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 5, "Adventure environments."
Something about the way 5e books are organised has never felt right to me. I list some specific complaints in my table reference for DMG post so I won't reiterate them here. However, I found a lot of new things to complain about in Chapter 5, and so I consider that fair game.
The start of Chapter 5 is about dungeons. I've been using the DMG for years, and I had no idea this section was here, because there's an entire Appendix A titled Random dungeons, which is what I use. I can't imagine what logic the editors of the DMG used to conclude that the location and purpose of a dungeon should appear in Chapter 5, but everything else about a dungeon should be put into Appendix A. It's just plain confusing, and to make matters worse there's no reference to one in the other. Appendix A doesn't start by telling you to flip back to Chapter 5, and Chapter 5 doesn't tell you to hurry over to Appendix A to continue building a dungeon. I'm sure I read the dungeon content in Chapter 5 when I first read through the DMG, but I definitely forgot that it existed, and it never occurred to me to look for it because in my mind, I thought I knew that the dungeon content was in Appendix A.
It's also confusing to me that molds and webs, the DCs to avoid them, and the penalties for failing, are hidden away in this chapter. Luckily, most references to these hazards actually do reference "Chapter 5 of the DMG," so I've never had trouble finding them when directed to the look them up. However, I can think of several times when I've thought to look up how a specific mold works, and find myself flipping around the Monster Manual and the traps section of the DMG in the vain hope of finding information that's tacked on at the end of a casual discussion of how dungeons are mapped.
Those are my complaints. They shouldn't take away from the value of this chapter, though, because the content, however poorly it's organised, is great.
I love mapping dungeons. I have a hardcover book of graph paper, and I've spent many a lazy afternoon drawing out dungeons, populating them with an odd assortment of traps and monsters, and building a little story around them. To me, that's the design part of being a Dungeon Master. I don't personally care about telling big epic campaign stories, but I love telling snapshot stories of dungeons and lairs and forgotten tombs.
The section on creating a dungeon has some great ideas in it, and some great reminders about what makes something fun for a game and not just as an exercise to use up graph paper. The one thing it's lacking, in my opinion, is the classic map legend of the old basic D&D red Dungeon Master Rulebook. I think there's real value to establishing a common notation for dungeon maps. It ensures that we're all speaking the same visual language, which helps guarantee that lots of maps are universally useful. There's a sample map in this chapter, and it does use the classic notation, but the symbols aren't defined anywhere. I'm not sure whether someone unfamiliar with, for instance, the symbol for a pit trap or a portcullis, would make of the sample map.
The discussion of regional and world maps is fascinating, and endlessly useful. I feel like I'm "fine" at overland travel in games I run. I have my players choose between travelling slowly but carefully, or quickly but carelessly. Based on their choice, I either roll for a random encounter or I roll for location discovery. I feel like the problem I have is around making that journey feel appropriately like a journey.
The section on hex crawls and settlements gives me a lot of ideas, and it makes me realize how important it is to actually use a hex map for long distance travel, at least if I want it to actually feel like a journey. I think it's not the story elements and encounters my overland travels lack, it's the feeling of methodical progression. In a dungeon, players have clear boundaries by which they can judge their progress, but in the outside world it all becomes a blur. And I think this section has genuinely given me some perspective on how to improve that.
Evironments is a big term, and this chapter covers a lot of scenarios. I may never find myself in some of the situations described in this chapter, but it's a great read nevertheless, and one I imagine I'll come back to again later. This is the kind of material I don't just read once. It's something I revisit to gather fresh ideas and new perspectives.
Oh and then at the very end, they sneak in a section about traps.
Trap and puzzles in RPGs are fascinating to me, I think in part because they're difficult to get right. I love a good trap, personally. Mixed Signals has even released a book of traps. In my games, I'm a heavy user of the old Grimtooth trap books, and usually my players have a lot of fun puzzling over the clearly suspicious setup of a thing, and very rarely have I had players spring a Grimtooth trap unawares.
Traps can also serve as alerts to players that they're entering a new phase of the game. A carefully placed trap that only deals 1 damage is a great way to alert your players that they need to start poking at things with a 10-foot pole for the next few encounters. Or it can at least broadcast that they're in hostile territory, and to be on guard.
And the puzzles in Tasha's Cauldron are, really, the extension of this section, and I'd love a book full of those kinds of traps.
The traps described in Chapter 5 are the basics, and they're very useful, if utilitarian. I mean, sometimes you just need something to steal some hit points, and these traps will help you do that.
Chapter 5, despite my complaints about organisation, is a really good read. It's full of pragmatic advice, a fair few rules, and lots of tables that you'll forget exist unless you use my DMG table index, and loads of ideas. I know I'll revisit it again soon, because as reading material it really does deserve frequent review.
The next chapter is Between adventures.