Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 16, 2015
A comment on the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide

As I said before I will not be able to play any 5th edition D&D in the foreseeable future, because that edition only exists in English, and half the players in my group only speak French. I proposed to run the Starter Set with them anyway, but they preferred sticking to 4E. Okay, but I got the 5E Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for Christmas anyway, more out of a theoretical interest in where D&D is going. I understand 5E is selling very well, and I assume that this is because it is effectively a much better edition for new players than previous editions were. Less math, less rules, more imagination, and that without most of the silliness that OSR offers.

But one thing struck me as rather strange in the Dungeon Master's Guide: If you open a page at random, chances are that there will be a table on that page with instructions on how to produce a random result from that table by dice rolls. Do you need a NPC villain for your game? Roll one up randomly from a series of tables! Need a complete dungeon? We have random tables for that too! And for the monsters you'll meet, the treasures you'll find, the diseases you will contract, or what objects you'll find flushed down in the toilet.

I hate random tables. They result in a play experience for the players that is not very coherent, for example by creating a dungeon full of random monsters where it is hard to explain why they would live together in this form, waiting for the players to arrive. Random collections of rooms with monsters and treasures do not form any sort of sensible ecosystem. And if the content of the next room is random, players don't need to think or plan ahead.

Of course you'll tell me that rolling randomly on these tables is optional, and selecting NPC traits on purpose instead of rolling a dice is still possible. But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination. Ultimately a game like that could better be played with a computer as dungeon master, as the system eliminates the need for the DM to create a story. Random tables work directly AGAINST the main advantage of a tabletop RPG over a computer RPG.

Amen! I wish MMO designers would also pay attention to this. Most of these virtual worlds we inhabit have denizens whose only purpose is to be slaughtered, and who behave in the dumbest way possible in order to facilitate this (sentient enemies watching you killing their friends thirty yards away, and neither helping them nor running away, instead just waiting their turn to be slaughtered).
I don't own the DM guide, but I could see the tables helping to spark someone's imagination. The tables may be for newer DMs who aren't as good coming up with an adventure out of the blue, but who, with a random role of a arch-villain followed by a role of what sort of monsters it employs and, possibly, treasure it holds, can craft a compelling story with those guideposts.
Alternatively, I could see them being useful if the party ends up doing something the DM hadn't anticipated and he needs help generating something on the fly.
Think of them as training wheels?

As you say, 5E is much better for new players, and a new DM probably isn't going to have the on-the-fly improvisation chops required to wing the whole thing. So the tables are a step between the pre-written adventure where everything is kept on the rails, and the experienced DM who can react immediately to whatever the players do with something appropriate.

Heck, even an experienced DM can sometimes use a momentary nudge, and rolling a die to select a starting point to work from can be as good a nudge as any when you're drawing a blank.
David hit it on the head.

The designers of D&D, from Gygax to Mearls, have always assumed that when you "get better at Dungeon Mastering" that coherent dungeon ecosystems will become important to you, and THEN you'll put in the work to build everything manually instead of randomly.

I guess you could call it a feature at this point? :)
"But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination."

You don't really get how these tables work, I gather.....given that there were many more such tables in older editions, this is nothing new. You don't roll on the table and just "stick it in there." I'm sure someone, somewhere does that....never met that person, but they must exist. Everyone I know who uses random tables (including myself) use it as a springboard for brainstorming. Need a villain Roll on the tables and think about what you get to see what forms in your mind. It's the very definition of creative inspiration and the DMG is masterful at offering quick and easy tools to assist in the process.
Haven't checked out 5E, but I've always looked at most of those tables as a list of possible ideas.

Sometimes if you've got a creative block it's not a bad idea to (semi-)randomly select one or two things and work backwards to construct a story around them. Creativity can benefit from constraints.
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