Friday, August 6, 2021

Random Roll: PHB, p. 8

Beginning on page 7 of the AD&D Players Handbook, there's a lengthy section entitled simply "The Game," in which Gary Gygax lays out something approximating his understanding of what Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is and how it's meant to be played. It's actually a very good section, devoid of most of the bluster and bombast that unfortunately accompanied many of Gygax's other forays into this topic. I could easily devote many posts to this section (and might well do so in the future), but, for the moment, I wish to focus on a single paragraph toward the end of this section, in which Gygax talks about the role of the referee in using the AD&D rules to create and maintain a campaign.

This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places, they are guidelines and suggested methods only. This is part of the attraction of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, and it is integral to the game.

Chess is a frequently used reference point in Gygax's discussion of the rules of AD&D, most infamously in his November 1982 essay, "Poker, Chess, and the AD&D System." Here, chess represents a game with clear, objective, and unchanging – perhaps even unchangeable – set of rules, in contrast to AD&D whose rules include many "guidelines and suggested methods only." I find this interesting, because, it initially seems as if the general tenor of what Gygax is saying comports with that of OD&D, but, as we shall see, there are significant differences.

Rules not understood should have appropriate questions directed to the publisher;

So much for "why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" seen in the afterword of Volume 3 of OD&D. It's quite a sea-change in approach.

disputes with the Dungeon Master are another matter entirely. THE REFEREE IS THE FINAL ARBITER OF ALL AFFAIRS OF HIS OR HER CAMPAIGN. Participants have no recourse to the publisher, but they do have ultimate recourse – since the most effective protest is withdrawal from the offending campaign.

That said, I can't help but agree with Gygax here, even if I wouldn't have deployed all capitals in stating it. His advice about dealing with bad referees is practical and effective. I have seen it used several times over the course of my years in the hobby (never against me, of course!). I sometimes think that, had this advice been followed more readily, fewer gamers would today have so many stories of tyrannical referees.

Each campaign is a specially tailored affair. While it is drawn by the referee upon the outlines of the three books which comprise ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, the players add the color and details, so the campaign must ultimately please all participants. It is their unique world.

I like this, though I am fairly certain that Gygax intended a greater degree of uniformity between campaigns than his reference to "specially tailored" might suggest. Nevertheless, his statement that "the campaign must ultimately please all participants" is important. I doubt he meant that it's the duty of the referee to assume that everything always goes the preferred way of the players (and their characters). Rather, he seems to mean that everyone involved, players and referee alike, should have a stake in the campaign and its continuance. That is eminently good advice and true, at least in my own experience.

You, the reader, as a member of the campaign community, do not belong if the game seems wrong in any major aspect. Withdraw and begin your own campaign by creating a milieu which suits you and the group which you must form to enjoy the creation. (And perhaps you will find that preparation of your own milieu creates a bit more sympathy for the efforts of the offending referee …)

I like this as well. Truly, I think more players should try their hands at refereeing, not merely for the reasons Gygax includes in parenthesis but also because I sometimes feel as if many players expect campaigns to cater to their own preferences. Over the years, I've played in several campaigns that, for various reasons, weren't to my taste. In every instance, I ultimately bowed out of the campaign rather than attempting to sway the referee to change those aspects of it that I didn't like. That strikes me as both polite and, dare I say it, adult. If you don't like something, don't partake of it; make your own thing that you do like and have fun with it. Life is too short to bother with games (of all things) that you don't enjoy and whining to get your own way does you no credit.


  1. I agree that creative control is essential when DM'ing, but I hate the authoritarian instinct and implied conflict of this notion of a group where the DM is the god emperor and the players have to either follow along or bail. Much more healthy, in my mind, is a group where people take turns DM'ing and the setting as a whole is stitched together from their respective efforts.

    1. I love the idea of this approach, but I've never seen it work in practice. Do you have much experience of this working successfully? I'd love to know more.

    2. I have seen it work with two DMs rotating responsibility for the whole campaign; whoever was not DMing relinquished total control during that session.

      The DMs had very different styles, and even in my teems I could see that it required a goodly amount of patience and forbearance to work properly. It was also a bit like improv, since when they switched roles the new DM had to riff off whatever the previous DM had done.

      I have no idea how much collaboration they did between sessions. I should ask.

      I DO think it is a good idea when the group rotates DMs who are running their own campaign. I think the game runs better when all of the participants are familiar with the role of both players and DMs.

    3. While I've never "co-DM'd" a specific campagin before, nor ever participated in one, our group does rotate DM duties.

      Sometimes it is just a break in a campaign to run a 'one-off', due to DM burnout, players cannot make it to the session, etc.

      Other times a campaign fizzles out, TPK's, or such, and someone else steps up to run a game.

      Our group of 5 has 2 primary DM's, a 3rd occasional DM, and one player who wanted to try to DM an adventure that didn't work out well.

    4. I think it is rare in the history of all (high quality) creative endeavors for it to be the product of more than one mind---or at least without a clear single person in at the top. Sure, it guards against the excesses of a tyrant, but I think more often than not would lead to mediocrity. Switching DMs is fine, but I think it would be best to leave the settings detached so each can shine fully.

      This fear of the DM seems a new-school (reactionary/anti-authoritarian) notion, and is not one I'm accustomed to.

    5. Never saw a co-DM campaign.

      Back in the day, our table-top group had 4 DMs among 5 or 6 players, so we had great game variety and DM empathy. The DM vs the Players thing wasn't even on our radar, until we went to RPG conventions and encountered all sorts of psychopaths.

    6. I did see one really great co-GMed campaign. It was a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign GMed by a married couple. They riffed off each other very well, and handled party splits with ease.

      Back in my high school years, I gamed at MIT where the "Saturday" crowd mostly had open games with PCs moving from campaign to campaign with a bunch of GMs rotating around. I ended up GMing almost exclusively and had a pretty dedicated set of players, but that freedom to move between campaigns I think did push the GMs to be their best.

      These days I mostly can't imaging sharing a campaign with another GM, though we did have one of the other players GM Burning Wheel for a time in the Blackmoor setting I had started off.

      Lately I have a lot more experience as a player than back in the day and I think that's a good thing.

  2. I think, like many other essays in the 1E books, it needs to be read with a firm context anchor of Gygax speaking to his time; not to all times.

    Gamer solipsism is endemic to the personalities drawn to the hobby; it can be readily observed today at the heart of many rules discussions on forums and other places: "why does the book direct subject X in the fashion it does - it is not what I like" - as if the speaker imagines what they like is the obvious road to Rome, and furthermore, clearly the best. And that the author's primary obligation was not to create the game they liked, but to make what the reader likes so that the reader isn't inconvenienced by what they don't prefer being de facto used in the most popular roleplaying game around them.

    Point being, Gygax was (among many other things) trying to reset a paradigm in OD&D that wasn't working nationally - guidelines so broad that there was no real *guidance*, with wildly diverging methods clashing wherever more than 3 people gathered for play according to a standard.

    This never took off, so these passages are continually read in the light of how most gamers have only experienced (A)D&D - their local group.

    So Gyagx says "your local group can do whatever they want - don't complain to me. Start your own group if you don't like it. If you're running a game and want more guidance, write to me. But don't bother appealing to me if not running a game, so as to try to argue from an appeal to authority".

    "Oh, and whether playing in a game or running one - as soon as you get outside of your local group, all your idiosyncrasies are subject to disregard. So consider the idiosyncrasies you embed if national play is an interest".

    Could this have been said differently? Sure. Could it have been said in any fashion that pierces gamer solipsism? I doubt it. But if I'm trying to set up something national, I want to be able to say "refer to page 8 in your PHB and please stop interrupting me".

    1. ^ Bullseye AD&D must be looked at as a product of a very specific time and very specific circumstances. And from the point of view of a Businessman first, Game Designer second.

  3. I agree with the idea to begin something new if the existing game does not suit one's preferences. But I also support the idea of polite criticism and suggestions to the rest of the group when deemed fitting. Most gamers nowadays are split between "change everything at the drop of a hat" and "if you dare dislike something, shut up, you're a whiny bitch." Discussion and feedback between sessions is never a bad thing by itself.