Friday, February 19, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 112

Page 112 of the Dungeon Masters Guide contains a number of interesting sections, each of which is worthy of highlighting and discussions. For today, though, I want to focus on the section entitled "The Ongoing Campaign," since it relates to several topics near and dear to my heart. In the first paragraph, Gygax lays out one of the primary threats to a long campaign: boredom.

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.

I find it intriguing that Gygax uses the phrase "fantasy adventure gaming" here. It's clearly a synonym for "fantasy role-playing game" and similar formulations, but it's also a reminder that, even in 1979, five years after the publication of OD&D, the matter of just what to call this hobby was still in flux (cue the comments telling me I need to read The Elusive Shift – yes, I do). 

In any case, what Gygax describes here is likely familiar to anyone who's been involved in the hobby for any length of time. Maintaining player interest is an eternal struggle and, in my experience, has only become stronger as the hobby has aged. As a younger person, the dangers lie in other activities or pursuits that competed with one's attention, while nowadays I've observed that it is the plethora of available RPGs that poses the greatest threat. "Gamer ADD" seems very prevalent these days and is the bane of any referee hoping to keep his campaign going for more than a few months. Despite this, Gygax holds out hope that "it is possible … 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."

He goes on:

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge, There must be always something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen.

This is a perennial topic for Gygax and one, I think, that was born out of extensive experience as a referee. He rightly understood that more fun – and long-term interest – depends in not a small way on the establishment of stakes for the players. This is why, for example, the possibility of character death is, in my opinion, vital to the long-term viability of a campaign. He continues:

Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be a 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 experience, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. 

Gygax packs a lot into this section, touching on three different topics in the space of a few sentences. First, he points out the necessity for a campaign setting, a wider world in which the characters live and against which their adventures are set. Second, he seems to suggest that the increase in a character's power, as represented by level and experience, mirrors their growth in importance in the setting itself. I don't think that's particularly controversial, but I'm not sure I've seen it articulated in this way. Finally, he connects the growth in character power to greater involvement to "the cosmic game." Given this perspective, it becomes clearer why Gygax continued place such an importance on alignment and why his Gord the Rogue series evolved the way it did. In any case, he clearly felt that one of the keys to keeping a campaign alive was to ensure that the actions of the player characters "have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement."

His next paragraph contains a great deal of wisdom as well.

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 or 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.

I can find little disagree with here, since it's all good sense, in particular the reminder that RPGs are, above all, games. This may explain in part his hostility toward amateur thespianism. Even if the two are unconnected, I do think we forget the "gamey-ness" of roleplaying at our peril. Like the pulp literature that inspired it, roleplaying games are meant to be enjoyed as a form of escapism. That's not to say that RPGs can't, let alone shouldn't occasionally touch on matters of lasting import, but that shouldn't be their primary purpose. Among the many lessons I've learned from my ongoing House of Worms campaign is that "serious" matters should never predominate. Continued enthusiasm and long-term engagement comes from an emphasis on "adventuresome" matters placed in a larger context and punctuated by occasional diversions. I'd say that Gygax's advice in the Dungeon Masters Guide comports with my own experience quite closely, demonstrating that, whatever his flaws as a businessman or public face for TSR, he knew what he was talking about when it came to refereeing. 


  1. In your post on Gygax's sequel novel I commented that

    "...Artifact of Evil is illustrative of AD&D play (especially circa 1986ish). Certainly that kind of thing (albeit with different "fantasy world politics") made its way into a lot of our home games, back in the day."

    Now, after reading THIS post, I think it is even MORE is in fact illustrative of how Gygax believed a campaign should develop and be run.

    I don't know why I glaze over these DMG passages when I read them; Lord knows I've read the section you cite dozens of times over the years (even a couple in the last year) trying to glean what I can of EGG's "wisdom." But I guess most of the time I'm reading it with the assumption its just "purple prose" rather than actual INSTRUCTION...despite the fact that my examinations of most of his AD&D writing has shown it to be lean and mean and devoid of "filler."

    I've been running an AD&D game for the last few months, trying to get back to The Magic of my youth and somehow failing to find it. Despite running a decent, "mature" game grounded in the nitty-gritty rather than any idea of "cosmic struggle," the very ennui Gygax warns against has begun to set in at the edges, both for me and (I think) my players. And even as I've been scrambling to find ideas to stave off the inevitable, I found myself less inclined to do so...the thing already started to feel like it was wilting on the vine, despite a general enthusiasm for the mechanics of gameplay. I think now the issue may just be that the campaign lacks any substantive meaning.

    James, this post has been very helpful. Along with a recent podcast or two discussing moral relativism in D&D, I think I've got a bit of a direction for getting out of my funk. Thank you for that.

    1. JB, could you be persuaded to share a link or two to those podcasts in which "moral relativism in D&D" was discussed?

  2. Great post and resonates with my personal experience. I love the 1e DMG for this very reason---it's bread-crumb clues on how the long-term and complex campaign morphs and plays out.

    1. The 1e DMG gets a lot of flak for not being "useful," which is odd because, by my lights, it's the only DMG that can reasonably be called that.

    2. I would agree that it's weird to lambaste the 1e DMG for not being useful, but I think it's perfectly reasonable to complain that it's not very *usable.* It's a winding, byzantine maze of concepts and ideas splattered onto the pages seemingly as Gygax thought of them, and admits no real structure or organisation. There's a lot of good stuff there, to be sure, but digging it out can be a mighty challenge.

      Me, I've always been more partial to the 2e DMG, which is more sensibly laid out (and with parallel organisation to the 2e PHB and a combined index, both of which are a huge help) and contains less esoterica, but plenty of information on adjudicating strange cases and creating new rules and systems. That may not be something I need now, but, as a young player way back when, it was gold.

      Of course, I would say that, since I'm that most hated of creatures: the 2e grognard. ;-)

    3. I played a lot of 2e back in the day and actually have quite fond memories of it, though I still think the rulebooks lacked the flavor Gygax imparted to the 1e books with his highfalutin vocabulary and weird digressions.

    4. I think that if the 1e DMG had just numbered it's sections by depth (instead of just relying on bold font-sizes), a lot of the confusion would have gone away.

      When you look at the table of contents (something which I never initially did enough), the organization is less cryptic. Imagine:
      16 COMBAT
      16.1.1 Surprise

      Then, when it self referenced (e.g. see 16.1.1, Surprise), you might have easily known how many pages to turn---and what section you were currently reading!

  3. What you say in the last sentence of your post is quite true: whatever you think of him, Gary Gygax was good at role-playing games (and other kinds of games too). But you can't make a living by playing RPGs, so we get Gary the businessman, a role he did not play so well. Sometimes I wonder if Gygax's insistence on by-the-book AD&D as a necessary foundation for tournament play arose in part from wanting a world where you could make a living, or at least some money, from playing RPGs.

  4. Heresy alert: can't help it, but I just don't share the fetishism for the 1st ed. DMG what seems to be taken for granted in OSR circles. It's just what it looks like, ponderous, heavy-handed, digressing in a million quite bizarre directions, many of which just don't serve any purpose gameplay-wise. I like baroque meandering as much as the next guy, but I prefer stuff that actually helps me running a game or designing an adventure, a topic almost completely missing from the ur-codex of game mastering. Even the bland 2nd ed. DMG feels refreshing in comparison, by the virtue of better editing if nothing else.

    1. Like you, I used to feel lost in the 1e DMG. It took years for my appreciation of it to grow. Running a very long term campaign was the key...then the Aha! moments started to come.

      I remember one of the first in particular: my players were headed into an underwater section of a home-brewed dungeon. I turned to that section about underwater spells and it clicked! Here was a collection of tips---from possibly the greatest DM of all---helping me deal with the potentially infinite complexity of open-ended, sandbox D&D. You just don't need it much running purchased modules (because they are already pre-DM'd for you in a sense).

      There were many time since then that I felt like I was high-flying without a safety net---trying to just roll with the direction the players were taking the game---that I bumped into clues in the 1e DMG that showed our group had stumbled into common territory. It felt like an affirmation that we were "getting it right".

      Because (great) D&D is so open-ended, it's hard to explain how to play it. It's far easier to be mentored than glean it cold from a text. I am reminded of a Zen Koan that says, "When the student is ready, the Master speaks." To me this means that until you need the knowledge (for YOUR game), the words in the 1e DMG tend to fall on deaf ears. You just can't unpack it. Apparent gibberish!

      James is right about one thing for sure: the long campaign is the key.