Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 6

An armored adventurer is trapped in a room slowly filling with water, as a sword-wielding skeleton rises from the water to attack him from behind. Art by David S. La Force, from the 1979 DMG by Gary GygaxThis is the sixth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Combat” on page 61, and continues through “Special Types of Attacks” on page 70

Encounters, Combat, and Initiative: Here is the first place where Gygax brings up the fact that AD&D uses a 1 minute round. This has been discussed in the comments section of previous Page by Page posts, but I think it deserves a proper mention here. To his credit, Gygax writes a lengthy explanation and defense of the one minute round. He makes a few very compelling points about the importance of abstraction, and how more granular combat is inappropriate in a game which does not focus on combat. As a sabre fencer myself, I can appreciate the fact that it would be impossible to really represent swordplay in the tabletop RPG format. None the less, I view the 6 second round as a major improvement. I simply think the game becomes more engaging when the players have more granular control on what happens in combat. I wouldn’t really argue that one method is inherently better than the other, it’s a stylistic preference.

Gygax also explains exactly what hit points are meant to represent in this section. If I’d had this quote on hand in the past, I would have been able to settle a lot of silly arguments:

“Damage scored to characters or certain monsters is actually not substantially physical–a mere nick or scratch until the last handful of hit points are considered–it is a matter of wearing away the endurance, the luck, the magical protections.”

Initiative: I like the fact that Initiative is only rolled if there is no element of surprise to consider. I do not like the idea that initiative is recalculated each round. There seems to be an excessive amount of computation involved in determining the order of combat. This excess becomes even more prevalent later in this reading.

Morale: I thought I had mentioned this before, but apparently I have not: morale is a good idea. I don’t understand why developers decided to cut the morale mechanic out of the game. These days, most enemies simply fight to the death, which is not only silly, but harmful. If the monsters never run away, then players will never realize that running away is an entirely valid strategy for survival.

Encounter Reactions: I’ve never liked rolling for reactions, but that may be because I’ve never liked entirely random environments. Which isn’t to say I don’t have a healthy respect for the role of random generation in RPGs. It is not only useful, but essential. However, I prefer a kind of directed randomness. When I roll for a random monster, I’m rolling on a list of monsters for which I have already created worldviews, and reasons for being in the area. My players have repeatedly told us they appreciate this, because it means that random encounters are not meaningless encounters. Every random encounter tells them more about the world around them, and could potentially lead to adventure.

Missile Discharge: I had never considered before that a missile (such as an arrow) might be destroyed by a spell (such as a fireball). The concept is fascinating, and I’m curious to give it a try. I’m also somewhat wary of it, however. The player firing an arrow into a group of enemies is already having less of an impact than the guy casting a fireball into that same group. It seems mean to make the two mutually exclusive.

Also in this section, I gained a new appreciation for the modern rules of firing into a melee. These rules are ridiculously convoluted.

Missile Fire Cover and Concealment Adjustments: In an amusing turnaround, I think the cover and concealment mechanics are actually more simple than they are in modern games. A flat boost to AC rather than an extra d% roll to determine miss chance.

Grenade-Like Missiles: I find it a little terrifying that Gygax thought such complex rules were necessary. I’ve always handled grenade-like missiles using a very simple system. They have a range increment of 10ft and use a ranged touch attack. Standard damage is dealt to anyone hit by them, and splash damage is dealt to anyone in an adjacent space. If you miss, roll 1d6 (for hexes) or 1d8 (for squares) to determine which direction the object landed in, and roll 1d4 to determine the total number of spaces away from the intended target it landed.

Spell Casting During Melee: I love this idea. I’ve written in the past (twice, actually) about ways to nerf the wizard without losing any of its flavor, and the rules presented here seem like a great method for partially accomplishing that goal. An AD&D a spellcaster cannot crouch or lie prone while casting any spell that includes somatic components, and loses their dexterity bonus to their AC while casting such a spell. If they are attacked or jostled while casting a spell, that spell fails and is expended for the day. No concentration check, no nothing. There’s nothing wrong with wizards wielding powers vastly beyond the abilities of a fighter or rogue, so long as the fighter and rogue are still needed to keep the caster alive while they cast.

It’s also sounds like most AD&D spells have much longer casting times than Pathfinder spells do. Not only would implementing that as a house rule improve game balance, but it would lend spells a sense of gravitas.

Turning Undead: There are some really interesting concepts here. First, I love the idea that a cleric can only continue to turn undead until he fails once. You might say that if a cleric fails to turn undead, it’s because his faith faltered for a moment. And upon seeing the undead continue undaunted by his god’s power, the cleric’s faith in that power is broken until they have a chance to rest and pray. I also like that more powerful undead ‘shield’ less powerful undead from being turned. If a cleric encounters a vampire and five zombies, they must turn the vampire in order to attempt turning the zombies.

Counter-Affecting: I very much would like to see a good and an evil cleric fighting for control of a group of undead. That sounds awesome.

Closing to Striking Range: Perhaps I’m failing to understand something. I haven’t read the AD&D player’s handbook, so I lack a basis which many of these sections assume I have. However, it sounds like you cannot close to striking range, and strike, in the same turn. Why ever not? That just seems silly.

Weapon Speed Factor/Other Weapon Factor Determinants: The more I read about the AD&D combat round, the more it seems like a jumbled mess to me. Again, perhaps this is because I lack information found in the PHB. But figuring out who gets what actions in each round, and then determining which actions occur simultaneously with other actions, is enough to make my eyes glaze over. That doesn’t happen very often! I love reading about mechanics. But halfway through Gygax’s example about a fighter using a sword and a magic user casting a fireball, I realized I simply did not care.

At this point my view is that AD&D combat is filled with interesting ideas which could be useful in a modern game, but that modern combat is still an overall improvement. That may change once I have an opportunity to actually see these rules in action.

Pursuit and Evasion of Pursuit: This is a good, simple breakdown of pursuit rules. I wouldn’t call it great, but it actually answers a lot of questions I’ve had (and heard) about how to run a chase scene well. I’m convinced it can be done better, but I don’t have any real ideas on how that could be accomplished.

I do really like how the GM is not supposed to provide fleeing characters with enough information to create a map. So the cost of running away from a monster is being lost in a dungeon.

Number of Opponents Per Figure: I find it highly amusing that AD&D is noted for functioning without a battlemat, but still needs to utilize squares and hexes to determine how many monsters can attack a single character at a given time.

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4 thoughts on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 6”

  1. You know the Pathfinder rules for grenade scatter are even simpler.

    Roll 1d8 for direction and it scatters a number of squares equal to the range increments thrown.

  2. Remember that most 1E casting times are like speed factors; in Pathfinder, the equivalent would be an initiative penalty (that is, they just make the spell go off later in the round).

  3. That initiative penalty would not be equivalent, without one important change.

    Wizards are assumed to be casting from the beginning of the round in which they cast a spell. This would mean any damage or disruption would cause them to lose the spell. In 3.x, spellcasting doesn’t even begin until your initiative comes up.

  4. I’m a relatively new D&D player, but I’ve been playing often recently. My main group uses a blend of 1st and 2nd AD&D and my other group plays Pathfinder. My very first AD&D game I was playing a cleric/ranger in the crypt of the Order of the Crimson Monks and I ended up turning and counter-turning a group of skeletons with an evil cleric. It was some of the most fun I’ve had on the tabletop and it made the eventual death blow to that cleric even more satisfying! I wholly recommend you implement those rules in your game.

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