When the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide DMG came out back in 2014, I read it from cover to cover. I've decided to re-read the 5e DMG to re-discover anything I impatiently overlooked on my first read-through, and I'm going to review it chapter by chapter. In this post, I'm covering Chapter 3 and 4, "Creating adventures" and "Nonplayer characters."
There's a lot to be said for teaching by example, and that's largely what the previous chapters did. It explained the base assumptions of a D&D-compatible world, and then described, in detail, the extraplanar structure that's been established in the game so far. And they did this so that you can create your own version of such a world.
In the next two chapters, the focus isn't the world but the story. Amazingly, this chapter manages to be both a creative writing class and a wholly modular pre-written adventure. You could read this chapter with no knowledge of the D&D game or its fiction, and I truly believe you'd get as much out of it as you might from any book about creative writing. I'm not saying this is a complete guide to writing a novel, but it's for plot development it's brilliant, and Chapter 4 even has tips for developing characters insofar as it relates to NPCs and villains.
Better still, there's a roll table along with every invaluable lesson this book imparts, so you essentially get an interactive writing course. At the very least, you get a workbench to enable you to create your very own 5e adventure that mostly hits the same kinds of beats that 5e adventure books do.
On one hand, I feel like these chapters are entirely optional even within the context of the DMG. When I think of the DMG, I mostly think of a rules and loot reference. I don't think of writing tips. So even as I read Chapters 3 and 4, I had to fight the feeling that this was just "filler," something to pad out the book and make it seem more substantial.
I felt that way because for me, D&D has always been about stories. Long before I played the game properly, I read D&D novels. When I started playing, I played the modules. In my mind, D&D is a board game. The core rulebooks are the game, and the modules are the board. I don't actually have that much of an interest in building my own world and writing my own stories, in part because so many great adventure books already exist, and it's just as much fun for me as the DM to discover those stories as it is for me to slowly re-tell them to my players.
But I recognise that D&D for many people is the perfect platform for telling their own stories. It's immediate and yet iterative, it's got development time but happens live, it's original and yet collaborative. Some of the best stories I've heard have been spur of the moment inventions by a DM, and I love that D&D is an avenue for this kind of storytelling.
And besides that, even in the most by-the-book playthrough of a written adventure, there's inevitably improvisation. Maybe you gave the players the wrong clue. Maybe you forgot to give them the most important clue. Maybe you missed a plot point, or you confused the villain for somebody else, or maybe the players uncovered something they weren't really supposed to find out until later, or worse yet they take an off-hand remark by an NPC for a major all-important side quest. If you're playing D&D, you're authoring something, and that's what Chapter 3 is ultimately about.
Whether you're writing a plot for a full campaign, or just a side quest, or just a one-off session, or you're just patching up some plot holes, Chapters 3 and 4 are a hugely helpful chapters brimming with great ideas. Even when you roll a trope you've seen done 20 times already, your very reaction to that trope can inspire interesting new ideas. And that, in a weird way, is ultimately the message of these two chapters: No matter how many ideas you don't come up with yourself, you're bound to end up with something surprising and new, because no two D&D campaigns are ever alike.
The next chapter is Adventure Environments.