Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Worst Thing to Happen to AD&D

It’s hard to imagine now just how much gravitas the original AD&D hardback books held during the mid-eighties. Game mastering was, in my experience, not something that was particularly well understood at the time– not in my circles, anyway. The few people that I’d met that had any talent for it were liable to forbid people even looking at the Dungeon Masters Guide. I did not play a great deal, but somehow… I was actually afraid on some level to open up that book. The idea of owning something like a complete set of the AD&D rule-books was something that was impossible for me to imagine until they all got discounted when second edition was about to be rolled out. Even then, it would be decades before I could get a good look at them. I bought the whole “high end last word end all be all” schtick hook, line and sinker.

The survival guides struck me as being particularly hard core, though. I mean… imagine… an entire book on each of dungeon and wilderness adventuring. It was just awe inspiring, really. Heck, I barely understood how to run bare bones Basic D&D… and I was daunted by The Isle of Dread from the Expert set. But these two massive tomes really represented to me the ultimate in gaming.

Now that I actually sit down and read a physical copy, I have to say I am shocked. I mean, Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures come in for their share of criticism, sure. But it means something that Gary Gygax’s name was on the books. In comparison to those two, it’s almost painful to read The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. It’s just so clear that in the wake of Gygax being run off, that the chuckleheads were taking over. If you ask me, this is undoubtedly the point where TSR lost its way.

It’s the section on game mastering advice that really gets me, though. Check this out:

The most important ingredient in any campaign is a skilled DM who has the time and energy to carefully define and create his world, and the talent to communicate his settings effectively.

Oh good grief, what a mass of obfuscation and misdirection in just one sentence. This is, first and foremost, sucking up to all the Dungeon Masters that would read this. You are all special people, for sure! No.. really! Rather than pointing people towards solid game design wisdom that could enable even a novice to successfully run a summer-long campaign, instead we get some kind of cult of gamer personality. And what’s the thing that makes a DM great? The sort of elaborate settings that are domain of aspiring novelists. (Note: I bet if you don’t have the mettle to come up with an elaborate setting, then TSR would have loved to sell you scads of books that do not even comprise a playable game! And that is of course precisely where they were headed when they published this.) The worst offense here is that none of this has to do with games or game design. It’s all about the GM’s ability to convey his vision. Ridiculous. If that’s what people think rpg sessions are all about then they may as well go to a movie or read a book.

Continuing on:

The next most important ingredients are willing players who share common goals with the DM. Players interested in hack-and-slash adventures should not be matched a DM who is interested in careful plot structuring and detailed mystery solving.

What nonsense. As if role-playing is so special that you have to have some kind of computerized dating service to connect players with DM’s that are compatible each other. As if DM’s are not capable to mastering several styles of adventure and campaign types. As if players wouldn’t enjoy a variety of play styles and scenario types within the same campaign– or even within the same session!

The players are then broken down into three types: Adventurers, Problem-Solvers, and Role-players. As if a good DM would even have to work out this sort of thing before hand to get a game going. As if everyone that plays rpgs didn’t have aspects of all three styles at one time. As if the party wouldn’t be made up of people that differ on each of these points. As if game design and adventure design can’t be worked out in such a way as to accommodate all three of these modes simultaneously. As if the good DM has to be some kind of amateur psychologist and then somehow spoon feed those poor helpless players the only kind of game they can understand.

What rubbish. Whoever wrote this stuff is just making stuff up. It’s like they (a) get paid by the word and (b) know they will be able to sell more books if they divert game masters away from actual solutions to their gaming  problems. The sort of people that buy these books for guidance in getting started in actually running games will not get what they are looking for in this material. Which is a shame, really. The book is, after all, filled with so many inspiring images.

What you need to be a successful DM is really quite simple, really. But it doesn’t break down into an easy three part model that’s easy to craft an essay around. I’ll tell you what it takes, though:

  1. Time — If you want to be a good dungeon master, then you will need time more than anything else. Your first sessions and campaigns will be full mistakes and missed opportunities. It will be a miracle if your players have fun anyway and keep coming back. Don’t be disappointed when things go wrong, but above all else keep on playing.
  2. Consequences — You may have an impulse to shield your players from the consequences of their actions within a game. Usually it will be so that you can make the story come out the way you think it’s supposed to happen. The more you are given over to this, the harder it will be for you to learn how to game master and the harder it will be for players to learn how to play well within your game.
  3. Impartiality — With real consequences in your game, players want to be able to make informed decisions with regards to the risks. They can’t do that if you are neither fair nor consistent. If your players think you are failing to meet that standard, they will let you know about it. Always be ready to listen to the players’ side, but at the same time… take responsibility for your final decisions.
  4. Variety — When you start out, you may only be able to run particular types of adventures that emphasize the play styles that you are most comfortable with. Once you’ve tried doing a lot of different things, you’ll be able to incorporate different types of challenges within the same adventure or campaign. You will finally have the freedom to respond to just about anything the players want to try, even on the spur of the moment! So try new things– especially if you’re not good at them.
  5. Choice — When the players are presented with the choice between adventure opportunities, they will be able to make a decision as a group between engaging in more role-playing, more hack-and-slash, and/or more problem solving on the basis of whatever they are in the mood for. They will sort out this issue on their own. So you don’t have to be able to read their minds, assess their personalities, or gauge the interest of a particular group as long as the players are faced with a variety of challenges and have the latitude to choose both what that they want to tackle and how to approach it.

This isn’t that complicated, really. With everything from Keep on the Borderlands to Dwimmermount, this sort of thing will emerge naturally if you let it. Players that are keen on more role-playing will have more questions about the various personalities in town and try to engage with them. You won’t be ready for every single thing the players want to try, so just make stuff up and take notes on what you come up with between sessions. The game can then start to grow into whatever the players want it to be as long as you are willing to invest in the things that the they have the most interest in.

Meanwhile, dungeons are generally full of monsters to kill and puzzles to solve. If the puzzles are optional, groups keen on mayhem can bypass them to get what they want from the game. If the monsters can be avoided, then players make a beeline to the puzzle elements that most concern them. If they are stymied, they can always go back to exploring. If they are tired of dungeon crawling, they may begin investigating some of the adventure hooks that point to other places on the adventure map. If they’re content with dungeon crawling, then you don’t have to bother developing the wider world all that much unless it suits you!

Just running the game more or less faithfully will allow you to solve your problems on your own– or at least find products that address actual needs from your game. But too much of game mastering advice is loaded with misinformation that adds imaginary problems where they do not exist and diverts the novice away from developing the skills he needs to handle things himself at the table. Too much of that sort of thing can ruin a game line– and that’s exactly what’s happened here with The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.

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12 responses to “The Worst Thing to Happen to AD&D

  1. MishaBurnett July 30, 2015 at 6:08 am

    The hardback D&D books were where I lost interest in D&D. I don’t think there was a direct correlation–I had also just moved and the new group I was hanging out with had a Traveler background. But it did have an effect.

    Pre-hardback D&D had an organic, cooperative feel. The original three paperbacks in the little cardboard box were .the only “official” rules Blackmoor and Greyhawk and the long-awaited Eldritch Wizardry added option rules for new character classes and races (I don’t think either Hobbits or thieves were in the first set–they were in Greyhawk, I believe). They had new monsters and new monsters, but so did a lot of other sources. Pages clipped or photocopied–or even hand copied–from The Dragon magazine were part of every DM’s rule library.

    All these additions were optional, and the DM was the Local Authority Having Jurisdiction–if the DM didn’t like the monk or druid class, then such things weren’t in the world.

    Then there were The Arduin Grimores, which, to me, defined roleplaying gaming of the era. Less a set of rules than a bunch of gonzo (often contradictory) suggestions and zen koans disguised as percentage tables, the subtext of Arduin is that the players created the game. If you want an intelligent mercury golem riding a sandworm, then just do it, and nudge the rules to make it work.

    AD&D (whatever edition the hardcover books were) changed all that. They were designed to be complete and inviolate–you had to play the game the way that the designers wrote it. There were still house rules and optional rules, but the system clearly discouraged it. What’s more, the endless stream of supplements (of which the Dungereers and Wilderness guides you mention were the first, I think) kept up a steady stream of official rules to deal with just about any situation. If you want to run a campaign underwater, then you had better run out and buy Undersea Adventures, or you’re doing it wrong.

    • jeffro July 30, 2015 at 6:14 am

      I remember reading complaints about this in Dragon’s letter column– and I honestly could not fathom at the time how OD&D could be superior to AD&D. Of course now I’m envious of the people that came up on the booklets.

      • MishaBurnett July 30, 2015 at 12:03 pm

        It occurs to me that the TSR/Everyone Else schism paralleled the Apple/PC schism of about the same time. Like Jobs, Gygax was dead set against any open source content. I do think that their reasoning was similar and, in theory, commendable. Despite being called control freaks, I think the issue for both of them was quality–they didn’t want their brands associated with anything that they considered substandard. (And there was a lot of sheer dreck in both RPGs and software.)

        Guys like me who have a need to tinker with things, though, saw this as “my way or the highway” arrogance, which is why I favor systems like GURPS and Savage Worlds that are designed to smoothly integrate user created content (I wrote a Savage Worlds setting based on the video game Gauntlet:Dark Legacy in a couple of free afternoons once) and why I am a PC guy today.

    • jeffro July 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      That’s exactly why I have a hard time getting on board the “D&D Open Licensing Guy Saved D&D” bandwagon. I’m sorry, but the D20 glut set us back. All that crap product flooding the game stores means that there are hardly any rpg products at such places today!

  2. Cirsova July 30, 2015 at 8:35 am

    “As if players wouldn’t enjoy a variety of play styles and scenario types within the same campaign– or even within the same session.” I wish that were true! We pretty much had to kick a guy out because he was always insistent on giving long elaborate histories of who his character was, what he looked like, who he’d buggered, etc. because in games with high character death (we already had up 8 sticky notes with tombstones on them put up on the wall), the rest of us really don’t care about the musty smell of his prayer book or his preferred style of mulled wine. DMs who are wannabe novelists are nowhere near as difficult as players who are wannabe novelists.

    At first, I thought you may have been making a mountain out of a molehill, but I’ll admit that bit about DMs and Players is the sort of fluff I’d write for a sales/marketing oriented technical piece when I was on a deadline, had a somewhat shallow understanding of the subject, and very little interest into doing anything better when I really just needed some filler. I’m not saying that’s what Niles did, but it’s the sort of thing I’d probably have written if I were in a similar spot.

    As a counterpoint to Niles, though, one of my friends who runs a game is not the best at communicating the flavor and nuance of his setting yet (he’s only started running games recently, so he’s bound to get better at this aspect), but when it comes to actually designing adventures, there’s no one I’d rather have DM for me.

    • jeffro July 30, 2015 at 8:44 am

      The assessment of whether “that guy” is going to work is generally a consensus decision. The GM has the option to stand back and leave it to the players to solve the problems the problem player presents. Whether it’s “thief that insists on lengthy solo quests”, the “thief that steals from party members”, the “jerk elf dude that foils the intent of the group at every turn”, or the “inappropriate role-player guy”, all of them can be fragged in a coordinated smack down whether he steps away for a smoke break or not.

      This sort of conflict between the player produces a lot of horror stories, sure. But if the players can work it out on their own, it can result in far better play than whatever the planned adventure was. Because it’s actual and not simulated conflict. Of course… this sort of thing will put your impartiality through the paces… but if handled properly… it can produce some memorable gaming. (Bonus: player vs. player conflict does not require prep!)

  3. Cirsova July 30, 2015 at 8:41 am

    As an aside, in my 1e group, sometimes we’ll take a peak at Unearthed Arcana and say “nope, not worth it”, we’ve even had issues of Dragon come out and be consulted, but we’ve NEVER had anyone say “Hey, lemme take a look at the Wilderness/Dungeoneer Survival Guide.”

    We also get a lot of stuff from Field Folio and MM2 thrown at us, but that’s another story… I’d rather fight any of the dragons than another Aurumvorax…

    • jeffro July 30, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Ah, that’s good to know. I really want to like the Wilderness Guide– given how stymied I was with that sort of thing. I’m afraid that the Expert Rules and The Isle of Dread is probably 100x more useful in practice.

      • Cirsova July 30, 2015 at 8:54 am

        I can’t imagine just how much it could expound or improve upon Expert’s mechanics. If it were a set of biome-based tables detailing common/uncommon flora and fauna and the properties & uses of said flora and fauna, then it might actually be a useful tool. But I don’t know if that is what it is.

        I’m one of those guys who, on the fly, can only think of seven kinds of trees, and I’m pretty sure they don’t all grow together in the same sort of place…

  4. jlv61560 July 30, 2015 at 11:48 am

    This is a pretty good point, any way you cut it. One of the reasons I left D&D was because they always seemed to come off with this supercilious attitude and demand “loyalty” to the system (rules as written). It just seemed to me that things like The Fantasy Trip worked better, were smoother, and were a lot less interested in telling you how stupid you were compared to the authors. The sort of pseudo-intellectual self-righteousness, wherein they demand you get a degree from Harvard in “Dungeonmastering” in order to somehow be “acceptable” to them was always one of the things that turned me off. It’s almost like they had an image in their heads of what “those nerds playing that game” were supposed to be like and then tried to minmax their own version of it. The real goal of any campaign (or even just game in general) is FUN. Fun for everyone, not just slavish rules lawyering.

  5. Hooc Ott June 19, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Hey I have that book….freshest looking book I own. The copyright on mine says 1986…so running pretty close to the end of the 1e AD&D cycle before the 1989 2nd addition was released.

    I never used it.

    I think it probably cost 19.99 at the time. So the only pain I felt would be losing the 20 bucks.

    Thumbing through it there is a tutorial on how to make isometric maps. The First Dragonlance module “Dragons of Despair” came out 84′ and it had a beautiful isometric map on its inside cover. Great sense of scale and added depth (literal depth) to the main dungeon. I wonder if that prompted the tutorial.

  6. Brian T Renninger June 19, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    As to annoying players, sometimes there needs to be a PC blanket party.

    I personally really like the original three hardbacks (four really with D&DGs). Yes, they are poorly organized and overly prescriptive in some parts (do we really need a table outlining the relationships between the different humanoids?) but, there is a lot there all in one place and the overall tone and art are quite inspirational. There is charm in their imperfections.

    But, FF, MMII, Survival Guides. While they all contain some interesting stuff, most just seemed either unnecessary or redundant or even broken (weapon specialization I’m looking at you).

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