A lot of DM-oriented books lately take the “toolbox” approach: here are some monsters, magic items, encounters, NPCs, locations and story hooks for you to drop into your campaign. The new Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 has those things, but rather than a pure “toolbox,” it’s more of an advanced class on DMing with plenty of examples by the professor. It also serves, to some extent, as a Paragon Level Handbook and a detailed guide to Sigil, the City of Doors. That’s a lot to pack into 222 pages!
There are plenty of crunchy bits in this book. There are pages and pages of new traps, some new monsters, a bunch of artifacts (including the 4th edition version of the Rod of Seven Parts!), and a host of skill challenges for a variety of common situations. Many of these skill challenges are reprint material drawn from other Wizards of the Coast sources, but it’s nice to have them all in one place. If your party needs to navigate a raging river and you want to run a skill check for that without having on prepared ahead of time, you don’t want to have to remember that just such a challenge appeared in Journey Through the Silver Caves, hope you have a copy, find it on your shelf, find the right page, etc.
The real strength of this book lies in the many opportunities it gives DMs to customize their campaign. It reminds me of the mod tools that are sometimes released for popular computer games — they let you shape and alter the game, but you don’t have to learn a programming language to do it. So you get clarified and expanded rules for designing traps and skill challenges, plus a whole section on creating monsters. If you’d rather not make monsters from scratch, you can apply a “theme” to a group of monsters. Themes are sort of like templates, but they serve as a way to unify an otherwise disparate group of monsters in a unique way, rather than creating one or two extra-powerful unique monsters. Most of the themes revolve around the monsters becoming cultists of one demon or another.
Templates aren’t ignored, though. I’ve personally made use of the templates offered in the DMG and other books, and I find them a great way to create signature enemies or monsters that defy the party’s metagame expectations. I was very pleased to see new templates like Chaos Warrior, Mad Alchemist and Terrifying Haunt.
Also of interest is the section on non-item rewards. These come in three flavors: divine boons, legendary boons and grandmaster training. These act much like magic items, but instead of a physical object, they represent some specific goal a character has achieved to obtain it. A divine boon means the character’s actions have drawn the favor of a deity, while a legendary boon represents some crucial plot point or major world event. Grandmaster training is fairly self-explanatory, and could lead to some excellent role-playing opportunities. Mechanically, power gamers will love these since they’re like magic items that don’t take up body slots, but the real beauty is how they can be tied into the overall story of your campaign and help make your world more vivid.
DMG2 contains a meaty section of advice for DMs. Everything from pacing, where to seat different types of players around the table, how to outline a campaign arc over the three tiers (with some nicely fleshed out examples) and how to incorporate a deeper style of storytelling into your game gets in-depth discussion. I rather like the idea of having the players provide descriptions of certain in-game places or characters. For example, if the party meets with the sage at a large library, instead of the DM coming up with a name, a look and so on, the party members quickly create these details along with a thumbnail personality and even a bit of backstory. It certainly takes some of the load off of the DM’s shoulders, but more importantly, I think it’s a great way to get the players more interested in the game world. On top of that, it’s a wonderful way for players to get into role-playing if they’re on the shy side or not the type to speak in character all the time.
The last 40 pages or so are devoted to the Paragon Tier. The key differences between the first ten levels and the next ten are fully explored. DMs will have to account for characters that are not only more powerful in combat, but have different motivations and seek different types of adventures than those of lower levels. Included in this is a much more detailed guide to Sigil than the one offered in the Manual of the Planes. This multi-dimensional city is set up as the perfect place to launch many a Paragon Tier adventure. In fact, a complete adventure for an 11th level party called “A Conspiracy of Doors” is the DMG2′s grand finale.
Overall, I’m really impressed with this book. It was clearly written by people who have thought at great length on the nature of RPGs and want to share some of the wisdom earned over thousands of gaming sessions with you. The underlying motive for everything is clear: make your game more fun and inclusive for all of your players. It’s admirable goal.