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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.