5E D&D dungeon master's guide appendix a

Dungeon Master’s Guide Appendix A Shows 5E D&D isn’t All About Combat

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Over on Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted shared a great conversation about a topic near and dear to my heart — the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. More often than not whenever I’m looking for an answer, guidance or a little inspiration I find it within the 5E D&D DMG. Like Dave and Ted mention in the video, DMs who’ve been playing for a long time across several editions might feel like they’ve seen one DMG they’ve seen them all. To some extent this may carry some water but only in broad strokes. There’s a great thread on Twitter from Neal Powell going through the DMG page by page to share takeaways DMs might have overlooked. You can follow along #DMGC2C to track his findings. As a big time DMG advocate myself I’m happy to share my perspective on what the DMG tells us about 5E D&D and how useful it is for understanding what the game is all about. So let’s get into it and take a look specifically at Appendix A: Random Dungeons in the 5E D&D DMG.

Dungeon Master’s Guide has everything you need

Right off the bat I’m going to point any new DM for 5E D&D directly to the DMG. It’s a beefy book filled with tons of guidance but Appendix A in particular presents the most distilled information any DM can use to quickly start playing the game with a group of players. Appendix A guides you through generating a dungeon. At the most basic level a game of 5E D&D is all about battling monsters, exploring terrain and rolling the dice to decide outcomes. Dungeons represent the default setting for these activities — a structure surrounding by walls and doors. Wilderness offers a contrasting scenario along with settlements, with these two environments expanding the possibilities for adventure locations and types. But like the earliest editions of D&D the basic assumption of an adventure is characters advancing through a dungeon. And the 5E D&D DMG holds all the secrets to bringing this experience to the table and creating amazing, memorable experiences together.

One of the best parts of Appendix A encapsulates a notion running through all of 5E D&D if you read closely. This crucial bit of information informs the pillars of play (combat, exploration and social interaction), approach to designing and running adventures for DMs and approach to playing for players. The idea is this: 5E D&D is not all about combat! This may seem really obvious but there’s a segment of players with the perception that most of the rules involve combat. There’s a lot of them for sure, but I urge you to take a look at things like the section on Challenge in the Monster Manual, explanation of the pillars of play in the Player’s Handbook and since we’re looking at Appendix A of the DMG, this tidbit:

“Not all monsters are automatically hostile. When placing monsters in your dungeon, consider their relationships to nearby creatures and their attitudes toward adventurers. Characters might be able to appease a hungry beast by offering it food, and smarter creatures have complex motivations. The Monster Motivation table lets you use a monster’s goals to define its presence in the dungeon.” — from the 5E D&D DMG Appendix A, Monsters and Motivations

Adventuring in a dungeon encompasses the whole range of encounters and a DM ought to remain flexible for every one. Player ingenuity and the unexpected directions adventures often take in a lot of ways puts the pillars of play in the players’ hands. A DM prepares a location for adventure with a variety of what I call simply “stuff that happens.” Players interact with the stuff and here in the overlap, stories take shape. Even an aggressive monstrosity can be overcome without resorting to violence by default.

Are you ready to get down to the bare bones of 5E D&D and see how Appendix A in the DMG lays out everything a DM needs to create a dungeon filled with stuff that happens to facilitate the collaborative storytelling experience?

5E D&D dungeon master's guide appendix a
The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide contains several maps in Appendix C. Time saver! Now start running your own games already! [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

Appendix A for the win

Let’s use Appendix A in the 5E D&D DMG to create an adventure. Along the way you’ll see how not only is 5E D&D not all about combat, it is designed to foster collaborative storytelling between all the players. Enthusiasts of the game expand on ideas and share our own perspectives through social media and content creation like we do and all the way from an entity like Critical Role down to two friends talking about roleplaying games in the basement.

The seed planted in all of us begins with the core rulebooks of the game though, and for DMs it’s all about the DMG. Long time players might fall into the trap Dave mentions in the video about assuming the DMG doesn’t offer much to an experienced DM but I’m confident the designers of 5E D&D put the book together with every sort of player in mind. It’s been said of 5E D&D that it includes the best of the game’s history, and I believe this to be true plus also adding a deeper level of material to help drive home the open-ended collaborative nature.

Time to get started on our dungeon and see how it all pans out.

Starting Area

  • Square, 20 × 20 ft.; door on two walls, passage in third wall

Passages

  • Stairs* (roll on the Stairs table)
    • Chimney up two levels to a passage 20 ft. long
      • OR
    • Continue straight 20 ft., door to the left, then an additional 10 ft. ahead

Passage Width

  • 10 ft.

Doors

  • Iron
  • Portcullis

Beyond a Door

  • Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)
  • Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)

Chamber

  • Rectangle, 40 × 50 ft. square
    • Use the Large Chamber column on the Chamber Exits table
  • Square, 30 × 30 ft.

Chamber Exits

  • 5
    • Wall left of entrance
      • Door (roll on the Door Type table)
        • Secret door, barred or locked
    • Wall right of entrance
      • Door (roll on the Door Type table)
        • Stone, barred or locked
    • Wall left of entrance
      • Corridor, 10 ft. long
    • Wall left of entrance
      • Corridor, 10 ft. long
    • Wall opposite entrance
      • Door (roll on the Door Type table)
        • Wooden
  • 0

With a few dice rolls and about 5 minutes we’ve got tidy little dungeon. The starting area presents three options for advancing further: two doors and a passage. Each door leads to a chamber, one large and one normal. The former contains five exits including a secret door and a locked door. The latter has no other exits. Back in the starting area a chimney might lead up to a different level or a winding passage leads deeper into the dungeon. The DMG leaves this decision up to you.

Now we’ll use Appendix A to stock the dungeon we’ve created with a few minutes and dice rolls.

Purpose

Appendix A refers you to chapter 5 Adventure Environments to determine the reason for the dungeon to exist. This purpose informs how you’ll use the tables and charts in Appendix A to stock your dungeon. Our dungeon was built as a stronghold. According to the DMG using random dice rolls for these steps might result in some funky dungeons (I’m paraphrasing) and narrative gymnastics required to make sense of strange designs. This sounds like fun to me so we’ll stick with straight up random rolling.

  • Starting area — Strong room or vault for protecting important treasures (75 percent chance of being hidden behind a secret door)
    • Courtesy of my dice rolling the starting area is indeed hidden behind a secret door. Characters will need to do a bit of exploring just to get inside!
      • This is a fantastic opportunity to describe how the adventurers arrive at the location where the dungeon ought to be, but there’s no obvious entrance! The players look to you expectantly but you can pass the ball to their court and ask them what their characters do.
  • Large chamber — Storage for mundane goods and supplies
    • The biggest room in the place! If this is a dusty, musty old secret stronghold meant to protect treasure, perhaps the guards swore an oath to be sealed inside for long periods of time. They’d need lots of supplies to survive.
      • There’s probably all sorts of interesting things in here including ways for the guardians to pass the time. Gaming sets, books, tool sets and basically anything people might do to entertain themselves during a long, boring stretch of time locked in a vault. Maybe the party finds something that holds special meaning for one of them.
  • Normal chamber — Armory holding high-quality gear, including light siege weapons such as ballistas
    • Sounds like treasure to me, the adventurer’s kind — other people’s stuff!
      • In a very old or ancient stronghold the items in this armory might have been high quality back then, but now they’re in poor condition. But they’re also relics of a previous age. Now characters can rely on History, smith’s tools or other skills to try and figure out who this stronghold belonged to, how old it is and perhaps even what treasure was kept inside.

Current Chamber State

The base assumption is dungeon rooms remain intact. Whether it’s a tomb from 1000 years ago or an abandoned fort constructed last week, there’s potential for wear and tear and unusual developments. I like rolling dice and the more details we can generate, the more opportunities for players to engage with the environment.

  • Starting area — Pool of water; chamber’s original contents are water damaged
    • We hadn’t really figured out what was in the starting area. We determined it was beyond a secret door but nothing about the interior yet.
      • Severe water damage gives you a bunch to work with. Sensory details spring to mind like the heavy odor of mildew, cool damp air and drip-drip-dripping of water. Maybe a steady stream of water pour down that chimney and pools on the uneven floor. The water is murky and ice cold but there must be a hole or crack at the bottom creating a slow leak, otherwise the whole room would be filled with water.
  • Large chamber — Rubble, ceiling partially collapsed
    • We’re learning a lot about this dungeon already. Was there an earthquake? The adventurers discover quite a bit of structural damage.
      • While the characters explore these chambers, the unstable nature of the place can add a healthy dose of wariness. A shifting stone causes a cascade of rubble, walls are slick with moisture and the whole place could collapse at any moment. Characters with traits and skills like Stonecunning and mason’s tools can really shine.
  • Normal chamber — Furniture wrecked but still present
    • This room seems relatively safe and untouched. The armor stands and weapon racks are in disarray but the water and structural damage are missing here.
      • Maybe this room is the heart of the stronghold vault. The high quality stuff here could use a polish but it’s still excellent examples of armor and weapons. Wrecked furniture with the lack of damage seen elsewhere suggests looters. Was someone here in the past and took the most valuable items? Maybe they caused the massive damage seen in the other chambers too.

Chamber Contents

  • Starting area — Monster (pet or allied creature) guarding treasure — water weird
    • A whole other process of random rolling elsewhere in the DMG resulted in a water weird lurking in this chamber. Perfect! Now there’s something in that pool of icy water. These elemental creatures bound to water filled places posses intelligence and go a long way towards developing ideas of what happened in this place. A roll on the Monster Motivation table shows this water weird’s motivation is to slay a rival. The water weird can’t leave the pool it’s bound to so that would make frustrate the creature, giving it some personality the players can engage with.
  • Large chamber — Trap (see “Random Traps”) protecting treasure
    • Trap Trigger — Stepped on (floor, stairs)
    • Trap Damage Severity — Deadly
    • Trap Effects — Scything blade emerges from wall or object
  • Normal chamber — Monster (dominant inhabitant) — blistercoil weird
    • This Monster Motivation is to hide from enemies. How perfect is this to go along with our water weird’s desire to slay a rival? Full disclosure: for this one I chose the creature myself. From Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica, a blistercoil weird seemed like the perfect creature for this scenario. It’s another elemental creature, one heavily involved with fire making it a great opposite number to the water weird.  And best of all the blistercoil weird absorbs fire, which causes it to grow until it can’t hold anymore and it explodes. Now we know what caused all that damage! The blistercoil weird hides out in this chamber, afraid to encounter the water weird. They’re both pretty much trapped in this dungeon.

Here we are at the end of our adventure. With a few dice rolls and Appendix A from our trusty 5E D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide we put together several connected rooms to create a dungeon. Our dungeon gained a purpose as a stronghold for ancient treasure, and after finding a way past the hidden entrance adventurers discover a heavily damaged interior to explore.

There’s a dangerous water weird in the starting area, but it’s got a motivation characters can exploit to avoid getting into a life and death battle. Remember, “Not all monsters are automatically hostile.” The other dungeon monster, a blistercoil, is trapped in the armory. I added that little detail myself. In my dungeon history these elemental creatures were summoned by raiders long ago. During battle with the guardians, the blistercoil weird caused a massive explosion. Now, centuries later it remains trapped inside.

What happened to the guardians, and the raiders? Where’s the really good treasure? Is there more to this place than 3 rooms and a few passages between them? These are all questions you can answer before, during or after playing through the adventure. There’s certainly other corridors we did not explore through the random tables in Appendix A. And of course, the actions of the players and their characters can inspire all sorts of new ideas.

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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