The Threefold Dungeon Master

As the third piece of the puzzle when it comes to the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a position to either cement the positive reception the rest of the core books have received or mar them. At the end of the day, not only does it confirm 5th Edition as my new favourite version of D&D, but it also tips the designers’ hands a little by subtly evoking a quasi-threefold model only to reject the conclusions reached by previous purveyors of such models.

The book is split into three major sections: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. The first section provides a discussion of worldbuilding – not quite so in-depth as more dedicated books on the subject have been able to offer, but providing enough material and ideas that any reasonably bright newcomer would be able to use this to make a start. As well as giving the usual pointers on mapping, establishing the parameters of societies, constructing pantheons and so on, the section also offers pointers on tampering with more fundamental premises, like coming up with your own planar cosmology or altering the fundamental assumptions underpinning standard D&D fantasy. In addition to that, there’s a decent explanation of the 5th Edition cosmology (essentially the old Great Wheel with cool bits from 4E like the Shadowfell and Feywild tacked on) that, whilst not going into Planescape levels of detail, at least gives enough support to at least consider running excursions to those planes if you feel like it, which is better than the extremely sparse description given in the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide managed.

As a nice touch, this section finishes off with a quick summary of the various published campaign worlds for D&D – including settings like Birthright and Mystara that haven’t had any official support since the 2nd Edition days. Whilst I doubt that Wizards will be producing 5th Edition updates for more than a fraction of these settings, at the same time it doesn’t do them any harm to mention them seeing how DNDclassics.com offers most of the original releases for them as PDF downloads, and giving newcomers a quick reference to all these different worlds also helps to demystify any online discussion of them they come across.

The next section, Master of Adventures, focuses on adventure design, involving both pointers and a host of random tables as tools for this process. The general assumption that adventures will involve characters bouncing around between a range of pre-planned encounters towards a predetermined climax  will grate on those who prefer highly improvised or nonlinear games, or who are strong advocates for the sandbox style of play earlier editions pioneered, but at the same time I suspect that the actual adventure design chapter is a section of the book that DMs will find themselves referring to less and less as they begin to find their feet and they start experimenting with less linear session formats. Furthermore, the chapter in question does stress at appropriate points that the climax of a session needs to flow from the successes and failures of the PCs, and also offers a decent breakdown between different varieties of adventures – location-based, event-based, whodunnit-type mysteries, and so on – so personally I’m happy to leave it down to at-the-table experience to convince neophyte DMs that planning a specific outcome that doesn’t take player actions into account is a sucker’s game.

The rest of the section in question provides a bunch of tools DMs will keep coming back to when designing sessions whether or not you’re following Wizards’ particular adventure design philosophy – location design, NPC design, treasure placement and so on. I’m particularly gratified with how treasure is emphasised is being rare, and how much emphasis is put on items with wild and evocative abilities rather than boring old +2 swords. Particularly neat are the tables on offer for providing interesting histories and additional minor powers and quirks to magic item, which nicely get across the idea that there should never be such a thing as an ordinary, average, common-or-garden Bag of Holding or whatever.

One aspect of this section which truly warms my heart is the plethora of tables on offer. Again, using every table every time you design an NPC or magic item would be onerous, but at the same time it’s nice to have them handy for when your creative batteries are running a little low and you want to give an unexpected twist to an NPC or something.

The final section of the Guide is Master of Rules, covering both advice on how to handle running the game at the table as well as homebrewing your own races, classes and monsters and tweaking different aspects of the rules. The developers advocate a careful approach to throwing in additional rules in general, urging DMs to consider what the rule is intended to achieve and whether the players will enjoy it before implementing it and also advocating full consideration of what niche in the campaign world would be served by a new race or class that can’t be handled by an existing one. At the same time, whilst they suggest that you think about what you’re doing when you change up the rules, they do provide ample examples of how you can do so.

One thing this section is especially good at, but which which is a strong point of the whole Guide, is expressing in brief and simple terms optional rules which can be implemented in a plethora of different ways which radically transform the game, and expressing how they change the game. For instance, in less than a page the book expresses a set of ways in which you can change the default assumptions about healing as expressed in the Player’s Handbook, so on the one hand you can have healing be a much slower process for a much grittier and more old-school game, and on the other hand you can bring in full-on 4E-style mid-combat healing surges. On top of that, the book shows that the developers have gone out of their way to gauge real gamers’ opinions of different types of rules, and to express why particular rules might rub some gamers the wrong way – for instance, it mentions that some groups might find the Inspiration mechanic as given in the Player’s Handbook to be an unwelcome intrusion of metagame thinking, and explains the potential consequences of dropping it from the game.

Superficially,  in its breakdown of DM responsibilities into mastering worlds, adventures, and rules, you’ve got a simple threefold there of Setting, Story and System. It isn’t quite the rec.games.frp.advocacy threefold of Simulationism, Dramatism and Gamism, or the Forge breakdown of Simulationism, Narrativism, and Gamism, but it kind of points in a similar direction. (If anything, the idea that considerations of world simulation, story and narrative, and interesting gaming challenges sometimes clash is sufficiently old that early iterations of it came out in early issues of Alarums & Excursions that I’m inclined to think that it’s inherent in Dungeons & Dragons and the traditional RPG structure.)

At the same time, within each section the apparent threefold breaks down – there’s setting, adventure structure and rules features popping up throughout the book. Moreover, in the opening preamble to the book there’s a fundamental rejection of the core idea of “coherence” that the Forge liked to promote. To a large extent, we already had our Forge incarnation of D&D – 4E was as straight down the line Gamist in construction anyone could hope for, right down to its finely optimised encounter budgets and powers constructed with an eye to providing interesting tactical options and game balance first with the IC explanation of powers regularly taking second place. (Not to mention the mess that was skill challenges, which is near-impossible to rationalise from a world simulation point of view and certainly didn’t seem to offer anything from a narrativist perspective.)

The sweeping controversy surrounding it nudged Mike Mearls and his team into the “big tent” philosophy underpinning 5E, and that’s expressed here with a useful breakdown of the different types of activities players enjoy getting up to in RPGs – and, more importantly, a statement that the game isn’t about exclusive catering to a narrow subset of those activities, but about providing as many of them as the particular player group is interested in. In Forge terms, this is a recipe for incoherence, but whilst narrow coherence might help you make a successful niche indie game, it’s not going to help you be the biggest game in the hobby: for that, you need to go broad, and by doing that Wizards have made 5E the sole post-TSR edition of D&D I can see myself Dungeon Mastering in the foreseeable future.

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3 thoughts on “The Threefold Dungeon Master

  1. Dan H

    I bought this a couple of days ago but, frustratingly, have been too busy to read much of it. I’ve like what I’ve seen, though.

    1. They have a completely cracked optional rule where whenever someone spends an inspiration point they take over as DM. We should give that a try.

  2. Pingback: The Dream of an Indie RPG Boom « Refereeing and Reflection

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