Five ‘old school’ products for ‘new school’ DMs

One aspect of the fourth edition (4e) Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) that this writer finds particularly appealing is its attention to defining the DM’s role and providing basic information about how to serve in that role; it makes being the DM far less intimidating to new players. Although the 4e DMG arguably addresses this topic more directly and with greater clarity than any of its predecessors, it is fair to say that it can do so only by standing on the shoulders of the giants that went before it: the first three major editions of the DMG. 

That realization caused this writer to review those legacy editions and their attendant official supplemental materials, searching for that dungeon mastering advice that laid the foundation for 4e’s relative clarity on the topic. The result of that search was that, while no single volume – the 4e DMG included – completely addressed the specifics of creating a campaign milieu and setting it in motion, five official D&D products seemed most useful to this writer during the past 25 years (and remain useful today). This post briefly reviews each of these in turn, as copies of these books are still readily available on Internet auction sites and used booksellers at very reasonable prices; they are still well worth obtaining, as much of their useful material transends edition boundaries, and even game system boundaries. 

It is important to note that these volumes were selected based upon the author’s personal experience; if similarly useful volumes not named here exist, please consider naming them in a comment to this posting, so that all readers may benefit from the collective knowledge of site visitors.

The five legacy D&D products this old dungeon master therefore recommends to new players are:

No. 5: The Dungeon Master Option: High Level Campaignstop_5_dmoption hardcover. Although much of this volume’s content is second edition (2e) specific, the first 30 pages detail “the seven maxims” that guide the planning and execution of a successful D&D campaign: Don’t depend on the dice, employ intelligent adversaries, control magic, be aware of demographics, think on an epic scale, plan ahead and share responsibility. Knowing the list isn’t as important as understanding the author’s explanation of them.

top_5_dungeonbuilderNo. 4: The Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook paperback. This is essentially a discussion of approaches for setting design, with random generation tables to assist DMs who are searching for inspiration. The book also includes a separate book of  “geomorphs,” or interconnectable map fragments, for a broad range of settings including castles, ruins, mines, caves, undersea and even interdimensional locations. The book also contains the “Autodungeon Engine,” which is essentially a wholesale reprint of the Random Dungeon Generation Appendix from the 1e DMG, which may be useful for DMs who don’t have that book.


No. 3: The Complete Book of Villains. A 2e DMG supplement, The Complete Book of Villains goes into exhasutive detail about the process of creating a believable villain, starting with personal history and personality traits and ending with goals, means of support and followers. The process outline is supplemented by a list of motives, needs and contradictory traits so expansive that I have recommended this volume to fantasy fiction writers. The book also includes highly useful information about creating villainous bureaucracies and networks, and employing such organizations in a D&D game. As a personal testimony, this writer has only three RPG books that he will never lend to another person, and this is one of them (the others are the next two items on this list).

top_5_worldbuilderNo. 2: The World Builder’s Guidebook. Another 2e supplement and sibling to The Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook, this volume segments the process of creating a “homebrew” world into manageable pieces, truly taking much of the intimidation out of the process for a new dungeon master. By working through each chapter, DMs can see believable worlds of their own take shape in stages. Each chapter contains easy-to-understand, practical advice and plenty of tables to help with random generation when inspiration is lacking. When new, the book is packaged with a small tablet of map forms, but these really amount to little more than fancy graph paper; the real value of the product is in the core book itself, so if a used copy is available without the tablet, the World Builder’s Guidebook is still well worth the purchase.

top_5_dmdkNo. 1: The Dungeon Master’s Design Kit. To this writer, the 1e Dungeon Master’s Design Kit is the most valuable adventure design product yet produced. Its paperback folder contains three smaller books: one containing adventure element forms for photocopying, a second that goes into exhaustive detail on options for filling out the forms, and the third – and most valuable – is an “adventure cookbook,” that allows for the creation of a D&D adventure in as little as 15 minutes. That’s not an idle boast. This author has used this product to do so.

Printed in 1988, the Kit represents the first time it is suggested in an official TSR product that a D&D adventure should be divided into “encounters,” a practice that didn’t become “official” formatting until the advent of 3e, some 12 years later.

Although many of the forms contain 1e-specific blanks, details about settings and non-player characters are ever the same, so the forms haven’t lost their usefulness, even after two decades. 

Lastly, while the RPG Athenaeum is aware that e-piracy exists, we urge site visitors not to seek illegal, electronic copies of these books, nor to post links to any such copies on this site. Doing so is not only illegal, but also jeopardizes the future of sites such as this one. And besides, there isn’t a single text listed here that doesn’t sell at a cost ranging from $3 and $12 U.S. for a used copy at a popular bookseller’s Web site.


9 comments on “Five ‘old school’ products for ‘new school’ DMs

  1. greywulf says:

    Amen to all that. Excellent post, bookmarked!

  2. jonathan says:

    By and large, the Book of Villains has served as a resource and inspiration for great adventures many many times in the past — as does the 3.5E “Exemplars of Evil” book that was released somewhat late in the 3E lifecycle. Actually, this is one of the reasons why myself and a couple other bloggers have banded together to feature a series on Villains over the next month or so.

    • Alric says:

      Hi Jonathan, and welcome. I must admit my 3e experience and collection are limited. Was the exemplars book an official WOTC release, or was it published under the OGL?

      • jonathan says:

        The exemplars book is an official 3.5E release. It was sorta the 3E version of the Book of Villains. What is kinda cool is that you can see the emerging formats for encounters and stat blocks showing up in that book that are later adopted in full for 4E. Its a very high quality book, IMHO, and worth the find if you can ebay it or something. There’s a separate chapter devoted to each villain (i think 8 or 9 in total)… so there’s tons to work with. Plus a whole slew of preamble chapters on how to make villains work well,etc

  3. Ameron says:

    These are great resources. As someone who’s played D&D for 20+ years, I actually own a couple of these books and do in fact still reference them from time-to-time (especially the High Level Campaigns book). I wonder how readily available these books are now that Wizards of the Coast has pulled all PDFs? A month ago I’d say “Go look for these as downloads.” but that may not be a realistic option any more. The fact that they’re not 4e may make finding the hard copies a real challenge. For those reader who don’t have these already, it’s worth surfing to eBay to see if you can find used copies for sale. If you can pick them up for cheap, you’ll be glad you did.

    • Alric says:

      Actually, I got the product pix from, where used copies of High-Level Campaigns started at $3 U.S. Even the design kit started with used copies at $9, so it may not be necessary to chase the .pdfs at all…

  4. Liko says:

    I wish to recommend “Villain Design Handbook”, a 3.X era book which focus on villain emotional archetypes and subtypes as well as interesting examples of some possible nuances from each category. For example, under the category of “Deviant” (engages in socially unacceptable behavior) we have subcategory “Slaver” with the examples 1.Cultural (believes that his own kind is superior) 2. Righteous ( wishes to improve the slaves live by forcing his own “higher” culture onto them) 3.Social (lives in a place where one’s standing is determined my the number of slaves own). Like the 2e contra part there is discussion of fitting your villain in an organization and designing a lair both within and out of a city environment. The two books complement each other with surprisingly little overlap.

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