Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Return of the DMG

We continue our quest to see what common ground, and what grounds for divorce, can be found between me and the esteemed Gary Gygax. I think we're up to...

P. 75 -- Out of nowhere, a herd of combat-matrix charts thunders across the middle of the book! In its midst are a couple that deal with psionics. I don't have a lot to say about the specifics of AD&D's take on psychic powers. I do say, when running a D&D game, that psychics aren't allowed. Unless you're my friend Kevin, who really likes psionic characters, and also happens to be my wife's brother, so I have a vested interest in Kevin's ongoing happiness. Yours? Not so much.

It's not that the system is bad per se, or that it lacks balance or anything like that.* The problem is that psionics feel wrong when stacked up against Vancian wizards and fightin' clerics. You can find some thematic and mechanical overlap with the latter two's spells-per-day, the need for rest, the idea of bargains with powerful inhuman entities... and then along comes this weird sci-fi-ish point-based system that, when next to those guys, is screaming "I'M AN OPTIONAL GAME MECHANIC! LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!"

What would be cool? A D&D game that only uses psionics for magic. No arcane, no divine. I think you'd get a bloodier version of the Deryni Chronicles. Someone should do that.

P. 80 -- Around 1979, there was enough debate about saving throws that Gary spent 7 paragraphs justifying and defending them. I wonder how much of this was necessary, and how much was an excuse to say "personae" a few times?

P. 81 -- Certain tubby lycanthropes have all the luck.You'll have to wonder how.

P. 82 -- Another extended defense of hit points. I grasp -- and even like -- the idea that characters have some resistance to damage beyond a small pool of points based on Constitution or its equivalent, whether it be luck or divine favor or the reflexes won by hard experience. This particular mechanic isn't how I'd do it, but people of goodwill can differ. What strikes me today is this sentence about an example 10th-level fighter: "It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points."

When's the last time you saw a high-level D&D character have a long period of rest and recuperation? You never have. That's not how the game has evolved. A pity. I think hit points, character mortality, healing magic, and several other things would work better and be more fun if we viewed hit points as a privilege rather than a right.

P. 83 -- I'm trying to skim for a sample every few pages, but this has been a rich vein. Now we've got a 20-item list of different insanities that can affect your character. It's almost devoid of game-specific mechanics and it's not using a current version of the DSM-IV -- so it's perfect for that Call of Cthulhu game you've been wanting to run.

P. 84 -- People who whined and moaned about how complicated CR was in 3e had clearly never read Unca Gary's advice on calculating XP.

P. 90 -- "The 'reality' AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk."

Kothar? I know most of the biggies. I collect many of these writers. Who the devil is Kothar?

Also, good luck trying to play Conan or the Mouser or Elric in old D&D.**

P. 92 -- "Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the 'killer-dungeon' concept. These campaigns are a travesty of the role-playing adventure game, for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae." Historically, I suspect this advice has been honored more in the breach than anywhere else. Also, if you're playing the Gygax-said-personae drinking game, do another shot now.

P. 94 -- A brief section on peasants, serfs, and slaves is followed immediately by a sample dungeon. The lack of transitions, whether text or layout, is like drifting onto a rumble strip. I'm awake now.

Sample map with 38 chambers, in the traditional D&D style that my wife describes as "drunken dwarvish architecture." Map key. Very detailed writeups of 3 chambers followed by an (Etc.). Quick rules on movement, detecting stuff, doors, concealed doors, secret doors -- there's a door fetish here -- and then we launch into an archetypal extended play example. I've seen this one elsewhere, I think; it's some kind of abandoned sunken monastery. In this version, the bulk of the dialogue is between the DM and a "Lead Character." Odd, to the modern reader, who is perhaps accustomed to allowing everyone to address the GM as desired.

It's a pretty good play example. Not my kind of gameplay, I can tell, but it lays out the writer's expectations very clearly. I've always hated it. The content and structure are fine, but then we have the bit on page 100. Our sample gnome is above everyone else when he discovers a secret opening. As it opens, he fails a surprise roll, gets bushwhacked by a quartet of ghouls, is paralyzed, and then by GM fiat, he's just eaten. End of the game, gnomey! Hope you weren't having fun!

This always takes me back to age 9 and my first roleplaying experience. It was some form of D&D, maybe even this one. What I remember most is how excited I was when I got home, rattling on and on to my bemused mother about how great my character was and all the things I was going to do and all the things I was going to make and all the wonderful plans I had now. Why kill that? Why take away the character? All our gnome did was have a clever idea about how to open a secret door. It seems kinda shameful to just throw a pack of ghouls at him and turn him into gnome-kebab because he failed one unexpected saving throw.

...well, I can see several pages of charts about NPC character traits coming up. Good time for a breather.

* I haven't played/run with enough D&D psionicists to be sure, but my spider-sense tells me that this system is unbalanced in every version of the game I've encountered.
** On the one hand, yeah, you can house-rule that stuff in. On the other hand, if I have to house-rule the cool stuff, why buy someone else's game in the first place?


  1. I know that feel.

    My first character was a fire giant (polymorphed by potion I later found out) taken over from my big brother mid module, after much pestering. I assumed he would always be so, THAT ALLMY PC'S WOULD BE FIRE GIANTS MUHUHUHUA!

    Sadly it was not so. Still, I would be back for more & I was the only kid in yr 3 who new what polymorphed meant!

    This critique of the DMG is being done with a certain degree of panache. Proceed.

    1. Thank you. Panache, as it happens, is my middle name ("John" was too boring).

  2. P 84 - I read it. Attempted it. Discarded it.

    I still whined about CR.

    1. A reasonable approach.

      These days, I just kinda assign however much XP feels right, with 5-10% bonuses for people who are particularly awesome or hilarious or capable of wrenching things off the track in a better direction.

  3. "On the one hand, yeah, you can house-rule that stuff in. On the other hand, if I have to house-rule the cool stuff, why buy someone else's game in the first place?"

    Mm-hmm. House-ruling that 'humans can multiclass' is so much work you might as well write your own game. Got it! :)

  4. Now is *always* the perfect time to write your own game. Or kit-bash an old game. Nobody will ever design a game that fits you perfectly, except maybe you.

    At the risk of self-promotion, may I direct you to my How I Hack It post, which I always thought would make an interesting meme?: http://unclemattsplace.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-i-hack-it.html

  5. A few words about Kothar and his creator


    (no, I'd never heard of him either)

  6. Gardner Fox wrote him? Wow. That's pretty cool. Thanks for passing that along!