Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meditating on the 1ed DMG

One of the peripheral consequences of working on my re-imagined Slave Pits of the Undercity (which itself is a result of WotC re-releasing the three 1ed core books) is my own casual re-assessment of ADnD. I have found myself more frequently perusing my ADnD collection than I have in years. There is one exception to this, however. Though I am very familiar with some sections within it, the ADnD DMG still remains largely impenetrable for me.

I am one of those life-long DnD players who was initiated into the game by those who already knew how to play, rather than someone who is self-taught. When it came time for me to try my hand at DMing (as I called it then), Holmes, Moldvay and Cook held larger sway on me than did Gygax because, despite my group playing “ADnD” these great editors were far more approachable in their advice. So, though I used ADnD rules and tables, my mentors were from the world of B/X and Holmes.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, given that there are so many out there in the world of the OSR that cite the DMG as this great and seminal work of the hobby that is a seemingly ever-changing treasure trove of gaming history and advice. This love affair is to the point that there are some who would choose the DMG as the only RPG book that they could have if stranded on a deserted island.

In a way, this reminds me of the Philokalia — a collection of Orthodox Christian spiritual writing compiled and published in the 18th century. In it one can find meditations from the 4th century through the 15th century by a total of thirty-six different authors. It has been described as a seminal collection of such import that it is second only to the Scriptures themselves in the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian.

The compilers organized the book chronologically. If one attempts to read it thusly (cover to cover), however, the book is rendered impenetrable. Rather, it requires an initiation on how to read it and what order to read the various authors. There are several historical methods, but all of them parallel each other. They all form a key with which to unlock this precious gift.

As one who still finds the DMG to be something of a Philokalic mystery, and since so many of my generation had some kind of initiation process into the hobby, I am wondering if there isn’t some kind of pattern out there for tackling the DMG? Is there a particular order for taking advantage of all the goodness that lies therein?

I do not ask this only for myself, but for those who will be buying their first 1ed DMG sometime this summer. Unlike later editions of the game, ADnD is a bit of an editorial mess. In order that those who encounter it for the first time have the best experience possible, it might behoove those of us who love the old ways to make the world of ADnD a tad more accessible.


  1. You ask a very good question, but, alas, I have no answer to offer. Even after 30 years, I'm not sure I know how to read the DMG "properly." Mostly, I just peruse its contents at random and see what I find.

    1. Unfortunately, this approach still has not rendered the DMG any less impenetrable for me...

  2. I agree with James, and I might have an answer to offer; it will require a bit of time to frame, and will probably not fit well into the comments section here.

  3. I think one's approach depends on how one plans to use the DMG's content.

    I started with B/X, but we had competitive players who felt AD&D's granular detail condoned their rules-lawyering preferences. To keep up, I read the DMG cover-to-cover and treated it as a canonical rulebook.

    However, had I stayed on the B/X path, I might have considered the DMG more of a reference (as, indeed, I do now). Today, I occasionally consult it for advice on a given topic, much like I'd Wiki a subject of interest.

    So, for those planning to run an actual AD&D game, I recommend a start-to-finish read. For those who want to bolt on AD&D bits to their existing game, treat the DMG as an encyclopedia of game mastering.

  4. I would use even stronger language than calling the 1st ed DMG an editorial mess. Frankly, one reason I never bothered with AD&D is the way those books are (dis)organized. The pompous style and annoying attitude of Gary was another way that turned me off. Frankly, not only in the DMG did Gary come of as quite off putting many times.

    That said, I think the DMG is quite interesting. I still don't hold it in as high a regard as some, and your question is an excellent one.

    I decided to give it one more chance after encountering the OSR blogs, and found it to be best to just skim it from cover to cover. I did that, and now I open it at random and often find something which I before saw, and now can re-read and actually get something out of. Most often I use it by choosing something in the table of contents and then branch out from there. I have no idea if there is a better way.

  5. Approach it like the reference work it is - when uyou want to work on your setting, read the setting section, when you're thinking about a combat encounter, read the encounter section.

    Or you could go straight to the magic items section, which is what 14 year-old me did when I first got my hands on it.

    1. Exactly. Importantly, the index covers both the DMG (bold) and the PHB (regular type).

      The subject order is non-linear, unlike the M&M and PHB, with some widely separated areas that seem like they should be together (Properties of Gems should be near the Magic Items or Dungeon Dressing, the section on NPCs should be with Hirelings). In some ways it reminds me of a Dragon magazine, particularly the essay sections (e.g. The Monster as Player Character).

      Annoying feature: the rarely used Psionic Tables being between the most used tables (Attack & Saving Throws). Why wasn't the Psionic stuff in an Appendix like in the PHB?

      I wouldn't change any of it now, though.

      Favorite "flavor" bits: Properties of Gems, Expert Hirelings (particularly Sages), Tribal Spell Casters, Sample Dungeon, Gamma World/Boot Hill crossovers, Magic Items (of course), methods for destruction of Artifacts/Relics, Random Dungeon Generation, Town Encounters, Traps/Tricks/Dungeon Dressing

    2. I really appreciate this speaks to those aspects of the book that are used and usable from a practicle POV. It is something that I think is necessary inorder for the DMG to become more accessible. BTW, I did start with the magic section...I just never really ever moved past it...

  6. Best I think is to treat it as a reference: skim it first, then look up what you need to. As with any good OSR book, graft the parts you like into your game and forget the rest.

    I generally share Andreas' opinion of the DMG (and Gary's writing), though I did love the cartoons, and I did have fun playing AD&D and running it. Nowadays, though, if I wanted the "1E experience," I'd just crack open a copy of OSRIC* and save myself the trouble of dealing with such a disorganized book.

    *(Or maybe LL+AEC)

    1. Personally, it will take a lot to convince me that LL+AEC isn't the version of the game I've played and loved since I was a kid. In my humble opinion, LL is my favorite iteraition of the game because it so seemlessly emulates the modular way so many of us used to play the game in our youth.

    2. Agreed. Of all the retro-clones, LL is my favorite. Great emulation of B/X.

  7. My advice: read through the table of contents and find something that looks cool, like it's a magazine. The various sections aren't really dependent on each other once you have the basic terminology down.

    Read the Example of Play from P.94-100. At first it's like a little module, you get a map to read along with, and then there's the interplay between players and DM. How are you supposed to do a Surprise Roll? Look it up. How long does it take to Search for Secret Doors? How long does a torch last? (That one's in the PHB actually ...).

    If you're comfortable playing, but have never picked up the DMG, look through the magic items descriptions and how the tables are organized. You might be surprised to find that 25% of all magic swords are intelligent, or that 10% of all "magic items" in a hoard are actually treasure maps leading (possibly) to some treasure! These tables connect to the Monster Manual Treasure Types when rolling for magic items. Checking out the Monster Manual TTs will lead you to wonder "how do I figure out what a gem is or how much a piece of jewelry is worth?" and looking it up in the DMG will lead you to P.25-27.

    Check out some extra tips for DMs on how to handle various spells on P.40 and also notice there are actually some rules for "tribal spell casters" for humanoids like Orcs and Hill Giants. Hey, that's where it says how long it takes to memorize spells!

    If you're comfortable with the Monster Manual, check out the monster stat tables starting on P.196. They already have XP values listed for almost all of them, which is nice. So how do you figure out XP values for your own new monsters, or for NPCs? You check out the table of contents or index and it leads you right to P.85 with this funky table.

    The book already has all the wilderness and town encounter tables, covering the whole monster manual, and also things like castles in the wilderness. You might not use those, depending on your DM style. Maybe you just say "hey Axe Beaks look cool, I want them to be kinda common in this forest here" and when people travel through you just throw Axe Beaks and Bandits when they get a random encounter.

    During the game things will come up, and you'll make a snap decision ruling. Write a note for yourself to look it up later. When you get a chance, check to see how it should have gone, and in the future try to use the rule instead of your ruling - but it might not even be there! Or maybe your ruling was better than the rule!

    Later you'll want to explore side things like the Magic Item Creation section, or Reputed Properties of Herbs. There are also things that are just plain necessary which were left out of the PHB, like weights of different equipment (found in some printings of the DMG as an appendix) or the carrying capacities of different pack animals (scattered throughout the MM).

    There's a set of rules for randomly generating wilderness, and dungeons, so it's entirely possible to play AD&D solo with some effort. Unfortunately, AD&D really sings when you have a DM and several players, so solo play isn't as rewarding.

    Later you'll break your neck with little details like "psionics" and "which saving throws does magic armor help against" and "grenade-like missile scatter". You can safely ignore many rules.

    Finally there are things which are just not very useful, like "damage taken by a lycanthrope when it busts out of its armor changing form from human to wolf" and "funky gambling zowie slot variant".

    Anyway, the point is check out stuff you already know, and see what else the DMG has to say on the matter. It really is a whole game. I constantly find myself using parts of it that I never used in the past, like "how many rounds will it take this siege ram to get through the gatehouse doors?" I think that's why people say it's their most useful gaming book.

  8. I learned to play D&D by the Basic rules back in the day. I never really got into the DMG. Then I came back to D&D as my boys, by way of Harry Potter and LoTR, became interested in playing it. That was 3.5. The whole time I went through those rules, I found something lacking. It was then that I dusted off an old copy of DMG (in amazingly good condition for being so old I might add), and came to appreciate it. Not because of its presentation, but because of its substance. The DMG, to me at least, is sort of the 'heart and soul' of D&D. It's not the rules, but the fact that so many of the rules are just mechanics based on something else, something from literature, folklore, mythology, and history. There's a depth to it that I find interesting, along with the PHB and the first MM, that the more general rules of the basic sets don’t expand upon. You can also see this was really an organic growth. It wasn't a game devised by a research team under the direction of a board of directors. It was a labor of love from people who were seriously into the inspirations that the game was based upon. I wouldn't want to have to learn only from the DMG. But I consider it an indispensable addition to the rules set that, thankfully, includes the basic and expert rules.