Friday, March 12, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 110

Page 110 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains a section entitled "Conducting the Game" with three sub-headings, each of which is probably worthy of a separate post. I may treat the other two at some point, but, for the moment, I'm going to deal only with the first one, because it treats a topic very near and dear to my heart, namely "Rolling the Dice and Control of the Game."

Gygax begins this section by stating, "In many situations it is correct and fun to have players dice such things as melee hits or saving throws." That's simple enough and hard to disagree with, particularly his point about fun. He then adds the following:

However, it is your right to control the dice at any time and roll dice for the players. You might wish to do this to keep them from knowing a specific fact. You might also wish to give them an edge in finding a particular clue, e.g. a secret door that leads to a complex of monsters that will be especially entertaining, You do have the right to overrule the dice at any time if there is a particular course of events that you would like to have occur. In making such a decision you should never seriously harm the party or a non-player character with your actions. "ALWAYS GIVE A MONSTER AN EVEN BREAK!"

There's a lot of unpack here, so let's start with his first sentence. Taken in isolation, it would seem that Gygax is endorsing an authoritarian approach to refereeing, playing into the caricature of him and old school referees more generally. However, there's actually a lot more nuance here. On the one hand, he admits that, by controlling when and by whom dice are rolled, the referee can ensure events occur as he prefers (or the reverse). On the other hand, Gygax is emphatic that no such decision should harm either the player characters or non-player characters, which is both a remarkable thing to say generally and more specifically for someone regularly lampooned as dictatorial. The final sentence of that paragraph, presented entirely in capitals, clarifies his ultimate point: the referee should be fair.

Gygax makes clear the dice rolls the referee should always roll: "listening, hiding in shadows, detecting traps, moving silently, secret doors, monster saving throws, and attacks made upon the party without their possible knowledge." I don't think there's anything controversial here. Potentially more contentious is his assertion that

There will be times in which the rules do not cover a specific action that a player will attempt. In such situations, instead of being forced to make a decision, take the option to allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning a reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or she can make that percentage. You can weigh the dice in any way so as to give the advantage to either the player or the non-player character, whichever seems more correct and logical to you while being fair to both sides.

This is very close to my own trust in the oracular power of dice and echoes the play style of many early referees, like Dave Arneson and M.A.R. Barker. Take note, too, that Gygax once again emphasizes "being fair to both sides." This is key to understanding his perspective on these and related questions, I think.

Gygax concludes this section of the DMG by talking about times when "through no fault of his own," a character – though, interestingly, Gygax frequently uses the word "player," when he clearly means character – will die. He notes that sometimes "a freakish roll of the dice" results in an unfortunate end to a PC. He notes, though, that "in the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time." I personally find this hard to disagree with and it's been the way I've handled rolls in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign since the start (and where both PCs and major NPCs have died as a consequence). At the same time, Gygax counsels leniency:

You can rule that the player [sic], instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizaing to the players to lose a care-for-player character when they have played well. When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may!

I'm not sure I'm on board with this bit of advice, at least as a general approach. As with everything, there are degrees of leniency and, while I'm certain there have been instances where I've ben kind-hearted as a referee, my general rule nowadays is to let the dice fall where they may in every circumstance. I guess that makes me more of uncompromising than the man himself. 

That having been said, Gygax pulls back slightly. He explains that

one die roll that you should NEVER tamper with is the SYSTEM SHOCK ROLL to be raised from the dead. If a character fails that roll, which or she should make him or herself, he or she is FOREVER DEAD. There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and again the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each!

Nuance, balance, and, above all, fairness. These are the keys to understanding Gary Gygax's approach to most aspects of refereeing and why, far from having been the tyrant he's sometimes made out to be, he's actually a superb model for referees to emulate.


  1. He said seriously harm, there's a big difference between that and no harm.

  2. I do "fudge" the consequences when a PC has been absolutely housed by a run of poor dice luck, though, as Gygax says, if the PC's travails are caused by his own stupidity or carelessness, well, he had best pray that the dice are merciful, for I will not be.

    1. And what do you do if the player's character is careless and stupid by nature? Intelligence 5 and Wisdom 6 happens, especially in OSR rule systems. Should the player with a boneheaded fighter or thief be penalized if they don't play the character like a cautious, thoughtful type with a flair for planning and devising clever solutions to elaborate problems? Do you just leave it up the dice and random luck when they're roleplaying the character's flaws, while the people playing smart (whether their stats say they are or not) get a break when the dice bite them?

    2. @Dick McGee: Situations like the one you describe are where game-type objectives (solve puzzles, avoid traps, defeat/outwit monsters, collect treasure) collide with role-playing objectives (act as your rolled characteristics suggest you might). Which objectives determine your goal? Should you be rewarded for meeting the challenges the DM has set up or for embodying the characteristics you rolled? The XP systems of old-school games tend to favor the former: you get XP for defeating monsters and collecting treasure, not for excellently portraying a role. Furthermore, if the player with an INT 5 character is required to play dumb, should you not require someone with an INT 18 character to be brilliant? The INT 5 character also seems doomed: if the player makes consistently dumb choices in order to portray that characteristic, the character will likely soon perish, and if the player uses their own intelligence to respond to situations, the DM will penalize them for bad roleplaying. Speaking only for myself, I don't like to have my skills as a player denied me because of a die roll.

    3. There's pretty much two ways to handle this. One is to consider the stat ratings as applying only to the objective things defined in the rules (i.e. Intelligence rating affects how many languages you can learn and whether or not you can be a magic-user; Wisdom rating affects your saving throw vs mind-affecting spells and whether or not you can be a cleric) but not the subjective player-level matters of solving puzzles and making and executing effective tactical plans. That's what Gygax would probably have recommended (and it seems telling that in his post-TSR games he renamed/removed those stats to make the distinction clearer).

      The other is to consider roleplaying its own reward and recognize that your character played "accurately" is likely to have a short lifespan and that the personal fulfillment you get from accurately portraying this idiot while they survive has to serve as its own reward because the game-engine doesn't support or encourage it. Eventually you'll probably want to switch over to play some other game that does offer more system-level support for this type of play (by perhaps giving out "mulligan points" or something similar as a reward for accurate roleplaying at the expense of in-game effectiveness).

    4. I have little to say in reply that hasn't already been said above. I do not suscribe to the notion that stats are destiny; just because your character has 5 INT and 6 WIS does not mean you are required to play him as a bungling meatball. If you elect to do so, well, bungling meatballedry has its consequences.

      It would never cross my mind to tell a player who has come up with a clever approach to a problem "sorry, your INT is too low. You couldn't have thought of that."

    5. Lots of replies, not one of which addresses the point of my original question. You admit you'll happily fudge results for luck, but not for what you regard as bad choices made in the name of roleplaying. That's simple favoritism - you'll reward someone with an idiot character who plays smart while punishing actual roleplaying, which is doubling down on the crappy XP mechanics that already reward playing as smart as you (as a player) can manage at all times without even throwing a bone to someone who says "well, I rolled a 5 Int, guess I'll play it that way."

      Unless you're letting people select their stats rather than rolling them, you are fudging dice in game while letting the most important rolls (your stats at character gen) go untouched. Either "bad luck" is an excuse to meddle or it isn't. Make up your minds.

    6. " You admit you'll happily fudge results for luck, but not for what you regard as bad choices made in the name of roleplaying."


      "you'll reward someone with an idiot character who plays smart while punishing actual roleplaying,"


      The activity is a social one, and a team one, not an performative and individual one. We don't reward "good (true) performances" that hurt the overall team of players.

      If some team of players decides their #1 goal is to watch individual performances done well/true, regardless of whether or not that hurts the team, then fine - go for it. But absent that statement as a team, it should not be prioritized for reward.

      Of course the same people usually cry mightily if they get level drained, instead of using it as a springboard for a touching individual roleplaying performance exploring the impermanence of power.

    7. My response is to never fudge.

      When playing games with rolled up characters, I do allow players to re-roll bad sets of attributes (this IS a slippery slope but one I can live with). Sometimes I allow players to roll several characters and pick their favorite.

      But once chargen is done, I don't fudge rolls.

      As to playing characters with low INT, honestly it is probably best to leave attributes to their mechanical effect in the game and not expect players to play the character's INT (or CHA or WIS). That's how we play physical attributes, you get the mechanical benefit (or not) of the attribute values on your character sheet. It just happens that the mental attributes seem to cross over with the character's decision making process.

    8. @Dick McGee: Since you said no one addressed your point, let me try to do so now. EOTB already said much of what I would say about the activity being social and not rewarding behaviors that hamper the group goal, but I can add a few things. Your words suggest that your ideas about what is most important may differ from other people's. Phrases like "the crappy XP mechanics" and "the most important rolls (your stats at character gen)" imply that the point of the game is to embody the stats you rolled and that XP systems that encourage something else are flawed. This is a respectable stance on RPGs, but it is not a necessary one.
      Another respectable stance is that the point of the game is for players to collaborate in overcoming obstacles and collecting treasure, and that embodying a particular set of stats is secondary to that activity. From this stance, allowing rerolls for bad luck but not for deliberately foolish actions that hinder the group goal makes perfect sense, and that's why many of us would do it.

      One other thing that I said may need further development. If one assumes that a character with INT 5 ought to make foolish decisions because the stat suggests it, then logically a character with INT 18 ought to make brilliant ones. If that character does not make brilliant decisions, they are as strong an example of failing to embody stats as the INT 5 character who makes good decisions. The problem, of course, is that the player of the character may not be able to make consistently brilliant decisions. You can always play dumber than you are, but not much smarter. That's my problem with this whole argument that roleplaying requires bad decisions: there's no way to make it require good decisions. "Embodying the stats" ends up meaning that you live down to your worst stat and hinder the group goal, unless the group goal is to behave according to your stats above all. I have not met many groups who have that goal.

    9. Not to mention the notion that ability score rolls are "the most important rolls" is an interesting-but-groundless concept you smuggled in well after asking the question. I tell my players not to stress out about their ability scores, because they're not that important.

      The fact remains that a party can get into an encounter with a handful of nonsense goblins and roll really badly while the DM has a string of hits and high-damage rolls and get absolutely creamed. I do not believe there's much virtue in telling them "scrap your sheets and start over" instead of concluding that the goblins took them captive and put them to work in the salt mines, where they can potentially escape -- and maybe even find out "why" these goblins are abormally strong.

  3. This is one of the things I routinely steal from Adventurer Conqueror King, their "Mortal Wounds" & "Tampering with Mortality" tables when characters and major NPCs get creamed.

    1. Seconded. Combats can be deadly, and losing a limb can be enough penalty for bad play. There is also a limit to recovery with the Tampering with mortality, which has brought interesting result that drive character development.

  4. There are a million idioms regarding Amateurs versus Professionals. In chess there is the thunderous 'Amateurs play for pieces; Professionals play for squares.'

    Gygax was a professional. Prescribing hard/fast rules allows people to debate them. Debate is interest. Interest is money. Money is commerce. Commerce is . . . here we are! The defining component of a professional. Change the rules - update them - and foster more debate. Repeat the cycle. Make money.

    I'm an amateur. The goal is to have fun. A blind mule, a bracken swamp, a foreboding mountain. Mystery, war drums and rising smoke.


    That mule picked the strangest times to run.

  5. I suspect that player attachment is what spawned the 'death at -10 instead of 0 hit points' rule which doesn't appear until the AD&D PHB. Personally, I give the player a choice between a crippling/maiming permanent injury or death. Surprisingly most of the time, they choose death.

    1. Surprisingly most of the time, they choose death.

      you find this surprising? pretty much every single player i know or have played with would rather play a new character, albeit a less powerful one at a lower level, than one with a major or crippling permanent disability.

      i have a minor, annoying disability in real life. who the hell wants that in your escapist hobby?

  6. I feel like almost all of Gary Gygax's DMing advice can be boiled down to three maxims:

    1) Keep the action of the game moving as quickly as possible at all times - this is more important than fidelity to the letter of the rules

    2) The game should be challenging to the players, and it's the job of the DM to find and maintain the balancing sweet spot where the game is neither too easy (which will cause the players to get bored) or too difficult (which will cause them to become discouraged)

    3) Luck and randomness are part of the game but player skill (meaning, essentially, quick-thinking problem-solving and tactical ability rather than comprehensive rules-knowledge) should be the primary determinant of success

    The rules provide a patina of objectivity, but really all three of these maxims are instructing the DM to set aside or ignore the rules when they come into conflict with these larger goals - that achieving a fast-moving and exciting game where the players have been challenged and whether they succeeded or failed was due more to the quality of the decisions they made than the results of the dice is much more important than any of the actual formalized rules (though, as much as possible, the rules were formulated to help achieve, rather than hinder or interfere with, those goals).

  7. "This can be done by assigning a reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or she can make that percentage."

    That sentence is IMO the most overlooked text in AD&D. Player asks a question, DM gives their gut feel for the % likelihood, player rolls it and the game moves on.

    Often when I point out that sentence in response to some question about AD&D not addressing some situation with explicit rules, people do not want to take that simple responsibility. They instead want a splat rule they can defer to that they didn't write, or determine the chance of success derived therefrom. But they still want the title of Dungeonmaster.

  8. You might also wish to give them an edge in finding a particular clue, e.g. a secret door that leads to a complex of monsters that will be especially entertaining
    If you're willing to fudge the results like that, why bother making the door a secret in the first place? Especially if the complex is sure to be entertaining.

    When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may!
    And yet ear seekers exist. So which precautions should be rewarded and which should be punished?

    1. "If you're willing to fudge the results like that, why bother making the door a secret in the first place? Especially if the complex is sure to be entertaining."
      -To explain why the area hasn't already been found and looted by some earlier group of NPC adventurers.

      "And yet ear seekers exist. So which precautions should be rewarded and which should be punished?"
      - When the level of precaution and risk-aversion is disproportionate to the level of risk being mitigated and makes the game slow-moving and tedious.

    2. To explain why the area hasn't already been found and looted by some earlier group of NPC adventurers.
      That seems unnecessary. You could just as easily explain the area being unlooted by saying this is a newly discovered dungeon, or that no one else has made it this far, or by having the PCs find the corpses of the ones who DID make it this far but died empty-handed. Fooling the players into thinking they've discovered a secret will train them to look for more secrets, which seems counterproductive if you're trying to increase the pace of the game.

      When the level of precaution and risk-aversion is disproportionate to the level of risk being mitigated and makes the game slow-moving and tedious.
      The players can't know how much risk is being mitigated, so if every little thing seems out to get them, the natural response is to play it as safe as possible. They're simply engaging with the world as it has been revealed to them. To me, players taking the dungeon seriously is a feature, not a bug. But if they're seriously just dawdling, that's what wandering monsters are for. :)

    3. Fudge rolling the secret door rule sucks. If you want them to find the area, either give them a map, or in game clues (tracks end in a wall, sounds behind a wall, npc conversations, obvious from map design,, etc.)

      When players deduce a secret door, even a telegraphed one, they are much more engaged in exploration. I had pcs look at their map and realize there was a large blank space in their map. They started looking for secret doors at the most obvious locations and found one. Now if THIS is what Gygax meant, why not just default to the - "you look in the right place you found it" rule.

  9. The part about leniency leading the DM to substitute long-term injury for death is presumably related to a number of OSR creators instituting a "death/dismemberment" table instead of a strictly binary alive/dead system, which (aside from futzing around with "death rolls") seems to have been the standard since the '90s.