Reading the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Ask anywhere which older RPG books (pre-2000) are among the best and you are pretty sure to get at least some people praising the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. I flipped through it a few times but never saw anything that looked even remotely interesting. Now I’ve been running D&D games for well over a decade and already know quite a bit about the basics and actual experience, but I think most people who recommend the book have been doing so for much longer than that. Could be pure nostalgia speaking, or there are actually some interesting sentences to find under the generic sounding section lables.

So I am going to bite the bullet and start reading a 200+ pages long book that doesn’t look appealing to me to any degree. But while large group of people can still be entirely wrong, they usually are not. Let’s see what I’ll find in these pages.

Skipping the foreword, skipping the preface, skipping the introduction. There’s some images about dice probabilities.

Creating Player Characters (p11): And already there is the first suprise. Talking about rolling up ability scores, the book explains that rolling 3d6 six times and asigning to the abilities in order creates purely random characters which don’t allow players to play the kind of characters they would like to. And that’s a bad thing. I know it is! But this always seemed like one of the holy grails of old-school D&D. I frequently see people saying anything else is bad, because the game is less fun if you don’t have to find a way to make a random roll into a somewhat working character. Instead, the book recommends using other methods that allow the players more freedom to be able to chose their race and class. Seems like old Mr. G wasn’t really a roleplaying hater at all.

Another thing I noticed, and which is quite unusual for an RPG book, is that this one goes to quite some length to explain why certain things should be handled in certain ways and under what conditions. Pretty much any other book I’ve read so far, that wasn’t about game design from a designers perspective, only mentioned the rules of the games themselves, but virtually never aknowledged the fact that in the end it is all about a game played between people. Strange that you very rarely read anything about playing the game in a way that is fun for the players.

Explaination of Abilities (p15): To quote: “Many persons have the sad misconception that charisma is merely physical attractiveness.” True now, true 34 years ago. That this issue continues to be of the most tedious ones right after alignment and paladins reaffirms my believe that appearance should never have been included in the description of Charisma at all.

Character Races (p 16): Really not a fan here. The racial tendencies are just a few sentences for every race, but for dwarves, elves, and half-orcs the worst cliches are in full force. Dwarves sound like greedy workaholics, half-orcs like brutish bullies, and you know what you’re getting into any time the word “frolicking” appears in a description of elves. A bit of a suprise are the halflings. There is nothing that even hints at hyperactive kleptomanics, but maybe we have to blame that one entirely at those unspeakable abominations from Dragonlance, whose name I will not utter here.

Monsters as Player Characters (p21): A pretty lengthy section that can be summed up entirely as “No”. Actually, this is a fairly elaborate explaination by Gygax why he made the descision to make D&D such heavily centered on humans, and even pushing the demihumans (elves, dwarves, …) firmly to the sidelines. Having as many reference points from your everyday experience as possible helps you to see the fantasic elements of the game world in a bigger context. Having a world in which everything is fantastic makes it much more difficult to relate to things, which removes the players from the perspective of their characters and inhibits immersion into the world and its events. By making it essentially a game about human society, the game becomes much richer and immersive. I don’t agree with him, as one of the very basic premises of my Ancient Lands setting was to establish a world in which humans are not the big dog. But it’s still interesting to see that it was a conscious descision based on lengthy considerations of numerous factors. Like I said before, that is something you rarely see in RPG books.

I do however like the following line. “Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not refusual.” People who’ve read my lengthy elaborations on gamemastering I’ve made in forums over the years might remember that as pretty much my paradigm of “whitelisting instead of blacklisting”. You end up with huge lists of stuff that your players can not pick to create and advance their characters, but the most problematic things happen to be those you never even had been considering and you end up still having to add items after a player had already decited to use them. Instead, I strongly favor making the descisions in advance and making a list of races, classes, and items that are available to the PCs, and anything else the player’s might wish for requires individual approval.

And here comes the big one: Alignment (p. 23). Mr. Gygax, you have a lot to answer for. I hope you have very good reason why you ever thought this was a good idea. – And I am afraid I find any answers that are given are seriously lacking. The frequent use of words like “determine” and “define” is not a good sign, and I am really unhappy with the notion of Neutrality being a desire for balance between Good and Evil and Chaos and Order. As I see it, good and evil are interesting elements of a story because you can relate to the fact that these ideals are often problematic and blurry, which makes it difficult to always tell what exactly would be the right thing to do. The alignment system of D&D attempts to create a simplistic view that removes this ambiguity, in which case dealing with these things becomes pointless. If I can’t ponder differing views and consider the options that my character has available to come to a right descision about something, then why even bother dealing with concepts of good and evil in the first place? Really not a fan.

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