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Do You need a Dungeon Master's Guide? (Review)

Running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign can be expensive! As the DM, more often than not, it falls to you to pay for any source books, maps, minis or other props that you'd like to include in your sessions. If you've got the money to indulge in all of this, then that's totally great - D&D is a hobby that I really enjoy, so I don't mind spending a bit of money on it now and then. That said, not everyone is in the same boat, so it's worth asking yourself, do you really need this latest book or terrain piece that you're yearning after?

N.B. The Amazon links (marked with an asterisk*) on this page are affiliate links. This doesn't cost you any extra, but I make a small commission from any sales - which helps support the site :)

With some things, the answer is a resounding yes. It'd be pretty hard running Curse of Strahd(*) without the source book, for example. With other things though, it really is up to you. There are some areas where this approach may really surprise you though - even with some of the core rulebooks(*) that you might think are an absolute must for any DM. Today we're gonna look at the Dungeon Master's Guide(*) (which was actually the first 5e book I owned) - I'm gonna review it so you know what to expect if you're thinking of getting a copy, but also explore whether it's absolutely necessary if you want to try your hand at DMing.

What's in the DMG?

The Dungeon Masters Guide is basically split into three parts. Part one (of approximately 60 pages) looks at building the world in which your story takes place. The second part (approx 160 pages) focuses on how to tell the story of your campaign within that world, and how to tie individual sessions and encounters into a coherent overall tale. Next, part three (approx 60 pages) looks at various rules for the different scenarios your party might come across during their campaigns. Finally, at the end of the book, there are various appendices for different dungeons, monsters, or maps etc. The whole book all told comes to around 320 pages - so there's a lot of information in there.

Building the World

The first part of the DMG helps you build the world within which your campaign is set. This is the case either if you're going to be running a pre-written campaign or if you're going to build your own homebrew world. The DMG can help you figure out key questions such as: how active are the gods in your world? How prevalent is magic ? What factions or organisations are important within your world? Will your campaign take place over a single plane of existence, or multiple ones?

You might have all of these questions answered at the outset of your campaign, or they may only come up once you're several sessions in. The great thing about having the DMG, is that you can dip in and out of it when these questions become relevant and you need a bit of guidance or inspiration. And if you've never run a campaign before, the framework the DMG offers for building a world can be really reassuring – particularly if you're not really sure where to start worldbuilding.

Creating an adventure

The second part of the book is where you really begin to figure out how to spin your own unique story (obviously, with the help of your players) within the world that you've built. This section forms the bulk of the book, and involves both quite high level ideas such as 'what makes a good story to begin with?' Down to the real nitty gritty, like 'what kinds of treasure should I reward my players with?'

There are sections on how to structure your story, how to create and roleplay different kinds of NPCs, how to build dungeons, cities, settlements or wilderness for your players to explore, ideas for downtime activities for your players between encounters, and ideas for magic items and other rewards for your players as they navigate the campaign.

This part of the book can be super useful when planning your campaigns, both if I'm just hoping for vague inspiration, or if I'm looking for something very specific. Again, I tend to dip in and out of it as and when necessary – I don't think I've ever sat down and read it cover to cover.

How to DM

The third part of the book largely deals with the specifics of what it means to be a DM. If you don't have a lot of D&D experience before you start DMing, this section can be a life saver! It deals with different rules of the game and how to interpret them, and how specific elements of the game (like combat or social interaction) work from the DM's perspective. In short, it deals with a lot of the judgement calls that you have to make during a session, which ensures your campaign runs smoothly, and your players never catch on to all the mental gymnastics you're having to do behind the screen!

This part of the book can also be really useful if you want to include some niche ideas into your sessions (such as a chase sequence, the use of siege engines, poisons or creating new spells, among other things) and don't want the hassle of figuring out a new mechanic to make it work.

I know that I for one in my early days of DMing spent loads of prep time trying to figure out mechanics for these kinds of things, only to discover weeks later that they were covered in this section of the book and I could have done my prep in a fraction of the time. And if you're not 100% on board with the mechanic as written in the DMG? Then by all means change it! But having a starting place to work from usually makes that a much easier process than coming up with things from scratch.

Useful Appendices

The final 30-40 pages of the book are various appendices, which can actually be really useful if your players throw you a bit of a curveball during one of your sessions. These include loads of rollable tables for traps or things you might find in dungeons, or items that you might find in various places, lists of monsters by challenge rating, a few maps, and then a list of further reading for inspiration and continued learning.

So, do you need it?

Ok, so that's the long and short of what you'll find in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The big question then: do you need it? To be honest, no. I ran my first campaign (probably 50+ hours of DMing) before ever opening the DMG, and me and my players still talk about how much fun it was, even years later. So you can definitely run a great D&D game without needing the DMG.

That said, I really think it's good value and one of the most useful books you can acquire as a DM. That first campaign that I ran without it, I probably averaged 2-3 hours of prep per weekly session. These days, it's probably more like 45 mins. Now, a lot of that improvement in efficiency just comes from confidence and being more comfortable thinking on my feet – so I don't feel I need as much prep in my back pocket before a session. But some of it definitely comes from having a catalogue of good resources that I can go to when I need inspiration or clarification for part of the story that I want to tell.

And when I do look for inspiration, the Dungeon Master's Guide(*) is one of the books that I use most frequently. For me it's also a bit of an investment: I know I want to be playing DnD for years to come, so the upfront cost is well worth it, even if I don't need to refer to it for every single session I'm prepping for.


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