Bits Of My Brain

Gaming, Fiction, Rants, Raves, and other Tidbits, from Todd @

Four Essential d20 Books for Any Dungeon Master

Posted by Todd on June 28, 2007

I’ve assembled quite the stack of game books in my time as a gamer.  Some are good, and some are a waste of shelf space.  Today, I’d like to share with you  the four d20 manuals currently in print that I find nearly indispensible. 

Number Four on our countdown: 

Unearthed Arcana

Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, David Noonan, Rich Redman 

Wizards of the Coast

List Price: $34.95

Anyone who has perused the contents of this classic collection of optional rules can tell you that it has a wide variety of useful information.  Some of it is really neat, some of it is really weird, some of it takes the game backwards to a 1st edition feel.  As a DM you may not use all of the alternate rules, (your campaign could be mighty strange if it did…) but I assure you, there’s something in there for you.  My reccomendations:  the variant character classes (psg 47-64), craft points (pgs 97-100), and character background (pgs 100-108).

Number three:

Hero Builder’s Guidebook

Ryan Dancey, David Noonan, and John D. Rateliff

Wizards of the Coast

List Price: $14.95

OK, I’ll wait until you stop laughing/gawking in disbelief/etc.  But I really am serious. 

Though often hailed as one of the most unnecessary Dungeons and Dragons WotC releases, this book contains (what I consider) vital gaming information.  Are there a ton of new feats/spells/prestige classes/equipment/etc.?  No.  Is it a very good resource, exploring the nuances of character race, class, background, and alignment?  Definately.  Sometimes I think we get so excited about game mechanics that we forget that it’s a roleplaying game.  Likewise, I know that those of us that have been playing “forever” often forget that new players could use some source material that won’t overwhelm them with rules.

“But,” you may ask, “I thought this was a list of books for DMs.”  True.  Educating your newbies is part of your job.  Aside from that, though, the book is still very useful.  My highlights:  the personal history tables (pgs 38-47), the alignment test (pgs 48-51), and the one most everyone knows and appreciates, the appendix of names (pgs 61-64).

Swinging in at number two on my personal list of favorites in print is:

The Monster’s Handbook

Legends & Lairs Series

Wil Upchurch, Greg Benage, and Mike Mearls

Fantasy Flight Games

List price: $24.95

For those who may not be familiar with this tome, it is a resource for enhancing and maximizing the usefulness of the monsters in your game. It is broken down into chapters on Monster tactics, modification, and then into chapters covering monster types (abberations, dragons, fey, etc.)

You may have the Monster Manuals I-V, the Fiend Folio, etc., and wonder, “Why do I need another monster book?”

First, this book give valuable insight on how to play the monsters you have to their fullest potential. Tactical tips, notes on equipment that the creatures might use, feats, skills, classes, and other ways to use “stock” monsters in new ways is one of the key focus points of the book.

Secondly, the book gives clear mechanics for upgrading monsters. Yes, we know from the MM and DMG that we can boost them by advancing HD, adding class levels, and/or adding templates, but this book gives ways to directly tweak the monsters and effectively recalculate Challenge Ratings accordingly. It also contains new templates (the Deep Fey template is great for bringing some forest mischief into the dungeon), new feats for each monster type (Lighning Blink lets a Beholder “blink” his central eye, allowing it to use his eyestalks in the same direction as it’s anti-magic gaze), and new special attacks and defenses.

With these tools at your disposal, even the archtypical orc guarding a chest in a 10′ by 10′ room can surprise your players.

If you want a taste of what I’m talking about, the bonus chapter covering Magical Beasts is found (free) in the downloads section of their website.

And finally, the book I find almost a valuable as the Dungeon Masters Guide,

d20 Toolbox

Dawn Ibach and Jeff Ibach

Alderac Entertainment Group

List Price: $26.95 (and worth every penny)

Charts, and tables, encounters, OH MY!

This book is one of the most definitive compilation of tables I have ever seen for any roleplaying game, all of which roll off of a d20.

  • You want to know what the weather is like, Table 1-5: Weather Patterns or 1-6: Weather Conditions.

  • You need full stat blocks for the town cleric, but don’t have time to generate him? Check out Table 3-105: Clerical NPCs.

  • How about the contents of the wizard’s lab the party just ransacked? Tables 2-71 through 2-88.

  • The rogue is picking pockets again? Ten tables of potential finds.

  • Tavern names? Check.

  • Available mercenary contracts? Page 136.

  • Stomach contents of large creatures? Ewww, but yes.

  • You get the idea…

All of these and more, split into three main sections: wilderness, dungeon, and urban. The table of contents lets the DM in a hurry glance down the page, zip straight to what he wants, and roll or choose what he’s after.

I use it to fill in empty areas, get names when I’m on the spot, or just flip through for cool ideas and inspiration. I’ve even used it to generate entire random dungeons when everyone is dying to play and I have nothing at all together.

Do yourself a favor. Find this book. Buy this book. It will save you more times than you could imagine.


One Response to “Four Essential d20 Books for Any Dungeon Master”

  1. think4yourself said

    Hey thanks for the info. I have been DMing for a loooooong time (since Elminster was a kid!) & I have a large variety of 3.0 & 3.5 DnD books. I have to agree with you on your picks. The Toolbox is absolutely priceless & I have used it on countless occasions. I personally believe that it could be just as essential for a DM no matter how seasoned they are as the MM, DMG & PH. I haven’t ever seen the Monster’s Handbook but I plan on getting it. Thanks for the recommendation!

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