When I first opened my 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide, I was astonished at what I found: Actual advice on running a game.
This seems counterintuitive, I know. But it’s true that such advice is hard to come by in the gamemaster manuals of most of the bigger systems. These books tend to give a little overview of running a game and a GM’s role, and then dive into the mechanics, dwelling on statistics for things like traps, surviving in extreme environments, the speed of various forms of transportation, the ease of finding an NPC of a given profession (and the cost of hiring one), and so on.
Lots of numbers, in other words. Numbers that do help in running a game. But that’s all on a practical level. Most of these books — including the 1e, 2e, and 3e DMGs — say little about the theory of gamemastering.
The 4e DMG has two entire chapters, right in the front, dedicated to theory. How to prepare for a session. What players might be looking for in the game — to bring a character to life, to explore the fantasy world, to watch the story come together, to kill monsters — and how to cater to those desires. Narration, pacing, improvisation. How to handle problem players. Advice on teaching the game to someone new.
This is as compact as the PHB. It’s 30 pages or so, but they manage to fit a lot into it. There’s not a lot of wasted space or rambling text. And it’s as good an encapsulation of gamemastering as I’ve ever seen in a mainstream RPG. Could there be more? Sure, entire books could be written. But this is a great, great thing. Good enough that I’d recommend this book even to someone who wasn’t running 4e.
The quality stays high. The book covers combat encounters and how to build them, noncombat encounters — including a system of “skill challenges” to formally delineate the sort of encounter that used to have to be entirely ad-hoc — and traps, puzzles, and terrain. It tells how to use published adventures and, inspirationally, how to adapt them to suit your custom campaign. There’s an incredible chapter on campaigns that covers themes, stories, how to begin, and how to start out at a higher level than 1st. There’s a chapter on “the D&D World” that details the assumptions the game is built around — high fantasy, monsters are everywhere, PCs are exceptional, and so forth. There’s a chapter on creating new monsters, applying templates, creating NPCs, and creating house rules. And the whole thing ends with a sample setting, the town of Fallcrest in the Nentir Vale, complete with a short sample dungeon.
The book is only about 220 pages long, and it uses the same larger-than-3e typeface that the PHB uses. But it’s packed full of things that are actually useful to running a game.
I was still a bit ambivalent about 4e after reading the PHB, although my opinion was leaning toward favorable. After reading the DMG, I’m definitely a fan. This is the best RPG book I’ve read since Nobilis. I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s Skybreaker session.