Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 9

First Edition Dungeon Masters Guide Hero on a chariot entering a city artist unknown
Art from the DMG. Artist is unknown.

This is the ninth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “The Campaign” on page 86, and continues through “The Town and City Social Structure” on page 90. My purpose is not to review the DMG, but to go 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.

The Campaign: I’ve read a fair share of sourcebooks at this point in my life, and I’ve never been fully satisfied with how the GMing information is presented. Whenever I read one, I imagine how I would interpret those instructions were I a new player again, learning to GM for the first time. There are always huge gaps in what the information should contain, and they never present a clear path between where to start, and how to develop your skills as you learn more. And while the DMG isn’t perfect in this regard, it certainly does better than most other sourcebooks I’ve read. I think page 87 may be my single favorite page in the entire book so far.

What stood out to me more than anything I did notice, is what I did not notice. No great emphasis was placed on the idea that the game could take any shape the GM could imagine. That was mentioned later, but the first four paragraphs of “The Campaign” provide the kind of straightforward advice I wish I had received when I was just starting out as a GM. This section in particular is golden:

“You are probably just learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants–your available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world.”

That, hands down, is the best introduction to being a game master that I’ve ever read in a sourcebook. Gygax knows that given infinite options, people will become confused about how to frame their options, and indecisive about which to choose. He provides straightforward advice for what your game should initially look like, and as the section goes forward he expands on that. The more time you spend as a dungeon master, the greater the demands on your creativity will be, and you’ll be forced to grow your knowledge and your campaign world at an organic pace. While this is happening, you’ll also be gaining valuable experience with the tools of your trade, and confidence in your own ideas. It doesn’t take long for a GM to realize they don’t need the game to tell them what their job is anymore.

What sourcebooks really need to provide is that first step, and the tools with which to build off of it. And the Dungeon Master’s Guide does this beautifully here.

Setting Things in Motion: Continuing in like fashion from the previous section, this may include the best description of how to run a town that I have ever read. Running towns and cities is a task I think I’ve always been my own worst enemy with. I get so focused on coming up with grand schemes for how to make the town work simply, that I never really considered how ultimately simple the entire process could be. And while I think I do a pretty good job of it, I also think I could be doing a lot better if I took a step back, set my elaborate plans aside, and adhered to this simple advice:

“Set up the hamlet or village where the action will commence with the player characters entering and interacting with the local population. Place regular people, some “different” and unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each. Stock the goods available to the players. When they arrive, you will be ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of each individual therein. Be dramatic, witty, stupid, dull, clever, dishonest, tricky, hostile, etc. as the situation demands. “

This passage is one I think I will study further, and create my own interpretation of.

Virtually everything you can imagine…: This isn’t a proper subsection, but rather a single quote. I thought about placing it in the “favorite quotes” bit, but I’d actually like to comment on it in greater depth. The emphasis is mine:

“OUtdoor adventures can be in a ruined city or a town which seems normal but is under a curse, or virtually anything which you can imagine and then develop into a playable situation for your campaign participants.

That point in bold is one of the most overlooked elements in gaming today. It’s why GMs railroad their players, and why video games are plagued by endless cutscenes. We are repeatedly inundated with this idea that the game is the GM’s canvas. Anything they imagine can become a reality. And yes, I would grant (in opposition to Gygax) that the GM can be an artist. But being an artist doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want and call it good. An artist must be mindful of their medium. As a writer, I can’t expect to insert a soundtrack into my fiction. And as a GM, I can’t expect anyone to give a shit about my unplayable game. Not even if I imagined it really, really hard.

Climate and Ecology: There’s some definitely solid information in here, though nothing I would call stellar. Then again, one of my players is an ecologist in training, and another is an ecological enthusiast, so perhaps I’m just used to taking this stuff into consideration already!

Social Class and Rank in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons:  You know, I’ve never actually given serious consideration to social standing in my D&D games. Players have always just been ‘adventurers,’ and the nobility is generally either standoffish or open minded. Including social standing in my games has never really struck me as enticing, but after reading through this subsection I can definitely see the attraction. I don’t have a great deal to say about Gygax’ particular thoughts, since I have little experience of my own to draw upon in this area. But you can bet I’ll be experimenting.

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on a life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. ” -Gygax, DMG, Page 87

“My own GREYHAWK campaign, for example, assumes all player characters (unless I personally place one who is otherwise) are freemen or gentlemen, or at worst they can safely represent themselves to be so. (Note that the masculine/human usage is generic; I do not like the terms freecreatures or gentlebeings!)” -Gygax, DMG, Page 88

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One thought on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 9”

  1. Social class and standing are one of the things that I used to differentiate AD&D from most other systems; MUs cannot, in most places, be known to be MUs, for theirs is a powerful art which many have abused. Clerics must be known for their creed, but they know that greasing palms and keeping quite in towns of differing alignment is the better path. Fighters frequently draw challengers, theives interact with thieves guilds… these things, and relative nobility (especially as the PCs get strongholds and similar) are things that shape every interaction.

    It’s not unknown, at my table, for a first-time MU to use a spell in a public area and to have a TPK for the experience.

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