Page By Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG part 3

Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide, Magic User/Wizard Summoning a Genie from a cloud of mistThis is the third installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Time” on page 37, and continues through Illusionist Spells on page 47.

Time What Gygax wrote here about time and how to keep track of it is fascinating and vital. So much so that I’ve already dedicated not one, but two posts to exploring it. I see no need to repeat myself here.

Day-to-Day Acquisition of Cleric Spells In D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder, obtaining spells is a pretty straightforward procedure. Every morning the cleric prays for an hour, and all their spell slots are filled for the day. In 1st edition AD&D, as is often the case, there’s more to it than that. There is additional background, which seems to have been dropped from later editions because it complicates the game. And while there’s something to be said for cutting out unnecessary complications, I have been learning that many of Gygax’s original ‘fluff’ offers interesting adventure opportunities.

For a 1st edition cleric, only first and second level spells can be obtained through simple prayer. More advanced spells of third, fourth, and fifth level must be gained by beseeching one of your deity’s powerful servants each morning. To put it in terms I imagine many of my readers are familiar with, the cleric must communicate directly with an angel each morning in order to receive those spells. And for spells above fifth level, the cleric must communicate with their god directly. Not just once, but every morning.

The interesting thing about this is that if the cleric has acted against their god’s dictates within the last day, then they know they must face that god again the next morning when they ask for spells. And Gygax flat out says that for particularly serious transgressions, the cleric’s god may choose to simply obliterate the offending mortal.

Acquisition of Magic-User Spells Since I first learned that oldschool Magic Users learned their spells at random, I’ve been torn on the concept. On the one hand, I like selecting my spells carefully. It allows me to create effective strategies, and it meshes with my conception of wizards as magical scientists. On the other hand, I love randomization. Being given a random set of tools and needing to figure out a way to be effective with those tools is an intriguing challenge, and one I always enjoy. I look forward to playing some 1st edition once the WotC reprints come out, so I can make a more informed decision about which method of obtaining spells I prefer.

I have to say about this section, though, that Gygax seems a little overzealous about preventing players from obtaining spells too easily. I understand that easy access to spells can unbalance a game, by Gary literally says that if a player saves the life of an NPC who was already loyal to them (like a hirling) then that NPC will (at best) be willing to allow the PC to copy one spell from their spellbook in exchange for a spell and a minor magic item. The rules literally dictate that exchanges of spells should never be equitable for the player. This seems odd to me.

Spell Casting For those unaware, Dungeons & Dragons has always used something called Vancian Magic, named for Jack Vance, the author whose work the system was based upon. It’s also sometimes called “fire and forget,” because every morning a caster must memorize their spells, and once the spells are cast that memorization is wiped from their mind. In the editions of the game I’ve read, that’s about the extent of the information given. Here Gygax goes into greater detail. He explains that each spell is a combination of symbols and sounds which are charged with energy from one of the planes of existence. When combined into a certain formation, the energy of those planes is released in a limited fashion, causing a magical effect. Those symbols are then consumed by the magic which passes through them, not unlike a fire consumes fuel. Whether the symbols are on paper, or in the mind of a caster, they disappear.

Gygax writes nearly half a page on this topic, and recommends that for additional background, GMs read The Eyes of the Overworld, and The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. As well as The Face in the Frost by Bellair. Having not yet read these books myself, I cannot comment on them beyond Gygax’s recommendation.

Gygax also notes that while the words of a spell are typically used to bring the effect forth, and somatic (hand movement) components to the spell are used to “control and specify the direction, target, area, etc.” This brings to mind the interesting possibility of allowing casters to bring forth spells without somatic components–but in doing so they will have no control over how the effect manifests itself.

Spell Explanations Here begins a lengthy section where Gygax adds “DM’s Notes” for many of the spells present in AD&D. It doesn’t include spell descriptions, but most of the spells have self explanatory names, so I was able to follow along just fine. This section seems like a useful tool for the GM. It offers advice on how to adjudicate instances where players attempt to use spells in unusual ways which might end up being overpowered. For example, Gygax notes that casting the spell “light” upon one’s eyes does not grant a character “luminescent vision,” but rather blinds the character for the duration of the spell. Entries like this one make me wish GM notes for spells had been perpetuated through later editions of the game. It’s not only useful for determining how to handle a specific case, but it’s useful as a general guideline for how to handle players hoping to push the boundaries of what a spell can do.

On the other hand, I don’t see why “Blindness does not restore lost ocular organs” could not have been put in the spell description itself.

Aerial Servant I simply find this funny. Ever since I became interested in this hobby, I’ve heard from religious nutjobs that D&D teaches kids to cast “real spells,” and that players must learn incantations to the devil in order to succeed in the game. The notion is preposterous of course. Spell casting is normally handled simply by naming the spell and saying your character casts it. Players rarely have the spell’s description memorized, much less an incantation to go along with it.

None the less, the DMG says that players should be required to indicate which type of magic circle they’re using when they cast this spell. I laughed.

DMG Magic Circle, Pentagram, or Thaumaturgic Triangle

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“Once a cleric changes deities, he or she must thereafter be absolutely true to the new calling, or he or she will be snuffed out by some godlike means. It is 90% unlikely that the cleric’s first deity will accept him or her back into the fold after falling away, unless some special redemptive agency is involved. There is no salvation for a thrice-changed cleric; he or she is instantly killed.” -Gygax, DMG, page 39


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One thought on “Page By Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG part 3”

  1. You’ll notice similar spells in the 1e list, spells of various utility. Why take flame arrow over fireball?

    The randomization of spells is one of the largest factors that keeps the wizard on par with the fighter as they level. That and the army that shows up for the fighter at name level.

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