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The second of three core rulebooks for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game.

The Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game has defined the medieval fantasy genre and the tabletop RPG industry for more than 30 years. In the D&D game, players create characters that band together to explore dungeons, slay monsters, and find treasure. The 4th Edition D&D rules offer the best possible play experience by presenting exciting character options, an elegant and robust rules system, and handy storytelling tools for the Dungeon Master.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives the Dungeon Master helpful tools to build exciting encounters, adventures, and campaigns for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game, as well as advice for running great game sessions, ready-to-use traps and non-player characters, and more. In addition, it presents a fully detailed town that can serve as a starting point for any D&D game.

    • Core Rulebook: The Dungeon Master’s Guide is the second of three core rulebooks required to play the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game.
    • Quick and easy play: The improved page layout and presentation enables novice and established players to learn and understand the new D&D rules quickly.

Product History

Dungeon Master's Guide (2008) by James Wyatt is the third core rulebook for the D&D 4e game. It was published in June 2008.

About the Cover. The cover of the Dungeon Master's Guide is a twisted homage to the D&D Basic (1981) and D&D Expert (1981) sets. Where the original Expert Set showed a wizard conjuring up a vision of the Basic Set, which shows two heroes fighting a dragon, the Dungeon Master's Guide instead shows a dragon conjuring up a vision of the Player's Handbook (2008), which shows two heroes.

Moving Toward D&D 4e. June 6, 2008 was release day for D&D 4e (2008). The Player's Handbook was the core rules for the new game, and contained almost all of 4e's mechanic. The Dungeon Master's Guide then presented the game from the GM's point of view.

A Different Sort of Dungeon Master's Guide. When Gary Gygax wrote the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide (1979), it was the core rulebook for the D&D game. Ever since then, D&D's rules have been moving from the Dungeon Master's Guide to the Player's Handbook, and fourth edition marked the height of that trend. With 4e, even magic items — a long-time fixture of the Dungeon Master's Guide — are moved to the Player's Handbook. Nonetheless, a few mechanical systems remain, including the new skill challenge system, a small list of artifacts, and monster roles and templates — the last of which would have fit better in the Monster Manual (2008).

Instead, the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide is mostly a book of advice for game masters, covering everything from running games to building encounters and crafting campaigns. Some of this advice is drawn from previous books: the section on player motivations in chapter 1 is drawn from research that the R&D Department did prior to the publication of Dungeon Master's Guide II (2005), while information on dungeon fixtures in chapter 6 began with Dungeonscape (2007) before Wyatt decided that the material needed to be more focused and less exhaustive to appeal to first-time game masters; Dungeonscape's ideas on theme nonetheless made their way into the book.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: Assorted Philosophy. Despite these repeated elements, most of the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide is not only new, but also very directed toward the design of the new 4e game. As a result, many chapters directly illuminate the philosophies of D&D 4e:

  • Chapter 2, on "Running the Game", highlights the new "exception-based" nature of D&D 4e, which requires GMs to make players aware of special situations they might face (especially in combat).
  • Chapter 3, on "Combat Encounters" contributes the infamous "difficulty class and damage by level" chart, which shows how mathematically clean D&D 4e is — though unfortunately the skill difficulties and the monster damage would soon need to be revised.
  • Chapter 4, on "Building Encounters", describes fantastic terrains in a way that shows both the all-levels emphasis of D&D 4e and its focus on drama over simulation: there's no absolute answer for how difficult terrain should be, but rather an answer that's appropriate for the story. Chapter 4 also reveals new philosophies of monster usage that would be expanded upon in the Monster Manual.
  • Chapter 7, on "Rewards", demonstrates how D&D 4e separates encounters and rewards: treasures are now acquired on a per-level basis as "treasure parcels", all thanks to insights from Mike Mearls.
  • Chapter 8, on "Campaigns", displays how D&D 4e eases the load on GMs. As Wyatt says, "Planning an entire campaign seems a daunting task, but don't worry — you don't have to plot out every detail right from the start." This idea of making life easier for GMs was one of the philosophies that's at the core of D&D 4e's design. As Andy Collins said, "A DM who’s frustrated with the rules, or who finds creating encounters too daunting, or who feels panicked every time he has to run an encounter with more than one monster, is not only likely to transfer that unease to his players."
  • Chapter 10, on "The DM's Toolkit", unveils major changes underlying the design of NPCs and monsters. They no longer have to be carefully built from scratch using complex rules, but instead are created elegantly and simply. This was another idea that would get more attention in the Monster Manual.

What a Difference an Edition Make: Encounter Philosophy. One of the new philosophies of D&D 4e deserves more attention because it's so central to the conception of the game: the new style for adventure encounters.

D&D 4e's published encounters are laid out as individual tactical exercises, each of which is detailed on one-to-two carefully formatted pages. The idea actually dates back to the "tactical format" that premiered in the Forgotten Realms trilogy of adventures that ran from FR1: "Cormyr: The Tearing of the Weave" (2007) to FR3: "Anauroch: The Empire of the Shade" (2007), but the format was used inconsistently there. GMs got to see it in its intended form for the first time in H1: "Keep on the Shadowfell" (2008). Now, the Dungeon Master's Guide reaffirmed the format and talked about how GMs could create Encounters of their own.

This usage of such rigid Encounters was another of the controversial elements in the D&D 4e game, as some felt that it turned the game into nothing more than a series of tactical encounters (though others appreciated the tactical detail that it allowed). In any case, it would be one of the most consistent elements of D&D 4e adventure design, only wavering in final adventures such as Halls of Undermountain (2011) and the last few organized play adventures.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: Skill Mechanics. One big mechanical revamp also appears in the Dungeon Master's Guide: the skill challenge system. This sort of abstract system for running extended challenges other than combat had been a Holy Grail for roleplaying systems for quite some time. D&D approached the idea by building on its existing skill system, but allowing players to accumulate multiple successes and failures — with the goal being to accrue enough successes before the failures caused them to lose.

It's possible that the skill challenge system was the most innovative thing in the entire design of D&D 4e, because it could fundamentally change how players spent their time in the game. So, it's somewhat surprised that the rule system was exiled off to the Dungeon Master's Guide. This level of innovation may be why it got little attention in early reviews of the game. Players just didn't know what to do with it! Unfortunately, there just weren't enough guidelines to explain the new system. Worse, the initial math underlying skill challenges was bad, resulting in challenges that many players felt were too punishing.

Wizards did their best to turn these problems around quickly. An errata update published on July 17, 2008 made skill challenges much easier to beat — adopting math that was similar to the "complex skill checks" from 3e's Unearthed Arcana (2005). Some thought Wizards had gone too far, but the system was certainly more usable afterward. Mike Mearls then wrote a series of articles on how to use the innovative system beginning with "The Challenge of Skill Challenges" in Dragon #369 (November 2008). The series moved over to Dungeon magazine, starting with #161 (December 2008) and continued there for almost a year.

In his first article, Mearls admitted that the Wizards R&D department was still having "growing pains and learning experiences" with skill challenges. Unfortunately, this had affected the roll-out, which was Wizards' prime opportunity to sell the public on the new mechanics. Though skill challenges became more popular over the next few years, in some ways the system never recovered from its initial travails.

What a Difference an Edition Makes: World Views. Besides revamping philosophies and rules, D&D 4e also revamped the game's standard world model and its cosmology.

The default D&D world was replaced with a Points of Light setting. The designers weren't happy with the maps of previous editions' settings, which looked a lot like the modern world, full of civilized countries with civilized borders. They decided to instead adopt the idea of a "monster-haunted wilderness" where "centers of civilization are few and far between". The result was more fantastical and less burdened by real-world history.
Richard Baker came up with the name for this setting, when he described it as "points of light in a dark world".

The default "Great Wheel" cosmology was replaced with the World Axis. James Wyatt explained the reasoning succinctly when he said: "Down with needless symmetry!" He wanted to reinvent D&D's cosmology so that it didn't require planes for every alignment and for every element. In addition, he thought it critical to make the planes more fun for adventuring. The latter requirement was supported in part by the creation of a multiverse in "layers" where some cosmological planes were closer to the real world than others. This offered increasingly dangerous realms to explore as players grew in power.

Re-Introducing the World Axis. The World Axis had already been introduced in "Keep of The Shadowfell", which featured a rift to the Shadowfell — one of the new, nearby layers of the multiverse. Now the Dungeon Master's Guide briefly introduced the whole Axis — consisting of the world and its two echoes, the Shadowfell and the Feywild, as well as the further planes of the Astral Sea, the Elemental Chaos, and the Abyss. Amusingly, as portrayed on page 161 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, the World Axis was very symmetrical.

Re-Introducing the Nentir Vale. As an example of the new Points of Light philosophy, Wizards also introduced a new world setting that has become most popularly known as "Nentir Vale" (though that just designates a small part of the world). Once again, the first hints of it had appeared in "Keep on the Shadowfell", which detailed the village of Winterhaven and some nearby sites. Dungeon Master's Guide added to that by detailing another town, Fallcrest.

Wizards' intent was that Nentir Vale would largely be a blank land that each GM could fill in as he saw fit. They specifically said there would never be maps of the world. Instead, Wizards' revelations about the world would come primarily through adventures like "Keep on the Shadowfell". This plan held for a couple of years, until Wizards began to focus more on the setting as part of the Essentials line (2010). Three years down the line, they even published a big map as the board of the Conquest of Nerath (2011) game.

About the Creators. James Wyatt is one of the trio of core designers who created D&D 4e (2008). He was also a member of the SCRAMJET team led by Richard Baker that focused on D&D's cosmology.

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to

Don't Forget the Player's Handbook and the Monster Manual!

4e PHB ; ; 4e MM

H1 Keep on the Shadowfell

Introductory Adventure Also Available

H1 Keep on the Shadowfell


We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.

 Customers Who Bought this Title also Purchased
Reviews (4)
Discussions (5)
Customer avatar
Marco E October 04, 2021 12:42 pm UTC
Hey everyone! Basic question: is it a searchable/fully bookmarked pdf? Or is it just a scan? Thanks!
Customer avatar
Guillherme C March 30, 2021 4:07 am UTC
why is this the only one with printable version? i was already celebrating...
Customer avatar
Bill E May 02, 2019 6:01 pm UTC
How is the quality of the POD? I notice it is only standard printing rather than premium.
Customer avatar
JONATHAN M December 25, 2017 11:08 pm UTC
Glad to see this product made PoD. Now we just need it in its original hardcover.
Customer avatar
Antonio E September 18, 2017 9:07 am UTC
Anyone knows if the pdf has been updated with the errata (in particular, the skill challenges chapter)?
Customer avatar
Timothy B September 19, 2017 12:06 am UTC
Hi Antonio,

I own the PDF and would be happy to check. Do you know how I can tell if it's updated? What text can I look for?

Customer avatar
Antonio E September 19, 2017 8:52 am UTC
Hi Tim,
nice to see you here, too!
A very easy check is to look at the table on page 72. The Failures column should list all 3s instead of 2,3,4,5,6
Did you perchance buy the PHB and MM as well?

Customer avatar
Timothy B September 20, 2017 1:28 am UTC
The Failures column is all 3's.

I have the other two books as well. Is there something you need me to check?
Customer avatar
Antonio E September 20, 2017 8:54 am UTC
Brilliant! That was the most glaring issue; there were also some sections of text to be replaced and changed, but I suppose if they corrected the Failures column, they should have updated also the rest.

If you could check the PHB as well:
- Page 42, Dilettante, replace “an at-will power” with “a 1st-level at-will attack power.”
- Page 222, In the Adventuring Gear table, add an entry for "Oil (1 pint)" after Lantern

They also completely replaced the entry for the Stealth skill (page 188). A simple way to check, if you have the PHB2, is to compare the updated Stealth description which was reprinted at the back of the PHB2.

Thanks a lot! I owe you one!
Customer avatar
Timothy B September 20, 2017 9:41 pm UTC
Hi Antonio,

Yes, page 42 has "1st-level at-will attack power."

And 222 has "Oil (1 pint)" listed.

I don't have the PHB2 in PDF, and I'm traveling for work and don't have access to my books this week. Hopefully that's enough info.
Customer avatar
Dani J March 04, 2022 12:45 pm UTC
So from this conversation, it's safe to say, the errata has be incorporated. Good to know!
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