Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 5

Wizard in the night by the shore of the sea, by Darlene PekulThis is the fifth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Travel in the Known Planes of Existence” on page 57, and continues through “Listening At Doors” on page 60.

Travel In The Known Planes of Existence As I’ve mentioned in the recent past, I’ve always been fascinated by planar adventures. There’s something about the idea of traveling not only to other worlds, but to places where even basic physical realities are different. It gets my adventurous spirit going. But no matter how fundamentally different they are, I always picture the various planes of existence as still fitting within the game’s setting. And while Gygax makes allowances for that as well, much of this section is about using planar travel as an excuse to visit completely different game systems. As in sending D&D characters to his “Boot Hill” wild west game. I was aware that he, as a GM, did that sort of thing. But I find it a little odd to see it right here in the DMG. I honestly can’t imagine doing things that way. If my players and I wanted to play a different game, I think we’d just put our D&D characters aside and play a different game.

I once read a post from Trollsmyth which might explain that, though I can’t find it for the life of me. It was about a cultural shift in the tabletop gaming community. According to him, in the old days players tended to stick with a single game for the long term, while now-a-days players often switch between campaigns and game systems at a rapid pace. That might explain why Gary thought it was important for GMs to know they could send their players to other game systems, whereas I (as a whippersnapper) view the concept as silly.

Outdoor Movement I am both surprised and disappointed that nothing here is really news to me. I guess it might be because I’ve already devoted a lot of time to reading, thinking, and even writing about this subject. I’m still not satisfied with how it works in my games, though, so I was hoping this would be one of those passages filled with Gygaxian genius. Oh well.

Infravision & Ultravision It’s pretty cool to have a detailed explanation of how Infravision works, though it seems like basic 60′ Infravision wouldn’t be all that useful. I mean, it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve, but it wouldn’t let you function normally in the dark the way I would normally imagine. You’d be tripping over things on the floor constantly. 90′ Infravision is much closer to what one would normally think of, and I like that it is used to explain creatures with glowing red eyes. (The eyes are emitting infared radiation, and seeing via the radiation’s reflection).

Ultravision’s explanation is a little less detailed and clear. I wonder if the Player’s Handbook gives more detail on when this would be useful.

Invisibility This section, I think, stands well in contrast to many modern discussions about game-changing spells. Spells such as Fly and Invisibility which produce a lot of argument because they allow players to completely bypass obstacles. My position on these problems has always been that a GM should understand the spell’s limitations, and design better obstacles. Some others prefer to see these spells reduced in power, or removed from the game.

Gygax’s solution is to write six paragraphs and a table into the DMG which outline all the ways in which invisibility can fail in its intended purpose. Maybe the monster can smell you, or hear you, or maybe two players will run into one another while attempting to maneuver invisibly. It’s really quite clever.

Mirrors …What?

“It is important for DMs to remember that in order to be reflective, a mirror must have a light source.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 60. Apropos of nothing.

Why does this section exist? That’s all it says. Right between “Invisibility” and “Detection of Evil And/Or Good,” Gygax decided to include a little section about how mirrors work. I suppose I can see how this would be useful to remember, but it seems really random.

Detection of Evil And/Or Good I love how many of the sections in this book are obviously written from Gygax personal experience with players who try to take advantage of the rules. This is an example of that, where he points out that “Detect Evil” can’t be use to find traps or poisons. I don’t think there’s any point in my GMing career when I would have allowed a player to do that, but obviously some players have tried.

Listening at Doors I’m kind of surprised to learn that Gary Gygax included a listen check in his game. The way the entire OSR community hates perception checks, it’s kinda surprising to see the equivalent of one in this, the holy grail of the OSR. Now I realize nobody views Gary Gygax as infallible; he just got a lot of things right. I just never expected to see something like a listen check in this book.

And to be fair, he only includes it for when active listening attempts are made, which makes good sense I think. Thought his percentages are preposterously low. If there’s a dozen orcs in the next room, and an elf presses his ear to a wooden door, then I’d say there’s a 100% chance that elf is going to hear something. Gygax gives the elf a measly 15% chance.

Hearing Noise This is absolutely brilliant, so I’m going to include it in its entirety:

“When a die roll indicates a noise has been heard, tell the player whose character was listening that he or she heard a clink, footstep, murmuring voices, slithering, laughter, or whatever is appropriate. (Of course, some of these noises will be magical, e.g., audible glamer spells, not anything which will be encountered at all!) Be imprecise and give only vague hints; never say, “You hear ogres,” but “You hear rumbling, voice-like sounds.” Failure to hear any noise can be due to the fact that nothing which will make noise is beyond the portal, or it might be due to a bad (for the listener) die roll. Always roll the die, even if you know nothing can be heard. Always appear disintersted regardless of the situation.” -Gygax, DMG, Pg 60

Remember a week ago when I posted a long whiny list of things I want in a tabletop RPG? The above passage is exactly what I meant when I wrote:

“I want a game which explains not just the rules of the system, but the spirit which those rules support. One which explains why rules exist, and how certain mechanics improve play. I want a game which helps Game Masters make the leap from learning rules, to running a campaign.”

Why is this kind of thing so hard for modern RPGs to do?

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“”Now I’ll sneak up on the monster invisibly!” How often has this cry rung forth from eager players in your campaign? How often have you cursed because of it? Never fear, there are many answers to the problem of invisibility…” -Gygax, DMG, Pg 59

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3 thoughts on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 5”

  1. I love that picture, and had always thought of it as “the ultravision picture” until I started seeing linked to from OSR blogs a lot recently.

  2. This is also one of my favorite AD&D pictures.

    Perception checks have a long history in D&D, from OD&D on. There is the 2 in 6 (or 4 in 6 for elves) chance of finding secret doors, and the listen check, which is 1 in 6 or 2 in 6 for demihumans. I think it’s important to note that these are fixed chances, and are not susceptible to character optimization, unlike the later style of perception rolls. The mechanical change in AD&D to using the d20 also seems odd to me, rather than sticking with the traditional d6.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the ear seeker, which is one of the clear instances of Gary clearly designing something to frustrate the ingenuity of his players (“they listen at doors too much, let’s make bugs that eat people’s ears”).

    The note about hearing loss is also sort of amusing, if you think about it.

  3. I’ve been plowing through your blog for the last week and have greatly enjoyed it.
    I don’t know if you’ve formulated any theories on
    The mirror section but I believe it is to remind DMs
    That infra vision senses heat
    (which a mirror doesnt reflect) meaning a dwarf
    In pitch darkness using infravision to look at a mirror
    Would not see the ogres reflection behind him
    (becouse his heat
    does not reflect off the mirror) he would only see a
    flat blank surface like the wall it’s hung on

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