Jan 282014

Ruminations on Dungeons and Dragons, brought on by the game’s 40th anniversary

This well-worn Dungeon Masters Guide has been nearly loved to deathThis thirty-five-year old much-abused Dungeon Master’s Guide is the very definition of “well-worn”. Clearly, it has seen much use, loved nearly to death. I should know. It’s mine.

I had already been playing Dungeons & Dragons for some time when this first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide fell into my eager hands. I immediately learned that everything I had been doing was wrong. But a deeper reading changed all that. Right and wrong are not so clear:

As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this book is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another. Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from “on high” as respects your game … When you build your campaign you will tailor it to suit your personal tastes.

And just like that I was hooked. This book is the greatest book of its kind. Not because it is so well organized (it is so poorly organized!) and not because it contains the best fantasy role playing game rule set (many rule sets are so much better). But because Gary Gygax and I are in this together, and he knows a lot about this stuff, and is willing to share all of it with me.

Just us. Me and Gary. And everyone else who fell under the DMG spell.

DMG Art. Like the book, unsophisticated yet charming.The book is delightfully disjointed. Gygax wrote with a style I can best describe as “Exhaustively Baroque”; partly archaic, always formal, but fully informed and completely authoritative. He never just laid down a rule, but always explained the rule too, sometimes even explaining why he was explaining the rule.*

* Most of the book is text or charts, but there are the occasional black and white line drawings. Like the rest of the book, the artwork is unsophisticated, but charming.

This sounds dreadful but it wasn’t, it was delightful. I spent hours pouring over each page; rules were often squirreled in with other rules that are only vaguely related, if at all, and one had to know the entire book in order to know the rules in any sort of totality. Yet even when all of the words that pertained to a rule were found, often they did not add up to a definitive answer to whatever question you were asking.

I went looking for an example and found one in the first five minutes:

It is quite usual for players to use wishes (or alter reality spells found on scrolls) to increase their ability scores in desired areas, whatever the area might be. It is strongly suggested that you place no restrictions upon such use of wishes. However, at some point it must be made more difficult to go up in ability, or else many characters will be running around with 18s (or even higher!). Therefore, when any ability reaches 16, then it should be ruled a wish will have the effect of increasing the ability by only 1/10th of a point. Thus, by means of wishes (or wishes and/or alter reality spells) a charisma score of 16 can only be raised to 17 by use of ten such wishes, the score going from 16 to 16.1 with the first wish, 16.2 with the second, and so on. This is not to say that magical books or devices can not raise scores of 16 or better a full point. The prohibition is only on wishes.

Here we have the full range of Gygaxian prose: charmingly stilted, semi-formal, seemingly thorough to the point of repetitiveness, but actually self-contradictory and full of gaping omissions, and at least 100 words too long.

Consider this alternative: “Wish and alter reality spells may increase an ability by one point if the ability is less than 16, or by 1/10th of a point if the ability is 16 or higher”. It is 137 words shorter and says the same thing, albeit with less charm and context.

Now, and even more importantly, consider where I found this example: not in the Wish spell description. Not in the Alter Reality description. It is on the third page of the Introduction, in a section titled “Creating the Player Character”. You would never in a million years find this again if it came up during a game session, although to be fair, it is referenced in the index.

Nonetheless it is typically obscure and typically poorly placed. Rules as a stream of consciousness, written down in whatever order Gygax happened to think of them.

And I loved it. All of it. All 232 single-spaced, 8″x10″, double-column, magazine-formatted pages of it. Thousands and thousands of words, all delightful, if generally a bit difficult to follow.

Here is another example from the very same page. These are alternate methods for generating player character ability scores (the main method was described in the Player’s Handbook):

Alternate character die rolling methods

Gygax gives us four more ways to roll up a character and they are all
“roll more dice and choose the ones you want”. I wonder why he stopped at four?

But the book is not just eccentric, it is also comprehensive. Crammed with useful minutia and information, things that I would have never even thought to include in my game on my own. And the charts, oh the charts! There is a chart for everything. How long does it take for a ship fire to burn out of control? (page 55: one turn for a rowboat, 3-12 turns if it is a warship, 75% faster if the fires are magically fed). What happens when a henchman or hireling fails a loyalty check? (page 36: If offered a bribe, he takes it. If ordered into danger, he deserts. Don’t forget to include adjustments due to PC charisma rating).

On and on, topic after topic, a miniature compendium of everything there is. The whole world. Or rather, worlds. Everything. Neatly wrapped up into charts and die rolls.

  • How to build a castle (pages 182-183)
  • Forms of government (page 89)
  • Parasitic infestations (page 14)
  • Unusual swords (pages 166-167)
  • Types of insanity (page 83)

Being a dungeon master meant more than just learning D&D, you learned a little about everything. The game is a fantasy simulation of the real world. Meaning, the Dungeon Master had to have some familiarity with whatever topic was being simulated at the moment. Physics. Chemistry. Anthropology. Medicine. History. You never knew when you were going to be called on to referee a player’s attempt to do something completely new and unusual.

But fortunately, whatever weird, odd, peculiar aspect of your simulated reality was being tested, no matter how obscure, there was probably a chart for that in this book somewhere.

Treasure!The treasure charts were definitely my favorite. Every monster was assigned a “treasure type”, which resolved to a number of rolls on the treasure charts. For instance, a Wraith was listed as Treasure Type E, indicating a fixed percentage chance to have various coins, gems, and/or jewelry, plus (and most importantly!) a 25% chance of containing any 3 magic items plus one scroll.

Three rolls to see what kind of magic item might be involved; it could be anything! A sword, a scroll, a ring, there are five different categories of “Miscellaneous Magic” alone.* Then off to the indicated sub-chart to determine exactly which sword or scroll or ring it may be.

* The chart illustrated here is one of the five Miscellaneous Magic charts. Note also, proof of my oft-stated proclamation that the Dwarven Thrower is supposed to be a hammer, not an axe!

Rolling treasure and giving it away to your friends is so much fun, one could easily get carried away. I hacked the charts to include my own ideas, and then wrote programs to do the lookups for me. Nor was I alone in this.

Five pages of treasure charts, followed by 43 pages of treasure descriptions and sub-charts. I didn’t know the term “nerdgasm” then, but I definitely had one. Multiple nerdgasms. Best charts ever. The treasure charts alone would have completely justified the book’s price, but there was so much more. So much charm. So much philosophy. So much Gygax.

We can all agree that First Edition Advanced D&D was not the best fantasy RPG rule set ever made (or at least most of us can. Edition wars continue to this day). The Dungeon Master’s Guide is not the best set of rules ever written. But it is the best book about rules ever written.

No one has ever again attempted anything so ambitious. All of the rule books that followed were about rules. This one was about everything.

I’ll let E. Gary Gygax close us out:

I sincerely hope that you find this new system to your taste and enjoy it. The material is herein, but only you can construct the masterpiece from it, your personal campaign which will bring hundreds of hours of fun and excitement to many eager players. Masterful dungeoning to you!

Masterful dungeoning to you too Gary, wherever you are.

🙂 😀 🙂

  5 Responses to “The Original Dungeon Masters Guide Was The Greatest Book About Rules Ever Written”

Comments (5)
  1. This is always the great thing about D&D, the top rule is always that it is your game.
    “The DMG is more what you would call DM guidelines, not actual rules”

    I’ve seen rules that go in circles in DDO… It doesn’t seem to matter the “version” of D&D 😉
    (Worse when people start quoting things that don’t exist…)

    Perhaps on Eberron dwarves prefer to throw axes?
    “… hammers is more what you would call throwing guidelines …”

  2. I started playing the P&P version of D&D with the basic edition right before 1st edition AD&D was published. I still fondly remember the hours of fun and imagination!

    As far as editions — I preferred 2nd edition myself. While the rules were still somewhat poorly organized, they were still very Gygaxian in flavor and style. The only thing I missed from 1st edition was the way that bards worked. They were an amazing journey through 3 different classes culminating in a bard that was more like the Taliesin of legend than the cheap tavern entertainment that the rules seem to produce now.

    Alas, my P&P days are pretty much over. No time — it stinks to grow up and be an adult! That’s why I love the DDO world so much. I can go there for a little while and still be the intrepid adventurer for a bit…

    Thanks for the great article Geoff! It’s no surprise Greyhawk has a duchy named after you…

  3. Great article gives some of younger generation an idea of where it all came from I started playing p&p with second edition I love my d&d but no time or players so ddo is where my free time goes now and I still love the adventures and the characters and the socialization just like the old days great job

  4. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. The books, the nerdism, the scribbles of your own notes, wow.

What do you think?

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