In this month's exclusive interview, David Noonan, lead designer of the new Dungeon Master's Guide II book, discusses DM tips, traps, prestige classes, magic items, and artifacts from the book, as well as the challenges of adapting real-world history to the D&D game.
Wizards of the Coast: The obvious first question is why create a Dungeon Master's Guide II? Granted, there's been a Monster Manual II and Monster Manual III ,but what factors established the need for the first sequel to the core Dungeon Master's Guide?
David Noonan: To paraphrase an old ad campaign, being a DM is "the toughest job you'll ever love." The more help we can provide for the person behind the screen, the better the game becomes for everyone at the table. Even DMs who've been running games for twenty years or more are still learning new tricks of the trade -- not to mention absorbing (and sometimes creating) new rules, monsters, and adventures. Dungeon Master's Guide II is our attempt to make the DM's job easier, more fun, and more rewarding.
Wizards: What design decisions went into Dungeon Master's Guide II? It seems that the original Dungeon Master's Guide provides plenty of rules for how to run a game, whereas DMG II offers words of wisdom on how to manage a game -- or even a whole campaign -- more creatively. In the same manner, the DMG seems to focus more on the actual dungeon, while the DMG II broadens this scope to include more city and campaign-based material.
DN: I think those are accurate assessments, but a third element came into play as well during the design process. It's no secret that a lot of players own the Dungeon Master's Guide, primarily for the information on magic items and prestige classes that it contains. So we wanted this book to have something for players too. Thus, the DMG II contains more magic items, plus some new rules elements designed for players, such as teamwork benefits and PC organizations.
Wizards: Were some portions of the DMG II taken from your personal experiences as a DM or a player? Does the book contain advice and wisdom that you've collected over the years and wanted to pass on to other DMs? Did you include some lessons you've learned along the way about what not to do as a DM or player?
DN: Undoubtedly. Throughout my work on this book, every time Dave-the-DM had to do a lot of statistics-block grunt work, or got tripped up on some aspect of world-building, Dave-the-writer took copious notes. The players in my weekly games will probably look at some of the magical locations and magic events and say to themselves, "So that's what was going on right before we all died!" (My players tend to exaggerate a little and are prone to histrionics.)
Wizards: Good dungeons mean good traps -- at least to me, since I prefer playing rogues. In particular, the dust cloud traps and grimlocks seem like a great combination. What, if any, devices from the DMG II would you really hate to face -- or especially want to spring on your players?
DN: I'm a sucker for the fey ring. I run a fairly serious game, and since this trap is a little goofy with its random effects, it makes a nice change of pace for me and my players. I don't use it a lot, but it's a spice that makes for a memorable night of gaming.
Wizards: The campaign section of the book includes an interesting discussion about D&D's relation to historical medieval society. What are some of the issues involved with translating real-world history into a high-fantasy setting? Or, to put it another way, what particular joys does translating history into a game context (and incorporating advantages such as spells, magic, and the like) offer a DM?
DN: I think the key point here is that D&D doesn't have a medieval setting -- it has a medieval-flavored setting. That distinction really frees up the creative process. So when you look at real-world history, the issue revolves around two fundamental questions. First, what's the cool flavor you're trying to extract? That is, what element of medieval history do you think would add flavor to your campaign? Second, how can you integrate this cool flavor into a campaign full of fantastic elements? That second question is actually a two-part one, because you need to answer it both thematically (to establish how important you want the element to be in the ongoing story) and mechanically (to establish how the element works within the rules).
For example, suppose you've been reading a lot about the Knights Templar, and you want to work them into your D&D game somehow. First, you have to decide what it is about the Templars that you like so much. Maybe you're intrigued by the fact that when on trial (and under torture), many Templars admitted to worshiping a bearded head of Baphomet. Now you've identified the cool flavor you want to extract.
Next, you have to tackle the integration issue. You could create an order of paladins whose members worship a bearded, severed head. They're lawful good, but the head is animate, evil, and somehow able to hide its true nature from the paladins. So it sends a bunch of these do-gooders off on quests that seem on the surface to be good and noble, but covertly aid the cause of evil. Now you've established how the Templars will integrate with your campaign.
Next, you have to stat up the head. You would probably start with whatever demon or other creature it belonged to before it was severed. Then you have to figure out how that creature survived decapitation and what magic it's using to put one over on the paladins. Finally, you write some monster statistics for it that will make it a suitable challenge as the climactic encounter of your adventure.
Now you have a campaign element that's infused with medieval flavor but not shackled to medieval reality. Furthermore, it's respectful of the magical world of D&D and fully integrated with it. You're good to go.
Wizards: How was Saltmarsh selected as the representative city for the DMG II? Granted, any place that features the Dancing Dryad and the Flounder Pounder must have interesting nooks to explore, but what makes Saltmarsh a compelling locale for DMs to use? And where would PCs go on a visit there?
DN: We chose Saltmarsh primarily because it has an old-school heritage that longtime fans of the game will appreciate. However, the location is intended to be more representative than evocative. In other words, we used Saltmarsh as a demonstration of what a town of that size looks like in D&D terms, and as a time-saver for DMs who just want a reasonable home base for PCs that doesn't involve a lot of extra creative work on their part. Although it has some intriguing nooks and crannies, Saltmarsh is by no means a weird, unusual city. It does, however, make a good base to which characters can return between adventures.
Wizards: The DMG II offers advice on creating new prestige classes as well as complex NPCs, such as the anti-paladin and bounty hunter. Do you have any favorites among the example NPCs? Does the book include any NPCs you've met as a player, or introduced to the PCs in your own game?
DN: Among the lower-level choices, I use the cultist (CR 6) a lot. Multiclass NPCs sometimes have a hard time justifying their CRs, but this one works well as long as you have enough cultists to ensure flanking (and thus sneak attack) opportunities. (And doesn't any respectable cult always have lots of cultists around?) Furthermore, the cultists' ability to heal themselves means they have some combat longevity -- and PCs always hate it when they see NPCs healing themselves.
As far as the big kahunas go, I'm particularly fond of the undead master (CR 17). DMs will probably use her as an archvillain -- one that the PCs will fight more than once. Because she's a mystic theurge, she has the versatility to erect effective countermeasures against the PCs based on what she saw in her first battle with them. And that same versatility means that she can choose different spells and give the PCs a completely different challenge the second time around.
Both the cultist and the undead master can exploit one of my favorite "evil guy" tactics: spontaneous inflict spells. They're easy to use, they usually hit, and it's likely that the PC right in front of said evil guy is a fighter or rogue with a lousy Will save. So make him pay for that vulnerability.
Wizards: The elixir of reckoning makes for good story value if you know that your character is doomed to fall in battle. Does the DMG II offer any bonding rituals or wondrous items that you would personally undergo or would like to have -- perhaps a quill of rapid scrivening to help with the next sourcebook's deadlines?
DN: The rod of avoidance would be great for getting through evening traffic, and a mantle of second chances would be a must for gaming. I'd stay away from the vests, though, because it's hard to match them with the one suit in the back of my closet. I think I performed the Ritual of Blood upon my mountain bike last night, but that's a long story.
Wizards: The adage "Be careful what you wish for" comes into play often in gaming, and for the DM, the appropriate caveat is, "Be careful when granting your players' wishes." Did the section on dealing with powerful artifacts and providing ways to destroy them arise from any particular instances involving artifacts that overbalanced campaigns?
DN: It arose more from the way artifacts are generally handled in fantasy literature. Look at the three best-known artifacts out there: the One Ring, Excalibur, and Stormbringer. Two of these three are not exactly on the side of the angels -- they're literally object lessons in how power corrupts. Many a great D&D adventure revolves around taking the dangerous artifact away from the ambitious evil guy and making sure no one ever uses it again.
Maybe the popularity of such adventures reflects something about real life. When you throw the evil artifact into the volcano, you've effectively put the genie back in the bottle -- that is, you've permanently eliminated something evil and dangerous. In real life, we don't get the opportunity to do that with our most dangerous "artifacts" (nuclear weapons, for example).
It's also possible that artifact-destroying adventures are just plain fun, and I'm just overanalyzing them.
D&D Dungeon Master's Guide II, June 2005 Release Date, hardcover, full color, 288 pages, $39.95.