Review of AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

March 12, 2007


by: Lev Lafayette


Style: 1 (Unintelligible)
Substance: 2 (Sparse)

One of the worst organised roleplaying manuals ever produced, the haphazard distribution of rules and information is not saved by an comprehensive table of contents and index. The game system suffers significantly from the lack of a systematic perspective, and hefty emphasis is placed on what should be, at least according to the game, is relatively marginal activities. Some Moments of good substance are often more appropriately in other rulebooks. Reasonable advice for the neophyte DM.

Lev Lafayette has written 127 reviews, with average style of 3.18 and average substance of 3.17. The reviewer's previous review was of Arms Law & Claw Law (1st and 2nd ed).

This review has been read 12589 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
Publisher: TSR
Line: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition
Author: Gary Gygax
Category: RPG

Pages: 240
Year: 1979

ISBN: 0-935696-02-4


Review of AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide


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The Dungeon Masters Guide is the third of a series of reviews for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition). It is preceded by reviews of the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual and will be followed by Deities & Demigods, and the Dungeoneers Survival Guide, the Wilderness Survival Guide, Unearthed Arcana, the Fiend Folio and Oriental Adventures as well as the usual fare of modules and supplements. In the future there is also the intention to review 2nd and 3rd edition products, especially with a view to highlight the ongoing development and improvements to the game system.

The physical volume of the DMG is quite substantial in size, coming in a hefty 240pages hardback with tiny sans-serif font and with a very good piece of cover art of an Efretti making very short work of a party of adventurers by David Sutherland. The binding on this book is not a strong as others in the series (more pages), but still is excellent especially compared to current standards. The quality of interior art is acceptable, but usually without context. The volume comes with a sizable table of contents, index and glossary.

Which is just as well, because an initial view of the organisation of the rules themselves are a complete mess; possibly in the top ten of the "biggest dog's breakfasts of all time". There are no chapters as such, just headings and subheadings, and even sub-sub-headings, with the general problem of AD&D - the lack of a systematic perspective - being more evident here than any other book as the author desperately tries to include as many possible circumstances into the binding and each with a different system of rules along with lengthy advice for neophyte DMs.

In an attempt do describe the text, the first "chunk" of rules deals with character-related matters (including henchmen and hirelings), the second with time, spells and the adventure, the third with combat, insanity and experience, the fourth with the campaign, non-player characters, and construction and siege, the fifth with "conducting the game", the sixth with magic treasure and their use. There is also sixteen different appendices.

There is a word of warning from the author on the opening pages... Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the latter as the game-school. AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school...As a realistic simulation of the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure.... Those who desire to creature and populate imaginary worlds.... who seek relaxation with fascinating game, and who generally believe that games should be fun, not work, will hopefully find this system to their taste.

Caveat stated with the system noting it own limitations, moving on to the first chunk. Four means of generating ability scores are provided, all of which put PCs a grade above the standard 3d6 which is used for all NPCs except for henchmen and "special characters". Wishes applied to ability scores over 16, only raise the score by 10%. PCs also receive a secondary skill from a commoner list, and with all PCs should starting at between first and fourth levels (although the latter is strongly recommended against), starting age variable to race is generated; this often leads starting characters to have an additional point of Strength and Constitution. Various magic spells (haste, wish etc) also age characters (give the elf the potions of speed). The abstract disease and infection tables defined effected area, regularity and severity, with many characters, if the tables are actually used, succumbing to a terminal version after five years. These are not the makings of heroic fantasy.

A paragraph is provided for stereotypes of the PC races, followed by random determination tables for high level characters, along with a note on the famous Paladin's warhorse. The text then jumps to the hiring of information gatherers, where there is a unique reference to the spy character class, which is never mentioned again. Thief abilities are the next on the list of issues to deal with and the information provided is certainly of the sort that could have been included in the PH, followed by a special experience bonus that Assassins receive for their preferred activity and their use of poisons, where monster poison is defined as being capable of being an "all or nothing affair", either killing within a minute or not doing any damage at all.

Harsh words are given to any suggestion of "monster" player characters, with the claim that it would take a modern Renaissance Man to appropriately prepare for a campaign where the alien non-human viewpoint is dominant. Nevertheless, this is followed by two pages on lycanthropy, including a damage table for wearing armour when "the change" occurs, although the suggestion that ring and chainmail has "straps" that break is a little odd. Finally, there is, yet again, a summary of alignment with a clear statement of the definition of "good" in AD&D: "Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom and the prospect of happiness"; remember that next time you're slaying orcs. There is the excellent suggestion of an alignment graph - but without any guidelines on its use - except in terms of punishment if any PC strays from their stated perspective according to the GMs adverserial fiat; a great idea without any substance to the proposed execution.

Delving into AD&D economics, the base value of gems and precious objects (including furs), and reputed magical properties is provided, although unfortunately these seems to have no historical anecdote. This is followed by armour types, with the appearance of the non-bulky "elfin chain", but no comments on whether PC elves have access to this armour, or whether it can be worn by thieves. Thrown in rather oddly at this point are comments on AC bonuses for dexterity and modifications to weapon to hit rolls. Returning to prices, various hireling costs are provided with evidence of the terrible impoverishment of bearers, porters and linkboys who can only afford a pint of ale on their daily allowance. A light footman earns a lowly 1 gp per month, a shortbow archer at 2gp, a scribe earns a respectible 15gp, but an armorer a hefty 100 gp. This figures are neither in the historical ballpark or the gamist balance ballpark either - stock up on those light and heavy infantry; they're cheap, trained, plentiful, and organised. A percentile skill ability is given for armorers and very detailed information is given on the sage, almost to the extent that it can be considered a character class. Finally, the hiring, pricing and loyalty of henchmen is described; the latter is particularly "rules heavy".

The second chunk of rules starts with a lengthy description of the importance of tracking time in the game (the recommended scale 1 real day = 1 game day when not in play), followed by notes on the acquisition and use of clerical and magic-user spells. This is a fairly useful section, with the cleric acquisition being particularly evocative. There is also note of shaman and witch-doctors; it is not explained how the latter achieves the use of magic-user spells in a non-literate society (e.g., cavemen). The spell notes are mainly useful, but nearly all of the information provided could have certainly be in the Players Handbook, particularly with the most obvious low-level spells that provide direct information when cast (e.g., Detect Evil).

The commentary on adventures includes encounter frequency (in four hour blocks, d10, varies by terrain), movement and becoming lost, water, underwater and aeriel movement and adventures, perceptual abilities (infravision, ultravision, invisibility, detections, listening at doors). The actual encounter tables themselves are in the Appendices. The chance of becoming lost is tested daily, ranging from 10% in the plains to 70% in forests. Aeriel movement is classified by speed and maneuverability classes from A (180 degrees per round) to E (30 degrees per round). Regrettably these classes are not repeated for water-borne craft a mere two pages later. The application of damage to winged creatures is very clumsy with the inclusion of "illusory hit points" for flight-damage to feathered rather than membraned wings; an obviously simpler method would be to increase the percentage of hit points that such creatures can sustain before requiring to land. Indeed, the same principle could have also been applied for the movement of all creatures in all environs; humans swimming through water, charging horses and so forth - it certainly would have made a very fine inclusion in the Monster Manual.

With regards to the perceptual abilities, sensible advice is given on the capacity of creatures to detect invisible which eventually becomes a table where the "Detection Ability" is a function of the creatures hit dice or level and intelligence. Seeming that no creature below seven plus hit dice has any chance regardless of perceptual ability or intelligence a significant portion of the commentary falls into a game-rule heap. Mighty warriors who have fought hundreds of orcs may be disturbed to learn that if they listen at doors for more than three rounds "the strain becomes too great" and they will be required to rest for at least five rounds before attempting it again. Notably missing is a nice table to explain the sort of bonuses and penalties for perceptual skills for distance, size of object, loudness of noise etc.

The third chunk of rules is combat. Combat is described as an abstraction of one minute rounds, with questionable comparisons drawn between boxing, fencing and karate bouts. "Realistic combat", with reduced lengths of rounds, individual attacks and parries, hit locations, specific wounds and critical hits are rejected as "not the stuff of heroic fantasy", a very dubious literary statement and in contrast to many the other rules in the game (e.g., disease and infection). It is evident that the tide of gaming history and the evolution of D&D itself has treated such questionable assertions appropriately.

Combat begins with determining surprise, which is a simple base system with clumsy modifications, but in many cases it is a simple 1/3rd chance for either "side". Initiative is likewise based on a d6 roll. Encounter reactions, parley and avoidance are discussed. The application of multiple missile weapon attacks seems to be quite different to multiple melee attacks. Attempts to cast spells during melee is made difficult as attacks occur the winner's initiative roll, but two pages later this is contradicted by the inclusion of weapon speed factors in the calculation. Weapon speed factor is also utilised when initiative is tied (e.g., a dagger will strike before a spear), and indeed multiple attacks may occur under such circumstances (the dagger will strike twice before the spear in the example given). It is a seriously odd rule to say the least, and the complexity of including fighters with multiple attacks into the system is not addressed. Morale and pursuit suggests a overly significant degree of bravery in combat, and outdoor pursuit seems particularly beneficial for the evading party (80% base chance).

Melee rules begin with defining the number of possible opponents per figure, with flanking and rear attacks visually presented and described. Breaking off from melee generates a free attack, and the size of opponents to a monk's ability to engage is increased by their level. This is followed by a rather dull melee example, where few of the more complex rules are illustrated, and then by the extremely "crunchy" and sometime bizarre unarmed combat procedure where the base chance to hit is determined by a multiple of the attacker's armour class. The system used, it must be added, is completely different to the standard melee procedure with weapons or the natural weapons of animals and monsters.

The combat tables of page 74-75, are probably the most commonly accessed pages by DMs in AD&D; such is the nature of the game (why aren't they in the back of the book?). The basic principle is roll d20, and cross-reference the modified total roll to the armour class of the opponent. If the score is higher, then a hit is scored and damage applied. The basic rule is the armour, rather than absorbing damage, makes one less likely to be hit. Separate tables with varied progressions are provided for different classes of opponents and monsters. Fighters and their kin actually start weaker than monsters of equivalent strength at low level (THACO 20 at level 1-2, versus THACO 19 and 16 for 1 HD and 2 HD), but eventually surpass said creatures. The tables represent skills of a generic sort with proficiency modifiers, which is quite pleasing; some skill systems don't address similarity leading to the improbable situation where a person who is an expert at the shortsword is utterly incompetent at knives. The tables also include the assassination table (also to be used against helpless foes) and the clerical turning table, which indicates a rather sudden inexplicable leap in ability at 4th level.

Tables continue with psionic combat tables which compare attack vs defense modes and attacks on defenseless psionics. It is unclear when these attack and defense modes are declared (if at all), although they are resolved simultaneously. Psionic blasts may be conducted against non-psionic creatures, with a range of mental effects from mild insanity to death. Further tables are presented with the five types of AD&D1e saving throws which makes some sense (better saving throws as levels advance) some of the time (thieves have particularly bad saving throws, especially against poison and breath weapons) and finally the saving throws for items against various types of damage and shock. The commentary on poisons (p81) seems to contradict earlier remarks (p20) and the advice on dealing with poisons on monsters is provided with no systematic means of resolution.

The results of various combats can be either physical or mental, thus the section is followed by hit point recovery and especially for characters at negative hit points (-10 for death, regardless of constitution). Thrown in in the midst of this is the effects of intoxication. Twenty types of insanity is describes with schizophrenia erroneously described as multiple-personality disorder. On the positive results of combat, experience points are gained for slain opponents and gp loot value is combined which strongly biases the game towards “kill the monsters, steal their stuff, go up a level”. Gaining experience levels is restricted by training requirements, which effectively reduces characters to one level per adventure, which severely weakens aspiring dual-classed characters. Name-level characters effectively train themselves.

The chunk of campaign information recommends incremental building of campaigns and setting expansion. The sections on climate and ecology lack substance, with the improbable assertion that "temperature, wind and rainfall are understood reasonably well by most people". The government forms table is simply single sentence definitions of an -acy. The attempt to compare royal and noble titles is interesting if slightly inaccurate with presentation of northern European (why no southern or east European?) and Asian forms - by which the author means the near and middle-east, the caucuses and India - China, Japan and Indochina are not represented).

The brief section on economics largely suggests that the game is more heroic if the PCs have vast quantities of treasure to splash about and that the more TREASURE (capital in text) to entice PCs the better, which is somewhat at odds on the next section on taxes and tithes which, unheroically, remove the PCs from their loot. The sections on monster, treasure, and magic item placement are of basic sense and utility, with the clarification that treasure type results from the Monster Manual represent total wealth being the most useful. Further there is the sensible, almost obvious suggestion to avoid "Monty Haul" and "Killer Dungeon" games. If only the author of the DMG followed these ideas through in his own modules! Finally, neither the notes on territorial development by PCs or the sample dungeon layout and play provide anything special, but nor are they problematic.

Following this a detailed random generation for NPCs and especially their personality features is provided. Being thoroughly random the possibility of a character being maniacal, violent, abrasive, vengeful, avaricious, deceitful, craven, miserly, depraved, and irreligious is equally probable if their alignment is lawful good or chaotic evil; languages are species-specific. A short list of spell casting costs follows, then notes on the organisational behaviour of various monsters and finally, the racial preferences arising from using non-human (primarily "giant class") troops. Significant information is provided on the construction and siege of castles, down to the tunneling speed of gnomes and the price of arrow slits. Various siege weapons are described, along with their attack values against various constructions and materials.

The sixth chunk concerns the conduct of the game. It begins with suggesting that dice be fudged for unfortunate players who still play well, except in the case of System Shock from raise dead spells. One of the recommended means to deal with troublesome players is striking their character with "blue bolts from the heavens", and a recommendation that experienced new players introduced to a campaign at an equivalent starting level as existing characters; it is reiterated that neophyte players should start at low levels. The use of multiple characters by individual players is endorsed, and the recommended intervention by deities (roughly 1 in 100 followed by the character's level as a percentage) is provided.

The ongoing campaign includes brief statistical conversion notes for Boot Hill and Gamma World to AD&D (poor Metamorphis Alpha). Finally concluding campaign information, magical research. Holy water is produced by fifth level clerics casting, once per week, a succession of spells over water in a blessed recepticle; the more expensive the metal used to produce the recepticle, the more vials of holy water can be produced. For those operating on the cheap however, copper and silver are significantly more cost-efficient than gold or platinum. Reasonable notes are provided for spell research, although both the time and research costs seem somewhat generous. The creation of potions require at least a 7th level magic user aided by an alchemist and can be relatively expensive compared to researching new spells; a recommended list of exotic materials required for potions is also provided. Similar comments also apply to the production of magical scrolls. Finally the production of permanent magic items is described in a manner making their production very special in the AD&D world; "Items with a permanent dweomer (such as weapons, armor, most rings and miscellaneous magic items) do require a permancency spell to be made continiously operational". Such a casting reduces the Constitution of the caster by 1 for each time the spell is cast, which is pretty broken for a +1 mace. Illusionists, Clerics and Druids are able to create the more limited magic-items related to their profession with greater ease. The final chunk refers to the use and treasure of magical items. It begins with the use of command words, cyrtsal balls, and the potion miscibility table and, oddly-position, the effects of energy draining by undead and devices. This is followed by the random generation of treasure, which starts with maps and then moves on to magic items proper. These take up fully 20% of the text which is pretty damn hefty given that magic items have been described as extremely rare, unusual, and very difficult to produce, which certainly confirmed by the treasure types in the Monster Manual. An average Orc tribe, consisting between 30 and 300 individuals, has only a 10% of having two random magic items and a 40% chance of 2-8 potions. This should mean that, on average, there is one magic item for every 825 orcs and one potion for about every 80. Even a Cloud Giant only has a 25% of owning 3 items, along with the same chance for potions. Magic items are supposed to be extremely rare. This rarity is strongly contradicted by actual AD&D1e modules themselves and especially by the author of the DMG.

The distribution of magic items is 20% potions, 15% scrolls, 5% rings, 15% miscellaneous magic, 15% armor and shields, 11% swords, and 12% other weapons. The distribution of scrolls is 63% magic-user, 22.5% clerical, 7.5% druid and 7% for the poor illusionist who suffers as usual. Among the swords, 70% of magical swords are longswords, 20% are broadswords and the rest get crumbs. Among the other weapons there are no magical polearms of any description, not even a halberd or a pike, nor even a lance, the latter being seriously weird given the genre. Among armour and shields, magical chainmail makes up 11%, leather a mere 8%, plate 25% (including 5% cursed), ringmail 6%, scale 19%, studded leather 6%, and shields 25% (including 3% cursed).

Swords among all weapons have the special possibility of having intelligence an affliction that occurs 25% of the time and even to the lowly +1 variety of the species. Given a minimun intelligence of 12, it is oft the case that Fighters may find themselves having to suffer the fact that their sword is more intelligent than they are. Worse still, of the 25% that are intelligence, 10% have speech! It perhaps would have been more evocative if swords with telepathy were more common than talking swords, which surely would be a wondrous thing. Such swords also are prone to special powers and, of course, alignment, leading to occassional personality clashes and in extreme cases, possession.

The miscellaneous magics make interesting reading with highly diverse effects, however it would be have been preferable in a systematic sense to include many of the effects as something discernable in actual spells included in the Players Handbook. Of particular note is the various artifacts, extra-powerful unique magic items whose numerous powers are determined by individual DMs. Most are derived by Gygax's Greyhawk campaign (a very high magic environment apparently); at least one is historical (Baba Yaga's Hut). My personal favourite is The Head of Vecna.

Finally, the appendicies. The Random Dungeon Generator is for people who have too much time on their hands or if you want finally to design "The Dungeon The Extremely Insane But Wealthy Interior Decorator", which is followed by The Nature Goddess of Random Geographical Features. At least deserts can't be initially adjacent to marshlands or forests and the footer artwork is terribly cute. After this one has the opportunity to populate the randomly generated dungeon with randomly generated monsters regardless with the only ecological feature being that the deeper you go, the more dangerous the monster are; rather like a chess game with multiple and more dangerous levels of a back line.

This is followed by something that makes sense; underwater and seaborne encounters (differentiated by fresh and salt water, deep and shallow), astral and ethereal encounters, airbone encounters, and random distribution of outdoor monsters - differentiated by degree of habitation, climatic conditions and predominant terrain, although the herbivore to carnivore ratio is a bit skewed. Overall, this is magnificant piece of work. WHY ISN'T IT IN THE MONSTER MANUAL?!? The same could also be said for Appendix E, an alphabetical listing and summary of monster combat statistics. In fact, if the summaries were included as an appendix in the Monster Manual, maybe more interesting information about said creatures could have been included.

If Appendix J, of repututed and actual uses of herbs, was included the Monster Manual could have even become a bestiary. Regrettably this Appendix is concluded by the City/Town encounter which, apart from the tragic harlot generation table (everything from "slovenly trull", "expensive doxy" to "rich panderer"), tries to inform us that almost 1/3 of city encounters at night (checked every third turn) will be assasins, bandits, demons, ghosts, ghouls, rakshasa, were-beasts, wraiths, and even the occasional vampires and lich. No wonder people bolt the windows and doors shut.

The next Appendix is the random generation of the appearance of lower planes creatures. Then there's the the Appendix on how to simulate slot machines with dice (I'm not kidding), a useless table of random traps, a list of tricks for seriously unimaginative DMs, pages of tables for "dungeon dressing" (release the interior decorator), a list of adjectives for magical substances ("the potion is vapourous and variegated; a sip is bilious but smells perfumy"), useful lists of conjured and summoned animals, a short list of "inspirational reading", encumbrance of standard items (apparently the encumbrance a flask - empty or full - is "secret DMs knowledge"), and finally a useful "creating a party on the spur of the moment".

Reviewing the DMG in a systematic and detailed manner certainly is a onerous task. The degree of disorganisation and the sheer quantity of text is extremely challenging. It reads and feels like a first draft. There is of course many pages and many rules, but if the rules aren't useful or workable they effectively do not contribute to the substance of the document. Sometimes of course there are some very useful contributions; such as the wilderness encounter tables or the summary monster combat statistics - but most of these should be elsewhere; the DMG effectively steals a point of substance that should go to the Monster Manual in this regard.

Overall, I am sympathetic to the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual; they were rather substantial, high-quality texts for their time but under game system that simply didn't age well. The DMG however was, and is, stylisticaly maddening and is possibly the prime cause of myopia in millions of gamers through the decades; the comprehensive table of contents and index and even good binding stands in contrast to the utterly, rock-bottom, appalling organisation of the text, turgid prose, an emphasis on marginal instances, odd gaps in core instances and pages upon pages of what is, quite honestly, fluff. In terms of substance, the lack of systematic perspective is telling, with the combat system especially being well below average and at times, just incomprehensibly strange. At times, despite claims to the contrary, the game attemps to be strongly simulationist, and when it does so it is quite good, for example maneuverbility, most encounter distributions, reputed magic effects of gems and herbs, comparative titles, and despite claims to the contrary more so than anywhere else, some parts of the DMs advice.

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