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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual Review


I’ve always been amused by the way player and dungeon master materials swapped size between the 1st and 2nd editions of D&D. With first edition, it seemed obvious the DMG should be bigger than the PHB. With second, it seemed equally obvious that the opposite should be true since everyone ought to know most of the rules.

That pattern has persisted with 5th edition. The new Dungeon Master’s Guide is a chunky enough tome to make it appear worthy of the asking price, but slimmer than the Player’s Handbook. What have they put inside?

The answer is a sometimes uneasy blend of advice, fluff and rules. The delimiters between theses types of material are often not clear. So you’re apt to find an important table nestled amongst, say, basic advice on dungeon building for neophyte GM’s.

This lack of struture is the biggest problem with the book overall. It feels as though the authors were never sure what the target audience for the book was, or how it might be used. There’s a lot more hand holding for new dungeon masters than I remember from previous editions. Which is great for newcomers, but conversely, it makes for a lot of material which is going to be almost entirely irrelevant to experienced players.

The best stuff by far is the fluff. There’s a lot more detail on the presumed overarching detail of the Dungeons & Dragons setting than I’ve seen in a core book before. All the inner and outer planes get a brief overview, as do the most common campaign settings. You don’t have to use any of them. Indeed the book offers copies advice on how to construct alternatives. But most veterans will lap this stuff up.

Those who recall earlier editions of the book will remember the reams of near-useless tables for randomly generating things. I was initially dismayed to see that they’re back in fifth edition, but there’s an enormous difference. This time, most of the tables are actually quite good. At worst they make decent spark points for your imagination to build on. At best, such as the dungeon generator, they’re good enough to slot in to pre-prepared play.

There are also a lot of optional rules. Plus advice for tweaking existing rules and creating monsters, classes and items without breaking things. Again, how much you want to make of this is up to you. Personally, I like the relatively rules-light approach this edition takes, allowing the story to drive instead of the mechanics. But if you want lots of add-ons and extras, they’re here.

So it’s a mixed bag, but on the whole, the good outweighs the mediocre. It’s a big boon for people relatively new to being a Dungeon Master. Where I struggle a little is why an experienced role-player would want this over the stripped down free version you can download from WotC. There’s a bigger list of magic items, with some wonderful illustrations, but anyone who knows what they’re doing is capable of winging the rest of it if necessary.


The same cannot be said for the 5th Edition Monster Manual. It is possibly the best (although not the most important) book in the core set and the only one I read from cover to cover before use.

There’s so much to love about it that I hardly know where to start. How about with every monster getting its own full-colour illustration? Then follow that up with great descriptive text, giving insights into the societies and habitats of the creatures, a reason for them to be in your world and antagonise your adventurers. It lays a wonderful veneer of reality over the pulpy fantasy beneath.

The choice of included monsters is also excellent. In place of the overwhelming plethora favoured by previous editions, this presents a sensibly edited selection. There’s an excellent variety of challenge and type, and not too many entries that seem like rough duplicates with slightly different names and stat blocks. One or two oddities slipped in, like the Flumph. I mean, has anyone really found a use for the Flumph in a game?

If this weren’t enough, there’s a new option for legendary monsters. It’s easy: they get extra “legendary” actions in combat and, if on home soil, additional “lair” actions too. Since most player characters only get a few actions per round, even at higher levels, this makes legendary foes very powerful with a minimum of rules. Frequently-used villains like dragons, liches and vampires are legendary by default but there’s nothing to stop an inventive DM extending it to make an adversary out of any archetype they choose.

One change I’m unsure about is the removal of life drain, that dreaded ability of certain undead to lower the experience of player characters. It was overpowered in previous editions, sure, but it gave undead a unique level of threat and a real reason for the players to fear them. It’s been replaced with necrotic damage that can’t easily be healed without prolonged rest. Nasty, but not in the same league. I’m sure they must have been a halfway house that could have been adopted.

Undead also showcase another interesting change, which is that certain monsters have drastically altered power levels. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this and in many cases it makes good sense. But it makes it slightly harder for DM’s to adapt scenarios from older editions by replacing like with like.

You can fall back on the dry stat blocks in the free DM’s rules if you need to. But with so much excellent art and flavour text to add depth, colour and challenge to your campaign world, this is a book few DMs are going to want to be without.

D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review


It’s rare that the first thing to strike you about a book is a noise. But here, it was. After being so excited by the Starter Set, I couldn’t wait to get into this. So I ignored the cover and opened the book to a loud crack as the spine flexed for the first time. It was like the sound of the lock falling away from my teenage memories.

Back then, no-one ever read the Player’s Handbook from cover to cover, and I doubt anyone does now. It’s skimmed, flipped, relished. So first impressions count.

They’re good. The pages are thin but printed with a nice fake-age background. Tables are pleasingly infrequent. The art is plentiful, good quality and diverse in its representation of race, class and gender. Male Half-orc paladins stand shoulder to shoulder with scholarly female wizards. Most are sensibly clothed.

This is the first D&D supplement I can remember that encourages players to use the game to explore diversity.
“Don’t be confined to binary notions of sex and gender,” it says. It’s nice to know that D&D has moved into the modern age while preserving the things that made it special in the past.

Alongside those sentiments there are other short, but useful, chapters on role-playing and personification. Mostly, what we want are rules and mostly, that’s what we get.

You have to remember that I haven’t played the game since 2nd edition. So things that stand out to me as big changes might not seem so huge to more dedicated players.

One thing that impresses is the way in which the game has become less about specialists, more about letting players create the characters they want. There are twelve classes now, each with several archetypes.

The Fighter class, for instance, divides into three archetypes. Classic warrior fans can play a Champion. Battle Masters represent tacticians and field officers. Eldritch Knights sacrifice some fighting ability for a modicum of spellcasting power.

At the extremes, this plethora of options blend in to one another. With an Eldritch Knight in the party, you might not need a Wizard. Sometimes the overlap seems too extensive. I can’t quite see why the Barbarian and Sorcerer classes weren’t just folded as archetypes for the Ranger and Wizard respectively.

But on the whole, it works. Specialists are still best at what they do, but players can build characters as they like.

This change of focus is supported by the core mechanics. Everything works on a d20 check now, against a difficulty number. You add ability score modifiers, but also get a proficiency bonus, dependant on level, for things your class is good at.

Fighters get it on all weapons, for instance. But you can now get proficiencies in skills and tools, too. So anyone can use Thief’s tools to attempt to pick a lock. But a Rogue will get their proficiency bonus when they try – double, in fact, thanks to a special feature of the class.

It’s a great way of doing things. It’s more realistic – why, in old systems, couldn’t other classes search for traps if there wasn’t a thief in the party? The broad skill categories make it more comprehensive, so there’s few situations in which you can’t bend the rules to fit.

dnd-phb-02jpg It’s also the mechanic behind the rebalancing of the game. A key feature of this edition is that powerful characters are no longer god-like. A lone fighter will eventually succumb to an army of goblins. It works because proficiency bonuses increase slowly, and max out at +6. So a 20th level figher, with a few stat increases, is only going to get perhaps +6 on the dice more than a 1st level one.

But best of all, people can play the characters of their imagination. Common fantasy stereotypes that were near-impossible in the old system are easy now. Swashbuckling warriors are just as good as armoured tanks. It’s straightforward to combine spell and sword if that’s what you want to do.

To add flesh and flexibility to the character creation process there’s a mandatory background step. This gives you a couple more skills and some starting equipment, as well as a foundation for your character’s back story.

While a welcome addition, it’s perhaps the weakest thing in the book. In contrast to the wide-ranging races and classes on offer, there’s only a limited selection. And they’re painted in narrow strokes where they ought to be board. You can chose to be a Noble, for instance, or a Sailor . But not a Noble Sailor. And there seems an astonishing diversity of semi-criminal backgrounds, from Charlatans to Urchins to actual Criminals.

At the end of the book come spells. These are no longer divided into spells for different classes. Instead, each class has a list of spells they’re able to potentially learn and cast. This makes referencing what spells belong to what class a bit of a nightmare. But it’s nice to see the end of silly duplications of identical effects across different classes.

Casting, like almost everything else in the new edition, has become more flexible. Spellcasters can prepare a wide selection of spells during a long rest. When they cast one, they use a slot rather than losing the spell. There’s also a new idea of casting low level spells with high level slots, for a more powerful effect. These are all excellent changes. No more will wizards find themselves stuck in situations without a useful memorised spell.

The other striking thing about the spell lists is the substantial number of non-combat spells. In previous editions, this felt like lip-service to encouraging nonviolent solutions. Here, it chimes authentically with the greater focus on skills and tools rather than just weapons and armour.

So now you know what’s in the book, it’s time to end on a question. Given that you can download character creations rules for free, why buy the book?

Well, aside from the pleasure of the art and the convenience of a hard copy, it comes back to the overarching theme of what I love about this edition: flexibility. Those free rules have only four classes, with one archetype each, and a cut-down selection of spells. Reading this Player’s Handbook felt like unlocking my imagination to polymorph into whatever fantastic character it desired. That’s in stark contrast to the rules, restrictions and specialisms that characterised earlier editions. The free rules feel a bit like those earlier editions. If you really want to let your mind run free, this is the book for you.