The Dungeon Master's Kit is a linchpin of the Essentials products, the first key product for a new Dungeon Master after playing the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set (the new Red Box). It covers a lot of the same ground as the Dungeon Master's Guide but comes at the material from a slightly different perspective.
The most important goal for the Dungeon Master's Kit is to provide everything a new Dungeon Master (DM) needs to run the roleplaying game.
That’s a big deal, actually. It’s something the game has never really tried to do before. In the past, being the DM always meant buying more stuff. If you were just playing a character in a game, you needed the Player's Handbook. If you wanted to be the DM, you needed the Player's Handbookplus the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual.
Now it’s no longer additive. If you’re a new player, you pick up one or both of the player books—Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. If you’re a new DM, you instead pick up the Dungeon Master's Kit.
That said, the Dungeon Master's Kit is still just a starting point. You can run a game using nothing but the Dungeon Master's Kit for a while—probably at least a couple of months. But eventually a new DM will want to pick up the Monster Vault and the Rules Compendium for a more complete and enhanced experience.
I like to think of this in terms of dollars. A new DM used to have a $105 buy-in to start running the game. Now we’re offering a $40 buy-in to get you started.
What do you get with your buy-in, and can you really play for months with just that investment?
The box includes a 272-page digest-sized paperback book, two 32-page adventure books, two poster maps, two sheets of monster tokens, and a DM screen. It might help to think in terms of three discrete chunks.
First is the DM book. A fair amount of text in the book is material that also appears in the Dungeon Master's Guide. That’s really just a case of not wanting to mess too much with a good thing. The Dungeon Master's Guide presents a strong treatise on the art of Dungeon Mastering for new and experienced DMs alike, and we wanted to preserve as much of that information and advice as we could fit into the Dungeon Master's Kit.
But there’s more! The book also includes essential rules material, the information a DM needs to understand how to play as well as how to run the game. There’s a discussion of alignment and information about the good and unaligned deities (not just the evil ones). There’s a section of streamlined combat rules that can help you run the game until you decide it’s time to pick up the Rules Compendium. And there are magic items for you to give out as treasure.
There’s also some material that first appeared in Dungeon Master's Guide 2. For example, that book had a really good section on building encounters that focused on encounters as a means for telling the story of the adventure. It also included good advice for creating movement in encounters. Those sections speak strongly to some fundamental issues of running the game, so we thought they deserved a place in the first stop for new DMs.
The second chunk is the adventure material, which includes the two adventure books, the two poster maps, and the monster tokens. The adventure books are two parts of a single, grand adventure called Reavers of Harkenwold, written by Rich Baker. It’s a complex adventure that, to my mind, really shows off what’s possible within the framework of an adventure. This represents a pretty significant departure from the approach we took in the first Dungeon Master's Guide, where we presented a really basic, bare-bones adventure to help DMs wrap their minds around the facets of adventure design. In contrast, I think both new and experienced DMs will be studying Reavers of Harkenwold for years to pick up ideas about how to build interesting, dynamic, story-rich adventures for their players.
The adventures are supported by the poster maps and token sheets. You can play every combat encounter in the adventure using the poster maps and monster tokens, and a broad selection of tokens appropriate for player characters are included as well.
Let me emphasize that: The Dungeon Master's Kit gives you everything you need to run the game except dice. With this box, you don’t need to buy miniatures. You don’t need a battle mat or Dungeon Tiles. The box includes everything you need.
The last component is the DM screen. This is a nice cardboard screen with updated tables on the inside and a familiar piece of art on the players’ side. It’s not the same heavy stock as the deluxe screen, but it is a great starting point with lots of information in one easy-to-reference place.
So how much can you play with just the contents of this box? Well, Reavers of Harkenwold will keep your gaming group busy for roughly two months, assuming that you play for a couple of hours every week. Once you’ve finished that adventure, you can use the poster maps and monster tokens to build your own adventures, but pretty soon you’ll want the new monsters (with accompanying tokens) provided in Monster Vault and some way (such as the Dungeon Tiles Master Sets) to build your own battle maps.
The Dungeon Master’s Book that comes inside the Dungeon Master's Kit includes a lot of familiar information, but in some cases the presentation and arrangement of that information is greatly improved. Let me highlight one example: the much-loved guidelines for adjudicating actions that the rules don’t cover, which appeared on page 42 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
As presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide, that section looks like a stopgap. It’s what you do when all else fails. Yet I’ve heard people say that they could run the game using just the table on that page. As I was working on that section of the Dungeon Master's Kit, I realized that I had been looking at it in the wrong way.
Page 42 isn’t what the DM does when all else fails—it’s what the DM does all the time. In the Dungeon Master's Kit, this table appears in a section called “Using Checks,” in the chapter called “Running the Game.” Once we’ve talked about the modes of the game, covered narration and keeping the players informed, and explained how exploration works, we move on to how to use checks to determine character success or failure at the actions they attempt. It’s a simple three-step process:
- 1.Determine what kind of check is called for.
- 2.Determine how hard the check should be (set the DC).
- 3.Determine the results of the check.
That’s not a stopgap, it’s “the most important rule” expressed in a broader way. It’s how attacks work. What kind of check? An attack roll. How hard is it? Use the target’s appropriate defense. What are the results? They’re defined by the power being used.
It’s how skills work. A character wants to jump across a chasm. What kind of check? An Athletics check. How hard is it? Set a DC based on the distance. What’s the result? If the character succeeds, he or she jumps to the other side of the chasm. If the character fails, it’s a fall into the chasm.
With the DC and damage tables as the centerpiece of that key rules section, the Dungeon Master's Kit actually manages to present a much more flexible approach to skills than the Player's Handbook does. You don’t need to carefully apply precise modifiers to determine the DC to climb a wall. You can just look at the table of DCs by level, decide whether it should be easy, hard, or in between, and go. Of course, if you want the precise tables and guidelines, you can always refer to the Rules Compendium, but I think the Dungeon Master's Kit presents a really strong approach to running the game. Armed with these tables, the DM is in control of the game and is empowered to make decisions on the fly without getting bogged down in detail.
I do regret that this concise answer to life, the universe, and everything no longer appears on page 42 of the book. (“Using Checks” starts on page 101, and the DC table is on page 107.) Instead, on page 42 of the book in the new Dungeon Master's Kit, you’ll find the definitions of the evil and chaotic evil alignments. Make of that what you will.
Do You Need It?
As with the rest of the Essentials products, the material in the Dungeon Master's Kit is part of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, though it incorporates all the latest rules updates. Nothing in its pages renders books you already own obsolete or inaccurate.
If you already have the Dungeon Master's Guide and Dungeon Master's Guide 2, you won’t find so much new material in the Dungeon Master's Kit that it becomes a “must have.” Perhaps more than any other Essentials product except the Starter Set, the Dungeon Master's Kit is squarely aimed at new Dungeon Masters.
However, I think you’ll want to take a look at Reavers of Harkenwold. You’ll also find the latest information about skill challenges and check DCs (supported by careful mathematical analysis!) in the pages of the Dungeon Master’s Book. There's a quick summary of a lot of updated rules all in one place; a method for random generation of treasure, including some changes to the way we think about magic items; updated traps and terrain; poster maps and tokens that will provide a lot of repeat use; and so on . . .
If you’re already DMing a Dungeons & Dragons game, you don’t need the Dungeon Master's Kit—but you should take a look regardless. You might just find you want it anyway.
On Friday, Bill will preview some of the contents of the Dungeon Master's Kit in his "Ampersand" column.
About the Author
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for D&D R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition D&D and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.