Impressive in the clarity of its layout, this work seeks to instruct and guide both the newcomer and the experience Dungeon Master in the running of the Fourth Edition ruleset. Chapter 1: How to be a DM starts with the basics of how a role-playing game is different from any other type of game you might have played, with a particular emphasis on the pivotal role of the Dungeon Master (DM). It continues by reviewing the essential components needed to run a game - starting off with some players! The recommendation is for a group of six players, as the game mechanics (especially things like the concept of 'roles' in combat) were designed with that number in mind, but it is possible to cope with only four or five, while a larger group has the potential to get a bit unwieldy. This leads on to an analysis of different player styles and motivations (somewhat reminiscent of that in the 3e Dungeon Master's Guide 2. For each, there's useful advice on both how to involve that type of player and the potential problems they may cause if left to run unchecked. Next a look at creating a party, focussed on the mechanical needs of a balanced group able to deal with the varied challenges of the game as a whole but primarily interested with their roles in combat. Characters made, they need to be given backgrounds and purpose, and a group needs to form (unless your campaign specifically begins with them as strangers). Next comes excellent advice on what the DM does both during the game and in leading the sort of game that the group is going to have - DMs, like players, have their own particular style. Finally, the chapter looks at 'table rules' - whatever conventions you decide hold good during your games.
Chapter 2: Running the Game looks at the actual process of being a good DM from preparation and planning through pacing and the use of props to improvisation, winding up a session and even how best to teach newcomers to role-playing how to play. It's full of practical advice and suggestions to make the whole process smooth and enjoyable... and not too burdensome for the DM! However there is a tendency to downplay role-playing in favour of combat and other encounters... to the extent of treating normal conversation with an NPC as separate from the 'social challenge' (i.e. when you decide a few die rolls using Diplomacy or Bluff are appropriate) and encouraging the DM to skim over normal activities in favour of encounters. And yet the following section on narration concentrates on the art of bringing the situation, the whole alternate reality, to life through the creative use of description. There's also a useful section on troubleshooting, how to deal with the things that can go wrong... like character death, for example. That should have reasons, and be fair, and if possible there should be a way to avoid it - although that might be detrimental to the party's current objectives: their choice. You too can make mistakes, in rules interpretation or setting encounter levels or whatever, and suggestions are made as to how to recover from them. There are also further notes about group size (and scaling of encounters) and how to cope with problem players who present the potential to disrupt the game while catering for both your and their desires in what sort of game to have. Finally there are a few words on the best ways to bring a new player in to role-playing, and D&D specifically.
Next, Chapter 3 focusses specifically on Combat Encounters. Now while combat is an integral part of the game, I do somewhat take issue with the statement 'the D&D game is a series of encounters' - if that's all you want, grab a handful of miniatures and play a skirmish game instead. Be that as it may, when running a combat it pays to be well-prepared and organised, with your monsters' capabilities to hand and all the rules at your fingertips. Here is a whole bunch of excellent advice to help you ensure that combat is fun, exciting and relatively fast-moving. To start with, does either side gain surprise? Monsters may be asleep, or lurking watchfully; while the characters may be sneaking through a fog ready for trouble or discussing the merits of the last inn loudly. If one group gains surprise they get a free attack before their opponents can react. Then everyone needs to roll initiative, which determines turn order for the rest of the fight. As it's important to keep track of the sequence, several neat ideas for doing so are suggested. While the Player's Handbook contains all the rule mechanics for running combat, the rest of the chapter is filled with helpful ideas and practical tips to make the whole thing run as smoothly as possible. It finishes with a discussion on disease and poison, for those occasions when violence is not enough! Good as the advice is, it assumes that you wish to play through combat in a mechanical, blow-by-blow fashion, it would have been nice to see a few thoughts for those who prefer to abstract combat (think of the True20 ruleset) while keeping the flavour of what you can do in D&D.
Chapter 4: Building Encounters sets out to explain the process of creating your own combat encounters, now that you know how to run them effectively. It includes things like assigning roles to your monsters, just as characters have their particular combat roles, and using the surroundings as well as the monsters to good effect. From the mechanical standpoint, there are suggestions for building an encounter to a predetermined XP award total and simple ways of constructing encounters step-by-step. Invaluable stuff for the DM who prefers to write his own adventures and wishes them to be mechanically-sound as well as exciting to play. The roles assigned to different monsters are different from those that characters use (and appear in their Monster Manual listing for your convenience). By picking monsters of an appropriate level and in the right numbers, you can fine-tune an encounter to your party - making it easy, hard or a level playing field as you see fit. As the system is based on XP values, you also have the reward ready calculated to hand out once the combat is over. For easy encounter building, some templates are provided that let you calculate what you need in predetermined situations - a skirmish, more organised battle, moster lair and so on - based on the level and number of your player-characters and whether you want the encounter to be easy, standard or hard for them. The chapter rounds off with ideas about the surroundings - interesting terrain can make for far more interesting combat, especially if you have thought about how the monsters will make the most of the opportunities presented. If short of ideas, watch a Jackie Chan movie!
Chapter 5 gives the same treatment to Noncombat Encounters; and looks at skill challenges, puzzles and other kinds of traps and hazards. With any challenge, but particularly skill ones, the first step is to decide what the objective is and what the characters will have to overcome to accomplish it. You then need to determine the level and complexity of the challenge: level determines the Difficulty Class (DC) of the skill check required while complexity tells you how many successes at that skill check are needed to complete the task. You'll also need to know any other conditions and the consequences of failure. When actually run, the suggestion is that it should be handled in the same mechanical way as combat, complete with initiatives and turn order. This has the advantage that you can actually combine a skill challenge with a combat situation... but does kill role-playing stone dead if not handled with extreme care. Some examples are given of situations that can be handled this way: persuading a king, talking to a corpse (after performing the ritual Speak with Dead of course) or chasing through crowded city streets.
Puzzles, on the other hand, do not require handfulls of dice - but they do rely on the players ability to solve them rather than anything written on their character sheets. Some folks (usually the ones who are good at puzzles) love them, while they leave other people cold. You'll have to decide, based on your knowledge of your players, whether or not they have a place in your game. If you do choose to include puzzles, do so with care, not too frequently, and have a purpose to them. A riddle, code or cipher may conceal a message or password or clue, while figuring out a logic puzzle might reveal what is going on. Although crosswords and word searches are mentioned it is difficult to see how they fit into a plot coherently. Getting more physical, a maze is also a form of puzzle which most players will be happy to explore. Use with care lest the alternate reality of your game world is disrupted... but well-done, a whole adventure could revolve around finding the components to a logic puzzle and then figuring it out!
This chapter ends with traps and hazards: defined as anything which can do physical harm to a party without being a monster. Traps are deliberately placed with malicious intent, a hazard may well be completely natural. Again, traps and hazards can be designed easily using the mechanics of difficulty checks to spot, evade and otherwise negate their potential to do harm, thus giving an appropriate level of challenge to the characters attempting to avoid or disarm them. A neat way to ensure characters are challenged appropriately without the danger of being completely outfaced, and there are lots of examples to start you off on the process.
Chapter 6: Adventures sets out to explore the whole process of building your own adventures, or modifying ones you acquire from other sources. It opens with a bit of a back-to-front view, stating that an adventure is that which links a series of encounters into a coherent whole - surely the adventure should be a plotline in which encounters occur to resolve particular situations. Fortunately it then settles down into a more sensible viewpoint and runs through published adventures, fixing problems, writing your own adventures, quests, encounter mixes, adventure settings and the cast of characters. First off, published scenarios. Handy for the busy DM, especially if you are happy with one-off, unlinked adventures (but even if you prefer a plot-driven campaign, they can often be fitted in or used as side exploits away from your main story arc). Perhaps you can pre-load an adventure's 'hooks' into the current adventure that you are playing, so when it's time for the next adventure the lead-in makes sense. Or you can change details (particularly names and places) to suit your campaign. Reading published adventures is a good way to getting started on writing your own as well: you have ideas aplenty but they show ways of developing and presenting them effectively as a game that you may not have thought of yourself.
Next, a look at fixing problems in published and your own material alike. Strategists always say that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy and the same holds good with scenarios and player-characters: they invariably (not occasionally as stated here) want to do something or go somewhere that isn't in the adventure. Well, that's why we role-play rather than play a computer game: the DM can accommodate this, especially if he's good at improvising. It's best to go with them than try to force them back on track, even if they have bypassed the adventure and gone straight to the fight with the main villain at the end. Perhaps there's someone left alive who will cause problems later... and then on to the core of the art of a DM: creating your own adventures. Oh dear, it states again that the adventure is 'a frame to hang encounters on' - but then presents a perfectly sensible list of things that you should consider when planning an adventure of your own from structure and setting, to a defined objective that takes the players' motivations into account. Your aim is to bring your campaign world alive, giving the players the sense that their characters have an important role to play in it. The beginning of the adventure is important, involve them in some way rather than just have someone ask them to do something (they might say no, after all!). Once into the adventure, there should be plenty of challenges which move the adventure forwards, giving the characters clues as to what to do next, access to somewhere or something and so on... you see, excellent adventure-planning advice. Give the characters choices, do not have a single bottleneck they have to get past or leave them without needed information, and round the whole thing off with a properly dramatic and meaningful conclusion.
Slightly out of sequence, the next section looks at quests - good reasons why the characters should get involved in whatever you have planned. A sinple adventure can have just one quest to accomplish, but more complex ones can have several. Perhaps one must be completed before the next can begin, there may be several things going on, they can even be mutually incompatible forcing the characters to make a choice. Lots more good ideas for what makes a good quest and how to develop it into an adventure. A slightly mechanical note is setting a level for it, but that's just a tool for working out what level you expect characters to reach by the time they've finished it, and hence a guide to the level of any encounters you plan... and so on to creating the encounters themselves. Mixing different types of encounter, using some in which the characters have to figure out what is going on and some where the relationship of encounter to plot is completely obvious, making some easy but most at the character's own level or one higher, and the like are all tools to ensure variety and continuing interest. Setting is also important, and you need a clear idea of where your adventure will take place. Underground, city, wild country or somewhere fantastic are the main choices: why is your adventure in the location(s) you chose? Who lives (or lived) there, and what goes on the rest of the time when the characters are elsewhere? These are the sort of thoughts to help bring it all alive. Finally the chapter looks at the cast of characters, again with an eye to making your NPCs, and even monsters, real residents of that setting in an alternate reality that you've created.
OK, adventure ready, next comes Chapter 7: Rewards. First, the mechanical one of XP, gained by succeeding in encounters, combat or noncombat alike, the reward being set by the level of the encounter and the number of characters involved. Completing quests also attracts an XP award, as well as the likelihood of treasure, favours and other less tangible rewards. There's also a completely mechanical reward based on 'milestones' which have nothing to do with achieving a stage in your task, it merely refers to completing two or more encounters without taking a rest, which entitles each character to an Action Point. As for treasure, that falls into two groups: magic items and cash (which includes any mundane item like gems, artwork, etc., that you can sell). These things are best viewed over the course of a level gain, a character should expect to find so much per level. Naturally, it doesn't just appear - the level thing is a guide to the approximate amount to place in the adventure to be looted or given to the characters as the story demands. There's a mechanical way of creating treasure 'parcels' if you are very particular about rigid balance or just find it hard to think up convincing loot, with plenty of example lists by party level.
Chapter 8: Campaigns looks at campaigns, being the overarcing story that is your characters' adventures in your world, whether there is a plot arc or just a series of adventures more loosly linked. You might want to use a published campaign or setting, or devise one of your own. Many adventures have the odd idea as to what might happen next, or give you ideas about other things that might occur. You might want to have a theme: an ongoing threat that develops, a recurring villain or organisation, or a concept like exploration... one I have used several times in the past is a group linked by belief in a particular deity engaged in missionary work. And ensure that your campaign comes to an end in a suitably climactic manner, rather than fizzle out.
Chapter 9: The World begins with the bald statement that there are no world maps in this or any other core rulebooks. It's deliberate: this is a generic fantasy ruleset, not tied down to any one world. Invent your own or use a published setting. However, while there's no world in the sense of a place, there are some underlying assumptions about how the world in which the game is set functions, and these are explored here so you know what they are, and even change them if you so wish. The core assumptions include an ancient world where monsters are commonplace, magic works and is known to do so, but wielders of powerful magics are rare, and gods are real although generally quite distant from that which they created. Published worlds and the ones you create keep some of the core assumptions while altering others to build their unique flavours. The discussion moves on to look at civilisation, and how the base assumption is one of civilised settlements scattered through a wild and untamed world, before discussing ideas that go into the design and development of an individual settlement. These include considerations of government, defence and commerce as well as layout and size, and the role of social and religious organisations. Next, between these outposts of civilisation you find the wild bits. There are examples of using weather as an adventure in itself or just as evocative background descriptions. There are plenty of other dangers as well.
Of course, the world is not all you have to explore. There are the planes as well... strange dimensions where even the natural laws don't always work how you expect and even stranger monsters dwell. Oddly, there's quite a lot of detail about what was before the world itself was created, but if you don't like this, come up with your own creation myths. If you do, remember to change some of the background assumptions behind demons, the sentient races and the gods; as this explanation is the one which underpins them and gives them their basis in the alternate reality of the game world. Speaking of gods, the next section is a discussion of the deities introduced in the Player's Handbook, with a lot more background detail. Some evil gods are also introduced: they didn't appear earlier due to the underlying assumption that all player-characters will be heroes and followers of good. Minions of evil deities can make excellent enemies! This leads on to a discussion of artefacts - unique named magical items that can be the focal point of a whole campaign, whose influence can be felt across whole continents... and which display intelligence and independent thought. They have their own agenda, and move on when their current holder has outlived his usefulness. Four examples are provided, and show how your artifacts have to be embedded in the very legends of your world to be effective. Finally, there's a look at languages, and how to use them to good effect in your game. The basic idea is that language isn't a limiting factor - with but 10 languages existing, most folks managing at least a bit of Common along with their own, and the comprehend language ritual to use when all else fails, actual communication is unlikely to be a problem. Of course, you can change this if you fancy ancient texts in long-lost languages which the characters have to research, or the like.
Chapter 10: The DM's Toolbox looks at how to create and customise everything to put your unique stamp on your game world. It includes customising published monsters to suit your needs, and the creation of new ones. Likewise you will need to create NPCs to populate your world. There are even ideas for how to use house rules to good effect; and the speedy creation of dungeons and encounters even mid-game. The section on customising monsters has plenty of templates and other ideas for amending the mechanics of a given monster to enable it to do precisely what you require. Similar processes apply if you want to create a monster from scratch, although there's an arrogant note that the Monster Manual and other published materials should meet all your needs... heck, some of us just like designing our own monsters! There's some useful advice on NPCs, especially regarding ways to make them come alive as individuals. There's a brief note on devising your own house rules, but nowhere here is the fascinating 'behind the curtain' asides that peppered the 3e and 3.5 versions of the Dungeon Master's Guide and really gave a feel for the 'why' and 'how' underlying the game mechanics. Tables for random dungeon and encounter creation round off this chapter.
Finally, Chapter 11: Fallcrest presents a township and its surrounding area, local personalities, ways of involving the characters and a ready-to-play adventure to get you started. The town of Fallcrest is nicely-presented, a fairly ordinary settlement with enough detail to spawn a few town-based adventures if you wish; and the surrounding area includes the location of the Keep on the Shadowfell, if you intend to use the first adventure published for 4e. The adventure here is quite basic: 5 combat encounters strung together with minimal plot to get your 1st-level characters off to a good start. Locations and likely monster tactics are well described to allow a novice DM to run the encounters to good effect.
Overall, the Dungeon Master's Guide presents some good advice for running the game, both mechanistically and even from the role-playing point of view despite the evident obsession with the mechanical encounter rules and no advice on running a more free-format game true to the intent, rather than the letter, of the game mechanics. I also miss the more analytical approach to rules design in previous versions. But it's a sound basis on which to build your own DMing style and methods, a coherent ruleset with good balance.
Return to Dungeon Master's Guide page.
Reviewed: 21 June 2008