigger the town the longer it takes.
  • Training to Gain Levels: As a variant rule the DM may require you to train before you can advance to the next level. Don’t worry it’ll only take 10-40 days depending on your level.

Chapter 7: Treasure

Most of this chapter is the description of magic items. Like the spell descriptions that make up so much of the PHB, you won’t need these descriptions until the items come into your game. However, the descriptions are wonderful to read. Most items have full colour pictures which always makes an item seem special. Some of the illustrations pay homage to previous editions of D&D. For example the Manual of Bodily Health looks a lot like the 3.5e Epic Handbook, the Talisman of the Sphere is shaped like the demon face carving some may recognize from the Tomb of Horrors, the Deck of Many Things shows the faces of nine cards that look similar to the cards provided with the 4e Madness at Gardmore Abbey, and the Book of Vile Darkness looks a lot like the 3.5e supplement of the same name. Also included after all the descriptions of magic items are details for sentient items and good old artifacts.

Aside from the 75 pages of magic items there are also a few other details worth noting in this chapter. At the beginning are some great tables for determining treasure by challenge rating. Following that, there are random magic item tables (tables A-I) with each table listing increasingly more powerful items. It’s got a very old school look and feel to it.

Other good tidbits include 11 tables for randomly determining gem and art objects. They’re not as detailed as the ones in the classic 2e Forgotten Realms Adventures hardcover, but they’ll certainly do the job. There are also good options presented on attuning items, identifying items, and cursed items – so players beware.

One thing I do in my home camping is allow PCs to mix potions. It often creates some random happenstance. There is a table in this DMG that lists some possible consequences of mixing potions. It’s not as imaginative as my list, but it’s nice to see it included.

Finally there are six pages that talk about other rewards beyond gold and magic items. These include things like blessings, medals, land, favours, strongholds, and training. The last section in rewards is Epic Boons. They’re only available to PCs who are level 20 and they are truly epic.

Part 3

Chapter 8: Running the Game

A lot of what’s in this chapter is covered in the free DMG Basic Rules PDF that Wizards already made available on their website. If you’ve DMed before, especially D&D Next or 5e then this is just a good refresher. For new DMs this section will tell you everything you need to know to run a good session. It covers a lot of details but each section is very short and to the point.

We get a few optional or more advanced rules in this chapter including ways to adjust monster damage severity, as well as guidelines for using maps (grids or hexes) and how to determine the tactical aspects that come with it such as flanking to gain advantage and facing rules. There are rules for handling chases, stats for siege equipment, and two pages on poison including the details for some of the deadlier varieties.

Chapter 9: Dungeon Master’s Workshop

This is where they’ve hidden the best stuff in the new DMG. This is all the stuff that we didn’t get in previous editions. When I got my DMG this is the chapter I flipped to and read first. It was all the modular stuff they promised us when they first released D&D Next. Some of these things I’m itching to use in my games, others I’m sure I’ll never use. But I’m certainly glad that all of this stuff is in here because you never know what you may want to add to your campaign down the road.

Before I get into some of tis stuff I want to stress that this is all optional. None of what’s in this chapter is expected to appear at every game table. If you like or dislike something you read in this chapter, talk to the players and DMs in your group and as a group collectively divide which ones you think will work and which ones wont.

  • Proficiency dice replace the flat modifier in your traied skills. Instead you get a proficiency dice to roll when using skills you’re trained in. It eliminate auto-success and allows you to try some crazy and wacky stuff knowing that if you roll really well it just might work.
  • Hero points are basically the 3e action points. You get a set number of hero points and when you spend one you roll 1d6 and add it to the check. You can also just cash in the points to do cool things including automatically stabilizing if you’re dying.
  • Honor and Sanity scores. If you want to play a game with a traditional Asian feel or you want to port in your Call of Cthulhu campaign to D&D, now you have mechanics that will help you do both.
  • Healing and resting options allow you to speed up healing by using healing surges like we did in 4e and making a short rest take only 5 minutes. Or you can slow down healing making short rests 8 hours and long rests 7 days.
  • Firearms and Explosives will certainly change a traditional D&D campaign, but it does open doors to wild west themed adventures, something my home group has wanted to do for a long time. To take things one step farther there even guidelines for introducing alien technology.
  • Plot points borrow heavily from the Dresden Files declaration mechanics. If you want something to happen or you want to change the scene as its unfolding, use a plot point. One interesting variant is to use plot points to change DMs mid-adventure.
  • Initiative variations include doing group initiative for team heroes vs. team monsters, applying speed factors to individuals based on weapon type, and my personal favourite, making initiative a passive Dexterity check for everyone all the time.
  • So you have the Monster Manual but you can’t find the exact monster you need? No problem. Now you can create you own monster. There is a 20-step procedure for making monsters that literally breaks down each line of a the monster’s stat block. As you add each ability, power, or magical spell the tables explain how the monster’s power level and CR change. This is the most in-depth monster creation I’ve seen in any edition yet it’s quite simple and easy to follow. Experienced DMs will love this. You can even give monsters class levels and spell casting abilities. It’s the best parts of monster creation from 3.5e.
  • Want to create a magic item? Now you can. But in a system that’s magic light make sure that this item will add something necessary and doesn’t just feel like a better version of something else.
  • Finally there are guidelines for adjusting what’s already in the PHB including new sub-races, adjusting the classes and making your own backgrounds. The Eladrin and Aasimar are both presented as example sub-races.

Appendix A: Random Dungeons

This is the down and dirty way to create a dungeon. There are 12 pages jam packed with tables allowing the DM to roll up a dungeon in just a few minutes. It’s got everything fom door type, to stairs, to the dungeon’s purpose, to the state of the dungeon when the PCs arrive, to traps, and all kinds of dungeon dressing.

Appendix B: Monster Lists

This is everything we wanted in the 5e Monster Manual and didn’t get. Monsters listed by 11 different types of environments and monsters listed by challenge rating.

Appendix C: Maps

You need a quick map, here are nine that should work. Some of the maps may look familiar. On pg 312 is the Vault of the Dracolich map, on pg 314 is a boat from The Talon of Umberlee Lair Assault, and on pg 311 is an updated version of the map printed on pg 95 of the original DMG.

dmg-1e-dungeon-pg95 dmg-5e-dungeon-pg311

Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration

Want to become a better DM and a better storyteller? Here is a lost of great books and resources. Enjoy.


The only negative thing I can about the 5e DMG say is that it’s expensive, but even that’s not such a big deal. I think the investment of $50 US / $58 CAN is well worth the price considering the quality of the book you get. When balanced against the number of years I’ll be using and referencing this book, I think the price is right. Remember that only one person in your gaming group actually needs a DMG, but if you’ve got the money I’d certainly recommend you pick it up. Christmas is right around the corner. Why not ask Santa to get you a DMG?

What more can I say about this book? This is the DMG that we were waiting for. It delivered on all accounts in my opinion. The history of D&D is deeply steeped into all the 5e core books and the DMG is the best of them. If you’re a serious gamer you’ll want the 5e DMG.

  • Final grade: 10 on a d10

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1 Matt November 28, 2014 at 9:16 am

The 5e rulebooks seem more like Humanities textbooks, while previous editions felt like Sciences textbooks. Interesting.

2 kelvingreen November 29, 2014 at 8:59 am

Is there any discussion on awarding experience? I remember that there were rumours that the DMG would present mechanics for alternative methods than kill-monsters-get-experience.

3 Heather November 29, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Thanks for the review! I especially like the sound of Chapter Nine and the Appendices!

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