Friday, June 4, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 127

The prefatory section on scrolls in the Dungeon Masters Guide contains some details worth examining briefly. After noting that scrolls are "generally found in cylinders" of various types, it goes on to say that

You may require that players read certain magic runes/writings inscribed on tubes in order to open the container in some cases. This enables you to have read magic (or comprehend languages) spells taken and used, as well as giving the possibility for traps (symbols, explosive runes) and curses along with a powerful scroll.

Once again, allow me to comment on my mild frustration with the way that many old school game texts conflate player and character. In very early RPGs, such as OD&D or Empire of the Petal Throne, this is more forgivable; by the time the DMG was released, though, there's little excuse. I'll grant that it's a particular hang-up of mine, so I appreciate your indulgence. 

Read magic is an often overlooked (and misunderstood) spell, so I'm pleased to see Gygax reference it here. On the other hand, I can understand why some might find its being used merely to open a tube containing a scroll that itself requires use of the same spell (though, given its duration of 2 rounds per level, it might not be that much of a nuisance). Likewise, the suggestion of traps and curses is a good one, though not one I recall seeing very often in published AD&D materials.

The section goes on to elaborate on how read magic works on scrolls.

Once a scroll is read to determine its contents, a read magic will not be needed at a subsequent time to invoke the magic. Note that even a map will appear magical until the proper spell is used.

I'm a big fan of treasure maps in D&D. Over the years, I've put them to excellent use in the campaigns I've refereed, pointing the characters toward "exciting" locales they might otherwise not consider visiting of their own accord. I've never followed this guideline, however; to my mind, most maps are not magical and thus can be read without the need for read magic. 

Far worse, though, is what Gygax writes in the next paragraph:

Scrolls not read to determine contents immediately are from 5% to 30% likely to fade; it is your option to set the percentage or use a d6 to randomly determine it for each scroll.

This seems needlessly unfair, intended simply to penalize players whose characters chose not to memorize read magic and/or take the time to examine every scroll upon acquiring it. In addition, I have to wonder what's the in-game principle behind this fading of scrolls. I can buy the idea that the magic of scrolls might fade over time, but, if so, wouldn't that fading be independent of whether a party of adventurers had found it? Wouldn't really ancient scrolls, lying undisturbed in some forgotten tomb, be more likely to have faded than ones created more recently? There's no right answer to these questions; I can imagine many plausible answers. My problem is more the seeming "gamey-ness" of how the idea is implemented in the DMG.

The section ends with a table to determine what kind of spells are found on any given scroll. 70% contain magic-user spells, of which 10% are actually illusionist spells. The other 30% are cleric spells, of which 25% are actually druid spells. This means that druid scrolls are exceptionally rare, which I can believe. Rarer still are illusionist spells. I'm not sure what, if anything, the rarity of these spell types suggests about the implied setting of AD&D, but it's definitely worth noting. 


  1. On the fading of scrolls: this would maybe make sense if it were a consequence of opening the tube and then not immediately reading the scroll. Once you've broken the seal, the scroll may become unstable, but using read magic on it stabilizes it. I still don't like this, though, because it seems Gygax means the fading to apply even to unopened scrolls; also, if you have already cast read magic to open the tube, why wouldn't you then read the scroll while the spell was still active? In the end, the fading appears to be another way to mess with the players (and here I mean players, not characters).

  2. I never used the "scroll fading" rule. It seemed too gamey.

  3. this strikes me as the usual gygax-players-vs-the-dm-war crap he was always doing. it isn't a story, or a game, it is an unending changing of the rules to screw over your players because you are miffed they figured out your last attempt to screw them over...

    you are the DM. if you don't want them to have the item, don't put it in the game.

    1. Agreed. That line of thinking was and is poisonous to enjoyable gaming.

    2. "usual gygax-players-vs-the-dm-war crap he was always doing"

      Where do you get this?

  4. I gotta bite on this one - apologies in advance.
    It's a game - so a certain amount of gamey-ness is desirable, I would say. Gary Gygax, like most of us in the hobby, seems to often fluctuate between a desire for "realism" and for abstracted "gameplay". As a devotee of the 3 LBBs, I prefer gameplay as judged by a referee using at least some logic - but the "realism" bugaboo has been an enemy of fun almost from the start of the hobby.

    1. I'm okay with a certain level of gaminess in the rules, but I don't see the play in the fading mechanic. There is nothing fun about it. The player isn't even going to be aware that not immediately opening scrolls causes them to fade faster.

      Even if you assume that it makes sense to punish a player for not quickly reading the scroll, the player can't even learn a lesson from it. They won't know their choice had anything to do with the scroll fading. Most players will assume the scroll was blank the whole time they had it.

      There is no gameplay here. Just a player getting hosed and not knowing why or that they even got hosed in the first place.

    2. "There is nothing fun about it."

      Oh, I dunno. Imagine that, at some times during an adventuring career, the party consistently comes home to find that, upon opening up some scroll-tubes, some of the pages are blank and some aren't. Going to a sage to find out why that might be might be an adventure in itself. The party finds out then has to decide on the spot once they find more scrolls: do we risk checking out the scrolls now and possibly setting off a trap, or do we take them home and check them out where it's safe but risk them fading? It does provide a bit of a nail-biter . . . .

  5. It's entirely gamey. AD&D goes out of its way in its first pages ("Approaches to Playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" to put itself in the "Game School" as opposed to the "Realism School".

    Why do it? I would speculate this ties into Gygax's previously stated goal in AD&D to "strengthen the fighter in relation to the magic-user" (by weakening the magic user). If magic-users feel some game pressure to carry around a read magic spell at all times. or risk losing the scrolls they locate to fading (and thus their primary avenue of new spells in their books), that's one less sleep spell, one less charm, or one less magic missile in their spell load.

    Does it "feel good" when considered in isolation from its 2nd order effects, and the design goals Gygax had in differentiating the play dynamic of AD&D from that of OD&D? No, not especially. Seems like a screw job. Because it is. It's a screw job to any MU who doesn't want to routinely memorize read magic.

    But, I will say this, 1E - if all of these minor hassle rules and combat rules are followed - did the best job of all the editions at reigning in the magic user and taming the quadratic problem.

    But since it did so in a gamey way, people don't like it. Many would rather suffer and complain about the quadratic problem (as every edition has done since) than deal with it using gamey tools.

    1. ok, sure, but how would this kind of crap enter the game? I mean, if you are a mage, you would know about it ahead of time. part of your training. so why even have it? force the mage to use a first level spell slot? whoopdedoo

    2. Also, I hate dragging the game down with repetition. you know the drill:

      "ok, you come to the end of the hall, there is a large oaken door"
      "ok, the thief checks for traps, while the rest of us back away. the mage casts detect magic and the cleric blesses us. same as last time. Did I miss anything?"

      No roleplay, just rote.

    3. Yeah, the MU would know if they don't carry around read magic they would risk losing scrolls to fading. No one said anything about surprise-gotch'ing the player.

      Scrolls are among the most common magical items, granted, but I don't think they're as common as dungeon doors. We don't mind dragging the game down with rote castings of sleep on humanoids. This isn't any different.

      As for "it's just one 1st level spell" - then it shouldn't sting very badly to keep one memorized, right? There's no coherence or consistency to the complaint.

      Note - I don't really use the mechanic either, my point is it does further a stated design goal of AD&D. It's not mysterious. It is a gamey rule in a gamey game, that told people on the first page of text that if they didn't like gamey games they really should go buy Runequest instead of complaining AD&D didn't do what they expected it to do, because it put right on the tin that rejected the realism school of design.

    4. I dunno. I played with some Smirking-gotcha-that-time DMs, and I hated it. I don't mind traps, but I stopped playing games where "if I don't hit a-a-b-a-b-b-start-left in the right order, I died" a long time ago. the fun is the exploration, not remembering to hobble the horses, yet again, or they will be gone when I come back out.

    5. I've played with some DMs like that too. But the rulebook can't neuter a DM that isn't personality-inclined to understand the nuances between being out to get the players, and "getting" the players.

      I completely agree - the fun is in the exploration. That's what draws healthy normal people to the hobby. Experiencing the cool stuff a DM thinks up, the wonder element. All the rest of it are checks and balances to make sure abstraction isn't carried to the point of absurdity, and some capability/resource capacity is spent *most of the time* on other than pew-pew-pew...but still allowing an unbalanced pew-pew-pew approach for those few times when its actually necessary.

      Look, this hobby attracts people with low social ability. Power/control in any degree over another group of people is going to attract passive-aggressive dillweeds - even the minor degree that a DM has over players. Then mix in "these people sit through and experience a world tailored to exactly how I think things should work and what my fantasies are", and you've got a gigantic attractor to people with disordered personalities.

      We have to stop demanding the rules are written to a level preventing their abuse by such people. Their abuse by such people is not a reflection upon the rules. Pin the abuse to the person doing it, and don't displace it on to the tool they use to inflict the abuse.

    6. "I dunno. I played with some Smirking-gotcha-that-time DMs, and I hated it."

      I agree with EOTB. Don't hate the game, hate the player. Or in this case, the DM.

      Do you think your smirking, gotcha DM isn't going to act that way while DMing some other rules set? Get yourself a new DM already.

    7. One of the weakness of early edition D&D (and AD&D in particular) is that it required a very capable to DM to keep all the pieces in harmony and also be creative new and interesting content. What percentage of the population is capable or willing to do that?

      The solution for all the later edition (culminating in story games and then later handing the reins over to the players) was to reduce the necessary skill-set.

      AD&D was/is a rare breed. If isn't not to your tastes, there are dozens of things like this (and DM-abuse in Rick's example) to point at and says "See! That's why it bad." However, when all the gears are meshing it runs like a champion.

    8. However, when all the gears are meshing it runs like a champion.

      Absolutely. That's one of the "secrets" of most early RPGs: they require a creative and intelligent referee who knows the rules well and runs his sessions with fairness and equanimity.

  6. Something I've never understood in all of these rules is how a Thief is supposed to read a scroll. From p 27 of the PHB, they can start to read maps at 4th level but not spells until 10th?

  7. "This [rolling for scroll fading] seems needlessly unfair, intended simply to penalize players whose characters chose not to memorize read magic and/or take the time to examine every scroll upon acquiring it."

    I really don't think this is a penalty. It's very much in keeping with other elements mentioned in the DMG eg listening at doors on pg. 60, detecting things on pg. 97 where the (quite natural) player emphasis on keeping characters alive and becoming more powerful clashes with the (fully intended) effect of inducing thrills by risk-taking. It's one more risk thrown into the game to make it that much more exciting, to induce reluctant, safety-prone players to take a chance and get a thrill (which is what RPGs are about [aside from making money for their publishers/owners]).

    To whit:

    Now, don't tell me _that_ particular pitch doesn't thrill you to the bones . . . .

    "My problem is more the seeming 'gamey-ness' of how the idea is implemented in the DMG."

    EOTB pointed out quite rightly it's just a rule in a game, to whic I'll add a game that's trying to simulate doing imaginary things in imaginary places in such a way that conflicts don't become quite so inevitable eg "BANG! You're dead!" "No, I'm not! You missed!" "Didn't!" "Did!" (continuum ad nauseam)

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  9. "'if I don't hit a-a-b-a-b-b-start-left in the right order, I died'"

    Without some clue or other to make the risk interesting, yes, this is Killer-DM stuff: understandable to a point in a one-off "fun-house dungeon" or with an inexperienced DM. It's easy to kill characters; it's much harder to kill them with enough panache that the players enjoy the experience.

  10. Actually, I see the whole "fading scroll" thing as EGG's means of getting players to bite on his CURSED scrolls. Everyone's fallible, no one's perfect, but the particular glee Gygax has in tormenting players through booby-trapped magic items is one of his most annoying traits.

    Read the "**" section under the scrolls table on page 121 and you'll see what I mean; you'll note that there is NO ENTRY for cursed scrolls in the section for scroll descriptions (pages 127-129). This is because it is all up front when you determine the scroll in the hoard to begin. Gygax WANTS the players to read scrolls...quickly!...rather than take a measured or cautious approach to identifying them and determining risk/reward.

    1. "the particular glee Gygax has in tormenting players through booby-trapped magic items is one of his most annoying traits." Sure, but that's a trait of a particular person. It has nothing necessarily to do with the frisson of shooting craps on whether THIS scroll or THAT scroll is the cursed one . . . .

      "Gygax WANTS the players to read scrolls...quickly!...rather than take a measured or cautious approach to identifying them and determining risk/reward."

      Of course, because it's more exciting for everyone involved.

    2. The major influence on D&D that went unstated in Appendix N was Chutes and Ladders.

    3. This would be my read of the rule as well, though I don't consider it to be a bad rule or an unfair one at all. Without it, cursed scrolls just don't have the same impact.

    4. This is exactly it. He even says so directly in Vol. 2 of OD&D:

      "The referee must take extreme care in handling all Scrolls with an eye towards duping the players when a Cursed Scroll is found. The curse takes effect immediately upon reading the Scroll; therefor having non-Curse Scrolls disappear on occasion if not identified will help force reading of Curse Scrolls."