Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 12

Front & Back Cover Paintings for the 1979 DMG by Gary Gygax. Art by David. C. Sutherland III
Front and back covers of the DMG, by David C. Sutherland III

This is the twelfth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “First Dungeon Adventure” on page 96, and continues through the example of play which ends on page 100. 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 First Dungeon Adventure: The whole point of having an example of play is to demonstrate the basics of the game, to introduce the GM to what their role is, and how they should interact with the player. This first section, which is geared towards how to move the players towards an adventure, does a halfway decent job of that. But it could be much better, in my opinion. Rather than simply writing “You inform them that there is a rumor in the village that something strange and terrible lurks in the abandoned monastery not far from the place,” why not directly address the what a hook is and how it should be handled? The example is fine, if a little mundane, but it could have been improved by adding something as simple as: “This is called the adventure hook. The purpose is to inform and entice the players towards an adventure, though the GM should avoid forcing the players down any given path.” Which is pretty much exactly what Gygax does in the next bit, where he describes the character’s guide. It’s noted that the guide might be “an agent of some good or evil power, a thief in disguise, or just about anything else.”

I don’t think this section is bad, but in my reading of this book so far, it has become apparent that Gygax, though brilliant, was not the best communicator*. Perhaps I am wrong. I never met the man. But, since this is often considered to be his greatest work, I think it’s a pretty fair assessment. The above is hardly the worst example I’ve encountered, but it is relevant because the following section is a back-and-forth between players and GM. I’ve heard from a few different sources that reading and re-reading this section is how they learned to play. It’s where all the confusing rules start to make sense.

*Which isn’t to say I am.

Example of Play:

(After asking the players to provide their marching order).

“DM: “Why are the gnome and the halfling in the front rank, the magic user in the middle, and the human fighter and cleric in the rear?”

LC: “That way all 5 of us can act when we encounter an enemy! The magic-user can cast spells over the heads of the short characters in front, and the pair in the back rank can do likewise, or fire missiles, or whatever is needed, including a quick move to the front!”

This is right near the start of the example of play, and I think it’s my favorite exchange presented. I’ve written before about the importance of clarity both from the GM and from the players. If one party doesn’t fully understand the other, then the game starts to feel unfair. I do my best to be clear, and if I don’t fully understand what my players are doing, I’ll ask them to describe it in greater detail. But I don’t think I’ve ever considered asking “why” they’re doing something. To ask that would almost seem like participating in their decision making, which is not my role. My role is to respond to their actions.

However, here “why” is clearly used to improve the clarity of the situation. If the GM would not allow the fighter in the back row to use a ranged weapon over the magic user’s head, then it’s better the players find out now, rather than when they’re in combat.

“DM: “Just as the three are about in position to look down the passages, and while the cleric is heading for the rotting bags, the magic-user cries out, and you see something black and nasty looking upon her shoulder!”

LC: “EVERYBODY, QUICK! SEE WHAT’S ATTACKED HER!” Then, turning to the referee: “We rush over to help kill whatever has attacked her! What do we see?”

Okay, two things.

LC, I get that you’re excited. The game is exciting, and something exciting is happening. But you really don’t need to shout across the table for everyone’s character to see what attacked the magic user. Everybody wants to know that. They’re all gonna look. I know this is just Gygax having some fun, but LC just officially became that guy for me.

Which, more to the point, the LC (Lead Character) concept is just weird. I understand that sometimes a certain player is going to become the de facto leader of the adventuring party, but the way it is presented here is strange. The LC literally announces the actions of every character, and apparently those players are cool with it. Perhaps this was done to save space, but the LC implies a style of play where most of the participants are almost spectators.

OC: (The cleric, of course.) “I squash the nasty thing with my mace!” and here the player, having already gained savoir faire, rolls a d20 to see if his strike is successful. A 20, and a beaming player shouts: “I got it!”

DM: “You’re right, and you do … (with these words the DM rolls a d6 to determine the amount of damage) SIX POINTS!”

So…why does the GM roll the player’s damage? Any oldschool players wanna educate me on this?

“DM: Each of you who are opening the door roll a d6 for me to see if you succeed. I see from you character sheets that the gnome has a normal strength, so he’ll need a 1 or a 2, the cleric has 17 strength so he’ll do it on a 1, 2, or 3.” (Eager hands roll the dice, and each succeeds in rolling a score low enough to indicate success.)”

Nearly every roll in this entire example of play is a success. I could really have used an example of what to do if the players fail at opening a door. Do they simply roll again? Is there a random monster check?

“OC: (The gnome:) “I’ll pull myself up into the passage revealed, and then I’ll see if I can drive in a spike and secure my rope to it, so I can throw the free end down to the others.”

DM: “You get up all right, and there is a crack where you can pound in a spike. As you’re doing it, you might be in for a nasty surprise, so I’ll let you roll a six-sider for me to see your status–make the roll! (Groans as a 1 comes up indicating surprise. The DM then rolls 3 attacks for the ghoul that grabbed at the busy gnome, and one claw attack does 2 hit points of damage and paralyzes the hapless character, whereupon the DM judges that the other 3 would rend him to bits. However, the DM does NOT tell the players what has happened, despite impassioned please and urgent demands. He simply relates:) “You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he’s working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight. What are you others going to do?”

I’m really glad a character death was included in the example of play. Honestly, if I were going to write a DMG, I might include an entire chapter on character death. It’s one of the most difficult things for a new GM to do, and it is really easy to do it wrong if you don’t have some good examples to work with.

The Gnome’s death is well justified. He entered an entirely new area, didn’t look around at all, and immediately began to make large amounts of monster-attracting noise. Though I do find it interesting that the character was not explicitly given a save v. paralysis.

Overall Assessment: The example of play was actually quite good. Many of my frustrations with the writing were not as prevalent here, and I can see why people would rely on this to teach them the game. Perhaps more examples of play are warranted in future DMGs. What if nearly every page of the DMG had a side-bar with a very brief example of play, demonstrating the concepts presented on that page?

It’s difficult for a new GM with new players to really understand the game they’re attempting to play. I’ve never heard of anybody in that situation who didn’t have some really awkward experiences before they figured out what they were doing. More examples like these might help mitigate that, and open up tabletop games to more casual gamers.

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12 thoughts on “Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 12”

  1. I think the reason it wasn’t called an adventure hook, was because that term didn’t come into favor until much later. Hell, I don’t think when I was gaming back in the early 80’s that any of us sat around and talked about the “adventure hook”. That’s not to say that we didn’t really talk about it but rather we likely called it something else.

    As far as the LC / Caller thing, I have to say I think most of us ignored that concept. If I had to guess, it likely had to do something with the war-gaming roots of D&D.

    I’m not sure why the GM rolled the damage for the players actions. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that before. To be sure in the early days, there was a lot variance on how people ran and played game.

    1. I thought about mentioning “Perhaps the term didn’t exist yet.” In retrospect, I probably should have, but I didn’t because the exact terminology isn’t really important. My issue is that instead of explaining the concept, Gygax gives a singular, nearly context-less example. It’s the kind of thing which shows up a lot in the DMG. Gygax was a genius. But you say it yourself: there was a lot of variance on how people ran and played the game. Perhaps if the rules and methodologies had been communicated better, there would have been a better understanding of how the game ought to be played.

      Of course, people will always play the game differently from one another, but it seems to me that regardless of the edition you’re reading, a new GM will need to discover many unwritten rules for themselves. Poor instructions can lead to years of playing the game with a poor understanding of how and why the game works, as I did.

      (Thanks for the comment, by the way! It’s really helpful to hear from oldschoolers, particularly on these Page by Page posts. I lack a lot of historical context for what the gaming environment was like at the time).

      1. I’m not sure if I’m that old school. I just remember learning to play when I was fairly young. Which at the time was unusual. RPG’s at the time tended to be more a college thing at the time.

        To be honest, I think part of the reasons that the instructions were so poor as you put it was that initially people were just discovering how they wanted to play RPGs. Also, I’ve always gotten the impression over the years that the DMG itself was really a collection of articles that where put between two covers. I don’t mean that as slam but rather I think it explains the how and why some sections were written. For example, few if any people use the grappling rules in the game. Gygax himself claimed that he got talked into writing those complex rules and that he himself did not use them. Which I’m sure made some of the rules even more confusing and perplexing to people.

        1. Those are both important points. The medium was new, and Gygax’ was probably drawing on a lot of disparate sources for his material.

          So…why isn’t the D&D 3.5 DMG an improvement? =P

  2. One thing about the Lead Character, and why it was assumed there would be one: in The Old Days, people might game with up to twenty PCs; 10-12 was the average I recall back in 1980. So having one person wrangle all of the players and present a plan to the DM was just a complexity management tactic. Players absolutely did not have to abide by what the leader said, but it would be their responsibility to point it out if they did something different.

    And the “QUICK! EVERYBODY…” bit, while melodramatic, simply ensured that the DM knew everyone was reacting immediately, and not delaying things by mulling around. Player reaction time was sometimes a factor, as anyone who’s DM’ed the Tomb of Horrors knows.

    1. My issues with “QUICK! EVERYBODY!” are mostly facetious, played up for the sake of a joke. I’m not very funny, though. =P

      I hadn’t considered the way larger group sizes in the old days would have affected things. That’s a good point! Though I’m getting up near 10 players in my current Pathfinder group, and this hasn’t been an issue for me yet. I’ll be interested to see if this idea starts to sound more appealing as my group continues to grow.

      1. 10 players, each running 2 characters or so, with hechmen…

        Having a caller, usually as a “this is our plan, based on our defaults, who wants to alter it?” type of thing, simplified those runs a *lot*. Declaring “yes, X looks at the spider” nine times is boring as crap.

    2. I don’t know if 10-12 was average back in 80’s, at least it didn’t seem so where I was gaming. However, I think you are correct in that the assumption was that there would be more players than what we now consider the norm. After all, most of the early RPG groups were extensions of the war gaming groups (or the same groups), which seems to be pretty large.

    1. I’ve written about character death a few times…let me see: (Scroll down to “Higgins”) (All 3 stories include a perspective on death.)

      I’m sure I’ve written about it elsewhere as well, but those are the posts which come to mind.

  3. I have learned to play in the mid-80’s, from the red box (Italian translation). At that time there was no internet and little magazines available so most of the learning was done talking each others and borrowing manuals from the reachest of us.

    That is how i read the Gigax’s GM and learned many of my english strangest words, like “flail” or “morning star”.

    At that point I had little comprehension of why traps or carachter death, so we preferred more interaction or combat-based campaigns.

    In any case, adam is right about LC for large groups. It was also a mean to make DM life simpler: player were supposed to argue between themselves and when LC then said “we enter in to the room” this couldn’t be undone, eaven when the room exploded.

    We allways intended LC much more as a spokeperson than a leader.

    Also approve what I read someware here: DM guide was a collection of fundamental hints and useless garbage, probably based on the articles from wich chapters ware token. Also the order of content is questionable.

    I remember pages and pages on handling intelligent swords, based on Elric saga… I mean, who ever cared if his sword was able to detect new constructions on 5′ or slopes on 8′? hours in rolling random dice, and never ever used once..

  4. Damage diceroll might be kept from players so they can’t figure out resistances; the *characters* don’t know anything about hitpoints, and they might see staggering a werewolf with a hammer (and dealing no damage) in the wrong context. It’s part of the division. I still do this, so that DR isn’t a known-attribute.

    Paral-save is only against effects that cause it; it’s a part of the touch-attack of a ghoul, and the “save” is you not getting hit by it.

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