Playing Dungeons & Dragons is hard, or it can be. Between scheduling, the time involved actually playing and the constant math (albeit mostly just addition but that’s more than enough for some folks), there are a lot of moving parts just to participate in the hobby. The big hurdle though, and one I constantly struggle to get over when attempting to help new players, is the homework. At its most simple you still need a passing knowledge of a freakin’ textbook to play this game.
Sure, it can be skimmed and stuff can be learned on the fly. Like any halfway decent college student, you can make do with cursory knowledge and then learn more as you go. There is undoubtedly reading that goes into participating in the game though. Knowing at least the bare-bones game-relevant abilities and upgrades afforded the player by their race, class and items fills an entire book. It’s called the Player’s Handbook. You don’t have to read every page, you don’t even have to read a majority of the pages, but in simply exploring your options when it comes time to create a character you’ll be flipping through a lot of text. It’s a daunting prospect before we even begin talking about what goes into being the Dungeon Master.
There are three books which comprise the core of the Dungeons & Dragons experience: Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. The latter two are almost exclusively meant to be used as resources for the Dungeon Master of a given game. Again though, there is no expectation for the entirety of these books to be read. The Monster Manual is more like an encyclopedia or dictionary, a reference book used when specific information is needed but never meant to be a thrilling cover to cover read. Heck, it mostly exists so that Dungeon Masters don’t have to remember all those little details like the stealth bonus of goblins or the flying speed of a wyvern.
Of the core three, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is probably the most esoteric. It does not actually contain rules for the most basic functions of gameplay; those are in the Player’s Handbook. Many D&D groups will find themselves mostly using it for the list of Magic Items that it contains and pretty much nothing else. It can seem like a waste of a whole book if you don’t use any of it beyond a single chapter. What the DM’s Guide provides though is at the center of one of the common questions I get about the practice of running a game of D&D.
“How do you come up with all of it?”
I pride myself on homebrew worlds and stories. Original content that isn’t pulled directly from an Adventure Module (though I do love those, as I talk about in "Being Modular" and other articles!). But where it comes from is a complex question that the DM’s Guide attempts to unpack. And it really comes down to a series of questions. Asking about how things work, asking about why things are the way they are and asking you, as the Dungeon Master creating your own world, to make decisions about all of it. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is all about helping you figure out those questions.
Within the context of Dungeons & Dragons, a game where your imagination is the limiter on any given piece of the experience, deciding on facts in the story you and your players are telling is basically the whole job of the Dungeon Master. Crafting the story can seem scary at first. Shaving off options down from infinity seems like a lot of work and that’s why most people shy away from the role. But after taking into account certain assumptions, assumptions which the DM’s Guide goes over at the very beginning of Chapter 1, it quickly becomes easier and easier to narrow down the sort of story you want to tell and the sort of game you want to play.
That is what is great about this book. It is not there to tell you how to run your game of Dungeon’s & Dragons. That is a common misconception about a book titled the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It can be easy to assume that a strict how-to guide is what is contained within. There is no step-by-step way to run a game of D&D. Every person who does it does so in their own, unique way and the Dungeon Master’s Guide is there to help spark ideas, narrow your focus and figure out what it is you’re looking to do as a Dungeon Master. It will never tell you how to play but it will ask you to think about how you play.
So if you’re running a game of Dungeons & Dragons, even if you’re running a pre-written adventure, check out the DM’s guide beyond the list of Magic Items. Dungeon Masters are the world their players romp around in, so it never hurts to make that world as full of possibilities as you can!