The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide

Once upon a time, I thought the 1st edition DMG was a great book. It’s something that is still espoused by its fans on the ‘net. However, I’ve got to say that my appreciation of it is dimming, partly from the fact that I actually have read the book many, many times in the past few years. It’s not something that I just remember from my early days in AD&D.

There’s still plenty about it that is useful and brilliant – it’s just that there’s a lot of real crap in the book as well… including some key sections.

Let’s face it, Gary’s explanation of how combat works, probably the most key section of the entire book, is riddled with inconsistencies, clunky sub-systems, and stuff that just doesn’t make sense. The less said about unarmed combat the better, but the initiative system is a complete mess. “Compare the speed factor of the weapon with the number of segments the spell will require to cast to determine if the spell or the weapon will cast/strike first, subtracting the losing die roll on the initiative die roll from the weapon factor and treating negative results as positive.” Huh? What?

The awarding of XP mostly makes sense, except that you’re also meant to compare the power of the monsters to the power of the characters and adjust XP downwards if the PCs overpower them. This leads to some interesting scenarios – especially against tough solo monsters – where experienced characters pretty much can’t gain full XP. If you face a lone beholder, a party of 6 PCs need to be about 2-3rd level to get full XP. More than that and the reward is signficantly reduced. The less said about training the better.

For some reasons, most DMs I’ve known gleefully ignore large sections of the initiative rules and use the simpler Basic D&D rules. With good reason. Heck, even Gary didn’t use the DMG’s initiative or training rules!

Gary also spent a lot of time fulminating against bad games – Monty Haul games, Killer games, games that allowed Monsters as PCs, and so forth. “AD&D means to set right both extremes,” he wrote. Unfortunately, when it came time to actually giving actual examples or showing what a reasonable amount of treasure was, he failed to do so. After criticising his own magic items tables in D&D for allowing low-level PCs to gain any item… there is no change at all in the AD&D magic item tables!

Where the DMG actually shines isn’t in its descriptions of the core rules, but instead in giving tools to the DM to populate their adventures with interesting encounters. The appendices are pure gold, and it’s a shame that the section on tricks hasn’t made its way into more recent versions of the DMG.

The rules on henchmen and hireling acquisition I’ll probably be using in my current 4e campaign; certainly, they posit a more mercenary world than is common in the D&D core, but that’s fine for a campaign based on Gary’s Castle Greyhawk/Zagyg.

And the background descriptions for the artifacts still give me much pleasure in the reading.

Mostly, the AD&D DMG is a book for experienced DMs looking for inspiration in the dungeon-crawling and territory-acquisition world of Gygax’s D&D. These days, with the emphasis shifted away to more plot/heroic-based campaigns, I’d say the 4th edition DMG is now the best version of the DMG to exist.

Ranking the DMGs? 4E > 3E > 3.5E > 1E >> 2E.

The 2E DMG? A travesty.

9 comments

  1. hubcap_reloaded

    I didn’t actually play 1E back in the day, being a young ‘un (my into comes instead with the black box, red dragon intro to Rules Cyclopedia D&D): but I’ve got a full set of orange-spined 1E core rules, as well as a bunch of others like MM2, UA, Fiend Folio, Oriental Adventures and Legends & Lore. I quite enjoy reading these old books as a sort of glimpse into D&Ds history though I’ve never played them, though I’d love to run a one-off dungeon crawl to show my 3E players how the game has changed.

    With my background explained, I would thusly say: I mostly agree with your assessment here. The appendices of the DMG are great, and there’s some jewels scattered elsewhere, so I can see why it’s so strongly remembered: I do pull it out semi-regularly, so there must be something I keep coming back to! Still, it’s certainly got flaws.

    Gary’s prose does not help many important sections of the book: that the old-timers on this thread can call the system “unified” in one breath and then argue with each other over how initiative works in the other seems surreal to me. There are parts of all RPG games I’ve fugded, of course (I still barely use attacks of opportunity because 3.0s description of them seemed so taxing to my brain – later D20 books came across far better to me) but that the central combat mechanic is so arcane as to need something like ADDICT to a run a round of combat by the rules is pretty damning.

    Before Gary’s somewhat confrontational essays, though, I’d bring up the organization of the book. Bad enough that key data for players is lodged here in the form of spell info; but actually finding information within this tome seems daunting. Again, there’s a bit of this to a lot of books, so I’m not suggesting other games are blameless, but Gary’s DMG is not laid out in a particularly obvious way. It’s a book for reading between sessions, perhaps, rather than actually consulting mid-game.

    Like you, I think the 4E DMG has a lot to say for it: I’ve yet to run a game of it (still in level 20 3.5 territory!) but it’s got some of the best advice from DMG II on preparing and running a game now cemented into core for all DMs. I’ve never read the 2E book so I can’t comment on that.

    I am curious, though, why you rate the 3.0 book above 3.5.

    George Q

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    • merricb

      Rating 3.5 and 3.0 DMGs is very hard. There’s great stuff in both… I think I prefer the stocking dungeon information (monster tables) in 3.0 to 3.5 though, so that’s why I rate it higher.

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      • hubcap_reloaded

        I can sorta see that: certainly, I used the 3.0 one a few times but the 3.5 random encounter tables have never come up, although that’s partly because I randomly design things a bit less these days.

        George Q

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  2. nikosandros

    I’m a big fan of AD&D… it’s by far my favorite edition of the game. However, I mostly agree with your assessment.

    Back in ’85 when I first started playing AD&D the lack of clarity of the rules was a source of constant frustration for me… if it wasn’t for the fact that I was “graduating” from the Mentzer’s Basic Set, I’m not sure that I would have been able to play the game.

    In general, I’ve had very little use for the advice given in all the different versions of this book. I must say that I’m not so fond of the 4e version either.

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    • hubcap_reloaded

      A lot of the advice in the respective books is perhaps aimed more squarely at beginner DMs and those who worry more about doing things “by the book”, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it sets an experienced player’s heart less aflutter :>

      I find it curious that you didn’t like any of the advice, however, even if it wasn’t new to you. Are there any other RPG books whose GMing advive you preferred?

      George Q

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      • nikosandros

        Well, mostly I haven’t found too much use in GMing advice in general… not because I think that I’m so good that I can’t improve, but because in my experience as a GM, I’ve always learned by experience both as a GM and as a player (the latter is invaluable… any good GM must play every once in a while).

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      • hubcap_reloaded

        any good GM must play every once in a while

        I can’t argue with this. A year ago I got into a rotating GM group where we all run for a couple of months and finally got some real campaign play in with a bunch of systems – which made me think quite a bit about how I run games.

        More than anything, it taught me I enjoy running a lot more than I enjoy playing. 🙂

        George Q

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    • merricb

      I had the Moldvay version of Basic to learn from (still my favourite Basic version), so it was much the same for me.

      The missing rule of AD&D I spent hours searching for was the procedure for determining when a wandering monster in a dungeon appeared. It isn’t in the book!

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  3. messy1349

    merric, i love the 1e dmg! it has its flaws, but there’s so much interesting stuff in it! once in awhile i just open it and read a random paragraph, and it’s always interesting! 🙂

    messy

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