Welcome to the first installment of Dungeons Mastered, a tabletop roleplaying column from someone still figuring this shit out. I’m Tyler Crumrine, your RPG concierge and game-master-in-training.
I’d wanted to play tabletop roleplaying games for a while now, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally took the plunge. I work in theatre, so knew I loved storytelling and improv, but every time I picked up a player’s manual I got scared away by the tables upon tables of numbers. I’m more of a words guy, and the thought of having to solve math problems every couple of minutes in order to get to the GOOD STUFF sounded more like work than fun.
I’m also an editor first and a writer second. I can “yes and” until the cows come home, but I have serious issues when it comes to starting my own stories. I was afraid that if I GM’d a campaign (or dungeon mastered if you’re playing D&D) I wouldn’t be able to come up with a plot that’d be fun or interesting in the first place.
The tipping point was when one of my best friends confessed he’d always wanted to play tabletop RPGs too. His wife and her best friend were on board, and as a first-year New Yorker I was in desperate need of some weekly fun-friend-time to make the city feel a little less overwhelming. They had let me crash on their couch while looking for apartments my first month in the city, so as a gift I decided to go ahead and buy the damn books and run a game for them. And I’m really glad I did.
Now our play sessions are easily a highlight of my week. We order pizza, drink beers, and just have fun. It also scratches a serious writing itch I didn’t realize I’d been neglecting. It’s inspired me to write new plays and fiction for the first time in years, in part because it reminds me just how fun telling a story can be. It’s also a lot, LOT less intimating that I thought it would be.
Once I actually read the books, I realized I’d been thinking about them all wrong. They’re less rulebooks and more resources. And as an improviser, I found having a collection of prompts to start a narrative with was hugely helpful in getting a campaign off the ground and keeping it rolling when writer’s block inevitably struck.
The next thing I did was familiarize myself with the indie RPG publishing scene. I knew books helped me GM better, love small press, and had no idea just how vibrant the roleplaying community is. I’ve dipped into a variety of games and play-styles now and emailed ENTROPY eager to share my findings with others. It’s the publisher in me: If I like something, I have a really hard time keeping it to myself.
Over the course of this column I’ll be using various RPG books as launching points to discuss my ongoing quest to become a better GM and to talk about roleplaying in general. Hopefully it’ll inspire other aspiring roleplayers to overcome their fear while becoming a useful resource guide for RPG veterans to boot.
If my theater education has taught me anything, though, it’s to start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start). Let’s kick things off by dispelling some of the anxieties around the mother of roleplaying, Dungeons & Dragons, and take a look at Wizard of the Coast’s 5th edition core rulebooks. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to older editions of the game (if you play any of them, great!), but since 5E is the latest version of D&D, it’s the easiest to find and the most likely to receive supplements and support down the line.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
D&D DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE: 5TH EDITION
What is it?
If you’re like me, you probably assumed the Dungeon Master’s Guide is just THE RULES of Dungeons & Dragons. And clocking in at 300+ pages, that can be pretty intimidating. But it isn’t quite the case. Rules for how to calculate the game’s combat, magic, and etc. are here, but they only take up about 1/3 of the book. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is much more concerned with teaching you how to tell a good story, even at the rules’ expense (there’s actually a section called ignoring the dice).
For example, here’s what the Dungeon Master’s Guide recommends as the key elements of a great campaign:
- A Credible Threat
- Familiar Tropes with Clever Twists
- Heroes who Matter
- Something for All Player Types
- Useful Maps
It goes into more detail on why those are good touchstones for your game, but that list is much more the tenor of the book than providing complex math for how to care for your imaginary horses. Rather than force-feeding you storylines, the guide is very good about framing things in a “These are the core assumptions and history of our D&D universe, but it’s your world! Do what you want!” kind of way while giving you plenty of lists of potential religious systems, catastrophes, and currencies to choose from. Which as a writer is both comforting and empowering.
How much you use the Dungeon Master’s Guide once you’ve learned the basics of D&D also depends on how you like to play the game. There are some people who see D&D as a fantasy adventure simulator, meticulously roleplaying everything from hydration to how much a character can realistically carry before they’re slowed down. Which can be really fun! Some writers thrive on realism, and strict roleplaying narrows options making challenges more difficult and encouraging creative solutions. Having to deal with real world limitations also makes magic that much more, well, magical. And the Dungeon Master’s Guide does a great job of providing mechanics for just about every situation you can think of.
Everything in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is optional, though, if you’re playing with the same friends from week to week. The rules make it easy to jump into a game with strangers, but if any mechanics are annoying, just ignore them! There’s no right or wrong way to play D&D as long as you’re having fun, just like there’s no right or wrong way to write a book.
Personally, I pick and choose which parts of D&D’s rules to use and which to ignore. I’ve set our campaign in the larger D&D universe (same races, same gods, etc.), so I can refer to the Dungeon Master’s Guide for answers to larger “where does magic come from”-type questions in a pinch, but I’ve invented my own countries and royalty within that world to fit the story I want to tell. Similarly, I follow D&D rules like a party needing to rest to regain health, but I don’t use rules for eating or managing rations because I’d rather have my players not need to worry about it. And the Dungeon Master’s Guide encourages that kind of discretion rather than making you feel guilty for not following every rule to the letter.
What do I like about it?
Other than being a great intro to the game, there are two things I especially like about the Dungeon Master’s Guide: tables and treasure.
Random tables are one of the best tools for breaking writer’s block when planning a campaign, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide is chock full of them. I’ll be going into more detail on books of tables as an entire roleplaying resource genre in another entry, but here’s a few examples tables straight from the guide:
- Stop the dungeon’s monstrous inhabitants from raiding the surface
- Foil a villain’s evil scheme.
- Destroy a magical threat inside the dungeon.
- Acquire treasure.
- Find a particular item for a specific purpose.
- Retrieve a stolen item hidden in the dungeon.
- Find information needed for a special purpose.
- Rescue a captive.
- Discover the fate of a previous adventuring party.
- Find an NPC who disappeared in the area.
- Slay a dragon or some other challenging monster.
- Discover the nature and origin of a strange location or phenomenon.
- Pursue fleeing foes taking refuge in the dungeon.
- Escape from captivity in the dungeon.
- Clear a ruin so it can be rebuilt and reoccupied.
- Discover why a villain is interested in the dungeon.
- Win a bet or complete a rite of passage by surviving in the dungeon for a certain amount of time.
- Parley with a villain in the dungeon.
- Hide from a threat outside the dungeon.
- Roll twice, ignoring results of 20.
Dungeon crawling can be a fun aspect of any campaign (it is in the title after all), but they’re much more fun if your players actually have a reason to be there. And tables are great building blocks for keeping a story moving forward, even if you just look at a list and pick an option that fits your current storyline rather than leaving things to chance.
Another good example is the forms of government table:
FORMS OF GOVERNMENT
Do I know what half of those mean? Hell no, but the Dungeon Master’s Guide explains each system and the potential effect they could have on a campaign’s world. In a lot of ways, that’s one of the most useful things about the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Leaning on the guide when needed enables you focus on developing the story elements you’re actually excited about and just roll dice for everything else.
Another big part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (100 pages in fact) is treasure. There are tables for finding and generating random treasure, but my favorite treasures are the magic ones. Not only does the guide have a huge list of magical treasure (and rules for how each works) but almost every item is illustrated, giving you and your player an idea of just how cool their character would look using it.
There are lots of other books dedicated to tables and treasure, but if you’re picking a first book to buy as a GM, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a great one-stop-shop for a trove of resources that will help take the pressure off coming up with everything on your own.
What have I stolen from it?
Lots of things, but here are two specific anecdotes:
As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of magical items (magic is what makes fantasy worlds special after all), so frequently before a campaign session I’ll page through the Dungeon Master’s Guide, find something especially cool or useful, and reverse engineer an appropriate challenge and narrative branch for its discovery.
For example, I recently stumbled across the Tentacle Rod (a magic weapon that ends in three rubbery, living tentacles) and fell in love. And my campaign’s party—the high elf Alphonse Ivybannister, the silver & gold dragonborn Shaklima, and the tiefling Torment Infantgrave (currently posing as Agony Babycasket)—were in the middle of pursuing a teammate who had betrayed them on a magical floating island. So while searching for him, I had them encounter a giant octopus that was stranded when the island rose out of the ocean. It was engaged in a fight with three Sahuagin (shark men), and if the party rescued it (unbeknownst to them) the octopus (a MAGIC octopus) would use its final breaths to transform into the rod. After some discussion, they voted 2-to-1 to intervene, and now they’ve got a cool new tool imbued with the consciousness of a magic octopus named Todd (Tentacle Todd the Tentacle Rod).
Second, I realized early on in our play sessions that our party’s sorcerer was getting frustrated by D&D’s complicated rules of how many times you can cast a spell a day, how to relearn them, and etc. It made her feel less useful than the rest of the party and was ultimately getting in the way of her having fun. So rather than keep correcting her, I let her character find a Ring of Spell Storing hidden in a thief’s lair. It lets her load spells into the ring like a six-shooter and keep multiple at the ready (as long as she remembers to reload the ring between fights). And because there are rules for how the ring works in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are still a few caveats to prevent her from being TOO powerful too early. It was an easy solution to an annoying problem, and one that fit within the larger narrative of the world. And those are the moments when the Dungeon Master’s Guide really shines.
D&D MONSTER MANUAL: 5TH EDITION
What is it?
Now that we’ve discussed dungeons, let’s talk dragons. One of the most satisfying parts of roleplaying is overcoming challenges as a team, and what better challenge than a monster? The Monster Manual provides you with over 300 pages of monsters, their history & behavior, and game mechanics to figure out just how much damage they can deal before your party takes them down. It’s also fully illustrated, giving you the option to either describe the monsters yourself or show a picture to your players.
What do I like about it?
One of the most useful parts of each entry in the Monster Manual is an enemy’s challenge rating. It’ll help you figure out whether your party is ready to face an monster yet, and a big part of telling an engaging story is making sure it steadily increases in both risk and reward. That’s why so many campaigns start off with the party encountering a group of goblins—they’re kind of a fantasy trope, but they’re also low on the challenge rating scale, serving as a nice set of training wheels before moving on to bigger and badder foes.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
After complaints that the Monster Manual didn’t include an index organizing monsters by challenge rating, Wizards of the Coast put out one for free. You can download it here!
What have I stolen from it?
Like the Dungeon Master’s Guide, flipping through the Monster Manual is a great way to break writer’s block. Sometimes I’ll go in looking for monsters that fit a certain setting, but just as often I’ll come up with a setting or story element crafted around a cool monster I want my players to encounter.
An example of a arbitrary selection was kenku. Kenku are essentially wingless crow people (punished by their god for greediness according to the monster manual), and while they’re about as dangerous as a goblin, they’re much weirder and more interesting. The guide said they could mimic sounds perfectly, so I had them lure my party into the forest for an ambush by making the sound of a baby crying. When Alphonse found one of their religious artifacts in a cave, though, other kenku later in the story swore their fealty to him thinking he was a priest of their order. Now kenku are a reoccurring part of our campaign, all because they weren’t too tough I thought their picture looked cool.
I also wanted an enemy for the party to encounter on a narrow mountain pass, though, and at the last minute found stats for a giant goat in the back of the book. It charged their caravan and after a number of very unfortunate rolls wound up knocking their cart (and guide) over a cliff. None of it was planned, and I could have easily fudged the numbers if I wanted to save him, but it all went so perfectly, tragically wrong I couldn’t help but laugh and write his (significant) future role out of the story. It’s still my favorite encounter of the campaign, even though the monster was pretty mundane.
D&D PLAYER’S HANDBOOK: 5TH EDITION
What is it?
The Player’s Handbook is very similar to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, except that it provides you with the material you need to create complex characters rather than complex worlds. Chief among those materials are races (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and classes (fighter, wizard, thief, etc.). Depending of a adventurer’s play-style, they can use the book to create a blank slate that evolves along with the campaign’s story, write a character with an already richly detailed background and motivations before the game starts, roll up a random character to try and be “true to” like you would a role in a play, or any combination of the three.
The Players Handbook is also your book of spells, which makes it indispensable. Not only will it let your players know which spells they can learn as they level up, but it gives you as the GM a ton of options for spells to assign NPCs, traps, and magical items. Some entries in the Monster Manual refer to spells listed in the Player’s Handbook too, so it’s always good to have on hand. And, at the risk of becoming a broken record, spells can be a great writer’s block buster too.
BUT WAIT, IF I’M JUST PLAYING DO I NEED TO BUY ALL THESE BOOKS?
Nope! They’re all useful in their own ways, but as long as the GM has a copy of each, you’ll be set. It’s convenient if players have their own Player’s Handbooks, even if just to browse and decide how they’d like to customize their characters between sessions, but by no means necessary. I’m the only one with books in my group and I just lend them out or take care of housekeeping at the start of each session.
What do I like about it?
I tend to take a bit of a laissez-faire approach to rules, but the Player’s Handbook does a great job of keeping the game fair. You can’t have character growth without challenge, and an overpowered character just isn’t fun. Which is why I’m glad there’s already a detailed system for creating balanced characters and scaling them up bit by bit as the game goes on.
It’s also important that players feel like they’re equally valuable parts of the party, regardless of the different races or classes they choose. And because the Player’s Handbook balances everyone with strengths and weaknesses, no one character winds up being BETTER than the others, giving them all equal agency in the story.
What have I stolen from it?
I’ve yet to create my own character for a campaign (what can I say, I enjoy GM’ing), but I can talk a bit about Eerik the Kenku. When he swore his fealty to Alphonse, I used the Player’s Handbook to convert him from a monster to an NPC, giving him more robust, character-like stats. That way he could level up alongside the party and stay relevant in the story rather than outliving his usefulness shortly down the line. Sure, he may have died last week at the hands of an evil wizard, but he served his patron well before Agony punted his corpse into the ocean.
Helping my players construct their characters also gave me insight into their individual strengths and weaknesses. With those in mind, I can create scenarios that make full use of their abilities or that favor a character that didn’t play as active a role in the last week’s session. The more you know, the more you can custom craft the story to your players’ needs and enjoyment (or even better, occasionally hit them where it hurts).
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Character creation is one of the hardest things to roll back once you’ve started a campaign, so it’s worth presenting your players with as many options as possible from the get-go. Now that 5th edition has been out for a while, Wizards of the Coast has published some additional digital race and class options for free. I didn’t know these existed until after I started my first campaign, but I wish I had. That way I could have at given my players a wider selection, even if their characters wound up exactly the same in the end. And more character options means more story options.
ELEMENTAL EVIL: PLAYERS COMPANION – Rules for playing as an aarakocra (bird people), a deep gnome, a genasi (half-genies), or a goliath (giants). Also introduces a handful of new spells.
UNEARTHED ARCANA: EBERRON – Rules for playing as a changeling (shape-shifters), a shifter (half-lycanthropes), or a warforged (robots). Also introduces the wizard tradition artificer and the idea of dragonmarks (magical tattoos).
UNEARTHED ARCANA: WATERBORNE ADVENTURES – Rules for playing as a minotaur (my personal favorite). Also introduces the fighting style mariner, the roguish archetype swashbuckler, and the sorcerous origin storm.
UNEARTHED ARCANA: AWAKENED MYSTIC – Introduces the class psionic (psychic).
UNEARTHED ARCANA: MODERN MAGIC – Tweaks character classes for campaigns set in futuristic fantasy settings (guns, hacking, etc).
UNEARTHED ARCANA: PRESTIGE CLASSES AND RUNE MAGIC – Introduces the prestige class rune scribe.
UNEARTHED ARCANA: LIGHT, DARK, UNDERDARK! – Introduces the fighting styles close quarters shooter and tunnel fighter, the ranger archetype deep stalker, the sorcerous origin shadow, and the warlock patron the undying light.
UNEARTHED ARCANA: THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC – Introduces the tiefling variants abysmal tiefling and infernal tiefling as well as a handful of new spells.
UNEARTHED ARCANA: KITS REVISITED – Introduces the class options college of swords and college of satire for bards and the class options cavalier and scout for fighters.
That’s all for this edition of Dungeons Mastered! Next time we’ll talk less about rules and more about creativity while looking at the weird and wonderful worlds of Patrick Stuart (author of Uncertain Worlds, Fire on the Velvet Horizon, and Deep Carbon Observatory). I hope you’ll join us, and if you have any resources you’d like to see discussed in upcoming entries, feel free to make you own recommendations in the comments! Until then, stay sharp adventurers!