Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mastering the Dungeon: Dungeon Master's Guide 2

As the title implies, this is going to be about the Dungeon Master's Guide 2, published earlier this month for dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition by Wizards of the Coast. It weighs in at 223 pages, hardcover, and it is credited, on the front cover, as being written by James Wyatt (whose blog I have a link to), Bill Slavicsek, and Robin D. Laws. Anyone who has read a fair amount of published advice for DMs probably recognizes that last name, as Robin Laws published a short, but very handy, guide for game-mastering (titled 'Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering') for Steve Jackson Games in 2002. The art, as has been standard in 4th Edition books, is quite good, and even the recycled bits (I didn't see any, but there might be some) have always been good and well-placed, encouraging imagination. This is my first try at a 'real' review, so don't judge me too harshly as I break this down chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 is entitled Group Storytelling, and like the title says, it is about running a game as a story that the entire group constructs. It has all sorts of good advice, from giving XP awards for roleplaying to cooperative world building, but one of my personal favorites in this chapter is the section on what players want - it suggests creating little questionnaires for not just PCs, but for the players themselves, in order to help the DM figure out what each player wants out of the game. I've had trouble with this in the past, and running a game one or two players aren't interested in is a great way to tank an otherwise promising game. The section on companion characters is good, too, giving recommendations, essentially, for the DM running certain NPCs as supplementary party members.

Chapter 2 is called Advanced Encounters, and as the note at the beginning of the chapter says, it expands on some of the advice given in the first DMG for 4th Edition. It covers trap design (a personal favorite of rat bastard DMs everywhere), encounter pacing and creation, and a number of other good topics, but the section that particularly struck me was the section on player motivation. The first DMG broke player motivation down into a number of types (some categories are reminiscent of Robin Laws' categories in Robin's Laws, so he probably wrote this portion), but this takes a more in-depth look at the various types of gamers in order to more easily encourage players and tailor encounters to the group you have. I find advice like this invaluable, because I like to make my own adventures, and try to tailor them so that every player will end up satisfied.

Chapter 3 covers a topic that was not covered as well as it could have been in the first DMG, that being Skill Challenges. These were an interesting idea from the first DMG; they essentially made experience-gathering encounters out of various ways a group could make use of their skills, and they were a great idea that didn't get as much coverage as they needed to fill things out. This chapter goes a long way towards correcting this, giving some good example challenges along with ideas on skill challenge creation and making them accessible. James Wyatt gives a good example with a skill challenge to let players try and track an enemy back to his current base, incluidng the complication that each failure might be met with some kind of short but inconvenient (for the PCs) combat encounter.

Chapter 4 will be a favorite of those who didn't think the Monster Manuals gave enough variety in monsters,because it is entitled Customizing Monsters. It is really three sections; the first covers monster themes, giving examples of thematic suites of powers and abilities to give similar opponents a thematic link; templates, to allow for variations on classics, such as if you want to create a tough-as-nails veteran out of a standard soldier; and finally creating mosnters, on how to create your own unique monsters, to give you something to throw at your players they've never seen before.

Chapter 5 is on Adventures, and is one of my personal favorite chapters because of all the goodies it contains. First, it includes alternate rewards - things like divine boons or special training that give a PC the same kind of benefits as a magic item, but without the constant upgrading. Along the same lines, it gives some advice on having treasures be item components instead of actual items, so that PCs can craft the things they want. It has some artifacts included, some of which are favorites from older editions - what player from 2nd Edition AD&D didn't want to put the Rod of Seven Parts together? Then there are guidelines for creating organizations, whether they are thieves' guilds or world-spanning conspiracies, for the players to work both with and against, and the chapter ends with some short examples of campaign arcs that span the entire 30 levels of D&D.

The book's final chapter covers paragon campaigns. Where the first DMG covered the heroic tier of adventuring, this covers the middle tier, from levesl 11-20. It gives several pages of advice and ideas on how to change a campaign moving from heroic to paragon tier, and then it moves on to the meat of the chapter - Sigil, the City of Doors. Sigil comes from the Planescape setting of 2nd Edition, and is one of the settings that was not revised in 3rd Edition. It is a city at the center of the planes, with hundreds, possibly thousands, of portals, that can take a knowledgeable traveler anywhere - or strand a poor, unlucky person in the worst places imaginable. I was initially not a big fan of Planescape, but I grew to love it, especially after playing Planescape: Torment, and so this, and the adventure taking place in Sigil that follows the city description were a real treat for me, and probably quite a few fans of Planescape. It isn't a full treatment, but it is a good start.

I think there could have been more done with skill challenges, personally; it is an idea that I thought had great promise in the first DMG, and it took a year for anything to be published fixing initial problems and expanding on the idea. Being able to use skills more often, and for real, useful purposes, is of great interest to me; it's why I am encouraged by the idea of Skill Powers (previewed on the Wizards of the Coast website, though only for D&D Insider subscribers). Other than this, though, I think the book is one of the best guides to running a game I have seen since I started playing (in, has it been 17 years already?), though Robin Laws' other GMing guide is also a good place to look. If you are planning to run a game of D&D anytime in the near future, this is will likely be invalluable, and some of the advice would be great even for games other than D&D. As a player, it won't be of as much use, but might still have some utility - though it is called the Dungeon Master's Guide for a reason.

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