At the end of the original Dungeon Masters Guide there is a passage written in all caps:
IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD TO THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULE BOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME. AS YOU HEW THE LINE WITH RESPECT TO CONFORMITY TO MAJOR SYSTEMS AND UNIFORMITY OF PLAY IN GENERAL, ALSO BE CERTAIN THE GAME IS MASTERED BY YOU AND NOT BY YOUR PLAYERS. WITHIN THE BROAD PARAMETERS GIVEN IN THE ADVANCED DUNGEONS 8 DRAGONS VOLUMES, YOU ARE CREATOR AND FINAL ARBITER. BY ORDERING THINGS AS THEY SHOULD BE, THE GAME AS A WHOLE FIRST, YOUR CAMPAIGN NEXT, AND YOUR PARTICIPANTS THEREAFTER, YOU WILL BE PLAYING ADVANCED DUNGEONS 8 DRAGONS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. MAY YOU FIND AS MUCH PLEASURE IN SO DOING AS THE REST OF US DO!
What does it mean?
To be sure, there are many things here that the unlearned and unstable can twist out of context. One thing is clear, however. Dungeon Masters wielding the AD&D rules are not given free rein to change things as they please.
Note, for instance, the references to “conformity to major systems” and “uniformity of play.” These are not concepts that have been summoned ex nihilo in order to bestow upon the Dungeon Master ULTIMATE POWER to change any and every rule as he sees fit. Quite the contrary. One need only look to the introduction to gain a fuller picture of what Gygax means by them:
“With certain uniformity of systems and ‘laws’, players will be able to move from one campaign to another and know at least the elemental principles which govern the new milieu, for all milieux will have certain (but not necessarily the same) laws in common. Character races and classes will be nearly the same. Character ability scores will have the identical meaning – or nearly so. Magic spells will function in a certain manner regardless of which world the player is functioning in. Magic devices will certainly vary, but their principles will be similar. This uniformity will help not only players, it will enable DMs to carry on a meaningful dialogue and exchange of useful information.”
The design objective laid out here is obviously incompatible with rule zero. To further hammer home the point, Gygax follows this with a passage warning of the dangers of a mutable system. Whatever happened after 1979, when the AD&D rules were first released they were intended to produce something significantly different from what people tended to do with those first three rules booklets!
Ah, but Jeffro, you say. Aren’t you leaving something out? If you are going to slavishly follow all the rules of AD&D, shouldn’t you rather just play chess? Well let’s look at that:
“Naturally, everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work. As a participant in the game, I would not care to have anyone telling me exactly what must go into a campaign and how it must be handled; if so, why not play some game like chess?”
You want to know where you as a dungeon master have complete authority to create and change everything to be just the way he wants it? That’s right! It’s in the areas where the rules are silent. As anyone that has undertaken the running of an original AD&D milieu knows, those rules leave ample room for a DM to create anything he can imagine. In fact they require him to!
Gygax touches on this again in the introduction:
“Know the game systems, and you will know how and when to take upon yourself the ultimate power. To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it.”
The players are right to expect to play the AD&D game. And yes, I do have to interpret the rules when unusual situations occur. For instance, is a first level illusionist in his first adventure required to cast his spell that he declared before initiative was rolled when the monsters end up fleeing in abject terror in the same round? I don’t think the rules are explicit on that point. Looking on that same page of Gygax’s example of when a wandering monster check can be dismissed I think the intent of the game is obvious. Rather than spoil that illusionist’s evening by arbitrarily ruining his only chance to cast a spell, I think it’s fair to allow him to draw his dagger and take his free attack at +6 on the fleeing frog men– and save that spell back for a time when it could actually contribute to the excitement.
That is what “ultimate power” looks like. It is to be an arbiter of the rules and not someone that rewrites them as they please.
If you’ve never tried playing this way, you really should. I think Gygax’s skill as a game designer and his insight into Dungeon Mastering will surprise you.
Of course, if you are the typical sort of role-player that would rather play the Basic D&D rules because they specifically state they are not rules, but that everything about them is changeable, well hey– have fun! But even Moldvay said you should play them rules as written for a while before considering making changes to them.
If you never took the time to do that then you are most assuredly playing wrong.