Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Time to visit Gary Gygax's home turf

I won a copy of the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE (a result of some stuff I made up, courtesy of Swords & Dorkery). Is the redoubtable Jeff Gameblog Rients right when he calls it "one of the great texts of the hobby?"

...I think the answer depends on whether you grew up reading it. I didn't. The most formative text for my GMing style is the first edition of West End's Star Wars RPG. I never owned a DMG before 3e came out. Maybe I'll tell the story of how I got my first DMG, or how I ran a 2e campaign for many years without one, but not just yet. I'm a historian by training, and Jeff's right that this book had a huge influence on everything that followed, so let's see what we find inside. This may take a while.

Right off the bat, we have a Jeff Easley cover showing some hooded guy opening double doors from inside while a horde of sketchy little demonoids swarm behind him. So we're dealing with a reprint. The earliest versions of this book had a different image by a different artist -- some adventurers, an efreet which is easily mistaken for a demon, the fabled City Of Brass. People have all kinds of opinions about the visual arts, and the moody/expressionistic/amateurish/whatever-you-call-it style of very old D&D has strong adherents. I prefer Easley's technique and composition, although thematically the original cover comes out ahead.

Enough about that. Here are some words...

P. 8 -- Gary Gygax thanks a bunch of people in his foreword. Most of them are names you'd recognize if you know the wayback history of D&D, but one is Jack Vance. Did he actually play D&D? That would be the best thing ever in all possible worlds, except in Vance's own The Dragon Masters.

P. 9 -- " adventure's end you will secretly note any player character movement on the alignment graph." No I won't.

"The fun of the game is action and drama. The challenge of problem solving is secondary. Long and drawn out operations by the referee irritate the players." Uncle Gary is right on the money here. A great deal of GMing advice boils down to these 3 sentences. I'd reprint them in bold 150-point type on the first page.

P. 11 -- Lookee here: it's different methods of generating ability scores. Even back in 1979, people wanted to roll 4d6, keep the best 3, and assign them as desired.

Just below that is a section on using wishes to increase ability scores. Apparently if the stat in question is 16 or higher, each wish will only increase it by one-tenth of a point. Gygax's players got a lot more wishes than I ever did.

P. 12 -- Our first random chart, and far from our last. I've held every opinion it's possible to hold on random charts. These days, I love them. I could get a lot of use out of the Secondary Skills Table.

P. 13 -- But we can take it much too far. The chart for random chances of contracting disease is definitely more detailed than most games would need. And the subsequent chart -- chances of random parasitic infestation -- makes me wonder exactly what the folks in Lake Geneva thought of as "fun." And, my God, the whole next page is for determining which part of the body has a disease/parasite, and the subsequent effects thereof. Didn't we just get a whole speech about how D&D is Yes To Game And No To Realism back on page 9?

P. 16 -- Here's another gem that gets left behind in most modern RPGs: rules for (and lists of) followers that high-level characters will acquire. I'd forgotten about the whole high-level-PC-gets-stronghold system in early versions of D&D. That appeals to me much more than excursions to the Astral Plane or wherever.

P. 21 -- Monster PCs, and why you don't get to have them. I think this rationale is weak. Although it's true that much of the fantasy and folklore D&D draws from is human-centric, that's a correlation rather than a causation. And saying "nonhumans aren't as good because they have level limits" skips right over the burning question of why those limits exist (hint: to make sure the game is human-centric). I can see going with a mostly-human game as a matter of style and tone, or just to keep the mechanics simpler. Did that myself with my longtime Gorbadin setting.

But I don't think that's what went on here. Quoth Gary Gygax: "This [request for a monster PC] is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign." We'll see this theme again.

P. 24 -- Alignment languages. One of the oddest quirks of the game. I'm no fan of alignment; maybe you are. We can argue about it another day. What we can't do is find a way that alignment languages make sense or make things fun. If anyone knows why these were conceived and created... I don't know whether you should share that insight or bury it deep where the sun will never touch it.

...whew. That's a lot of writing for only 10% of the book. And today's plan was actually a Cyberpunk post. But I can't find the out-of-date webpage I need for the Cyberpunk thing, and this took shape, so who knows what tomorrow will bring?


  1. Waah, I want a Cyberpunk post! ;P

    I started with the 2e DMG, but the 1e book was a thing of great and intriguing mystery for me for many years thanks to old Dragon back issues mentioning things like the Disease charts or random castle generators.

    I've written about this elsewhere, but my theoretical approach (since I've never actually used them) to alignment tongues is to treat them as liturgical languages. Like, Black Speech for Chaotic, some fantasy version of Latin for Lawful, that sort of thing.

  2. That's kind of the approach suggested here for alignment languages, I guess, but it doesn't scratch its own itches very well. If my GM is following the directive of page 9 and charts that my alignment went from Neutral Good to Chaotic Good, how do we account for me forgetting one alignment language and learning another? When my forbears split from the Catholic church to become Lutherans, they didn't magically forget Latin and learn German...

    To be fair, they were already German, so they probably knew it.

    Anyway, your theoretical approach makes sense. I just wonder if anyone's actually turned this theory into practice -- I've never encountered a game that used alignment languages.