Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 2a)

[continued from here]

Exactly what information should be in a guide for Dungeon Masters? This is probably a question that's been asked by every author/designer that set out to pen one since Gygax himself sat down in front of Ye Old Typewriter.

Mind you, I'm not asking this as mere hot air rhetoric...it's a serious question. One would probably want some sort of information on how to organize and run a game, probably something on designing adventures and maintaining (long-term) campaigns, and of course something about the "mysteries players should not know" (like exact descriptions of magic items). However, just how much detail is required on each subject, and what other subjects should be placed in such a guide (rather than in the handbook written for players)? Probably, the answer is subjective, and based on each group's view of the DM's role and scope of authority. I'm not saying that to be simplistic, by the way, just giving a little leeway for why two editions' DMGs might prioritize info differently.

Gygax's priority appears decipherable from his text, and it is two-fold. One priority (that I'd judge the lesser) is to present a certain uniformity of rules with regard to certain systems. Certainly not all systems..in the Preface, he admits the limitations of his own imagination and that even a codification of every eventuality would be undesirable, were such possible. The other priority, which he hammers on again and again, is to produce a superior gameplay experience, by giving the DM the tools to draw out a campaign...to provide a steady challenge to players that allows steady progress (not too fast, not too slow) while maintaining interest and engagement, thus prolonging the experience of adventuring in the fantasy "milieu" (which he terms as the world/setting). This appears to be his main priority, to such an extent that he obfuscates basic systems, leaving them to be discovered by adventurers in the course of play, rather than known from the beginning. Exploration of system (and eventual mastery) is, thus, one of the implied objectives/rewards of AD&D.

The 5E priority is a little different (and a bit tougher for me to articulate). What I get from the text is that it seeks to teach a person how to act as a DM, though not (like Gygax) with any particular aim in mind, save to provide a fun game for the players. It seems to be a bit of a "rah-rah" for world building, a "hey-this-is-the-fun-of-being-a-DM" as if the reader needed to be coaxed into believing such. Yes, yes, maybe I'm being too hard on the thing...like I said, it's tough to articulate (or guess) when the authors aren't particularly explicit about their objectives. Anyway, as we review, you can see if you agree or not.

Our basis for comparison review.
But let's get down to the actual comparison. Because the original DMG was laid out in such a way as to (first) be read in line with the AD&D Players Handbook, I will be using the DMG5 as the primary text and then referencing the corresponding parts in the original (AD&D) version. Cool? Okay.

As I wrote in my previous post, the DMG5 breaks up into three parts. The first part, Master of Worlds, sets out to show the aspiring DM how to create a campaign. This is what I'd call a "top down" approach, and not really "beginner level" stuff. I mean, you want to know how to make adventures and run games, right? Well, no, that comes later (which is why I think the priority here is to fire up the reader about DMing..."Look! You get to play God!" See?). First, there are the core assumptions of "default D&D" which, as I said in my 4E review, I think are pretty good, and nice to have spelled out. It is immediately followed by a "feel free to change them, here are examples" section. Which is like...what? Can I just learn the game before I start tinkering with it?

By The Way: I might as well get this out of the way because it's a recurring gripe. The DMG5 has a lot of...well, what I call "padding," but what others might call patronizing text. A lot of "helpful suggestions" of how to tweak things, and random tables with "ideas," just in case the reader is lacking in the imagination department. Presumably, anyone who's set out to play D&D (let alone RUN the game) is probably, hopefully, already oozing in the imagination department, or at least competent enough to appear imaginative by knocking off derivations of their favorite fiction (if you're not someone who likes to read, are you really going to be willing to read these giant rulebooks?). Some might find it insulting, some might find it a waste of space, and some might consider it both, but...well, you're going to find it throughout the DMG5.

Next up we have a section on creating the gods of your fantasy world. This is not establishing a cosmology mind you (why magic works, why there are monsters, etc.), but basically coming up with a list of strange syllable combos and their spheres of power. It's four pages of padding. There's nothing really useful here, just recycling some of the best concepts from the 3rd edition DDG (explaining monotheism, animism, etc. and discussing mystery cults) while providing no actual rules. Yes, there's a time and place for fleshing out the religions of the campaign, but that generally comes later. Again, this just seems to be "Look! You get to create the universe! Yay for you!" kind of stuff. And it's less useful than the example pantheons found in the PHB5 appendix.

Continuing the top down theme, we now move into mapping your world, and deciding which scale to use (province, kingdom, or continent). Interesting that the DMG5 actually says you can start with a top-down or bottom-up approach ("bottom-up" being small scale and expanding to suit the needs of the campaign), but there's no advocation for either approach...just a "whatever works for you." So far, not a lot of guidance going into this Guide. What is the importance of using a 1 mile scale for provinces, 6 miles for kingdoms, and 60 miles (per hex) for continents? Who knows...it's an unexplained mystery.

Next we talk about building settlements (villages, towns, cities) how to give them local color and atmosphere (aesthetic), and a list of government types that is cribbed almost completely from the 1E DMG (page 89), save that the original did not provide a table to randomize the list (because randomly dicing for the governments of your campaign world is good setting design?). We also have the same list of monarch ranks and titles (again, page 89) except that the DMG5 leaves out the Asian forms, the German/French translations, and the religious hierarchies which Gygax provides. Also, the DMG5 doubles the space it takes to describe their governments because it cites examples from the various prepackaged campaign settings that WotC is trying to hawk rather than actually giving you a useful guide for building your own.

Next is a section on commerce (a couple-three paragraphs) followed by a whole page on currency, most of which is used to describe the coinage of the Forgotten Realms setting as an example of how your money can be shaped. I mean...I don't know how to describe this without being insulting. It's padding and (again) it's stupid. Especially in a game where collecting wealth is such a small part of game play, due to there being no game mechanic reward tied to it (because 5E uses the same "XP for defeating monsters/challenges" paradigm we've seen since 3E). If cash means nothing, who gives a shit what it looks like? Even in games where it's valued (for accumulating XP or performing spell research or building strongholds), I've never seen a player who cared whether the copper piece was called a "nib" or a "thumb" or...aaaaaaagh! Stupid stupid stupid waste of space!

Then we have a section on "creating your own" currency (gah!) followed by languages and dialects (more useless padding...wasn't this info in the PHB5?). Then a section on factions and organizations and, no, we're not talking about factions in the dungeon or anything. This is about groups and guilds a player character might join and the way to gain status through a new mechanic called "Renown." And this entire concept (right down to acquiring Renown) is pretty much stolen directly from Gamma World (1st and 2nd editions) and their Cryptic Alliances. If you've played GW and want to add the (fantasy) equivalent of Cryptic Alliances to your D&D world, here are some "ideas" about it.

We follow this with a section discussing ways you might incorporate magic restrictions (in the legal sense), schools of magic (a la Dragonlance), "teleportation circles" (a la...video games?) and some ideas for making it harder to raise the dead (like if the soul has a different alignment from your character) all of which is, well, not worth the word count in my opinion.

After all this, on page 25 (really? I would've thought we'd be around 80-some by now), we finally come to a section called: CREATING A CAMPAIGN. And here we get what probably should have come first AND (here's the kicker) it's right in line with the sensibilities outlined by Gygax in the original DMG: start small, limit players' information, worry only about the immediate locale. Create a home base with a small starting region (about a day's travel from the base) and a nearby starting adventure.

Why wasn't this all up front? Why did I spend all this time figuring out the shapes of the continents, the gods of the multiverse, the politics of the various kingdoms...hell, the name of the currency...just to come back to this? No, it's not top-down; it's bottom-up! Now you tell me.

[remember how I said this edition was dumb? This kind of design is the reason I write things like that]

This nice little (less than a page) instructional for the beginning DM ends with the following words: "Most important, visualize how this area [the home base] fits into the theme and story you have in mind for your campaign. Then start working on your first adventure!" Nope, I guess it's still top-down!

I'm going to blow through the last twenty pages or so of Chapter 1 pretty fast because it's mostly filler, and this post is already long (I'm going to have to do my comparison with the 1E DMG in a separate post). The next section is Campaign Events which are basically ideas of cataclysmic, "world shaking" happenings to inject spice into your campaign. Why is this here? Are we already concerned that your campaign can't sustain play long-term? We haven't even been told how to stock an adventure site, and you're already giving us random tables for invasions, rebellions, setting changing discoveries, and extinction events. Talk about putting the cart before the horse! That's about five pages that could probably go in an appendix.

We have a section on tracking time and making holidays that is as about as useful as the currency section. There's nothing explaining WHY creating your own fantasy calendar or tracking time is useful EXCEPT THAT it helps you (the DM) schedule your world shaking events. So useless.

Look at Gygax's section on time in the AD&D DMG (pages 37-38) for contrast. He is very specific about why recording time is necessary: because it is yet another resource to track and be utilized by the players. Time is everything, and "superior players" (EGG's words) will make the best use of it rather than squandering it. He provides specific examples of how exacting time-keeping works in a campaign, and how it can track player action (including training levels, learning languages, constructing magic items, and paying rent). He, too, talks (briefly) about creating your own "fantasy calendar," but the part that is stressed is the time keeping itself. Everything that 5E focuses on (with regard to campaign time) is little more than color.

Okay back to the DMG5: after the section on time, we read how one should run their campaign with regard to Play Style, and we're told the two ends of the pole are Hack and Slash and Immersive Storytelling, with most campaigns falling to Something In Between. Again, this is pretty useless stuff.  Why are we worried about customizing play style (or Campaign Theme...that's the next section) when we haven't yet been instructed how to run the game? There's an issue here of a game that lacks a default paradigm of play...the DMG5 wants to give you ideas for creating your own paradigm ("it's a tool box!") but it's just a bunch of abstract thought exercises, rather than real rules or tools or direction.

We end Chapter 1 with a couple pages describing the four Tiers of Play, based on the player characters' level (Local Heroes, Heroes of the Realm, Masters of the Realm, Masters of the World) and what types of adventures they should be having at each tier, FOLLOWED BY three or four pages describing the different Flavors of Fantasy (broken down as Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Intrigue, Mystery, Swashbuckling, War, and Wuxia). Oh, yeah...and some examples from the game's past (all from when it was still published by TSR) that mixed the flavors (my word!). This is simply more pages of padding...the only actual "tools" here is a table that shows how much equipment PCs should start with if you want to start a campaign with higher level characters, and a list of Chinese/Japanese names for standard weapons (in case you want to inject "Wuxia flavor," you'd better know that in Japan a longsword would be a katana and a longbow a daikyu. Too bad that wuxia is a Chinese term for a Chinese genre, and 5E's cultural appropriation of the concept as applicable to "all Asian fantasy" - including ninjas and samurai - is a little embarrassing, and probably offensive to some).

OKAY...we're going to end this post there, and start writing a comparison with the original DMG, at least with regard to pertinent sections that parallel this opening chapter of the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

[here's part 2b]


  1. i'm sorry, i didn't realise it would be that bad. :D

    1. @ Shlomo:

      I'm sure you didn't.
      ; )

  2. Back in our AD&D days, the only way to learn to play the game, was to play the game with experienced players. I don't think that the early editions ever put too much bother in actually teaching, and the reason for this was that it was a huge waste of space! You only need to read it once, and then your done. You'll never need those basic explanations again.

    The state of the game is different now, there is so much competing for you attention, making D&D an even smaller demographic of people. Finding an established table of players willing to let in strangers is also difficult, so maybe folks do need a book to teach them, but I am with you, it shouldn't be the DMG or the PHB that does this, either make a separate book, preferably soft bound, or put a disposable flier in the books to explain 1 time stuff.

    It doesn't sound like the DMG is a very good work-horse so far, does it.

    1. @ Ripper:

      Sorry, this really needs to be read in conjunction with Part 2b...I'm not sure the old DMG is as big a mess as most folks assume.

      I mean, it IS a mess, but...well, read the 2nd part.

    2. I'd say the earlier rulesets actually did a better job of teaching new players. The new ones are too wishy-washy, afraid of telling anyone how they should be playing. That's exactly what new players need, though. Breaking the rules and taking the game in different directions comes with experience

      I grew up with 3.0, and that was an issue I had even when I started (though I think the 3e DMG's much better than most people give it for). 1E always seemed to have more immediately useful advice and material, and I'm realizing that even moreso these days

  3. I like your writing but i hate your font I find the colors very hard to read.

    1. @Re-Elm:

      White on black? Hmm...I guess I just find it easier on my eyes.

      If you view the blog with a mobile device, it should show up as black on white...at least it does on my phones (I have two...don't ask).