Friday, April 30, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 87

 On p. 87 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Setting Things in Motion," which provides advice to the Dungeon Master in starting a new campaign. Gygax begins by reassuring DMs that "there is nothing wrong with using a prepared setting to start a campaign." Equally, 

there is nothing to say you are not capable of creating your own starting place; just use whatever method is best suited to your available time and more likely to please your players. Until you are sure of yourself, lean upon the book. Improvisation might be fine later, but until you are completely relaxed as the DM, don't run the risk of trying to "wing it" unless absolutely necessary.

As I've so often found of the DMG, this is good, practical advice. Perhaps I am biased in that my earliest campaigns "leaned upon the book," using The World of Greyhawk until such time as I felt confident enough to create my own setting

Gygax provides even more concrete suggestions.

Set up a hamlet or village where the action will commence with the player characters entering and interacting with the local population. Place regular people, some "different" and unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each. Stock the goods available to the players.

This is very close to what I do in almost any RPG campaign I begin, D&D or otherwise, albeit with certain modifications to suit the game and genre. For example, I kicked off my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign in this way, though the starting locale was not a "hamlet or village" but the Tsolyáni city of Sokátis. Unsurprisingly, this is also very close to the set-ups for both Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet, two foundational (and excellent) low-level adventures penned by Gygax himself. 

When they arrive, you will be ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of each individual therein. Be dramatic, witty, stupid, dull, clever, dishonest, tricky, hostile, etc. as the situation demands. The players will quickly learn who is who and what is going on – perhaps at the loss of a few coins. Having handled this, their characters will be equipped as well as circumstances will allow and will be ready for their bold journey into the dangerous place where treasure abounds and monsters lurk.

The importance of memorable NPCs cannot be overstated. Over the years, I've found that it's through them that players first begin to experience and enter into a setting. Jukélsa hiTigál, the garrulous and scheming clanmaster of the House of Worms, his beleaguered slave, Mrído, and Telék hiKhánuma, the skirt-chasing junior archivist, were all NPCs I introduced to my players in the first session of my Tékumel campaign and they all served to highlight different aspects of not just the wider setting but the specific one in which the player characters found themselves. They served their purposes admirably and some of them, like Telék, became permanent fixtures of the campaign.

The testing grounds for novice adventurers must be kept to a difficulty factor which encourages rather than discourages players. If things are too easy, there is no challenge and boredom sets in after one or two games. Conversely, impossible difficulty and character deaths cause instant loss of interest.  

This is a constant refrain in Gygax's writing on this topic: balance. At the same time, it seems clear to me that he felt strongly that AD&D should always present a challenge to the skill and inventiveness of the players. 

The general idea is to develop a dungeon of multiple levels, and the deeper the adventurers go, the more difficult the challenges become – fiercer monsters, more deadly traps, more confusing mazes, and so forth. This same concept applies to areas outdoors as well, with more and terrible monsters occurring more frequently the further one goes away from civilization.

I find Gygax's comments about the wilderness fascinating, since, so far as I know, no edition of Dungeons & Dragons has ever provided rules for populating the wilderness based on the principle he offers here. I rather like the idea he puts forward and wonder how difficult it would be to implement. 

Many variations on dungeon and wilderness areas are possible. One can build an underground complex where distance away from the entry point approximates depth, or it can be a mountain where adventurers work upwards. Outdoor adventures can be in a ruined city or a town, which seems normal but it is under a curse, or virtually anything you can imagine and then develop into a playable situation for your campaign participants.

This is exactly why started this feature of the blog: there are so many remarkable little ideas buried in the pages of the Dungeon Masters Guide, if you're willing to take a little time to dig for them. Another example of what I'm talking about occurs in the final paragraph of this section, where Gygax discusses the development of a campaign setting.

It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on a life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. It becomes fleshed out, and adventuring breathes life into a make-believe world. Similarly, the geography and history you assign to the world will suddenly begin to shape the character of states and peoples. Details of former events will become obvious from mere outlines of the past course of things. Surprisingly, as the personalities of player characters and non-player characters om the milieu are bound to develop and become almost real, the nations and states and events of a well-conceived AD&D world will take on even more of their own direction and life. What this all boils down to is that once the campaign is set in motion, you will become more of a recorder of events, while the milieu seemingly charts its own course!

What Gygax describes here is not only true but it's at the heart of why I am such a proponent of long-term campaign play, to the point of considering it the highest form of roleplaying. 


  1. Yeah. Strange that this only seems to happen with Dungeons & Dragons (at least, for me).

    1. I don't know how extensive your gaming experience with non-D&D systems is, but I've seen "this" happen (by which I assume you mean a world seeming to build itself through long-term play) in several World of Darkness campaigns, Edge of the Empire, GURPS, and (per a friend's report, at least) even BESM! And on the other side of the coin, I've seen multiple D&D campaigns die on the vine after a number of sessions that can be counted on one hand.

      One suspects that your problems here are simply statistics and sampling bias: D&D fills a disproportionate share of the TTRPG market, and readers of a D&D-centric blog are likely to have disproportionally joined new D&D campaigns. It's no different than if a LARPer were to say "Strange that this only seems to happen with Vampire (at least, for me)." ;p

  2. Some of Gary's best advice for DMs anywhere, I've stuck pretty close to thus method my whole life, and it is the exact advice I give to all starting DMs.

  3. FWIW, I've played in several campaigns over the years where wilderness areas were divided into a variety of broad types (eg desert, badlands, forest, swamplands) each with their own unique encounters chart, and modifiers applied to rolls on those charts based on how far away (in terms of travel time) from the nearest settlement you were. They were (I think) house rules in each case, but IIRC one GM said he'd gotten the basic idea from a magazine article.

    Seemed to work pretty well, the "distance from town" mods kept you from running into implausibly large and deadly critters in the "newbie zones" and made some legendary adventure sites almost impossible to reach via conventional modes of travel.

    I mean, yeah, you could theoretically hike through the Valley of the Shades to reach the the Great Necromancer's Gate, but the random encounters with roaming legions of undead spirits were more dangerous by far than the actual dungeon at the Gate would be. That one was pretty much a "fly, teleport, or die" thing as I recall.

    1. I've considered a leveled wilderness in the past but it never seemed feasible. Ben Robbins's West Marches though makes leveled wilderness one of its features.

      I think one thing that made it tricky for me is the settings (or at least maps) I was using all had settlements sprinkled all over the place. If you have settlements with roads connecting, that all qualifies as "settled area" that should be lower power level (though some settlements could be in more dangerous areas). The West Marches idea of having just one town and the area of play is all wilderness makes this idea much easier.

    2. Even with a road (or river) network the areas between settlements might plausibly be much more dangerous, and the exact degree and type of danger might vary over time or with campaign events. For ex, if a war breaks out in an area the usual troops who patrol the roads might be largely absent, resulting in more monsters encroaching - or enemy troops, for that matter. Even the end of a war might see a big rise in banditry as suddenly-unemployed soldiers fend for themselves.

      Or maybe the PCs do something that effects encounters in the area. Stir up trouble by killing a goblin king and suddenly they start raiding again, or maybe the survivors flee the region instead and things are safer for a time - until something worse moves into the void they left behind. Anger a dragon and maybe it starts attacking villages and travellers and suddenly nowhere is safe from it when it used to stick to the area near its lair - but maybe it's now easier to loot its hoard while its out and about?

  4. More unearthed treasures from deep within the fathomless DMG.

    Especially the wilderness model that follows the dungeon structure of ever-increasing risk and reward.

  5. it may be that Gygax considered the "Leveled" wilderness to be obvious. I always did.

    on that note, we used to make fun of Everquest (my first experience with this) "Well, time to drop our tribe's youngest near the human settlements, so the humans don't have to face tough creatures when learning how to axe things...."

    1. To be fair, the newbie zones in Everquest were also full of the humans (and other "good guy races") that were most likely to actually lose a fight with a young "monster race" individual. Unless you caught some high level PC slumming the weakest baddies were more likely to get kills there than anywhere else - so it was kind of a newbie zone for both sides, yeah? Very sporting of everyone involved, albeit a bit on the "tough love" side of child-rearing.

  6. To an extent the AD&D wilderness encounter tables are leveled, though only on three levels: "City/Town," (DMG p. 191) "Inhabited/Patrolled" (DMG p. 184) and "Uninhabited/Wilderness" (DMG p. 186) which essentially breaks down to "Civilized," "Borderlands," and "Wilds."

    I've never done a breakdown of the relative levels/dangers between the three groupings (which exist only for Temperate/Subtropical, everything else is considered "Uninhabited/Wilderness"), but at a glance, the "Wilds" are clearly more dangerous than the "Borderlands," which are clearly more dangerous than the "Civilized" regions.

    1. Remember also that in the Inhabited/Patrolled areas 1 in 4 encounters will be with a patrol rather than a monster (DMG p. 182), and those won't usually result in combat. Encounters are also less likely in populated areas (DMG p. 47). So although the AD&D wilderness isn't explicitly "leveled" there's definitely a de facto increase in challenge level when the adventurers leave the relative safety of the patrolled areas and venture into the "howling wilderness" beyond.

      Note also the note on DMG p. 186 that NPC adventurers encountered in the uninhabited wilderness will generally be of 7-10th level, which lines up with my own estimation that the AD&D wilderness is default "balanced" to about 8th or 9th level, and that characters of lower levels should venture out there only in large groups (the way bandits, pilgrims, merchants, etc. do) and should otherwise stick to patrolled areas (the exact extent of which isn't clear, but a 20-50 mile radius around any significant settlement (following the rules for fighter-established freeholds on PH p. 22, and the Territory Development notes on DMG pp. 93-94) seems like a pretty reasonable rule of thumb).