Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The DMG, Section by Section, Part 1: Foreword, Preface and Introduction

I picked up my copy of the Type I Dungeon Masters Guide reprint today at my FLGS. I'm pretty excited. So excited, in fact, that I'm taking it upon myself to start a new series, going through the 1e DMG section by section. I've seen this done with the LBBs and the Arduin Grimoire, but never the DMG (possibly because it's so much bigger?). I've also read multiple blog posts that mention constantly discovering new things in the 1e DMG, and I want to try my hand at discovering some too.

Also, does anyone else's reprinted DMG smell like formaldehyde? Is that just because of the shrink-wrapping, or something about the pages? It's really not the "new book smell" I'm used to.


Written by Mike Carr, the TSR Games and Rules Editer, this is about a half-page long. After playing around with whether DMing is more art or science, Carr points out that it is both immensely rewarding and a lot of work. He then goes on to say that the DMG (along with the PHB and Monster Manual) are all you need to play AD&D, plus your imagination. He gets really close to Swords & Wizardry's motto of "Imagine the hell out of it." Finally, he plugs the DMG by saying that there are few DMs who can't improve their game and that the DMG is full of stuff that can help them DM better. From what I've read about the DMG three decades later, I'm anticipating that this is not an empty boast.


Written, like the rest of the DMG, by Gygax, this is two pages long. Both at the beginning and the end of his preface, he makes the strong point that the DMG should only be read by Dungeon Masters and even suggests in-game penalties for players who demonstrate knowledge only in the DMG (they should be treated as if they had consulted expensive sages who prefer to barter their services for magic items). The bulk of the essay is taken up with Gygax trying to walk a tightrope between the "imagine the hell out of it" attitude and attempting to force some sort of adherence to the DMG as written, leaning, in my opinion, strongly towards the latter attitude.

Gygax argues that the DMG should be closely followed for two main reasons. The first is that Gygax envisions all AD&D games in a "universe" with parallel campaigns in which players can move from campaign to campaign, presumably taking their characters with them. It's this desire that makes me think Gygax would be happy to see FLAILSNAILS doing so well. The second reason is that Gygax fears that not adhering to many of the rules (presumably concerning the economy, monster placement and treasure placement) would either create a too-easy or too-hard campaign, ultimately leading to an abortive, short-lived campaign.

Since this series is discussing the contents of the DMG, since I'm completely unqualified to speculate about Gygax's motives and because I find that kind of thing distasteful, I'm not going to go into possible other reasons why Gygax would push strict adherence to AD&D as-written. That will set a precedent for the rest of this series. That said, I can't say that I particularly care for the lack of choice Gygax asks his readers to hold to; the OSR and FLAILSNAILS seems to me to prove that it isn't strictly necessary, although, yeah, guidelines for treasure and monster placement are undeniably nice.

At the end of his preface, Gygax goes on to thank those who have contributed to the DMG in various ways. The fact that he doesn't mention most of the artists makes me think that their art that is included in the reprint came from later editions.


The introduction begins by laying out the format of the DMG: first comes elaboration upon material in the PHB, information that players shouldn't know, then comes material for DMs creating and running campaigns. Gygax says that he needed to omit a lot and that the priorities for inclusion were, first, what was necessary, second, what was very helpful, third, what was interesting.

Gygax also leans back the other way on his tightrope, arguing for making the game your own within the confines of AD&D. As an example, he says that wandering monsters can be omitted if they will get in the way of your players getting to where the real adventure is. "The game," that is, having fun, dictates what rules and systems are used; Gygax almost sounds like he's arguing for games without a lot of paperwork!

My final observation is that Gygax seems to push a view of the DM-player relationship that is overly antagonistic to my ears. The assumption Gygax seems to hold is that players will do their best to get whatever they can (in the Preface, Gygax states that players will constantly push for a too-easy campaign, and that this needs to constantly be guarded against), without regard to good faith. Now, I've met players and DMs who have this attitude (one player once boasted to me that they could break my campaign - for example, if they were riding in an airship, they would jump off and watch me flail for a way to save them, not realizing that, as a card-carrying member of the "yeah, your characters are totally going to die in my campaign every once in a while" club I would do no such thing - this really confused him); they seem to see this antagonism as the object of the game itself. That's fine if they like it: I'm not going to attack them centering their game on antagonism any more than I'll attack New School gamers for centering their games around character generation. The thing is that not all players today are like that (mine certainly haven't been) and I prefer (to borrow Gygax's phrasing) to play the game instead of engaging in contests of wit and will that break immersion and suspension of disbelief.


  1. Hey, sweet. I hope you find stuff really interesting to you.

  2. You need to remember that at the time this book was written, people were house ruling Gygax combat system out of existence all over the place, sometimes leading to new games all together (Tunnels & Trolls and Warlock spring toe mind. This had some small point to do with Gary's desire for a stricter adherence to his creation.

  3. Maybe it's because I run a heavily homebrewed D&D (Swords & Wizardry with elements of ACKS, Carcosa, Arduin, Dragon Tree, etc.) instead of AD&D, but I really don't see much of a problem with messing with the combat system; I haven't gotten to it yet in the DMG, but, from what I remember reading in OSR blogs, even those who thought of themselves as playing AD&D didn't use the combat system as written, largely because they found it too complicated. I've messed around with the combat system in my game, with the worst result ever being a player saying, "yeah, I like that other way we did it better."

    That said, if Gygax wants to argue for strict adherence to AD&D, within certain bounds (and, to be fair, he claims to allow, and I think comes through on that claim in his discussion of dice, considerable latitude in some areas of AD&D) on the grounds that it will make the game better, I don't have a problem with him doing that. I certainly disagree, but I'm also certainly not going to get mad about Gygax expressing his opinion on what makes a good AD&D (or D&D, for that matter) game! I may not end up agreeing with it, but, despite Gygax's claims at equality with other DMs in the preface, he knew an awful lot more about roleplaying than I do now when he was writing the DMG and I'm certainly glad to hear his advice.