Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 11

1st edition DMG sample dungeon
Sample Dungeon Map from the DMG

I apologize for my recent four day absence. My ladyfriend, who has been out of town for the last month, only just returned. I opted to spend some time with her without writing eating up my time. Back now, though!

This is the eleventh installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Peasants, Serfs, and Slaves” on page 94, and continues through “Secret Doors” on page 97. 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.

I’m doing some skipping around here. I’d like to address the sample dungeon and the dungeon advice here, and the example of play in part 12.

Level Key: While this is a perfectly functional key for the dungeon presented, I think Gygax misses an important opportunity here to talk about dungeon notation. Everybody knows dungeon maps are needed, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an official source discuss how to draw maps. It’s not a simple proposition! In fact it’s one that I’ve struggled with myself for many years, and have plans to write about in the future.

For example, how might one indicate that a room has multiple levels to it? Perhaps a balcony 7ft of the ground? Obviously it could be referenced in the room’s description, but I think it would be much better if it could be indicated visually. Some might suggest colored pencils, but many GMs (myself included) work on maps on-the-go, and would find the necessity of special tools inhibiting.

Even ignoring more unusual notations such as those, Gygax only provides 8 symbols here. While perusing a 1994 issue of Dungeon magazine, I found 22 symbols. Most of which where quite useful, such as barred door, locked door, archway, portcullis, window, and trap door in ceiling.

Wandering Monsters: I notice two things about this. First, the potential group sizes of these wandering monsters are huge. A first level party would have to keep on their toes to survive this sample dungeon’s many inhabitants. Second, and much more interesting, most wandering monsters (save for the vermin) list which room they are ‘from.’ I love this idea! If the goblin camp is in area 7, then why should the players continue to encounter hostile goblins after they’ve driven the rest of the camp out of area 7? A straggler or two perhaps, but their presence in the dungeon would quickly die off.

Map: In this map, Gygax has made a couple of decisions which I avoid. For one, there are numerous dead ends. I imagine the purpose of these is to trap players who are fleeing from groups of monsters. While I’m sure they’re effective, I confess I find them rather odd. It’s difficult for me to make logical sense in my mind of why a dead end might be there.

Though I suppose “collapsed passage” serves well enough.

The other oddity here, one which I’m much less fond of, is the trivial nature of most of the secret/concealed doors. When my players find a passage, I like to reward them with something new. That reward may be a room full of deadly monsters, but it won’t simply be another room they’ve explored already. Or at least not one which is nearby. On this map (particularly the passages between 4 & 5; and 36 & 37) I can imagine my players becoming frustrated. Who wants to open a secret passage, only to discover a the room you were in 10 minutes earlier?

Note that I’m not saying such secret passages are flat-out bad design. They can have strategic use, if nothing else. I do think, though, that they’re included in far too many maps, and probably should not be present multiple time in map designed to teach dungeon design to new DMs.

Monestary Cellars & Secret Crypts: Here again, I’d like to see a little more detail. The three room descriptions are nice, but they’re long and not very well organized for actually running a dungeon. Perhaps this is how Gygax noted his dungeons, in which case there’s nothing that could have been done. It’s not as though he could advise on a methodology he didn’t use. But I would have liked to see an explanation of how to make reference notes based on these longer form notes.

Movement and Searching: This information really should have been under “Time in the Dungeon” way back on page 38. It covers some important gaps in that information which I had to fill in myself when I first started to include time tracking in my games. Poor organization is a non-trivial problem for a book. Particularly one ostensibly for use as reference material.

Detection of Unusual Circumstances, Traps, And Hearing Noise: “The GM should tell players what they see, and let them do the rest” is advice I wish I had received when I was learning to GM from the D&D 3.5 books.

Doors: This strikes me as very strange, and I can only imagine I am missing something. Gygax notes that “as a rule of thumb, all doors are hard to open…” He suggests a roll with a 1/3 chance of success any time a character attempts to open a door. This seems quite silly to me, particularly since there’s nothing to stop the characters from rolling until they get a door open. Perhaps he meant that a roll should be required during combat, or other severely time-sensitive time?

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice and then telling them the results are negative, and statements to the effect that: “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far–“, might suffice.” -Gary Gygax, DMG, Pg. 97

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9 thoughts on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 11”

  1. The wandering monster groups aren’t particularly big. 5 bandits, who according to the morale rules will probably break and run as soon as a couple of them are killed, seem about a match for a 1st level party with no hirelings. 12 goblins could be problematic, but not every encounter should be beatable. Now, the wandering monster groups in Appendix C, THOSE seem huge.

    Interestingly Gygax’s own notes were apparently very minimal, as seen here:

    The context for the open doors roll, basically, is that if the players try to open a door and fail, they lose any chance of surprising whatever monsters might be on the other side. Also, since they won’t know if a given door is locked, they might waste a lot of time trying to open a locked door (while the DM makes wandering monster checks), or might get impatient and bash the door down (alerting nearby monsters).

  2. I thought it was interesting how much info was written for each room, and was surprised it wasn’t significantly less, but I guess it’s so newer DMs can learn how much information can be present in each area? A good DM can improvise and/or knows what is in their rooms without the large description.

    I noticed that this post deals with”the section “Secret Doors” on page 97, and continues through “Peasants, Serfs, and Slaves” on page 94″. Was there a section on time-travel too? :P

    1. Fixed, thank you for noticing.

      Regarding the descriptions, I don’t think they were overlong for a published work. I generally expect a module to have a little more detail than I’ll use in play. But those notes need to be pared down a bit if the dungeon is going to be run successfully.

      At least, I don’t know any GMs who work from from lengthy notes like these.

  3. Most of the adventures Gygax wrote have wall of text room descriptions. They are great for reading, but I find them quite difficult to use in play. Courtney’s approach seems much better, though I think the optimal module would provide both.

    “Poor organization is a non-trivial problem for a book.”

    Heh, understatement of the year.

    Secret doors are not just to conceal areas from players, they can also be used to tactically by enemies that know about them (think about the opportunities for flanking, encircling, and escape). Given that Gygax was such a war gamer, I’m sure those possibilities were in his mind.

    Some of these dead ends could make sense as either catacombs or shrines. This dungeon map does give me a sort of catacomb feel.

    1. My impression of many old modules is that the GM (who obviously has a solid memory) is supposed to read the module, then prepare their own shorthand notes to run the game from. Drawing on their memory of their reading for any further details. Personally I find it hard to create notes for other people’s work. (In that I feel that if I’m doing that much work, I may as well make my own adventure in the first place).


      I had not really considered that before. If the monsters are aware of secret doors, that could be very dangerous to the players, but also possibly give them an extra way to locate hidden doors in the first place.

      Based on the description, it’s a catacomb / cathedral basement. So that does make sense. I guess I just find corridors boring. =P

  4. I don’t think the cartography calls it out as well as it should, but Room 5 is only accessible from Room 5 — between Room 5 and the hall is a heavy line (that’s just not drawn in heavily enough).

  5. For some reason, my post posted before I was done… Anyway,

    I believe the 1-in-3 chance with doors meant, if you failed, you’d have to flat out try another method, because what you were doing is not going to work. At least that was how we did them circa 78-81. It wasn’t a ‘skill check’ is was a ‘can the door be opened that way’ check. You couldn’t just stand there and keep trying the same thing until you rolled the right number.

    Dead ends could all have something in them — for one thing, some wandering monsters sleeping, perhaps. Or hiding from you, waiting to ambush you. They also obscure some of the concealed and secret door situations, and generally make the mapping of the place more ‘interesting’. Remember, back in the day, the DM didn’t draw out your maps for you — you drew your own based on the descriptions from the DM. Your own map could become wonky, and lead you to misunderstand which rooms and halls touched or didn’t touch…

    Also, the original gamers didn’t necessarily take things as seriously as is the general tone is these days. You were looking for a fun time of exploring a dangerous place and fighting monsters, having a laugh, not looking for logic in every detail. It was adventure, not scientific analysis. Ecology & Architecture grew in importance over time…

  6. Re: “This seems quite silly to me, particularly since there’s nothing to stop the characters from rolling until they get a door open. ”

    It’s a check to see if they *can* open the door; it’s presumed they try until they can’t anymore (you cannot attempt to open a locked/wedged door in combat, for example). This is the equivalent of taking-20… and our doors are a little more sturdy than more recent affairs.

    I tend to use shading to denote different levels, or offsets/shadows (in a vaguely isometric view) to show depth… if I get anything more than 2/3 levels (like a castle-courtyard, having potentially dozens of landings), I tend to just model the thing in 3d and call it ideal… but that’s profession rolls getting the best of a skill, I suppose.

    As a final note on this one, passages that are back-linking can be used to double-cross players with mimic rooms, and exist for benefit if the adventurers decide to inhabit this place (which is always a possibility).

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