Monday, December 14, 2015

Comparing DMGs (P. 1)

This is probably going to be a rather silly post (or series of posts), but I'm up early and my brain is a little loopy after watching yet another stellar Seahawk performance last night and, anyway, Shlomo said he thought this would be interesting. I dig on interesting.

The fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide (hereafter called the DMG5) takes a different tact from the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (hereafter called the DMG) when it comes to presenting its DM material, so a direct comparison may be a little tricky, if not downright impossible. Unfortunately, I don't have copies of the middle edition guides with me at the moment (not that I want to review all of them at once!), but I suspect that you could probably see a progressive evolution in layout from book to book.

I'm sure others have remarked before on the title change to reflect a possessive descriptor; the apostrophe first appears with the 2nd edition of the book. I'm sure it's just my "old man-ness" showing, but it bothers me, that singular possessive quality. The original title seems to say "here is a guide book for anyone aspiring to join the ranks of dungeon masters," while the latter implies "this is your book," as if there was no responsibility inherent with assuming the mantle of "DM," no requirement of consistency with the way game play (and game running) is intended. Which was, after all, one of Gygax's explicit, stated reasons for penning the DMG in the first place: to instill some sort of order and consistency to game play. The value you place on such an objective is, of course, up to you.

Shouldn't it at least be, Dungeon Masters' Guide?

Well, I said, this has been the title since the 2E, so regardless of any negative (or positive) judgment on the change, it's not anything to bestow on 5E.

ANYway...I've seen criticism of the original DMG (here and elsewhere) for its poor organization and scattered material, and up until a couple days ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly. Not that it bothers me...years of working with nothing other than the DMG has made me so familiar with it, I can quickly find whatever info I need. But to someone just glancing through it, there seems little rhyme or reason to why it's organized the way it is. 

Then I actually bothered to go and read the Introduction again (I believe the last time I read the DMG intro was the first time I opened the book, 30-some years ago):
"The format of this book is simple and straightforward. The first sections pertain to material in the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, and each pertinent section is in corresponding order. Much information was purposefully omitted from the latter work, as it is data which would not normally be known - at least initially - to a person of the nature which the game presupposes, i.e. an adventurer in a world of swords & sorcery. It is incumbent upon all DMs to be thoroughly conversant with the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, and at the same time you must know the additional information which is given in this volume, for it rounds out and completes the whole... 
"After the material which pertains directly to the PLAYERS HANDBOOK comes the information which supplements and augments. There is a large section which lists and explains the numerous magical items. There are sections on the development of the campaign milieu, dungeon design, random creation of wilderness and dungeon levels, and the development of non-player characters. In fact, what I have attempted is to cram everything vital to the game into this book, so that you be as completely equipped as possible to face the ravenous packs of players lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon the unwary referee and devour him or her at the first opportunity."
Those are the first two paragraphs of the introduction, and if one lays out the 1E PHB next to the DMG (something I was unable to do the first time I read the DMG, as I received my DMG about a year before I was able to acquire a copy of the PHB), you will see that the sections of the DMG through the first 86 pages directly correlate to the same sections of the PHB (up until that book's appendices). Yes, the PHB has a section on Combat (and even an example combat) but the rules of running the combat (including the all combat tables) are in the DMG, as conducting such in-game actions are the purview of the DM. Yes, the PHB outlines how a characters acquire XP (including the one GP = one XP calculation), but the DMG explains how to calculate monster XP value and how XP should be distributed based on player performance, etc. Gygax, in his original books, makes a clear division between what knowledge is needed for a player to play, and what additional knowledge is needed for a DM to run.

My second DMG acquired, and
the one that's seen the most use.
Is there wisdom in this method? I don't recall what the 2E books looked like, though I'm petty sure that THAC0 and saving throws were (at least) included in the 2nd edition PHB. Third edition is the first edition I recall that has the actual combat rules included as part of its PHB. This could be seen as a move towards transparency in the game (moving those "mysterious rules" out from behind the DM screen), or it could be seen as necessary to distribute the burden of the advanced tactics of 3E (players need to know how to move around the battle mat, especially with regard to reach, attacks of opportunity, etc.). For Gygax, it is apparent that such things are of secondary consideration to the priority of an immersive experience. At least, that's how I interpret a text that provides tips and advice (in the PHB) for how to adventure and participate in combat, while keeping the actual nuts and bolts of the game (ostensibly) invisible, hidden in the DM's tome.

This experience (which AD&D creates), renders tactical considerations dispensable. Or as Gygax explains:
"Material included was written with an eye towards playability and expedition. The fun of the games action and drama. The challenge of problem solving is secondary. Long and drawn out operations by the referee irritate the players. More "realistic" combat systems could certainly have been included here, but they have no real part in a game for a group of players having an exciting adventure."
Folks whose introduction to D&D started with 3E (or later editions) may not quite grasp this concept...even those who've since moved to "old school" systems. Longing for a simpler, more accessible (i.e. more easily mastered), quicker-moving system can be plenty motivation for "jumping ship," and won't necessarily result in the type of powerful immersive experience that is possible.

[Alexis Smolensk (who has expressed great disdain for Gygax or, at least, for people's deification of the man) has written two good books that can act as real aids on this subject: How to Run and The Dungeon's Front Door, the latter of which I'll attempt to review in the very near future]

Following the section that expands upon the PHB, the DMG moves into areas not addressed in the former book: creating campaigns, creating NPCs, construction (of strongholds and such), conducting the game (dealing with players, keeping the game fresh, etc.), magical research, and finally treasure and magic items...the single largest section of the book (close to 50 pages, about 44 of which are magic item descriptions). 

After this, you find 16 appendices, including a number of random tables: random dungeon creations, random encounters, random traps, random adventuring parties, etc. as well as some useful lists, including monster stat blocks, encumbrance amounts, and inspirational reading (the infamous Appendix N). Finally, a glossary, a short "afterword," and an index, the latter of which is nice because it has entries for both the DMG and the PHB in one place.

In contrast (and, yes, I know this post is running long), the DMG5 divides its book into nine chapters contained in three parts. The first section (Master of Worlds) is two chapters of 60-some pages with the purpose of helping "you decide what kind of campaign you'd like to run." The second section (Master of Adventures) has 160-some pages and purports to help "create the adventures - the stories - that will compose the campaign and keep the players entertained from one game session to another." Most of this section (100 pages) is devoted to treasure and magic items. The third section (Master of Rules) is the smallest of the three sections, being under 60 pages, and aims to help "adjudicate the rules of the game and modify them to suit the style of your campaign."

These three sections are followed by four appendices: one a random dungeon generator, one a list of monsters by challenge rating, one a selection of sample maps, and finally a list of inspirational reading. A good sized index rounds out the book. The fifth edition Guide comes in at a total page count of 320, a third again as large as the 1st edition version...not terribly unmanageable, considering there's a lot of artwork in the DMG5, including many full page illustrations. In fact, about 90 pages of the DMG5 are non-instructional illustrations. The original DMG has about 13-14 pages worth of illustration depending on how you measure 'em. Most of the extra page count is simply aesthetic, not text.

Let's take a look at just the the next post.


  1. I don't know how I missed the fact that the original DMG was written to correspond to the original PHB... that makes so much more sense now.

    I still find OSRIC to be a better-organized alternative when running AD&D, but maybe it's time to give the old DMG a fresh look.

  2. "I don't recall what the 2E books looked like, though I'm petty sure that THAC0 and saving throws were (at least) included in the 2nd edition PHB."

    2e has basically ALL the rules in the PHB; that's why the 2e PHB is so much thicker than the 2e DMG. The 2e DMG is pretty much just magic items and filler.

    1. you might want to take another look at those books, cause what you say is simply not true. my 2nd edition phb has 255 pages, the dmg 192. magic item rules start on page 135. the only reason why the phb is thicker is because there are a huge number of spells. spells start on page 131. ;)

      so, um... just no.

      in fact in the 2nd edition books all the chapters correlate. all 14 of them. some stuff is simply copied word for word though (something i only realised just now. :)). the phb then adds spells, the dmg treasure and magic items.

    2. I know the magic items start on page 135 of the 2e DMG. The filler occupies pages 1-134. :p

      Eh, there are some rules in the 2e DMG I guess. The 2e PHB definitely has more mechanics in it than the 1e PHB though.

  3. 2e DMG contains the THAC0 chart with an added section for monsters. The Saving Throw section had tips on how to figure out what category to use based on what happens when the save is successful . . . kind of; it is helpful as it allows the DM to quickly decide what table to use for a specific kind of trap.

    BTW I this series sounds interesting, and fun to read! Looking forward to more updates.

  4. Huh, I sorta noticed that thing about the DMG's layout, but don't recall reading that bit from the introduction. I've only got a PDF (really need to get a physical copy), so I mostly just skim it from time to time, or more likely look for specific info

    I think people exaggerate how bad the DMG's layout is. My main complaint is how far apart some charts are from their explanatory text. For instance, the combat charts are on pages 74 & 75, but the bit about repeating 20s is on page 82! Between them you've got all this unrelated stuff about psionics and saving throws

  5. One writer to another, a petty nitpick here -- it's "take a different tack," not "take a different tact." Second paragraph, first sentence. It's a sailing aphorism.

    1. @ Jack:

      Ha! I won't blame spellcheck for that...I simply didn't know I was pronouncing it wrong. Thanks!