Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 8

A Skull and a Sword next to an Altar, by David S. La Force, for the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide by Gary Gygax
Art by David S. La Force

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!

Cartoonish Fighter is Frightened of a Rust Monster by Will McLean for the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide by Gary Gygax

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

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9 thoughts on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 8”

  1. 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.

    This isn’t all that strange if you frame it in the modern practice of GMs awarding new levels at story appropriate times rather than by XP. Imagine if XP were only knowable to the GM, then this section reads more like a guide to using XP to gauge when you as the GM should normally consider leveling your players up.

    1. Perhaps, but that’s not a practice I would find acceptable within games I played. Nor is it one I think Gygax would have supported, as it relies on story flowing from the GM, rather than from the players. Gary writes frequently about the players actions and the luck of the dice creating the ‘story.’ (And in context, he seems to refer more to stories that the players will tell when recounting their adventures, rather than an overarching plot of any kind.)

  2. First off, thank you for the quick response to my email! In your response you mentioned that if I wanted to run the system btb then you (and your house rules) are the wrong way to go. Frankly you touched on my reasoning for going to you in your notes on saving throws. I don’t want to play straight from the book, I want to have a fantastic experience running a game that my players are loving an that runs smoothly. Most of your “fixes” to the system seem like they make things run smoother and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

    To address your issue with the weeks of training between levels: this is all part of the elaborate system Gary set up that makes running the campaign something that _works_. You should got to this link:
    and read original post. This guy here explained everything in a way that made running AD&D go from flying by the seat of my pants “Oh crap what am I even doing?!” to something that works well and runs smoothly. The system put in place keeps characters from growing more than one level at once a well, which in my opinion is not really good for newer players who are still learning the system and trying to find their place in the world.

    1. It was my pleasure. I like email, but never receive any. =P

      I’ll look into that link next time I have a moment. Thanks for it!

  3. Nice look at the old DMG – It makes me feel like I need to get a copy, because I remember that there was great stuff in there from when I was a kid. I think you hit on the parts of that section worth noting.

    I also agree regarding the DMG’s XP rules – They are insane. It also looks like loitering about playing the really old style stuff is having an effect on you? Would I be wrong if I assumed that you’re feeling joy in simple rules, table created story and such are if not a direct result, at least influenced by playing/running ODD/BX games of late?

    1. I’ve gravitated towards the OSR for a little over a year now. When I first started out blogging, and decided that I ought to see what kind of blogging community existed for tabletop, all I really found was OSR blogs. The few Pathfinder blogs I found were boring. Discussing builds, and deciphering rules rather than challenging them to be better. Whereas Hack & Slash, or Trollsmyth, actually gave me new information and challenged my thinking.

      At present I’ve got one foot in the OSR, and one foot out. Despite being a Pathfinder blog, P&P gets a lot more attention within the OSR community than it does within the Pathfinder community. I love the idea of simplifying rules, but I still enjoy a lot of stuff which the OSR largely rejects (such as feats).

      None the less, it’s true that the speed of my gravitation has increased by an order of magnitude since we started Pahvelorn this past summer. It may be that I’ll eventually find myself firmly in the OSR camp. But I’m not in any rush to get there. My perspective as a modern gamer influenced by the OSR has led me to do some interesting things I might not have done if I had given up on Pathfinder wholesale.

      1. Oh yeah – I didn’t figure you were turning into a grumpy OSR supremacist or anything – I just thought the post was thoughtful, and like many of your theory posts here is showing an interest in using old rules/attitudes to simplify and de-computer RPG aspects of newer games. I like it is all.

  4. When he’s talking about difficulty of attaining treasure, he’s talking about the entire journey (xp is only tabulated once you return to town). An orcish raid by L10 characters should not reward the players nearly as much as such a thing at L5, nor should someone who outright steals a dragon’s treasure get the money for it by comparison to defeating the dragon and taking it (depending… stealing might be the harder of the two!).

    Also, as a note concerning alignment: if you differ from your alignment too much, you have a chance, based on your con, to outright be slain for it, per System Shock. This, and other alignment-change penalties (especially divine-users) are the reason for taking grades and similar. A cleric who remains true to her god is going to have less trouble in her studies and prayers (and thus, in the actual *act* of advancement) than one who’s wishy-washy about killing innocents… roleplaying is a good way to show a character’s dedication to their class and their advancement; a character who wants to be rich won’t be so dedicated to learning positive necromantic arts, but a thief might. It hampers one and helps the other.

    Death is itself an experience, and it’s worth it for some characters. I’ve always given necromancers/E clerics a bonus for their first death (which is also why I have house-ruled in bonuses for being occasionally dead, or body-less, or soul-drained, to gain a further, empathic understanding of these things).

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