Tag Archives: GM Tips

A Use for Bookshelves: Rumor Tables

Gloomy BookshelfBookshelves are one of my favorite pieces of set dressing for dungeons, as my website’s background attests to. They can come in many shapes and sizes, hide secret doors, contain hidden treasure, don’t take up much floor space, and can go just about anywhere without being out of place. Bedrooms can have bookshelves, dining rooms can have bookshelves, dens, and parlors, and even kitchens can have bookshelves. But in game terms, bookshelves have always presented me with one major problem:

What’s on them?

Players often want to search bookshelves thoroughly, looking for something valuable, and I frequently don’t have anything to give them. More than once I’ve had shelves filled with burned or waterlogged or shredded books, just to avoid the player’s inevitable questions about what the books say. Even the most dedicated game master can’t detail the contents of every bookshelf. Even coming up with titles would be a foolish waste of time.

But what, aside from spellbooks, are players really looking for on bookshelves? Useful information. Information such as:

  • Quest Hooks
  • Locations of treasure
  • Hints about defeating monsters
  • Hints at how magic items they might discover work.
  • Hints about how to bypass traps.
  • Clues to help them understand information gained elsewhere.
  • Secrets they can exploit.
  • Context for the current area, which may or may not be useful to them.

Each bookshelf should be associated with a small table. The table ought to be sized to the number of books on the bookshelf. So a small row of books atop a fireplace mantle might have only a 4 entry table, while a wall-spanning bookshelf would have a table of 12 entries or greater. I, personally, would use a linear probability table (rolling a single die, resulting in equal probability for all possible results) to keep things simpler on the GM side. However, someone willing to put in a little more work could use a bell curve probability table (rolling multiple dice, so results in the middle are more likely; and high or low results are less likely) to represent that some information would be featured more predominantly in multiple books, while other information would be hard to find.

For every 3 exploration turns (30 minutes) that a single player spends perusing the books, roll on the table and tell them the piece of interesting information which caught their eye. The player may repeat this process as many times as they like, receiving a new roll for each 3 turns spent. But the longer they peruse, the more difficult it is to find new information. Any time the GM rolls a result which has occurred already, the player finds nothing new.

If the player wishes, they can read the entire bookshelf all the way through, gaining all of the information it holds. This requires a number of turns equal to the maximum die result, times 100. So for a 1d12 book shelf, it would take 1200 turns, or roughly 8 and 1/3rd days. A generously short amount of time, if you consider how many books are typically contained on a bookshelf, and how long it takes to read a book.

Additional players working together can shorten the reading time proportionally. While it takes 1 reader 3 turns to get a roll on the table, 3 players could get a roll in 1 turn, etc. And of course, random encounter checks should be rolled normally during any period of reading. Otherwise, the choice to sit still and read is one without risk, and you may as well just hand over a list of rumors for every bookshelf encountered.

As an example, here’s a table for a standing bookshelf in an ancient alchemy lab.

  1. The crushed roots of the White Tulily plant, when added to water, create an effective healing potion. [An unlabeled white flower is growing in the neighboring greenhouse.]
  2. A living stalk of Orcish Ivy, which grows only in the nearby Hills of Doom, is more valuable than a fistfull of diamonds.
  3. While the gemstones growing from its branches are quite tempting, the Demonsprout is a deadly, poisonous plant. To be handled with caution. [A sketch here matches a plant sitting on a nearby table.]
  4. The wizard who formerly owned this lab makes mention of a stash of scrolls kept in a hollow board on one of the benches, “just in case.”
  5. While Essence of Squirrel is generally quite useless, those bathed in it will not be attacked by dire squirrels. Several jars of it are kept handy, as this monster is somewhat common in the area.
  6. “The pit trap installed on the other side of the western door has proven quite useful, having caught 3 thieves in the space of two months!”
  7. The lake outside was once called “Lake Elenekish” [While not terribly useful on its own, the players might learn elsewhere that there is a great treasure at the bottom of Lake Elenekish, with no reference to where that lake might be found.]
  8. Journal Entry detailing how the Alchemist’s ungrateful apprentice stole 3 of his most valuable potions, and fled. The alchemist’s only satisfaction is that she appears to have fled into the den of the deadly Oliniphus. While he dares not try to retrieve the potions, at least his apprentice got what she deserved.

Placing Treasure

A Hoard of Treasure including items of artistic value
Art from “Excerpts: Hoards” posted by Wizards of the Coast

In the comments to yesterday’s post, regular commentor Jimmy asked:

“I’m bad at placing treasure. Any advice on that?”

You’re not alone, Jimmy. I’m bad at placing treasure too! I even wrote about it just a few months back:

“I also have a bad habit of being a great deal more generous with treasure than I ought to be, because I’m worried about keeping my players engaged in the adventure if they don’t feel suitably rewarded.”

It hasn’t been long since I wrote that, but if I do say so myself, I think I’ve improved a great deal. I’m sure many GMs would scoff at how wealthy I’ve allowed my players to become. But I no longer feel as though treasure “gets away from me.” A lot of different elements come together to support this, so I’ll go over them and hopefully some of what has helped me will help you.

Traditional Dungeon Crawling.

Like many young GMs, the dungeon crawl for which the game was named didn’t interest me when I began crafting adventures. Its only within the last year that I’ve reflected on my own gaming history, and realized that I’d avoided many of the fundamental experiences of D&D which are commonly considered “played out.”

My first real dungeon crawling experience was a mere 6 months ago when I began playing in Vaults of Pahvelorn. Since that experience, I’ve worked similar dungeons into my own games. Dungeons with fifty or a hundred rooms, each of which must be navigated slowly to avoid traps, and carefully examined for hints.

The traditional dungeon crawl is limiting in a good way. It reduced the game to its core elements: the players want treasure, and the environment wants to kill them. The rooms are puzzles where failure means death and success means gold. The obfuscation of heroism is torn away and the game’s foundations are laid bare.

There are many different kinds of adventures, and most of them can be fun. But having thoroughly experienced the game in its fundamental state, I now have a much better grasp for what players must do to earn their treasure.

Greater Rewards Require Greater Trials

It’s easy to get into the first room of the dungeon. Any treasure found there will be minor, if there’s any treasure to find at all. After all: it’s easy. Many adventurers have come this far before you, and would have carried off anything of value long ago. If you want to find some of the good treasure, you’ll need to make your way past deadly traps and merciless monsters which have scared off or killed the adventurers who came before you.

The really good treasure will be behind secret doors, and guarded by deadly monsters or traps.

Gold, Hidden in Non-Gold Form

When we think of hidden treasure, we think of secret alcoves, and gems buried in a pile of fireplace ash. But this is only the most obvious way of hiding treasure. A much better way is to hide treasure in plain sight, as books, fine clothing, land deeds, exotic animals, bags of spices, or any other number of possibilities.

Recognizing treasure is part of the game’s challenge. You can tell your players flat-out that they find 3 silk gowns when they open the dusty armoire. They may or may not realize they’re looking at 300 gold pieces worth of tailoring.


While I confess I still struggle with encumbrance in my games, it cannot be undervalued. The character’s income is limited by their carrying capacity. In a society where learning has largely been lost, the discovery of an ancient library deep underground could be worth more than a dragon’s hoard! But books are heavy. How many can each PC actually carry themselves?

Make the players think about whether they’d like to take multiple trips, or hire a crew to get it all out in one go. Make them wonder if the treasure will still be there if they turn their back on it for a few hours. These are interesting choices for the players to face, and go a long way towards maintaining a reasonable level of wealth for them.

Missed Treasure is Forever Lost

Let your players miss treasure, and never hint that they missed it. It may be difficult as fuck, and I’m not perfect about it, but I’ve found it to be an essential skill to practice. I take immense delight in hiding treasure as well as I can without making it downright impossible to find. (with a fair scattering of less difficult to find treasure to keep my players from getting discouraged).

Often, this means my players miss out on a really cool magical sword or badass piece of artwork that I was looking forward to them finding. But that’s okay, because you can always use that treasure again later. And when they do find some of the better hidden treasure, it’s exciting. Both for them, and you.

1d6 For Wasting Time

In keeping with oldschool rules, roll 1d6 once every 10 minutes of in-game time. If a 1 is rolled, then the players encounter a monster appropriate to the area they’re in. If that’s too much fighting for your game, bump the die up to 1d8 or 1d10. The important thing is that there is a penalty for wasting time. The players can search every 10′ square segment of wall in the entire dungeon for secret doors a dozen times over if they please. But they’re going to encounter a shit-ton of monsters while doing it.

Making time a resource which the players have to be careful about wasting, makes them more focused on their goals, and less likely to search for treasure by process of elimination. This means that more of your hidden treasure will stay hidden as noted by the point above. And while I’m never happy to see my players miss out on something cool, I would rather reward smart play than time wasting.

1d6 For Cleverness

Sometimes, while exploring a room looking for treasure, players will look in a place that the GM never even considered. And sometimes that hiding spot is so damned clever that the GM decides they’re going to remember it so they can use it in the future. When that happens, I roll 1d6. On a 6, I tell the player they find a small amount of treasure, despite the fact that I never placed any there.

The treasure they find is usually pretty minimal. A sack of 20 gold pieces or a small gemstone worth about that much.

Budget by Section

This is an idea I just thought of today, so I’ve not tried it, but it seems as though it would be helpful.

Divide your dungeon (or other adventuring area) into whatever sections seem natural. For most dungeons, a single level of the dungeon would probably be most appropriate. Determine what level you think your players ought to reach for completing that section of the dungeon. Look up how much gold the players should have at that point on the wealth-by-level table, then increase that value by 50% to account for the treasure the players probably won’t find.

The resulting gold-piece value should be the sum-total of all the treasure in that section.

Does anybody else have tips? I could still use some improvement myself!

EDIT: Generally speaking I prefer not to edit posts once they’ve gone up, but I’ve just remembered an entire section I had intended to add to this post, and completely forgot about. Apparently I didn’t add it to my notes!

Hoards are for Dragons

Sometimes its appropriate to make a big pile of treasure, or “Treasure Hoard.” A hoard will typically represent multiple types of treasure, and require a great feat of skill to obtain. Hoards should not be the default method of placing treasure. Most treasure should be found piece-by-piece. A coinpurse in this room, a valuable painting in the next. These smaller items are still exciting to find, and they provide context for the day that the players finally do discover a true hoard of treasure.

If every chest contains an assortment of gold, gems, and magic items; then such treasure is the player’s expectation, when it should be a coveted and exciting accomplishment.

8 Rules for Dungeon Improvisation

Snake in a Dungeon Corridor--Illustration from the Dungeons and Dragons basic set by Holmes
Illustration by Erol Otus, from the D&D Basic Set by Holmes. (Thanks, Fotzie!)

During my most recent pathfinder game, a number of my players were absent. Among them was the group’s sorceress, Phoenix Darkmatter. Her absence was particularly relevant because the primary quest of the party currently revolves around her. Without her there to participate, I assumed that the party would want to pursue some other goal, so prior to the game I prepared a number of quest threads in the town they had ended their last adventure in. True to form, however, they completely bypassed everything I had prepared. As I had predicted, they didn’t want to continue the arachnohomnid quest line without Phoenix, but they weren’t even slightly interested in protecting dwarven caravans either. No, this party of low level adventurers recalled hearing about a lich which lived in the southern lands, and determined that killing it would be an appropriate use of their time.

The rogue participated only under strong (and well justified) protest.

Fortunately, a random roll of the dice brought the party to their senses. After nearly being killed by a pack of wolves they randomly encountered while crossing the planes, they settled on a more reasonable goal: find out why the nearby forest was filled with half-ogre monstrosities. It’s a quest thread I had introduced in one of our first sessions. They had never seemed particularly interested in it before. I had to leave the room for a moment to find some of my older notes related to that quest–and what I had was not much. A mad wizard with ogre minions had taken up residence in the ancient elven ruins of Gorak Torar, where he was experimenting on transforming the local Gnoll population into Ogre-kin servants for himself. That’s all I had.

Oh, and the ruins were made of blue-white stone. Because this place was not at all a ripoff of Dire Maul.

The players asked intelligent questions and quickly found a trail of clues leading them to the ruins themselves. They’re starting to get too good at this game, I can’t rely on them fumbling about for too long while I find my bearings. It didn’t take them long after finding the ruins to gravitate towards the large building at the center, and make their way into the dungeon beneath it. A dungeon which I had absolutely no plans whatsoever for. So I improvised.

I’ve always prided myself on my improvisational skill, and everyone enjoyed themselves. It was easily the most fun I’ve had recently, and my players were still talking about the adventure a couple days later. Once the game was over, and I had a moment to review my performance, I went over my methodology for creating the dungeon, and retroactively codified 8 rules I had used to help me go about the task.

  1. Steal. Do it rampantly, and do it shamelessly. Even if you were to completely rip off the layout of an environment your players were intimately familiar with, it’s not likely that they would notice. And if you change a room shape here, and add a few more doors there, a dungeon layout lifted from another game becomes completely unrecognizable.
  2. Don’t make the dungeon fancy, just make it. Don’t waste a bunch of your time thinking about how to make things interesting, or how to create a theme, or complicated multi-room puzzles. You don’t have time. Draw corridors, draw doors, draw rooms, and figure out what’s in them. That’s all you have time for. If you want to add depth, do something simple like a locked door, or a key hanging on the wall. Then you can easily insert the matching element later.
  3. Read -C’s PDF guide On Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design. The Empty Rooms part is particularly important. Commit as much of this PDF to memory as you can, and use it.
  4. While your players are discussing amongst themselves what they want to do in a given room, that’s your opportunity to figure out what’s behind all of the room’s doors. You don’t need to pay attention to everything they say, but you should already know what’s behind every door of the room they’re in.
  5. You don’t need to worry about anything beyond the rooms which are adjacent to the one your players are in. There’s no need to waste time detailing a room which they might never even get near to. If you have spare time, focus your attention on adding details to the rooms you’ve already got. Something like a trap, a secret door, or some unusual monster or treasure adds depth to your dungeon.
  6. Restroom breaks are a perfect opportunity to expand your map.
  7. Select a small number of enemy types, maybe 2-3, and have those creatures constitute most of the dungeon’s population. Some rooms might have a special monster of some kind, but a small number monster types repeated gives the dungeon a sense of consistency. Don’t be afraid to put those monsters in a variety of situations, though.
  8. If your players are looking for something in particular, it will not necessarily be along the path they take through the dungeon. They will likely pass a number of doors on their way through the dungeon, and it could easily be beyond one of those. If you’d like to handle this with as much agency as possible, roll a D6 each time the players descend to a new level. On a roll of 5-6 (or 4-6 for smaller dungeons) what the players are looking for is on that level of the dungeon. And each time the players enter a new room on that level, roll a D20. On a roll of 19-20, what the players are looking for is in that particular room.

These are just the rules I came up with off the top of my head during the game. I’d be curious to know if anyone else has similar methods, or tips on how I could improve my own!

The Problem with Diversity

The Fellowship of the Ring--diverse in the extreme; but in a good way“The Problem with Diversity” is not the kind of post title I ever would have expected to see on Papers & Pencils. The site just doesn’t have enough confederate flag icons to justify that sort of thing. I mean, fuck, I’m the kind of hippie who uses words like ‘privilege,’ and ‘cisgendered.’ Yet there it is, and here we go: there is too much racial diversity in modern fantasy gaming, and it’s hurting us.

Allow me to be perfectly clear: I do not mean ethnic diversity. Frankly, I think we could use a few more black elves. It’s pretty fucked up that the only ones we have live underground and worship an evil spider goddess. I get that drow are not intended to have any connection to real-life black people, but that doesn’t make it much better. And while we’re at it, some Asian dwarfs might be cool. So, with regards to ethnic diversity, we need more. It’s racial diversity which we need less of. Racial as in the human race and the dwarven race and the elven race, etcetera.

Most large towns or cities in most fantasy games are expected to have a variety of humanoid species present. Often they’ll have a primary race which exists in the majority, but a “human” city could easily have a population which is 15% dwarves, 10% elves, 8% gnomes, and 5% miscellaneous. I’m not sure what compels us to do this. Maybe we’re all instinctively creating allegories for the real world and trying to craft diverse cultures where everybody gets along. Or maybe we’re just being children who mix 10 flavors of soft drink together and think it’ll taste amazing. (Hint: it doesn’t).

The races of a fantasy world are different. Far more different than any real-world humans might be. Regarding the aforementioned human city, why would enough dwarves to constitute 15% of its population choose to live there? To a dwarf, human cities are ugly and uncomfortable. A dwarf is used to being underground, where even outside of their home there’s still a roof over their heads. Dwarves enjoy the natural beauty of stone formations and mineral deposits, not the natural beauty of flowers and trees. The elves make just as little sense. Elven cities incorporate much more nature into their design than human cities do. And why would a creature who will live thousands of years want to live in a place where most of their neighbors will die of old age in just a few short decades?

The problem with diversity is spawned from another problem more well documented in the tabletop community: the problem of humans in funny hats. It’s hard to see the world from a different perspective–that’s absolutely true. I have a hard enough time putting myself in the shoes of a woman, and I’ve lived with and around women all of my life. The idea of being able to put myself into the shoes of someone who grew up in a completely different culture from me is almost too much to conceive of. And a dwarf? A completely different species with a completely different evolutionary history, living in a completely different kind of world? There’s undoubtedly more to them than short, strong, taciturn humans with Scottish accents.

Gary Gygax realized this. Which is why 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons is explicitly described as a “Human-Centric” game. Now, personally, I don’t like the extremes Gary went to. I don’t like the idea of race being used as class, I don’t think races should have an inherent alignment (at least not an absolute one), and I don’t think we should view other races as being less important to the game than humans are. However, as I’ve mentioned before, we do need to make a concerted effort to make each fantasy race distinct. Part of that is that they should all live separately.

I sometimes feel as though modern fantasy is trying to emulate the cantina scene from Star Wars, without understanding that scene’s full effects. On the one hand, the cantina scene shows us just how diverse the Star Wars universe is. We’re overwhelmed by the amount of fantastic creatures we encounter all at once, and we gain a better appreciation for how large and varied this universe is. Everybody understands that part, and it certainly seems like something we’d want in a fantasy game. The second element of the scene, however, is that nobody cares. Aside from Luke, the wide-eyed farm boy, none of the characters give the slightest indication that the scene before them is as impressive to them as it is to the audience. And even Luke just walks up to the bar and orders a drink. So yes, that scene shows us just how diverse the universe is. But it also shows us that diversity is old news. The various species of the galaxy have lived with each other for so long that they’re all on pretty familiar terms. Is that really what we want in a fantasy world? By placing humans, elves, dwarves, and the rest into a single environment and making them as bored with one another as the species in the Star Wars cantina, we take away a lot of what makes them interesting to us in the first place.

Now, I’m not saying there should be no mixing of the species at all, but it should be much less frequent. Two or three orders of magnitude less frequent. For example, a human settlement could have a 1% chance per 1000 people to have [population/1000]d4 member of a different species living there. As an example, a city with 10,000 people would have a 10% chance of having 10d4 dwarves living there. And those dwarves would probably be outcasts among their people, or have some other extreme reason for living amongst humans. Greater diversity could always be achieved in other ways as well: a human city might have a delegation of 100 elven diplomats in residence. Halfling merchants may frequent the town to sell their fine textiles. Or perhaps there’s a gnomish settlement half a day’s travel away, and only one of the two towns has a high level cleric. But regardless, the different races should live apart, not together, except in special circumstances.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to run their game. There’s nothing worse than somebody who thinks it’s possible to have fun “the wrong way.” But I sincerely believe that most games would be more fun with better distinction between fantasy races. I’ve certainly been guilty of shoehorning pointless amounts of racial diversity into my game’s settlements. But I’ve known for awhile now that it reduced the impact of my game worlds. It’s only now that I’ve put it into words that I can say with conviction that I am officially done with it.

Page by Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG Part 4

Gary Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide: A party of adventurers meet a maiden (elven?) next to a woodland pond. By Darlene PekulThis is the fourth installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “The Adventure” on page 47, and continues through Underwater Spell Use on page 57.

Adventures in the Outdoors Gygax recommends designing your game world around a 20-40 mile hexagon, and breakin30g it down into smaller hexagons for travel. As I’ve discussed at some significant length in the past, I prefer to design my game world around the 6 mile hexagon which seems to have become standard in the OSR. And having done so, I’m at a loss for how a 20-40 mile hexagon would even work. A hexagon six miles across can contain an immense amount of variety, which becomes especially obvious when you apply a scaled hexagon to a real world map. On my own maps, I’ve often found that a single hexagon has so much stuff in it, that it’s impossible to fit all of the necessary icons into each hex on the page. So I honestly have no idea how you would do it if the hexes were five times larger, or more.

I suppose it might be useful to create a very general map of an entire continent, but then the continent map would need to be broken down into the a smaller map for the areas the players were actually adventuring in.

Chance of Encounter Here charts are given to help the GM determine the chance of an encounter based on population density, and to know when an an encounter should be checked for. These are two factors I did not consider when working out my system for running encounters on a hex crawl. I like the idea that more densely populated areas have much lower odds of an encounter. I’ve always left the probability of an encounter up to GM discretion, but this is better. It’s good for a system to be consistent, because then players can learn the system, and make intelligent choices about how and where they will travel. When players notice that they encounter fewer monsters in areas subject to regular patrols, they may be more likely to stick to the roads.

There’s also a chart here which lists six times of the day: morning, noon, evening, night, midnight, and pre-dawn. Those times are cross-referenced with various terrain types (plains, forests, deserts, etc) and there is either an X, noting that an encounter should be checked for at that time while in that type of terrain, or a -, noting that an encounter should only be checked for if the party “numbers over 100 creatures.”

I would really like to know whose party numbered over 100 creatures.

In my games, I just roll for encounters once per hex, and once in the evening, assuming the party is traveling consistently. I do like the idea of encounter rates being affected by terrain type, however. It provides some additional depth to what each terrain type functionally means for the characters. Instead of a marsh just being a muddy and smelly place, it’s also a place where encounters can happen at any time of the day.

I would like to point out that I’m pretty sure Gygax is only writing about monster encounters, though. When I make an encounter table, I allow players to find any number of things, ranging from monsters, to buildings, to NPCs, to treasure, and even adventure hooks. So were I to use this system, I would want to modify it so that the reduced encounter chance only affected monsters.

Encounter Distance I’ve long known about this and thought it was a good idea, but I’ve never implemented it in any of the games I’ve run. Essentially, when a random encounter is rolled, if one group or the other is surprised, then AD&D GMs were supposed to roll a random distance between the party and their foes. I’ve always found it easier to arrange surprise battlefields myself, based off the party’s marching order. But I do like randomly generating stuff, since it helps me to avoid any biases.

Becoming Lost Getting lost in the wilderness is something I covered briefly in my aforelinked post on hex crawling. Gygax and I seem to have essentially the same idea, though I disagree that it should be impossible to accidentally move in the right direction. I don’t see why not.

I also like the idea of the players hiring a guide to avoid getting lost. I hadn’t thought of that.

Gary Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide: A wizard's familiar is held hostage by Will McLean

Flying Mounts I don’t really have much to say about this. Gygax’s rules for flying mounts are solid. I like the point that flying creatures large enough to support a rider will require a large amount of gold every month in order to keep them fed (300-600gp). It’s a good method of preventing players from gaining access to this kind of boon too early in the game.

What really strikes me as I read this, though, is that I don’t recall ever reading about flying mounts in 3rd edition or Pathfinder. The fact that the players will eventually gain access to flying mounts is assumed, and covered in depth. I wonder when that changed? Flying is still a large part of the game, but it is mostly assumed to come from the Fly spell, it seems.

I also like the detailed discussion of aerial combat. Gary’s solutions are simple, but they look like they would work well.

Waterborne Adventures Like the section on flying, the rules seem to be solid, but they’re not exactly a revelation. Boats of X type move at Y speed, and have Z hit points. Brendan recently pointed me towards a post on Delta’s blog which has some strong criticisms for these rules which I would have missed.

On my list of things to work on and write about is “Making Sea Travel More Engaging.” I may return to the rules Gary presented here when I do that, but I think that more is needed if traveling on a ship is going to be engaging for the players.

Underwater Adventures How to handle underwater adventures is a topic I often see discussed on /tg/. The idea is intriguing, but it obviously requires some different mechanics than a standard game. How do the characters breathe? How does water affect their movement? How are three dimensions handled? The rules presented in this section of the DMG are functional and cover all the questions I can think of related to underwater adventuring.

On a lark, I pulled out my 3.5 DMG, and I found this comparison interesting:

“As all readers of fantasy know, the ocean floor is home to numerous ancient submarine civilizations and dark, green realms of creatures half-man and half-fish. Your players may have heard tales of the mountains of unken loot that have been collected there over the centuries, of such things as pearls the size of a man’s head, of beautiful mermaids with green eyes and blue skin…If they should find some way to investigate these stories, how will you handle it? This section deals with methods for conducting underwater scenarios.” -Gygax, DMG, Page 55

“Aquatic terrain doesn’t offer the variety that land terrain does. The ocean floor holds many marvels, including undersea analogues of any of the terrain elements described earlier in this section. But if your characters find themselves in the water because they were bull rushed off the deck of a pirate ship, the tall kelp beds hundreds of feet below them don’t matter.

Accordingly, these rules simply divide aquatic terrain into two categories: flowing water (such as streams and rivers) and non-flowing water (such as lakes and oceans).” -Monte Cook / Jonathan Tweet / Skip Williams, 3.5 DMG, Page 92.

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“If this [designing a continent] is not possible, obtain one of the commercially available milieux, and place the starting point of your campaign world somewhere within this already created world. At the risk of being accused of being self-serving; I will mention parenthetically that my own WORLD OF GREYHAWK, (published by TSR), was specifically designed to allow for the insertion of such beginning milieux, variety being great and history and organization left purposely sketchy to make interfacing a simple matter.” – Gygax, DMG, Page 47

Page By Page: Gary Gygax’s DMG part 3

Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide, Magic User/Wizard Summoning a Genie from a cloud of mistThis is the third installment of my continuing series on the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, written by Gary Gygax. This post begins with the section “Time” on page 37, and continues through Illusionist Spells on page 47.

Time What Gygax wrote here about time and how to keep track of it is fascinating and vital. So much so that I’ve already dedicated not one, but two posts to exploring it. I see no need to repeat myself here.

Day-to-Day Acquisition of Cleric Spells In D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder, obtaining spells is a pretty straightforward procedure. Every morning the cleric prays for an hour, and all their spell slots are filled for the day. In 1st edition AD&D, as is often the case, there’s more to it than that. There is additional background, which seems to have been dropped from later editions because it complicates the game. And while there’s something to be said for cutting out unnecessary complications, I have been learning that many of Gygax’s original ‘fluff’ offers interesting adventure opportunities.

For a 1st edition cleric, only first and second level spells can be obtained through simple prayer. More advanced spells of third, fourth, and fifth level must be gained by beseeching one of your deity’s powerful servants each morning. To put it in terms I imagine many of my readers are familiar with, the cleric must communicate directly with an angel each morning in order to receive those spells. And for spells above fifth level, the cleric must communicate with their god directly. Not just once, but every morning.

The interesting thing about this is that if the cleric has acted against their god’s dictates within the last day, then they know they must face that god again the next morning when they ask for spells. And Gygax flat out says that for particularly serious transgressions, the cleric’s god may choose to simply obliterate the offending mortal.

Acquisition of Magic-User Spells Since I first learned that oldschool Magic Users learned their spells at random, I’ve been torn on the concept. On the one hand, I like selecting my spells carefully. It allows me to create effective strategies, and it meshes with my conception of wizards as magical scientists. On the other hand, I love randomization. Being given a random set of tools and needing to figure out a way to be effective with those tools is an intriguing challenge, and one I always enjoy. I look forward to playing some 1st edition once the WotC reprints come out, so I can make a more informed decision about which method of obtaining spells I prefer.

I have to say about this section, though, that Gygax seems a little overzealous about preventing players from obtaining spells too easily. I understand that easy access to spells can unbalance a game, by Gary literally says that if a player saves the life of an NPC who was already loyal to them (like a hirling) then that NPC will (at best) be willing to allow the PC to copy one spell from their spellbook in exchange for a spell and a minor magic item. The rules literally dictate that exchanges of spells should never be equitable for the player. This seems odd to me.

Spell Casting For those unaware, Dungeons & Dragons has always used something called Vancian Magic, named for Jack Vance, the author whose work the system was based upon. It’s also sometimes called “fire and forget,” because every morning a caster must memorize their spells, and once the spells are cast that memorization is wiped from their mind. In the editions of the game I’ve read, that’s about the extent of the information given. Here Gygax goes into greater detail. He explains that each spell is a combination of symbols and sounds which are charged with energy from one of the planes of existence. When combined into a certain formation, the energy of those planes is released in a limited fashion, causing a magical effect. Those symbols are then consumed by the magic which passes through them, not unlike a fire consumes fuel. Whether the symbols are on paper, or in the mind of a caster, they disappear.

Gygax writes nearly half a page on this topic, and recommends that for additional background, GMs read The Eyes of the Overworld, and The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. As well as The Face in the Frost by Bellair. Having not yet read these books myself, I cannot comment on them beyond Gygax’s recommendation.

Gygax also notes that while the words of a spell are typically used to bring the effect forth, and somatic (hand movement) components to the spell are used to “control and specify the direction, target, area, etc.” This brings to mind the interesting possibility of allowing casters to bring forth spells without somatic components–but in doing so they will have no control over how the effect manifests itself.

Spell Explanations Here begins a lengthy section where Gygax adds “DM’s Notes” for many of the spells present in AD&D. It doesn’t include spell descriptions, but most of the spells have self explanatory names, so I was able to follow along just fine. This section seems like a useful tool for the GM. It offers advice on how to adjudicate instances where players attempt to use spells in unusual ways which might end up being overpowered. For example, Gygax notes that casting the spell “light” upon one’s eyes does not grant a character “luminescent vision,” but rather blinds the character for the duration of the spell. Entries like this one make me wish GM notes for spells had been perpetuated through later editions of the game. It’s not only useful for determining how to handle a specific case, but it’s useful as a general guideline for how to handle players hoping to push the boundaries of what a spell can do.

On the other hand, I don’t see why “Blindness does not restore lost ocular organs” could not have been put in the spell description itself.

Aerial Servant I simply find this funny. Ever since I became interested in this hobby, I’ve heard from religious nutjobs that D&D teaches kids to cast “real spells,” and that players must learn incantations to the devil in order to succeed in the game. The notion is preposterous of course. Spell casting is normally handled simply by naming the spell and saying your character casts it. Players rarely have the spell’s description memorized, much less an incantation to go along with it.

None the less, the DMG says that players should be required to indicate which type of magic circle they’re using when they cast this spell. I laughed.

DMG Magic Circle, Pentagram, or Thaumaturgic Triangle

Favorite Quotes from this Section

“Once a cleric changes deities, he or she must thereafter be absolutely true to the new calling, or he or she will be snuffed out by some godlike means. It is 90% unlikely that the cleric’s first deity will accept him or her back into the fold after falling away, unless some special redemptive agency is involved. There is no salvation for a thrice-changed cleric; he or she is instantly killed.” -Gygax, DMG, page 39


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