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.