Saturday, May 4, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

The Dungeon Master's Guide is the quintessential book that you read exactly once and then only intermittently reference for all the rest of time. I think I may actually be at precisely three full reads - one that I finished just now, the 3.0 version I read six months ago, and the 3.0 version I read 20 years ago. At no point between those occasions have I ever felt the urge to do it purely for pleasure.

But don't let that give you the wrong idea. I'm not down on the DMG at all. I think it's a perfectly fine reference book. In many ways, I greatly admire it. It aspires to a kind of transcendent blandness, to be such a perfect non-entity in itself that you'll be tempted to use it for everything. Whether it succeeded or not is hard to say, though the history of the d20 boom suggests they made some progress in that direction. Certainly, there were long stretches where it felt like I was reading a generic gaming encyclopedia (normally, I dislike using the word "generic," but when a book spends seven straight pages describing various types of architectural features - including door hinges and tapestries - I feel like maybe it's a little bit warranted).

Now we come to the part where I comment on my more specific observations. Just for fun, I went back to my post on the 3.0 DMG, to see if I already covered anything from my current round of notes. Amusingly, I jotted down the exact same quote both times through - "high-level fighters always hit with their primary attacks and other characters rarely do." I guess there's to pretending that wasn't an intentional design feature, despite the fact that it makes no fucking sense.

But aside from the stunning revelation that I have the exact same opinions about two books that are 75% identical (the 3.5 DMG is approximately 50 pages longer than the 3.0 DMG, but most of those extra pages are devoted to butchering Planescape or making a less functional version of the Epic Level Handbook), most of my observations are tiny, almost annoying, nitpicks. Like, I understand the game balance logic behind putting divine spells onto scrolls, but theologically, it's absolutely wild to think about. You've basically got an IOU from God for one future miracle, redeemable by whoever happens to hold the scrap of paper it's written on. I would say "make it make sense," but I don't actually want it to make sense. I want to port the idea into Nobilis or Unknown Armies or Mage: the Ascension and make it the centerpiece for the world's dumbest heist story.

Is that really a D&D 3.5 thing, though? It might just be a bit of general D&D weirdness. . . time to consult the archives!

It's actually in every version of D&D (and both editions of Pathfinder) except D&D 4th edition. So I can't blame 3.5 for how weird an idea it is (if a Cleric of Erythul grabbed a Resurrection scroll scribed by a Cleric of Pelor, they could just, what, bring the world's most depraved necromancer back from the dead using Pelor's divine energy and there's no mechanism anywhere in the planes to stop that kind of shit from happening). But the lone counterexample also means that I can't just give it a pass either. The game doesn't have to be that way. 

Let's see, what else?

Complaints about the alignment system? Yawn.

They nerfed the Ring of Jumping for no real apparent reason. A bonus of +30 feels like a genuinely cool magic power, but what is this new +5 version supposed to do? Is it one of those things where the level 2 characters need a bit of trash treasure to make them appreciate the cool stuff they'll get later on? Or is it just a matter of finding big numbers to be scary? Perhaps a bit of tactical rebalancing? If you give a martial character the ability to extend their horizontal leaps by 30 feet, that might make them too effective at positioning themselves. I don't know. All I can say is that it's a bit of a personal bugbear. I love making characters who can do massive jumps and the old Ring of Jumping was one of my most wishlisted items.

Do I have more? Yes. Is it all similarly inane bullshit? You'd better believe it. 

I suppose it speaks well for my mood. I was a little worried that having to read a second set of 3rd edition core books was going to be an unbearable chore, but it turned out to just be a regular chore. Core books, by their very nature, spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about boring stuff (or else they are so abstract that don't feel like they're talking about much at all), and the 3.5 DMG was no exception. My overall opinion - on the balance an improvement over the first version (anti-jumping bullshit notwithstanding), but maybe not by enough to justify its existence. Even looking into the future and giving it credit for all the great supplements it supported, that's balanced out by all the stuff it suddenly invalidated. 

Even with all that ambivalence, though, it's sobering to think that this is almost certainly the last time I'm ever going to read this particular book (but then again, I thought the same thing back in 2001, so who knows what the future will hold . . . )

Ukss Contribution: I'm thinking of something that's been in every version of the DMG I've read thus far, but is silly enough that I strongly suspect it's my last change to pick it - The Broom of Animated Attack.

It's something that only exists because of early D&D's weird antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM, but it's never failed to make me smile. The players think they've found an enchanted flying broomstick, hop on, and try to make it go, but then BOOM! It starts beating the shit out of them. 

From a world-building perspective, it's a bit of a challenge. Flying on brooms has to be common enough that people will see a broom and think, "wow, that's one of those flying brooms," but then there has to be some quirk of the enchantment that leaves open a possibility that one of those brooms is going to be a complete asshole. I think I'm up for it, though.


  1. “You've basically got an IOU from God for one future miracle, redeemable by whoever happens to hold the scrap of paper it's written on. I would say "make it make sense," but I don't actually want it to make sense. I want to port the idea into Nobilis or Unknown Armies or Mage: the Ascension and make it the centerpiece for the world's dumbest heist story.”

    There’s a Suicide Squad DCU animated movie where the MacGuffin is a literal Get Out of Hell Free Card (it even looks like a cheap carnival game prize) that allows a villain to escape damnation if they died while holding it. So the antics is all about various bad guys all trying to get their hands on it.

    1. How could you possibly authenticate something like that? I guess if you're already going to hell anyways, it couldn't hurt, but I would never bet my mortal soul on it actually working.

    2. Authenticate it?

      Well, in the movie, they talked to a guy who used to Doctor Fate, and he explained how it came to be.

      I guess you could try praying to God or going to a priest?

      Of course, in a big ol’ comic book universe, there’s probably magic or shit that can say “yup, this is legit holy artefact” like it’s a litmus test.