Friday, March 26, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, pp. 80–81

I'm going to cheat this week and take a random look at two pages in the Dungeon Masters Guide. In my defense, the section I'll discuss in this post – about saving throws – isn't limited to a single page. Gygax begins it by briefly touching on the origin of saving throws: "The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniatures wargames and D&D." I find this interesting, because I believe this is a rare example of where an Advanced D&D book explicitly references Dungeons & Dragons (please correct me if I am mistaken). Given that it's commonly asserted that AD&D's very existence owes to an attempt to distance the game from D&D, thereby stiffing Dave Arneson of royalties on it, one must wonder why Gygax mentions D&D at all. As is often the case, I suspect the truth is much more complicated than the caricature everyone knows.

Gygax continues, discussing just what saving throws mean within the context of the game world:

It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of skill, luck, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results – fireball damage, poisoning, being turned to stone, or whatever. 

That's very straightforward and uncontroversial. His next paragraph, which I am going to reproduce in full, is quite remarkable.

I don't recall ever reading this section before, though I probably have done so. I call it remarkable because, in it, Gygax advanced his vision of what D&D and RPGs are all about. I was particularly struck by his statement that "the continuing epic is the most meaningful portion," by which he is clearly referencing the importance of the ongoing campaign. I likewise found his offhanded comment on the significance on dead characters – "characters who have shorter spans of existence," in Gygax's parlance – to be a much-needed tonic to the widely held belief, especially nowadays, that player characters ought not to die.

That said, Gygax states in his next paragraph that

because the player character is all-important, he or she must always – or nearly always – have a chance, no matter how small, a chance at somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who are what the fabric of the game is created upon.

I assume that, by "all-important," Gygax means only that player characters are the focus of the campaign. Given that he also alludes to the fact that characters may die – due to failed saving throws, no less – this seems a fair assumption. 

Gygax spends the rest of the section addressing criticisms of the very notion of saving throws.

Someone once criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous. Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from the blast of a red dragon's breath? Why not?, I replied. If you accept fire breathing dragons, why doubt the chance to reduce the damage sustained from such a creature's attack? 

While I have no problem with the idea of saving throws, this seems like a lazy defense on Gygax's part. In fact, I've seen this line of "thinking" employed many times as a way to avoid thinking about whether this or that thing belongs in a RPG. "If you can accept magic, then why can't you accept X?" and so on. I have no use for this approach and am frankly surprised that Gygax made use of a version of it here. That said, he nevertheless provides a good example of how to interpret a successful saving throw in the case he described above:

Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding a way to be free of the fetters. Why not?

I think Gygax is right about this. A common misunderstanding about older RPGs is the abstraction of many of its rules, particularly around combat, damage, and the like. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons are not "unrealistic" so much as abstract and demand a certain degree of interpretation and presentation on the part of the referee to make sense of them. Far from being a flaw, I see this as a strength. 

After a lengthy digression in which he offers alternative in-setting explanations for saving throws, Gygax concludes with a passage in which he, again, talks about character death due to failed saving throws and how those deaths support the building of a campaign.

Of course, some saves result in the death of a character anyway, as partial damage causes him or her to meet death. But at least the character had some hope, and he or she fought until the very end. Stories will be told of it at the inn, and songs sung of the battle when warriors gather around the campfire. Almost, almost he managed to reach the bend in the passage where the fell breath of the blue dragon Razisz could not reach, but at the last moment his toe struck a protrusion, and as he stumbled the dragon slew him!

That's good stuff and true in my experience. Character death can in fact serve good ends, in terms of providing depth and texture to a campaign. It's why I continue to favor game mechanics, like save or die, that make it possible for player characters to die. 


  1. Yeah, that paragraph you quoted in full is as close as Gary ever came (at least within the AD&D rulebooks) to a master thesis statement of "what the game is about." The fact that it's randomly buried in the middle of a rambling essay about a different topic is emblematic of the myriad joys and frustrations of Gary Gygax's AD&D :)

  2. It all makes me wonder how thick the game would have been without these philosophical asides, even given the copious rules and chart-heavy presentation. Two books? One fat one? I guess at the time, this was all new stuff, so some philosophizing was in order, but man, there’s a lot of words in there you don’t need to actually play. I loved it anyway back in the day, but I think all the padding was a bit of an entry barrier to some of my acquaintances.

  3. What truly is left after a campaign is over but memories of how gloriously PCs died? Perhaps one or two uber-victories, sure...but it is the memory of the failures and tragedies that linger ever after, far more than the successes.

  4. It's interesting that he talks about the figure rather than the character. He must have assumed that people are typically using miniatures in their games.

    1. This was fairly standard amongst the Mid-West crew. They tended to believe that the characters were just figures to be moved around the dungeon by the player (even if no miniatures were actually used), much as a player-general moves their troops around the wargames table. The character is an extension of the player, rather than being something in-and-of itself.

  5. I love these asides --- it's what makes the 1e DMG so wonderful. Too much complaining about it's format, IMO. Get over it! Sometimes you have to dig a bit for treasure.

    Brings to mind the Thomas Edison quote, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." "

  6. I feel the reason for AD&D was pretty much as stated - to provide a canonical set of rules for uniform play and to try and prevent the diaspora that was actively happening where everybody's game was becoming something different. And new role-playing games were
    actively arising (which Brian at least saw as a potential threat "riding on TSR's coat tails").
    Of course this did have side-advantages that they (Brian and Gary) weren't going to ignore. Especially with the acrimony that had developed.