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A shelf filled to bursting with 5th edition books, including Out of the Abyss, Storm King’s Thunder, and more. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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D&D’s worst book needs an update, and that’s an opportunity for creators of all stripes

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Currently in my home there are six copies of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook — one for me, one for my 13-year-old daughter, and four for the other kids that we play with from time to time. But there’s only one copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In fact, after the first readthrough, that book has seen hardly any use in the Hall household at all. That’s likely to change in 2024, because the DMG is getting a dramatic facelift.

D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast has been talking about revised versions of its three core rulebooks for a long time now. The length of that promotional period is due, in part, to its ambitious slate of playtests that have already garnered nearly 500,000 written responses. Good feedback is hard to find, and when you’re getting it in volume it’s hard to make use of. Of course, the duration is also because Wizards sort of bungled the original announcement and spent a good chunk of 2023 clarifying its intent. But the D&D publisher appears genuinely motivated to make the books better — easier for players to find what they’re looking for, with richer guidance for every skill level. And the book that clearly needs the most work is the DMG, a fact that was made clear during a private press event in Seattle earlier this year.

The liche Acererak animates the corpse of a long dead adventurer. His hand leaks purple fumes, while similar ungents waft from a magical staff. He looks pretty dead himself. Image: Wizards of the Coast

“I don’t know if you recall,” said rules architect Chris Perkins at the time, “but chapter one of that book is on building a campaign, and one of the first things you’re told is the difference between a meritocracy and a plutocracy. It’s like, OK. I’m a new DM. Is this the most important thing I need to know about my campaign? No. [...] Chapter two is all about the D&D cosmology. Here are the Outer Planes and the Inner Planes. And it’s like, Is this the first thing I need to know to be a DM?

That’s basically the response that my 13-year-old had the week before Gen Con. “I want to be a DM,” she said, and my heart sorta skipped a beat. So I handed her the DMG. I found her drooling into it a few hours later. So when I bumped into game design architect Jeremy Crawford at this year’s Gen Con, I wanted to know: How’s that DMG going? That’s when things turned a little philosophical.

“Why do people DM?” posited Crawford. “What causes them to stick around as DMs? What might cause burnout? What would excite them to be DMs longer?” These are the most important questions to answer, he said, and those answers should be what fills the new DMG.

When you open the next version of the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Crawford said, you can expect it to be much better organized. You’ll learn how to roll dice, for instance, in chapter one, not chapter eight as it sits now. The book will also be a tad bit longer than the original. And you can also expect to need to fill in some of that space yourself.

“Worksheets [are a] new thing in the book that our previous Dungeon Master’s Guides haven’t had,” Crawford said. “We know that for many DMs, the creation of a world, the creation of adventures, the creation of NPCs and magic items and backstories — it is a solo game, and we want to make sure that this Dungeon Master’s Guide really supports that experience. Which is why it has worksheets.”

A two-pack of purple Game Master Journals from Field Notes. They’re purple, naturally.
Field Notes already has an excellent game master’s journal on the market.
Photo: Field Notes

Those worksheets, Crawford said, will be made available to download so that players don’t have to write inside their books if they don’t want to. That said, I can see a whole lot of folks wanting to.

I write inside my RPG books all the time. It started when I was playing 4th edition, where I would painstakingly update the core books by hand based on the errata. That practice carried over into 5th edition, and now my books are all filled with highlighted passages, annotations, and other marginalia. It makes me more efficient to have it all in one place — not on a tablet or my phone, and not scattered between a bunch of different books. I mainly just carry around my customized PHB and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything for the latest Artificer rules, and I’m good to go.

But that might change for me with the new DMG. If it’s full of worksheets, well, then I’m going to fill those worksheets up right there on the page. And when I’m done filling in those worksheets, and dragging my new campaign around to weekly games with my group, I’m going to need another fresh DMG so I can start over.

“I don’t have to buy a new book,” I told Crawford. “But I can.” He laughed.

“I had actually not thought of a person sort of writing directly in the book,” he admitted. “But it’s a fun idea.”

I think it’s a lot more than a fun idea: I think it’s an opportunity for other creators in the space to make something amazing.

A watercolor painting of a rodent with horns, with a fountain pen next to it
Nicole Carpenter’s copy of Field Guide to Memory now includes her own original watercolors.
Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

What if, instead of boring old fill-in-the-blank pages, creators transformed the DMG into something different — something like a keepsake game. Keepsake games are a tiny niche in the larger role-playing design space right now; the experience of playing them can range from solo journaling experiences to group role-play exercises that ultimately become physical works of art. Creators like Jeeyon Shim, Shing Yin Khor, and Tim Hutchings have spent years exploring this design space with keepsake games like Field Guide to Memory, Have I Been Good, and Thousand Year Old Vampire. What if we got folks like that together with the expert world-builder Avery Alder, creator of The Quiet Year? What if we invited Gabe Hicks and Elise Rezendes, creators of the soon-to-be-released Session Zero System, to help build our party of heroes? What if they teamed up with the inspiring craftspeople at Heart of the Deernicorn, publishers of City of Winter? What if all of these keepsake game devotees showed up on Beadle & Grimm’s doorstep with the intention of making the most over-the-top, inspirational Dungeon Master’s Guide of all time? And what if it was system agnostic? What if the world you were building could become the fuel for other up-and-coming TTRPGs? Or for fanfiction? Or just for the fun of making something new and unique?

From what I’ve seen of the care and commitment from the team at Wizards of the Coast, the next version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide should have a lot more staying power than the old. It could easily become just as indispensable as the Player’s Handbook is today. But it could also be a paradigm shift for the whole industry. These books that we all carry around with us are quickly being replaced by digital versions, and that’s fine. But what if those books could become the artifacts of the worlds we play in together? What if, after years of making fun with your friends at the table, you had something tangible to put back on the shelf as a memory of your time together playing make-believe? Maybe, just maybe, we might make something worthy of being left behind for the generations of tabletop fans that come after us.

“This was my dad’s favorite D&D campaign,” my daughter might say one day. “It’s a whole world that we made together. Let’s take it down off the shelf. Let’s explore it. Let’s play it. Together. Again.”

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