Page By Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG part 1

First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide Unicorn Art, by Darlene PekulI find a lot of pleasure in writing about books which I’ve read. Whether I’m excited about a module I’d like to run, or lambasting an author for being sexist, it’s a lot of fun for me. I believe it also serves a useful, or even essential, purpose. The written word is a medium through which an exchange of ideas takes place. If I simply read something without sharing my thoughts on what it, then all I’ve done is absorbed ideas. I may be a better person for it, but that’s not how an exchange works. It’s not until we discuss a book with others that we’re fully engaged with the ideas presented therein. That’s a large part of why I place such a high value on post comments. Expressing my thoughts is one thing, but it’s nothing really special until someone else connects with what I’ve expressed, and shares thoughts of their own.

Word of warning: majoring in philosophy may cause melodramatic outbursts about the value of ideas.

Problem is, some books have too many ideas in them for a single post to be sufficient. Gary Gygax’s original Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is one such book. This is a seminal work, and arguably the most notable of Gary’s life. When Wired magazine set out to name the 9 books every geek must read, they listed this book first. I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of it. Proponents of every edition of the game revere it. Second, Third, and Fourth editions may all have had Dungeon Master’s Guides, but Gygax’s treatise is the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I obtained my copy about two months back, and have been impressed time and again with what I’ve read. I am repeatedly struck by the sense that subsequent editions of the game ‘missed the point.’ That the way I learned a concept while reading the 3.5 DMG was an inaccurate rephrasing of what Gygax originally put down here.

As I embark on my first read-through of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I am taking copious notes, and will be posting my thoughts regularly. This will not be a continuous series, because we just finished one of those, and also because I’m a slow reader. Nor will it be a comprehensive series. I’ll be writing with an eye towards ideas which interest me personally. Such as mechanics which might be useful to me in my own games, or concepts which I find particularly innovative or odd.

This first post covers up to ‘Changing Alignment’ on page 25.

Dice: There is nearly a full page worth of information on probability curves and different ways of producing random outcomes. This is essential information which every GM should be aware of. I had a poor mathematics education, and when I finally learned about this stuff whilst reading blogs and other articles on the Internet, I felt upset that I hadn’t fully understood the implications of different types of dice rolling. When I found out that this information was actually included in the original DMG, that made me upset all over again. Why wasn’t this included in the third edition DMG, or in Pathfinder’s core rulebook? What other information was deemed more important than this?

Characteristics for Player Characters: I’ve always allowed my players to select their height and weight themselves, because I regarded it as role playing information. Half the time the field remains blank, and I’ve always been fine with that. Gygax’s insistence that height and weight be randomly generated have gotten me thinking, though. If I know the party’s weights, then I could set weight limits for pressure plates. If I know their heights, I could tell them where the spinning blade 3ft off the floor hits them. I’m not quite ready to add two additional rolls to the character creation process in my games, but it’s something to think about.

Player Character Non-Professional Skills The secondary skills system has always struck me as elegant. It has its limitations and its failings, but I like the idea of deriving a host of character abilities from that character’s profession. I’ve already discussed this somewhat in my skills overview entry for the profession skill.

First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, a Dragon fighting Orcs, by D.A. Trampier

Starting Level of Experience for Player Characters Whenever I have new players, I try to make sure there’s at least one experienced player at the table. I’ve found that the experienced player’s example helps the newer players connect with how the game works. Gygax makes the exact opposite recommendation. He goes so far as to say that if you have both new and experienced players, that a GM should place them in separate parties, to allow the neophyte players the opportunity to explore on their own. I wonder if this is a viable choice in a Pathfinder game, where players are much less likely to enjoy having their characters killed shortly after beginning play. None the less, I think I may try this with my next group of newbies.

Unnatural Aging I very much like the idea of spells which advance a character’s age. Many of Pathfinder’s most powerful spells sometimes feel as though they lack impact, because casting them comes with no great cost. In D&D 3.5, many of these spells required a character to sacrifice a large amount of experience points in order to cast them, which I never liked. It lacks a sufficient game world explanation. It’s just a meta game mechanic which unsuccessfully attempts to reign in the power of casters. Magical aging, on the other hand, is well rooted in the fantasy genre. I like the idea that a character is so drained by Altering Reality that they lose three years from their life. And it does reign in a caster’s power significantly: each casting of the spell brings them ever closer to their character’s death from old age.

Disease A few days before I picked up the DMG to begin this project, one of my players asked my why disease did not play a role in the game. “Rabies is a serious threat, and any minor animal could be a carrier for it,” he said. I told him that disease was not a larger part of the game because it wouldn’t be fun: there’s no meaningful way for a player to avoid disease, nor any meaningful way for them to combat it. At best, I said, it would be a way for the GM to tax the players resources by forcing them to heal themselves occasionally, even if they’d taken no damage. When I said it, I felt very Gygaxian. My position on the matter meshed with what I knew of Gygax.

But apparently not, because every month Gygax writes that players have a base 2% chance to contract a disease, and a 3% chance to contract a parasite, with both probabilities being modified by relevant environmental factors. I do not understand how this could be fun for the players. I’d be very curious to hear from anyone who has actually played a game with this rule in effect.

The Paladin’s Warhorse In World of Warcraft, both the paladin and warlock classes have special “class mounts.” These days the ability to summon these steeds is gained automatically upon leveling, but when I first started to play the game years ago, there were lengthy and difficult questlines which had to be completed in order to obtain these mounts. I found the quests to be a great deal of fun, which made me appreciate my mount a lot more once I had it, and I have often regretted the fact that these quests are no longer part of the game.

Apparently the same is true of Dungeons and Dragons. As long as I’ve played the game, the paladin’s Warhorse has simply been a celestial creature which the paladin summons upon reaching a certain level. However, according to Gygax, this summoning spell only gives the paladin the ability to see his or her future companion in whatever local it is currently in. The Paladin must then travel there, and bond with the mount in person. And who knows what quests will be required along the way! This sounds a great deal more fun than the way it is done in Pathfinder, and I fully intend to use this from now on.

First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, There Is No Honor Among Thieves, by Darlene PekulThieves and Assassins Setting Traps Something I noticed in my preliminary page-flipping is that Gygax occasionally asked his players to produce sketches demonstrating their technique in accomplishing certain tasks. Here, he dictates that anytime a character wishes to set a trap, they should be required to produce a simple drawing illustrating how the trap functions. As a frequent player of rogues, I find this idea to be positively brilliant. I’ve often sketched simple trap designs just for the fun of it. I honestly think I would use traps more if I was actually required to provide a physical diagram of how it would work.

My only concern is that some players might be intimidated by the need to actually diagram their traps. My understanding of mechanics is rudimentary enough that I would let something work if it makes even a small amount of sense, but I can still imagine that some players would find the prospect daunting.

Lycanthropy Firstly, Gary and I are very much in conflict about what should cause a paladin to fall. Here it’s written that a paladin should fall if they are infected by a werewolf, because the second personality (the chaotic evil werewolf) causes the paladin to no longer be “pure enough for that honored state.” I’ve written at length about how a GM should handle a paladin’s oath and the possibility of a paladin falling, and I stand by those views.

Secondly, I like the approach Gygax takes to allowing players to gain control of their lycantrhopy–though I dislike his ultimate view of what lycanthropy represents. According to the DMG, a character with lycanthropy must live with the condition for many years before they’re able to control the transformation. And even once they can, it takes years longer to perfect their control. However, as far as I can tell, being a were-something never becomes beneficial to the player. In many ways I am a product of modern fantasy storytelling, I view lycanthropy less as a curse, and more as a superpower.

What I think I would like to do in my games is run the first stage of lycanthropy much as Gygax recommends. Players will be out of control when they transform, and probably won’t even be aware that they undergo the transformation for several months. In their alternate form, they will act as a beast, according to their alignment. However, as years go by, they could begin to control it. Perhaps after 6 months or a year they could control when they transform. And after a year or two, they could be in full control of themselves while in the alternate form. That way, both visions of lycanthropy are given some purchase within the fantasy world. On the one hand, it is a curse which will cause players to suffer a great deal for a very long time, and they will probably want to get it removed. However, if they choose to stick it out, it can eventually reap significant rewards.

Alignment The 9-point alignment system found in D&D can often feel clunky. Shoehorning every philosophical outlook into one of these nine categories feels forced, and to his credit Gygax admits that. In his explanation of the alignment system, Gygax phrases things in a way which I’ve never heard in all of my years of gaming. One which makes a lot of sense, almost to the point of being stupidly obvious: the alignment system helps determine who you are most likely to align yourself with.

This is not to say that groups of similarly aligned creatures cannot be opposed or even mortal enemies. Two nations, for example, with rulers of lawful good alignment can be at war. Bands of orcs can hate each other. But the former would possibly cease their war to oppose a massive invasion of orcs, just as the latter would make common cause against the lawful good men.

Alignment Language I’ve long been aware that early editions included languages specific to each of the alignments. In addition to common, a human paladin would speak “Lawful Good.” I always thought this sounded like an absolutely ridiculous idea. And while the book doesn’t entirely sell me on the concept, it does mention a number of points which have given me cause to reconsider my previous distaste for the idea.

  • Alignment languages are not full languages. Their vocabularies are extremely limited.
  • Think of alignment languages like Latin–which is a dead language that was none the less used for centuries as the universal tongue of the catholic church.
  • Speaking in an alignment tongue is considered remarkably rude when not alone with members of like alignment.

Changing Alignment Gygax writes that any change in a character’s alignment should result in the loss of 1 level of experience. I can’t find any justification for this, it seems very strange to me.

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of an honorable death.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 8

“Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school. It does not stress any realism (in the author’s opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either.Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 9

“An example of the use of wisdom can be given by noting that while the intelligent character will know that smoking is harmful to him, he may well lack the wisdom to stop (this writer may well fall into this category).” -Gygax, DMG, Page 15

“[Regarding Hide in Shadows] As is plainly stated in Players Handbook, this is NEVER possible under direct (or even indirect) observation. If the thief insists on trying, allow the attempt and throw dice, but don’t bother to read them, as the fool is as obvious as a coal pile in a ballroom.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 19

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7 thoughts on “Page By Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG part 1”

  1. In many ways I am a product of modern fantasy storytelling, I view lycanthropy less as a curse, and more as a superpower.

    This is a very interesting and perceptive way to put it. It is similar to the shift in portrayals of vampires, from unsympathetic (and disgusting) monsters, to sympathetic antiheroes (perhaps beginning with Interview with the Vampire in pop culture?), to essentially superheroes (Vampire: The Masquerade, True Blood, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries).

    Maybe there is a heroism axis upon which various games can be situated. I feel like this would explain many of the emotions people feel towards various games (like the sentiment I see commonly on 4E forums that people don’t want to play “dirt farmers” with 3 HP or whatever). This axis does not exactly map to old/new school style, as I have certainly seen some very high-powered old school games too that could reasonably be considered superhero games. I don’t know, requires more thought.

    I’ve never liked the literal idea of alignment languages in the sense of every back alley pickpocket speaking the language of evil. But if you make the concept a bit more cosmic (say, the languages of heaven and hell, or supernal/infernal in D&D terms) I think it works better. I think this connects to the idea of alignment not as moral tendencies but rather as essential forces in the universe. Another similar example is the black speech of Mordor. I’ve never really played with this in a game, but I think it would be fun.

    Regarding paladin mounts appearing versus being quested for: I think any time you can make game elements more diegetic it probably improves the game. For example, I recently came up with the idea of feats as treasure. You don’t get any automatically (except maybe at first level). You have to seek out a teacher or ancient manual or some in game explanation for the feat. Kind of like finding new spells in games where you don’t get them upon level-up.

    1. I like to accommodate both viewpoints. My personal preference is that werewolves, vampires, etc have a strong inclination towards evil. But if they have a titanic amount of will power, they can manage to force themselves into something more like neutral. A werewolf might even be able to pull off good, though I don’t think I’d ever have a vampire go that far. (The one, randomly-generated vampire paladin aside)

      I concur that alignment languages don’t seem like something that most people should know. Though I do like the idea of Thieves Cant. I really need to start using it in my games.

      I’ve always liked the idea of needing to seek out a trainer for feats, but I feel like it would take up too much time. With players getting a new feat every 2-3 levels (not to mention bonus feats, which would cause a fighter to get a new feat at every single level) I can’t help but think that the entire campaign would be taken over by looking for one trainer after another.

  2. Good sir! In the course of perusing this blog, I have come to regard you as a man of vision and imagination. So for you to malign the potential of disease in a campaign – why it’s almost criminal! Especially as an affocionado of the undead!

    Without the potential for disease, a delve into the sewers is no different from examinating rats in the tavern basement. If someone falls into raw sewage, they’re at risk for a great deal more than an extended bath. Or what about those exploding zombies you suggested a couple of posts earlier? Getting covered in corpse guts is probably a lot nastier than 1d6 damage.

    Mechanically, diseases aren’t too different from curses or poisons. If the player fails a save, something bad happens, usually ability damage. But what makes it awesome is that diseases often take days to incubate. So by the time the rogue starts feeling queasy, they’ve probably forgotten about the fortitude save they rolled when fighting that dire rat. That can be scary. If disease occurs often enough (doesn’t have to be often, but enough to remind them it’s there), then they might start being a little more cautious. Maybe the cleric makes sure to purify the water the ranger found. Maybe they make sure to bury or cremate the bodies they find in case they’re contagious.

    And you don’t even need to do much legwork. A lot of vermin and undead in the Bestiary explicitly include disease as part of their attacks.

    But maybe you’re still worried that this won’t be fun. If you’re rolling your fortitude saves and damage once a day, you’re not eating up too much game time. But maybe the cleric has to expend a few spells every morning to keep the party in fighting shape. It’s a great way to tax resources. Fights they’d normally breeze through might be worth avoiding, when healing isn’t as readily available. So until they find a cure, they need to be careful.

    Or what happens if the bard gets laryngitis?

    That’s not to mention the potential tactics and plot hooks you can employ. One of the dirtiest tricks in all the history of warfare was to catapult infected corpses into besieged towns. They might have food for a year, but they won’t last that long with a virulent plague running loose. And how many great stories centre around a plague? The Iliad starts off with a plague. Exodus has multiple plagues. It’s just not an adventure without a good plague!

    And you know who gets to have a great time? The Paladin. Level 3, he just looks at all this and says “Bring it on, Motherfucker! I don’t need faith healing. I’ve got faith immunity!” It’s one of those abilities which looks really good, but never gets any use. It’s like countersong or nature walk. So when that one adventure comes along where a banshee’s wail terrifies the party, or brambles block the way, or a disease lays the party low, then the bard or the druid or the Paladin gets to say, “I knew I picked this class for a reason!”

    So I leave you with the following scenario:

    Thomas Gallant (“It’s pronouced ga-LANT!”) looked into the darkness of the crypt. Something foul was down there, something which could infect a whole town without stirring from its resting place. He breathed in. The air was stale and rank, but he hadn’t had so much as a cold since the day he pledged his sword arm to Iomedae.

    He looked at his compatriots. Tarvek looked as though he could barely heft his axe, and even the stoic Argyron looked green and leaned on his staff.

    “Do we really have to go in there?” Hadrik rasped. The poor bard’s throat had swollen until all he could manage was a whisper. There would be no tales of Thomas’s great-great-grandfather, Sir Gregory, to fill him with courage this time. But sometimes a quiet Hadrik was a good Hadrik.

    Thomas chuckled to himself, then turned to his friends and said, “Come on, lads! This town’s got a fever, and the only prescription is a +2 Holy Greatsword!”

    1. You’re absolutely right, my good man!

      So right, in fact, that you’ve successfully predicted a few posts I wrote just this past week: Pathfinder Diseases Part 1: Magical and Pathfinder Diseases Part 2: Mundane

      My particular problem here, which I don’t think I expressed very well. (This post could have used a copy editor.) was that Gygax quite literally wanted players to have a flat chance of contracting a disease each month.

      Each month, the GM rolls a percentile die, modified by the player’s actions. What they’ve eaten, where they’ve been, etc. And even if the players have done nothing dangerous at all, they might end up diseased. That’s bad GMing, in my view.

      I do quite like some of your ideas. I hadn’t thought about the potential for exploding zombies to spread mundane diseases, as well as the ‘zombie plague.’ And I can’t believe I left out sewer delving in my post about mundane diseases. That was foolish!

      1. Well, just goes to show I’ll have to put in larger effort to catch up!

        Yeah, I don’t see how the monthly disease check enhances enjoyment of the game. It also seems rather contrived. If they eat something nasty or go somewhere foul, just have them get sick at that point. I don’t think any of us want to keep track of how many servings of beans the dwarf’s had over the past month.

  3. I’d say that introducing (potentially) lethal and/or debilitating diseases into an RPG campaign would be more acceptable to players in systems where you do not spend a lot of time, thought and effort in creating a character, i.e. Oldskool D&D and 1st ed. WFRP where your character is for the better part the product of dice rolls rather than build-options, feat choices and skill point allocation are more hospitable for “you may die ignominously” rules features.

    If you’re interested in handling disease, the 1st edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay may be of some worth, some creatures potentially cause infected wounds, while many undead are carriers of the tomb-rot disease. Each time you take damage from such a creature there is a % chance to catch the disease, and some diseases are brutal… but then, character death is meant to be very probable… fortunately, character generation is very quick and simple (roll on a few tables and write down what you get), there is actually no “build”-system in play unless the DM finds it appropriate. I’d imagine a disease like Nurgle’s Rot (slowly turn into a plague deamon, no cure said to exist) may be less fun in a system where you spend more time and thought on building a character like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder.

    1. Nobody is ever going to be happy about death. And while, at level 1, a Pathfinder player has certainly put more time into their character than a 1st edition player has; as the game progresses that difference is severely mitigated. After 10 sessions the amount of investment between the Pathfinder player and the OD&D player is going to be indistinguishable.

      Thanks for the pointer about Warhammer Fantasy! I’ll take a look.

      Edit: Haha, I thought you were actually replying to a pair of later posts I’d written about Mundane and Magical diseases.

      Regarding Gygax’ system, players of any edition would be justifiably angry to have their characters die for no reason.

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