This is the eighth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Saving Throw Matrix for Monsters” on page 79, and continues through “Gaining Experience Levels” on page 86. It’s been several months since the previous installment of this series, so I will reiterate: my purpose is not to review the DMG. It would be arrogant of me to think I could make a meaningful assessment of this book’s quality. I am merely going through it as a modern gamer, learning about the roots of Dungeons and Dragons, and making note when I see something surprising or interesting, or something which could be adapted for a modern game.
You can read all posts in this series under the Gary Gygax’s DMG tag.
Saving Throws: Ultimately there’s not a lot of new or surprising information in this section. It merely details why the saving throw exists, explains how it functions in the game world, and provides advice on how the GM should implement saving throws within the game. This section highlights something I’ve found I really love about Gygax’s style of writing. The way he communicates the game’s rules. In Pathfinder, the saving throw mechanic receives only a few paragraphs on page 180, which barely cover the mechanical necessities of how a saving throw functions, along with a brief description of what each of Pathfinder’s three saving throws are used for.
Here, Gygax devotes perhaps three or four times the amount of space that Paizo allotted to describe the concept of a saving throw. He addresses criticisms of the concept, and explains exactly what a saving throw means within game terms. This is a huge criticism I have of D&D 3.X. Not enough attention is given to educating the GM, and teaching them to think diagetically about their game. Instead, 3.X stressed what is commonly called “System Mastery” – a comprehensive knowledge of the rules. While in fact, I think understanding the spirit of the game is far more important to being a good game master.
Hit Points: This section strikes me as a little strange, since much of it just retreads information which appeared earlier in the DMG. However, I like that Gary addresses this issue:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points?
That discussion could easily have been moved earlier in the book, and saved some space. But I’m none the less happy he acknowledged this.
Effects of Alcohol and Drugs: I had one takeaway from this section: get your hirelings drunk. Sure they’ll take penalties to their ability scores and attack dice, but bonuses to hit points, bravery, and morale are worth it. It makes perfect sense, and I can’t believe I never considered it before. It’s particularly effective if you just get hour hirelings buzzed without letting them get drunk, because they won’t take penalties on anything you care about. Who actually wants hirelings with high wisdom in the first place?!
I’d be curious to learn if this has any historical support, like generals giving their men a round of beer before a battle. I’m sure that’s happened a few times, but was it effective?
Insanity: These are respectably game-able, but they’re not particularly inspired. None the less, it’s good that they’re included, and it’s good that they’re grounded in reality rather than being completely fantastical. I much prefer the type of fantasy world where characters suffer from Melancholia, rather than something ridiculous like “Devilbrain.”
Division of Experience Points: I was very interested to read that 1st edition AD&D actually had a primitive, clunky version of the “Challenge Rating” system found in D&D 3.x, and perfected in Pathfinder. The amount of math involved in this process is ridiculous. I don’t see how anyone could compare it favorably to challenge ratings as seen in Pathfinder, or even as seen in 3rd edition. Personally I’m not fond of any of these, as they all complicate the process of converting player achievement into experience rewards. None the less, Pathfinder is far superior in this regard.
Experience Value of Treasure Taken: Holy shit this is way too complicated. I am glad that people I know who base experience gain off of treasure stick with a simple 1gp = 1xp model. This rule would suggest that a 1 to 1 exchange should only be used if the treasure was appropriately difficult for the adventurers to recover. If the treasure is too easy to get, Gygax recommends “5 g.p. to 4 x.p., 3 to 2, 2 to 1, 3 to 1, or even 4 or more to 1.”
On a single dungeon run, players are likely to acquire gold from numerous sources, each of which may be more or less difficult for them. Using this methodology, the GM would need to note each acquisition of treasure separately, and the ‘exchange rate’ beside it. Combined with the ridiculously complex rules for calculating experience points from monsters, and you almost need to hire an accountant to ensure you’re awarding XP properly!
Art by Will McLean
Special Bonus Award to Experience Points: This started out sounding very reasonable . Of course if you’re running a mid or high level game you’re going to want to give your low level players some way to catch up to their higher leveled counterparts. I never really expected Gygax to recommend XP for dying and being resurrected, though. That strikes me as extremely odd. Particularly considering that resurrection most commonly comes with an XP penalty.
Gaining Experience Levels: It seems as though I’m finding a lot to dislike today, and I’m afraid this is no exception. Here, Gygax suggests that the GM should monitor their player’s role playing, and grade them based on whether or not they stuck to their alignment, and acted in keeping with their character class. I find this strange. Stranger still is the idea that gaining new levels is not something which a character is entitled to upon gaining sufficient experience. Rather, it is suggested that characters gain new levels at the GM’s discretion, and that they should be made to wait an appropriate amount of time (based on their role playing ‘grade,’) before they are allowed to move up.
Sometimes, Gary, I just don’t know what to think.
Favorite Quotes from this Section
“These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaing. The fame (or infamy) of certain characters gives lustre to the campaign and enjoyment to player and DM alike as the parts grow and are entwined to become a fantastic history of a never-was world where all of us would wish to live if we could.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 80