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Revisiting Gygax’s Advice on How to Have a Great AD&D Campaign

In honor of OSRIC’s tenth anniversary, I cracked open the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in order to see if– yet again– I could stumble on something useful or insightful that I had never come across before. I didn’t flip around much when I started reading the section entitled “The Ongoing Campaign.” Here it is:

While it might seem highly unlikely to those who have not been involved in fantasy adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off – perhaps a few months or a year, depending on the intensity of play – some participants will become bored and move to other gaming forms, returning to your campaign only occasionally. Shortly thereafter even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges. It is possible, however, for you to devise a campaign which will have a very minimal amount of participant attrition and enthusiast ennui, and it is not particularly difficult to do so.

One thing that sets Gary Gygax apart from a lot of later rpg writers is the rather large amounts of gaming experience he had. I read stuff from the second edition days and it drives me nuts because it’s written by people that have barely played at all. The game design necessarily suffers and the game mastering advice is downright execrable as a result.

One think I want to point out about the long campaigns he’s referring to here is that it’s original D&D he’s talking about here. A lot of quintessentially AD&D type rules did emerge in OD&D’s supplements, sure. But it was a different scene without an “official” Dungeon Master’s Guide to propel TSR’s flagship game into the eighties.

Another thing about this passage… he’s talking about something that is (to me) one of the most challenging things in gaming and he introducing it by declaring its solution to be “not particularly difficult.” Alright, Gary… I’m all ears, man. Lay it on me!

Continuing on:

Is has been mentioned already, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge There must always be something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen. Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play, for not only will their player characters and henchmen gain levels of experience, but their actions have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement.

Okay, there’s plenty here to reflect on. My most successful campaign was with ACKS and Dwimmermount and I wrapped that one up when the players were solidly at the third level or so. I think of the opening stages of the game as sort of ten foot wall that forces the players to master the game and learn to cooperate. I did get player feedback saying there was too much death, but I also got a request to run another game that started at first level.

I think the design of Dwimmermount is designed to address these directives here… but the way the module is set up with lots of situations for the players to walk in on (ie, as basically most traditional modules are done), this “cosmic game” is established a little differently there than how Gygax might have done it himself at the time. Certainly, elements of both the domain level play of the game and also of the game’s wider cosmology should come into play at some point. When I did the Appendix N survey, I had my eye out for anything that could provide inspiration for handling this sort of thing as it’s long been something that I’ve struggled with. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think there is a whole lot effort on the part of the old school scene in general to get into some of this. Many of us are quite happy focusing at length upon the ten foot pole and iron spike stage of D&D’s gameplay, sure. But maybe we overreacted against the “Hickman revolution” a little, too.

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole, whether some side dungeon or quest, a minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional “pure fun” scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment. At times the fun aspect must be stressed. Thus, in my “Greyhawk Campaign” I included an “Alice In Wonderland” level, and while it is a deadly place, those who have adventured through it have uniformly proclaimed it as great fun because it is the antithesis of the campaign as a whole. Similarly, there are places where adventurers can journey to a land of pure Greek mythology, into the future where the island of King Kong awaits their pleasure, or through the multiverse to different planets, including Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure”, where they hunt sequins in the Carabas while Dirdir and Dirdirmen hunt them.

Okay, there is a great deal in this paragraph. I believe the old school scene of recent years has done a great deal to revive the “silliness and humor” that is referred to here. Certainly, the pages of Fight On! magazine is loaded with humourous material that is completely at odds with the overly serious, brooding model types that grace the pages of today’s fantasy novels. Another thing the old school has helped bring back is an understanding of the utility of dungeon sublevels and so forth. I think the lore surrounding much advice in mega-dungeon design is in tune with what Gygax is saying here.

I caught a lot of flak over what I’ve said about rpg settings over the past year or so, so I want you to take a look at what he’s saying about Greyhawk here. Note that when he says “Greyhawk Campaign” he doesn’t mean anything remotely like what most people mean when they talk about a “Forgotten Realms Campaign”. The thrust of what he’s talking about doesn’t sound anything like the 1983 boxed set that pretty well defined the game world for children of the eighties.

I’m sure there are gaming scholars that are much more familiar with the backstory on this, but when he says that his “Greyhawk Campaign” includes an “Alice In Wonderland” level, it sure sounds like the heart of his campaign setting was a very large– and occasionally nonsensical– dungeon. And that stuff with a Greek Mythology land, time travel, and King Kong…? You’re talking an anything goes, off the wall, kitchen sink campaign here.

Why would it be like that? Because, amateur Dungeon Masters in the old school scene do not produce professional style, coherent, and painstakingly detailed game settings when they engage in the “Do It Yourself” approach that typifies the OD&D era. When you tell people over and over that they need to have a serious, realistic setting to game in or else they’re totally el lame-o, they don’t start making awesomely coherent works of art. They start buying somebody else’s masterpiece because it’s takes a lot of work to develop that stuff.

Now a lot of people bemoan all this “gonzo” stuff that goes on in the old school scene of today. It just doesn’t set well with a lot of people. And that’s fine– I mean, different strokes and all that, right? But genre mashups and the characters drawn from anything that can be turned up in a Google image search and… well… basically anything that’s ever been done with Encounter Critical…? It serves a purpose beyond just being freaky and hilarious. It puts “Do It Yourself” campaign setting development back within the reach of the average Dungeon Master.

And take a look at what Gygax is doing with Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” there. Oh yeah, it’s practically the same thing he did with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories in the pages of OD&D. That would be the other big secret to “Do It Yourself” style play. You can adapt old pulp novels to classic D&D with very little work. If megadungeons ever get boring, you can just turn the players loose in the world of nearly any classic science fiction and fantasy author.

So can people stop saying now that “Appendix N is ultimately a list of Gygax’s favorites”? I mean, I thought it was enough to show just how much was pulled from those books in the creation of AD&D. I would have thought that Tim Kask’s statement on what it was was enough to put an already asinine claim to bed. But just look it. Appendix N defines large stretches of Gygax’s personal campaign setting as it was actually played. And beyond that, he’s telling you that this is part of the secret to running a long-lasting campaign that will keep people coming back.

Of course, such areas represent a considerable investment in time and effort. Many of you will not have hours to spend creating these diversions, so it might seem that your campaign is doomed to eventual stagnation. Not so. The various prepared modules available commercially are ideal for use as sidelights to the whole of your game. In addition, there are many games which can be “plugged into” your AD&D campaign to serve as relief. After all is said and done, role playing is role playing and the setting is not of paramount importance. The trick is to adapt one system to the other so as to enable continuity of the characters from AD&D into the other setting. This allows not only a refreshing change, but it poses new problems to participants and adds new factors to your campaign – new abilities, new weapons, etc. TSR has many games and rules systems which can be used with this game to expand and invigorate your campaign. Space does not permit detailed explanations of how to do this with each and every possible system, but two readily lend themselves to both the spirit of AD&D and its systems: BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD.

And no, even with a kitchen sink style setting and a pile of Appendix N books, not everyone is going to want to roll their own. On the other hand, “the setting is not of paramount importance” to role-playing. Wow. Did you catch that…? The setting is not of paramount importance!

Really, though… if your kitchen sink is not doing it for you, then the only thing to do is kitchen sink even harder. You need six guns and random mutations in your AD&D game… and probably space ships and powered armor just to be sure. (Heck, it’s already got psionics and green slimes straight out of Heiro’s Journey, so why the heck not, right?)

Okay, I guess you don’t have to go that far in order to play AD&D correctly…. But one thing’s for sure. Pretty much everything people take for granted about how rpg settings are “supposed” to be done is antithetical to how AD&D was intended to be played.

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13 responses to “Revisiting Gygax’s Advice on How to Have a Great AD&D Campaign

  1. Brooser Bear June 25, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    I think that Gygax had his own agenda – to market HIS system. In those days, the target audience for TSR’s AD&D were still the DM’s, not the munchkin players. I think that Gygax may have changed his views since publishing his AD&D. You must be aware, that her penned two D&D clones – Castles and Crusades and Lejendery Adventures. His death interrupted his last writings on adventure design, the series was called Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds. The book that dealt with adventure development and story writing was called The Insidiae, and it was entirely dome in the Hickman mold. Compare the ideas from Insidiae with his ideas for the campaign event building in HIS Oriental Adventures.

    Regarding campaigns, I have a series and realistic campaign setting, called Midlands, It is all my own. It is inspired by Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Teutonic Knights, among other things, but it’s the spirit and view of combat, not the setting itself or the adventure.

    My experience has borne out what the WOTC research has borne out, that most campaigns last two years or so. I ran two so far, and one lasted two years eight months, and the other lasted two years exactly. I think that external factors were largely responsible – people getting promoted, fired, reassigned, girlfriends moving in, wives divorcing and child custody battles – but still, it was roughly a two year period predicted by the game company research.

    I love to run sandboxes without railroads or signposting. To do this, the campaign has to have a direction, and the beginning, middle, and the end-game. In it, players are like pebbles being dragged on the shore by the incoming tide. Where the players end up in the end determines if the players have collectively achieved something or if they had no clue. The end game of a campaign is nothing like the high level adventuring of the D&D BECMI or pf the ACKS. The campaign should have a projected end and objectives for the players should be implicit in it, though never reveled to the players. unless they actively discover it themselves. An instance of a good campaign design would be a game, where the players take the roles of the Japanese mystics, monks, martial artists and spiritual leaders in 20th century Japan. The campaign will start in 1926, with Emperor Hirohito assuming his reign and with player characters being novices in their various religious orders, and the campaign will end naturally in 1945, since the players will be based in Hiroshima. Here you have the full range of possibilities – from players playing diggy dirt in the sandbox until the balloon goes up to players rising to the challenge and changing history to save their monastery near Hiroshima’s central city garden from a certain destruction.

  2. Hooc Ott June 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    “Note that when he says “Greyhawk Campaign” he doesn’t mean anything remotely like what most people mean when they take about a “Forgotten Realms Campaign””

    “when he says that his “Greyhawk Campaign” includes an “Alice In Wonderland” level, it sure sounds like the heart of his campaign setting was a very large– and occasionally nonsensical– dungeon”

    The GDQ module series (Giants, Drow, Queen) as far as a know is Gygax’s largest published series of campaigns. Some interesting notes about it is that it starts at level 9 which would seem to correlate to the time when “adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off”

    Also at least with the Drow portion they are connected with a massive “underdark” world map which could correlate with your “very large dungeon”

    I don’t know how “tenuous the strands” of these three interlocking series are connected or what the “backdrop against which adventures are carried out” is. My guess without having thoroughly read the modules only skimming them is there is one.

    If there is an example of Gygax demonstrating and executing the ideas in “The Ongoing Campaign.” and his “Greyhawk Campaign” I think this would be where to look.

    As to his “kitchen sink” and ““Alice In Wonderland” level” I would think the Expedition to Barrier Peaks fits the bill. It is about the right XP level for characters running the GDQ series and it would not surprise me if the underdark world map in the Drow portion of GDQ modules goes near and offers perhaps entrance to the Barrier Peaks region. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks being an exploration of a crashed space ship would fit the cross genre kitchen sink Alice in Wonderland criteria.

  3. Cambias June 26, 2016 at 9:21 am

    It’s also worth remembering that when Gary wrote that passage, the spectrum of roleplaying games available was the book he was writing, and a couple of folders of notes sitting on his desk.

    If he and his pals wanted to play Barsoom, or Dumarest of Terra, or Alice in Wonderland, there were no purpose-designed game systems for those settings. It wasn’t a case of using D&D vs. some other game, it was D&D or nothing.

    • jeffro June 26, 2016 at 9:46 am

      I just talked to a guy that basically did everything talked about here. He dropped an Appendix N fueled science fiction diversion into his years-spanning campaign… and his players ate it up. It worked just like this passage said it would.

      So that impulse to, say, take the Monk out of AD&D and relegate him to the Oriental Adventures supplement (which Gygax himself said was now the right way to do things ~1985)…? Also the move to take role-playing out of Car Wars and put it into GURPS Autoduel where it belongs…? That is New School.

      Yes it’s a function of marketing and publishing. But there was something different about the old games as a consequence of these forces/demands not being applied to them. I like that difference. I call it “old school”, for lack of a better term. This hurts the feelings of people that see other things in the old games that they want to revive INSTEAD OF this particular element, but it shouldn’t. See? I will give them permission to take and leave what they want and market themselves with whatever label they want! :sound of heavenly choir: (I’m saying “this is old school”, not “you are old school only if ___.”)

    • Hooc Ott June 26, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      “the spectrum of roleplaying games available was the book he was writing, and a couple of folders of notes sitting on his desk.”

      “It wasn’t a case of using D&D vs. some other game, it was D&D or nothing.”

      Not sure this is true. the AD&D DMG has a page or three about converting Gamma World and Boothill characters into AD&D characters.

      The Dungeon Masters Guide came out in 79′

      Gamma World was released in 78′ and Boot Hill was released in 75′.

      Also of course there was Traveller, though not a TSR game, which was first released in 77′. Presumably Gygax knew about it.

      Note: Gamma World is based off of Metamorphosis Alpha also a TSR game and was released in 76′.

  4. Brooser Bear June 26, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Rune Quest was released in 1978 and Tunnels and Trolls in 1975, not to mention The Empire of the Petal Throne (Published by TSR in 1975). Chivalry and Sorcery was first published in 1977. Of greater interest is the Rune Quest. While D&D evolved from the miniatures war gaming scene in Lake Geneva, WI and Minnesota, RQ also developed spontaneously at the San Francisco’s Society for Creative Anachronism and likely existed for some time before its publication. While the other games can be seen as reactions to D&D, RQ has developed spontaneously and it was developing in parallel at a different hobby scene. By the time Gygax was writing his DMG in 1979, he was trying to beat his competitors (notice the lack of thematic variety) and make the D&D the Standard Oil of the Fantasy Role Playing, which it eventually became, but without Gygax.

    • ckubasik June 26, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      A note on this:
      Greg Stafford has told the story, several times (in print and on podcasts), of how he ended up owning one of the first copies of D&D. (His friend was at the print shop waiting for a catalogue while Gygax was waiting for his order of D&D. The friend picked up a copy of the game right then and there from Gygax and sent it to Stafford.)
      http://rpg.troplet.com/question/was-chaosium-s-founder-first-to-buy-a-copy-of-d-d-4481.html

      Reading though the rules of OD&D (which he thought were terribly written, by the way) is what apparently inspired Stafford to work with Perrin to create Runequest.

      So, point one: The creation of Runequest wasn’t “spontaneous.” D&D inspired the decision.

      Second, as for both Glorantha (the setting for Runequest) and Tékumel (the setting for Empire of the Petal Throne)…

      Both were created before OD&D came along. Gloratha by almost a decade, and Tékumel by three decades.

      The creator of each (Stafford for Glorantha and Baker for Tékumel) had invented the settings off a mix of pulp fantasy/sf, folk tales, and mythology. Both wrote fiction set in their worlds (well before either became the setting for an RPG), and both created board games based on the settings before they became the setting for RPGs.

      Both Stafford and Barker encountered the RPG scene (in different ways) and each decided that the RPG format would be a terrific way to explore and share their respective settings with others.

      In this way, both Runequest and Empire of the Petal Throne are strange outliers: the setting for each game was not created for an RPG for the purpose of creating a new RPG and selling a new RPG. Instead, each setting already existed, each drawn from literary inspirations and mixed into something new. Each game was created to reveal the setting to a larger audience. The focus of each author was not creating a new RPG. The RPG was a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself itself.

      Because these two men, responsible for creating their own, very personal rich worlds, created something in the form of RPGs that was utterly unlike the default assumptions of D&D. Now, this is EXACTLY what the text of OD&D said you were supposed to do with the rules…

      “DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future…”
      –Dungeons and Dragons: Book 1 Men & Magic
      Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax

      In other words, both Runequest and Empire of the Petal Throne are home grown campaigns that were interesting enough to get published and find an audience. To me they are proof of concept for the idea that one didn’t have to be trapped in the faux Tolkien setting that D&D quickly became.

      I don’t see them as some strange, unexpected thing that has to be explained. I see them as perfect expressions of the hobby in those early years.

      • Brooser Bear June 26, 2016 at 6:51 pm

        Members of Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) did Live Action Role-Playing and game mechanics that they developed found their way into RQ Combat rules compliments of Steve Henderson. So, a version of RQ was played by SCA members before RQ was first published just as some wargamers played a version of D&D before Chainmail was ever published. The two arose separately and Steve Henderson started LARPing at the SCA in 1966.. Independent and parallel development of a different RPG. A home grown campaign for a game that wasn’t published yet?

        The original point is that when Gygax published his DMG in 1979, he was competing against a number of different fantasy role playing game systems.

      • ckubasik June 26, 2016 at 7:12 pm

        Yes, you are correct. Perrin brought the system of RQ to Stafford and said, “We’d like to use your setting of Glorantha for this game.” I thought you were referring to RQ as it was published (with its focus on Glorantha), not simply the mechanics.

        Sorry I misunderstood.

  5. Brooser Bear June 26, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    It’s not simply mechanics, it is people somewhere playing a game in a certain way, that we can call role-playing. I think that role-playing was appearing in several places at once, because it was the culture itself that was evolving role playing gaming. And before gaming, role playing was used for other purposes. Jacob L. Moreno started an improv group, called Theater of Spontaneity in 1910, he quickly adapted it for psychotherapy using Psychodrama and Role-Playing, and THEN he met Freud in 1912. The concept was spreading through culture ever since. Incidentally, Moreno died in 1974, just as D&D was first published. I don’t think that Gygax knew anything of Moreno’s Role Playing, but it was in the culture.

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