Thursday, 26 February 2015

Review of the 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I have before me a copy of a book titled simply D&D Dungeon Master's Guide, which is alleged to be the '5e' incarnation of such but says so nowhere in our outside the book. That in itself is rather clever marketing. At any rate, the book was delivered into my hand one cold and rainy night by the very friend on whose suggestion we all got into this D&D mess in the first place. He admitted that I'm difficult to shop for, and gave me his full permission to criticise the book, birthday present though it was. So I preface this by saying I'm truly grateful for the gift and for the thought on my friend's part that it represents. I had been curious to know what 5e was all about, but not curious enough to personally contribute in any way to the august coffers of WOTC, and now that curiousity has been satisfied. Thank you. The review that follows is written entirely in the spirit of gratitude; rest assured that it is written from the point of a view of a most thorough and exhaustive persual of the book's contents.

This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.

If you're the sort of prospective DM whose primary libidinal cathexis is with glossy renditions of poorly conceived fantasy and catalogues of pastiche magic items, and you run a party that doesn't mind being treated the way David Foster Wallace treats his readers, then this book is for you. If, on the other hand, you want to give your players an engrossing experience with a modicum of sense, you might want to ignore the bulk of it and just go read some real books. A smidgin of psilocybin might function as a suitable alternative.

Let's Start with the Tables

Oh emm gee, there is a d20 table for absolutely everything. The book's title should more aptly be Gratuitous Charts for DMS Who Don't Want to Give Their Campaigns Any Thought. Imagine painters being advised to roll a die to determine what colour to use next, or composers to design the next melody line. The creation of Ugly is analagous to the achievement you will have made when you roll a die to choose a 'calamity' with no regard to relevance, believability, or even playability in context.

This is just one of many examples. The book does pay lip service to the notion of a sanbox campaign, but at the same time it condones railroading when it provides tables to determine the goal of an adventure. I'm not exaggerating. Page 73 begins with d20 tables to determine what your party wants to do depending on whether it's in a dungeon or forest. Subsequent pages offer more tables so you can roll for the adventure's introduction and climax. It brings to mind an article in GQ years ago listing 'travel inessentials'--Anusol, Gas-X, and the like--'If you need that stuff, pal, you shouldn't be going anywhere.' If you're so clueless that you can't work out what's appropriate in the context of your world and your campaign, this book isn't going to help you.


Art, Art, and More Art

I don't know how much my friend paid for the book and I'm not going to ask, but I suspect it was a lot more than it could have been without the unnecessary illustations--that is to say, the illustrations. Many of them are done in a Marvelesque watercolour style that mimics the pictures in primary school textbooks, and of course include the obligatory cartoon beholders, in this case frequently featured doing the tango with something resembling Spongebob Squarepants, and the inevitable cascade of implausibly dressed humanoids doing ridiculous things. Granted, the book does contain a few genuine masterpieces, but they're in among a whole lot of rubbish. The overall tone is put to shame by the artwork in the 2e books, and that's saying something. (I mentioned this to my wife. As she is an artist by profession, she's naturally a lot more tolerant of awful art than I am, and she assured me that the publishers simply 'liked that style.' I don't buy it. I'm not expecting them to hire Brian Froud to do their illustrations, but they could concievably go onto and contact any number of the absolutely amazing artists there turning out masterpieces by the thousands for free.) The problem is not necessarily the quality, though, for even when it does show considerable technical proficiency it nonetheless suffers from a dearth of originality.
Lacking inspiration for your fantasy scene? Just put Lucius Malfoy in plate mail and render Deedlit as a man to bring up the rear. Brilliance!

It wouldn't be doing us too much of a favour to skip this sort of thing. It's simply additional filler for a tome that's already thrice too long. 


'New' Magic Items

Have we not had enough of these? Apparently not, because this section, accounting for a good 25% of the book's total volume, features a slick painting of every steampunk monstrosity the executive board could design, ranging from the mildly inspring to the downright retarded. I don't want to spend too much time scanning stuff from this section, but most of it just makes no sense. The functions of the items are insipid enough--many of them do very specific things in response to very specific actions or spoken words that players are somehow expected to know, perhaps because the items come with instruction manuals--but the designs are just a hodge-podge of material culture from different places and epochs smooshed together tastelessly. Trying to provide variety to a fantasy campaign setting isn't a crime, but rehashing stupid tropes that didn't work the first time over and over again for people who can't come up with anything decent, is. Almost none of the items are appropriate for a medieval setting, and almost all look like they belong in a gag-gift shop. The Eyes of Charming give you a good idea of what to expect.

According to the description, this horror casts a limited number of charm person spells on humanoids that see you wearing it. Now, I'm no expert on fashion, but I'm pretty sure walking around in those specs is going to have rather the opposite effect.

My personal favourite, though, is this rusty tin barrel that turns into a lobster:

Get this: It can be maneuvered with levers inside it. There's even a one-paragraph manual listing exactly what each up or down pull of a lever is going to do. I can't speak for anybody else's campaign, but my players know me well enough that the LAST thing any of them are going to do is crawl into an enclosed space and start pulling levers. 


Anything Remotely Useful?

Actually, yes, I quite enjoyed the details on other planes of existence, especially Feywild and Shadowfell, that exist just slightly askew of our world and can be entered through transient portals. Somewhere in my library is a 19th-century book called An Adventure that details the account of two women who claim they slipped through such a portal for a day and met a host of uncanny events and entities. Reading about the respective fairy realm and the realm of darkness gave me a few ideas of how I might mess with my players at some point, as well as introduce some creatures that wouldn't normally fit into any of our campaign settings.

There was also a great deal of common sense interjected that would be useful to novice DMs who haven't yet come up with their own set of house rules and don't have a mentor to get the ball rolling. It has DMs ask themselves such questions such as what sort of campaign they want to run, how much influence the party can be expected to have on the world as it rises in power, and how much should be determined by dice vs. DM judgment. Most of the time, though, where decent advise does exist, it's poorly worded and presented in such a cack-handed manner that its application to DMing as an overall skill is mostly incomprehensible. There's also the problem that the good advice is embedded in an environment of ideas that are mediocre or worse, and novice DMs are in the very vulnerable position of difficulty in distinguishing these from each other. The overall tone of the book is one of careful tiptoeing in an attempt to satisfy all camps, including the least creative, most likely to railroad, and least willing to put for the effort required to run an engrossing and satisfying game.

I can't really fault WOTC for putting this out. It's their living, they found an audience, and they're playing to it. Props to them from a business point of view. Rather, the fault would lie with anyone who takes most of the advice seriously and runs a campaign on its principles. Do yourself and humanity a favour and don't be one of them.

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