Title: Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide (3rd edition)
Authors: Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams
Creator: Wizards of the Coast
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Year: 2000
256 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 3 (***)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2000 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         This is the second core rulebook for the Dungeons&Dragons (D&D) system, expanding on the Players Handbook (PH). D&D is a swords-and-sorcery genre game, similar in genre to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Terry Brooks' Sword of Shanarra. However, it is not based on any particular fantasy work and is quite distinct from the works mentioned. While the PH is nearly a complete game, the DMG contains a few vital sections (special abilities, environment, and experience) as well as a lot of advice on how to run a game. This "3rd edition" from Wizards of the Coast is apparently intended to replace two former game lines from TSR: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd edition) and the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (4th edition). It is not directly compatible with either of these, although conversion can be made.

Material

         The Dungeon Master's Guide is 256 pages of glossy paper with color borders and occasional color illustrations. There are faint, lines across the page that match up with the lines of text, but fade in and out as if pencil-drawn. This is a bit odd, but it allows the unboxed, unruled tables to be more readable.

         The text is a mix of rules mechanics (many of them optional) and advice on how to create and run a D&D campaign. There is a "default setting" of a nameless fantasy world, which has distinctive races, gods, and magic. However, there is no section which describes this setting directly. Instead there are sections on how to create your own dungeons, towns, and nations that fit this world. Broken into rough categories and subcategories, the book contains

         In general, the advice is more prominent than the rules. While there are a host of tables (181 tables are in the 256-page book), most of these are optional aids for the DM like random monster tables, random dungeon features, and so forth. Out of 8 chapters, the Magic Items chapter takes up a little over one-quarter of the book (74 pages), with other chapters ranging from 8 to 44 pages. There is a 2-page table of contents and a 1-page list of tables at the start of the book, plus a 3-page index and 7 pages of quick reference tables at the end.

Running the Game

         In the first section and scattered throughout the book are lots of general advice on how to run a D&D role-playing session. There is very detailed support for balancing the exact challenges and rewards (both treasure and experience) in a session. There is also fairly good advice on pacing, believability, and making combats interesting.

         Notably missing -- compared to similar RPG essay collections -- are discussion of the fantasy genre, development of Player Character (PC) backstory, or any acknowledgement of character desires being distinct from player desires. I consider the latter to be a fairly major omission, especially since the Players Handbook is also short on such advice. As an example, in the DMG there are separate advice sections on "Knowing the Players" and "Knowing the PCs". However, the section on "PCs" talks about the characters only in terms of their game statistics before moving on to "The Players' Likes and Dislikes". It makes no mention of developing distinct PC personality and backstory. There is a section on "Characters and the World Around Them". However, this only covers attracting followers and achieving rank during play, not developing the background that the PCs come from.

Adventure Design

         The DMG has 8 pages of general advice on adventure design, followed by 28 pages on dungeons, 4 pages on wilderness encounters, and 4 pages on towns. The approach it takes is to break down each adventure into a number of specific "encounters" each of which has an "Encounter Level" (EL) that relates to the level of the party. An EL 4 encounter is a fair challenge for a party of level 4 characters.

         Encounter level is calculated by a formula from the "Challenge Rating" (CR) of the individuals in the encounter. Pre-made monsters with CRs included appear in the third core book, the Monster Manual. The DMG includes 28 pre-made traps, each with CR numbers. It advises a typical breakdown of encounters within an adventure as follows:
10% Easy ... EL lower than party level
20% Easy if handled properly, or Challenging if not
50% Challenging ... EL equals that of party
15% Very difficult ... EL 1 to 4 higher than party level
5% Overpowering ... EL 5+ higher than party level

         This advice is very clear-cut and easy to use when putting together pre-made monsters and traps in your adventure. The EL is then used to help determine what reward (both experience and treasure) is appropriate. However, there are no guidelines on determining Challenge Ratings for new, original monsters and traps -- and very limited guidelines for non-monster, non-trap challenges.

Setting Design

         The DMG has both general essays on fantasy world design, and specific description of (presumably) the default setting. The former includes, for example, pros and cons of top-down versus bottom-up world design. The latter includes information like the racial mix of non-isolated communities (79% human, 9% halfing, 5% elf, 3% dwarf, 2% gnome, 1% half-elf, and 1% half-orc).

         Essentially, the closer you are to the nameless default setting, the more support the book gives. There are a few notes on designing worlds which are different than the default, but most of the information is default-specific. Thus, this is a good resource for designing a medieval European-style cultural region with the Players Handbook races, fairly common magic, polytheist pantheons of gods represented by clerics, and occasional monsters. It is less useful for designing a fantasy world in general.

Character Rules

         The DMG provides a number of new options to the standard character generation shown in the Players Handbook. Notably, there are 8 alternate ways of generating ability scores, and the addition of "prestige classes" and "NPC classes" to the standard classes in the Players Handbook. There are also sections on modifying standard races and classes, and a few comments on designing your own.

         The ability score section includes a point-buy method, which lets you choose your ability scores by spending 25 "build points". Abilities start out at 8, and have a rising cost for scores over 14. This is a very useful option that is also included (but not explained) in the CD that comes with the Players Handbook. Compared to the standard roll method (i.e. best 3 out of 4d6), point-buy lets you make well-rounded characters with average scores of 12 or 13 for each ability -- but it is noticeably inferior for getting a spread of ability scores (i.e. one or two over 14, and the rest below).

         Along with point-buy are variant rules for starting PC's out multiclassed at 1st level, and for starting out higher than 1st level. These three mechanics add a lot to the potential for character design.

         Prestige classes are a new mechanic for high-level characters. Essentially, they are new class choices which a PC can multiclass into, but only if they fulfill certain requirements: such as minimum attack bonus, minimum ranks in a skill, specific feats, and so forth. The examples given are Arcane Archer, Assassin, Blackguard, Dwarven Defender, Loremaster, and Shadowdancer. The prestige classes are designed to avoid the primary drawbacks of multiclassing into standard classes. For example, multiclassing into Wizard only gets you low-level spells -- while multiclassing into Loremaster adds to effective level in your primary class.

         In addition, the mechanics introduce NPC-only classes which are designed to be inferior to the standard PC classes. For example, there is an NPC "Warrior" class which is like the Fighter class except that it has fewer hit points per level and no bonus feats. It is not clear to me why this is a separate class rather than simply calling them lower-level Fighters. On the other hand, the new class isn't complicated and it blends in with the other NPC classes of Commoner, Aristocrat, Expert, and Adept (i.e. lesser Cleric). There are then 12 pages of charts for rolling up instant NPC's of all classes.

         The new rules definitely help to round out some of the limitations of the basic Players Handbook rules. However, character creation is still noticeably less flexible than most modern point-buy systems.

Combat Rules

         The DMG expands the combat rules in two main ways: it gives description of special abilities used by monsters; and damage for environmental effects like falling, drowning, and so forth.

         The special abilities list (15 pages) is mainly a glossary of terms for the upcoming Monster Manual and adventure modules. By itself it doesn't add much to the game, but it is presumably provides a framework for consistency across many other adventures and supplements.

         The environmental effects rules are well-written, but they highlight the inconsistency of the hit point rules -- which lump together defensive ability, size, and toughness. For example, a high-level character can survive falling out of a high tower (1d6 hp damage per 10 feet fallen), or go for weeks without food (1d6 hp or less per day). However, for some reason this semi-mystical toughness doesn't help him against drowning, which is based purely on Constitution.

Experience Rules

         The experience rules had a capsule description in the Players Handbook, but are described in detail here. Experience is based on breaking down the play session into a few discrete encounters, as described in the Adventure Design section above. The CR of the individual monsters and/or traps are compared with the party level for determining the experience reward.

         As mentioned, the weak point is lack of advice on assigning a CR to new, original designs: whether a new monster, a new trap, or different types of challenges (social, mystery, etc.). There is a variant rule for "story awards" that allows experience for non-combat challenges, but the rule is pretty vague. It is certainly possible to just wing it, but more support would have been nice.

Magic Items

         This is the largest chapter in the DMG, taking up 74 out of the 256 pages. Most of that is the description of several hundred specific magic items and magic item properties, along with tables for randomly determining magical items to be found. Each specific item (or item type) includes the requirements to craft that item and market price. The items are roughly broken up into primarily spell items (potions, scrolls, wands, rods, and staves) and other items (weapons, armor, and wondrous items).

         The organization is not great for reference purposes, since it mixes together the random item generation tables, general item properties, and specific item descriptions. Something like the spell rules in the Players Handbook would have been better, in my opinion -- that is: general rules for all items, followed by all item generation tables, followed by all specific item descriptions in an alphabetical list (or perhaps alphabetical by type).

         The items themselves are interesting and certainly help add flavor to the game. However, this runs into the general problem of context, which I discuss in my conclusion below.

Conclusion

         I would say the strong point of the DMG is the ready-to-use material it provides. The PH and DMG both spend much of their page-count describing pre-made elements in detail: races, classes, equipment, spells, monsters, traps, and magic items. The DMG has extensive advice on modifying and combining these elements to create a campaign -- and many tables for quickly generating dungeons, towns, NPC's, and magic items.

         There are several weak points. First, there is no big picture that these different elements fit into: i.e. no dedicated coverage of setting or genre. There appears to be a nameless default setting, but it is far from inspiring. Second, it lacks support for original creations. Thus, there is no CR formula for original monsters or traps. The Players Handbook has 103 pages of pre-made spells, while the DMG has only half a page on creating new spells. Similarly, the coverage of designing new races, classes, and items is slim compared to using pre-made stuff. Third, it fails to cover the fundamentals of having a PC with desires different than the player, and designing backgrounds for PC's. This is especially important since these are also missing from the Players Handbook and the D&D Adventure Game (an introductory boxed set).

         As with the Players Handbook, I think the 3rd edition DMG is designed for people who already have played D&D and have their own ideas about how to roleplay, what D&D is about, and game-world. However, while the Players Handbook is almost pure rules with no introduction, the DMG tries to be a general source of advice. Notably, it has an extensive introduction aimed at first-time DM's. What it does say is usually well-written, but I think it is lacking on key points.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 17:27:09 2003