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Review of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 by Wizards of the Coast

Can one edify an antiquated canine concerning novel maneuvers?” ~ Anonymous

It took a while, but I’ve finally finished reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, cover-to-cover. I know it’s been out since September 2009, but in my defense I didn’t pick up the book until Christmas. Or more to the point, my Players bought me the DMG2 as my Christmas present.
dmg2 cover
Of course, I was of two minds when I received the DMG 2. On one hand I was saying to myself, “Awww, they got me a present,” and was all full of warm fuzzies about it. On the flipside, I was thinking. “What this? Like they think I don’t know how to DM or something?”

So I was kinda torn, and I literally never even cracked the binding, so to speak, until well into January 2010. And when I finally did start poking my nose through the pages, it was in a very piece-meal fashion. To say I read the book cover to cover is true, but I did an awful lot of skipping around, back and forth, from chapter to chapter.

But I’m really not what one would call an overly egotistical guy. Regarding most things, I believe in the old saying that “the more you know, the more you realize how much more there is to learn.” But as a DM with over three decades of gaming behind me, it’s sometimes hard to pick up a book like a Dungeon Master’s Guide without glowering a bit and wondering if there is really anything in here I don’t already know about being a DM.

And honestly, I can say a resounding, yes. When it comes to 4e, yes indeed, there’s plenty that we all don’t know, regardless of how many years we’ve been Dungeon Mastering.

I heard a great quote the other day while I was listening to the Critical Podcast #19: 4e DMing Tips Seminar And, by the way, this podcast is well worth clearing an hour of time to sit and seriously take in, preferably with a notepad nearby. But in the podcast, I heard Mike Shea of Sly make a comment that really resonated with me:

“4th Edition is a great system… I love 4th edition and I must warn you, I’m a big 4th edition fan-boy. But it is a complicated system too… it has a lot of moving parts, and when you’re running 4th edition it can be pretty tricky to deal with all these moving parts.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

So the real question in my mind is: “Does the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 give us the tools we need to deal with all those tricky moving parts inside of D&D 4th Edition?”

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2
  • Authors: James Wyatts Bill Slavicsek, and Robin D. Laws
  • Cover Illustrator: Wayne Reynolds
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2009
  • Media: Book (224 pages)
  • Cost: $34.95 MSRP (Amazon, $23.07)

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 is a core sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and is the sequel to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Over the six chapters in the sourcebook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 covers a wide range of topics from dealing with Player-Characters issues (Chapter 1: Group Storytelling) to creating campaign arcs and recurring villains (Chapter 5: Adventures). Advanced encounter design, traps, skill challenges, and customization of monsters are all covered in great detail, and there is an in-depth look at working with paragon level characters, and designing meaningful paragon campaigns.

The production quality of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 is superb, and it is beautifully illustrated by nearly two dozen artists and illustrators. The sourcebook’s layout is logical and easy to read, with plentiful sidebars to give additional information where needed.

When I first started perusing the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, I was looking for information on hazards and traps, trying to get some ideas on how I can make an encounter more interesting. Chapter 2: Advanced Encounters has extensive information about trap-building and hazard creation, which is essential reading for any Dungeon Master who writes their own adventures. There is also a solid section regarding Player Motivations and creating encounters for large and small groups, which I found to be insightful reading, particularly since it codified the Player types I had been observing and trying to figure out since I started Dungeon Mastering. My only caveat with that section is that Players rarely fit neatly into categories, and I’ve had my fair share of Power-Gamer/Storytellers and Thinker/Slayers over the years, but the section is still worth a read-through.

Chapter 4: Customizing Monsters is another high point of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, and offers not only a dozen new monster templates as well as the Class templates from Player’s Handbook 2, but also a concept called Themed Monsters. Themed Monsters are a set of powers related to a particular theme, such as Demogorgon Cultists or the Chosen of Lolth, and can be mixed and matched into a variety of templates as the DM desires. This lends itself to making a whole array of new monsters that can be used during an adventure which have some similar traits, but not always identical traits. I’ve always believed that a great DM needs to always find new ways of keeping your Player-Characters off-guard!

But as far as I’m concerned, the most amazing part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 was in Chapter 3: Skill Challenges. Here the nature of skill challenges has been expanded and expounded upon, creating more options for using them both out-of-combat and in the midst of a fight. And in my opinion, the best of these new skill challenge frameworks is the structure challenge. It allows a DM to take an unstructured activity, and put it into an abstract setting that can be resolved efficiently with a few dice rolls. This would have been a fantastic tool when I was running my old 3.5 campaign and actually mapped out an entire swamp, complete with all possible hazards and potential encounters based upon monsters’ hunting grounds! Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 explains nicely how that sort of mapping can be avoided using Skill Challenges, with encounters as the consequence for failure of the group. There is considerable information on partial successes and options for handling skill failures that truly make Skill Challenges one of the most useful and versatile tool that we Dungeon Masters have in our “toolbox”.

Chapter 5: Adventures and Chapter 6: Paragon Campaigns contain some great material for creating lasting storylines and campaign arcs, particularly Paragon Level play, and moving Characters from the Heroic Tier to the Epic Tier. There is excellent advice and examples of Paragon Tier campaign arc, and an assortment of artifacts to reward advanced Characters with along the way. I particularly enjoyed the idea of Boons, which range from god-granted powers to legendary abilities granted by performing mythical feats. There is also another type of boon called Grandmaster Training, which comes from studying with a high master of a particular class. I think boons make for some great reward options, and have considerably greater role-playing potential than a simple magic item.

And for fans of Planscape, there is an extensive section in Chapter 6 regarding Sigil and possible adventures and encounters in the City of Doors. Sadly, it’s not quite as extensive as the old Planescape boxed set, but is definitely solid material and presents a useful starting point for a planar paragon campaign. If you do decide to go with a planar campaign, I would definitely recommend grabbing some additional material from other sources, like the website Planewalker, which has tons of articles that could be readily adapted from 3.5 to 4e.

Overall, I would say that the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 is an excellent resource, and certainly falls into the category of a “core” sourcebook. It contains a wealth of information that every D&D 4e Dungeon Master needs to know to run a successful campaign, and the “crunch” definitely outweighs the “fluff”.

And starting with this review, at the suggestion of a Reader, I’m going to start grading products to help quantify the process. For a full detail of the “grade card”, please refer to the end of the blog:

Overall Grade: A-

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 is definitely worth owning if you are serious about excelling at DMing D&D 4th Edition. There is plenty of essential information between the covers, and is well worth the price.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback, so please feel free to comment on this or any of the Neuroglyph Games blogs!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A
  • -Design: A-
  • -Illustrations: A
  • Content: A-
  • -Crunch: A
  • -Fluff: B
  • Value: B+

Grade Card Explanation

Overall Grade: the average of the Presentation, Content, and Value grades

Presentation: this grade is the average of the Design and Illustrations grades

Design: a measure of how well the product was designed, how logically the material was presented, and how easy it was to read.

Illustrations: a measure of the quality, quantity, and how the artwork enhanced the overall product.

Content: this grade is the average of the Crunch and Fluff grades

Crunch: a measure of the usefulness of the rules-based / mechanical portions of the content.

Fluff: a measure of usefulness of the role-playing / setting / non-rules portions of the content.

Value: a measure of subjective value of the product versus the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


4 Responses to “Review of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 by Wizards of the Coast”

  1. anarkeith says:

    I really loved DMG2 after being quite skeptical about the proliferation of source books. I’m trying to change some of my long-held attitudes about gaming (and DMing in particular) with the intent of being more flexible and creative by including my players’ input more. DMG2 has, in my opinion, advice on DMing that applies beyond just 4e. It’s a great tool.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..The Sillier Side of Serious Gaming =-.

  2. El Mahdi says:

    I don’t run 4E, but I have stolen a bit from it for use in my own games. For example, I use skill challenges in my houseruled 3.x games. So, that part of the book is of interest to me and may be worth buying it for. But, what about the rest of the book? How much usefulness can you see in this book for non-4E DM’s?

  3. @anarkeith – we’re in total agreement, and there is some very good advice in there for game-mastering as a whole. Their DMing theory and recommendations are pretty sound, but as I said in my review, sometimes players just don’t fit nicely into the boxes the DMG2 offers, so you’ve also got to be flexible. As with any advice given from any source, use what makes sense, try some things that don’t, and discard what doesn’t work for you.

    @ el mahdi – I think you’d find that the sections on artifacts, boons, and themed monsters are very helpful to any dungeon master, even if you have to retrofit them to 3.5 rules. Also, the section on traps and hazards are some good material, and will spice up a battlefield or a dungeon, regardless of which edition you’re playing. And if you’re using just the basic skill challenges as detailed in the first DMG, let me assure you that DMG2 kicks up the theory and use of SC’s by a whole order of magnitude. I am now a big proponent of skill challenges, and I have to rein in my enthusiasm for them when I’m designing adventures. They are just hand-down one of the most versatile tools for DMing we’ve ever been handed.

  4. underthepale says:

    This is one of my favorite books in 4e so far. I haven’t gotten too much use out of it just yet, but in terms of being a resource for Dungeon Masters, new and old alike, it’s priceless. Also, in terms of explaining how 4e WORKS, it’s invaluable. At first, I wasn’t fond of dividing the story into three tiers, each one escalating the power level more than the last, but I realize, this works. It enables for clearer, more precise storytelling, and reflects the evolution of the heroes, from the outset, to their eventual rise into legend. 4th Edition found me a reluctant DM, but I eventually came to like it quite a bit. It’s still very much a love-hate thing, but it got me a group, and we’re all still quite happy with the results, so there’s not much else to say there.

    I really do need to give DMG 2 a more careful reading soon. Ah well.

    As an aside, thanks for commenting on my blog. I’m glad I could brighten your day with a review!
    .-= underthepale´s last blog ..Product Review – Kill Or Be Killed! #1 =-.

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