Saturday, February 11, 2023

B2's "Notes for the Dungeon Master"

Of all the modules written by Gary Gygax, I suspect that The Keep on the Borderlands is his most widely played – not simply by virtue of its having been included in all printings of the Tom Moldvay-edited D&D Basic Set (and later printings of the J. Eric Holmes-edited version of the same), but because it's a solid, introductory scenario with which to kick off a campaign. Further, the first two pages of the modules are given over to a "Notes for the Dungeon Master" section that is filled with excellent advice for neophyte referees. 

Consider the following:

The basic instruction book for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® has given you the information to understand D&D and start play. This module is another tool. It is a scenario which will help you to understand the fine art of being a Dungeon Master as you introduce your group of players to your fantasy world, your interpretation of the many worlds of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS®. THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS is simply offered as a vehicle for your use, a way to move smoothly and rapidly into you own special D&D campaign. Read the module thoroughly; you will notice that the details are left in your hands. This allows you to personalize the scenario, and suit it to what you and your players will find most enjoyable. 

Looking beyond the overuse of the registered trademark every time the name "Dungeons & Dragons" is mentioned, Gygax says several important things here, starting with the fact that a module is merely a tool, indeed another tool, alongside the game's rulebook. That's why he quickly emphasizes the referee's ability to "personalize the scenario" according to one's own interpretation of D&D with the ultimate goal of enjoyment by oneself and one's players. 

These are points Gygax repeats throughout these prefatory notes.

Become familiar with this module, then make whatever additions, changes, or amendments you feel are appropriate to your campaign ... As an aside, feel free to limit race or profession as suits your conception of the setting. You might disallow the presence of elves or halflings in the KEEP, or you might not want any thieves as beginning characters. It is all up to you as DM to decide the shape of the campaign. Likewise, you can opt to give the player characters a special item of equipment to begin with – possibly mounts, a weapon, some trade goods, or virtually anything of small value (within reason).

While I can completely understand, given his later statements on the matter of "official" D&D, Gygax's reputation as hard-nosed and uncompromising, that's not at all what comes across here. Throughout these notes, he is, if anything, open-minded and flexible. He is quick to highlight the referee's ability to alter both setting details and rules to suit his preferences and those of his players. A beginning DM very much needs to hear such things; he needs reassurance that it is completely within his role as referee to make D&D – and any module he uses – his own.

At the same time, Gygax acknowledges that the role of referee is not an easy one.

You not only must order and create the cosmos, you must also play the part of each and every creature that the player characters encounter. You must be gate guard and merchant, innkeeper and orc, oracle and madman, as the situation dictates. The role of DM is all-powerful, but it also makes many demands. It is difficult to properly play the village idiot at one moment and the sage the next, the noble clergyman on the one hand and the vile monster the other. In one role you must be cooperative, in the next uncaring and non-commital [sic], then foolish, then clever, and so on. Be prepared!

This is very well said and true in my experience. Gygax then goes to discuss the challenges of portraying monsters. All of what he says is fascinating, but some of it stands out in light of his later criticisms of "amateur thespianism" in the pages of Dragon.

When the players experience their first encounter with a monster, you must be ready to play the part fully. If the monster is basically unintelligent, you must have it act accordingly, enlivening the meeting with the proper dramatics of the animal sort – including noises! If the encounter is with a monster of a more intelligent sort, it is up to the DM to not only provide an exciting description but also to correctly act the part of the monster. Rats, for instance, will swarm chitteringly from their burrows – a wave of lice-ridden hunger seeking to consume the adventurrers with their sheer numbers, but easily driven off squealing with blows and fire. Goblins, on the other hand, will skulk and hide in order to ambush and trap the party – fleeing if overmatched, but always ready to set a new snare for the unwary character.

If nothing else, Gygax paints a compelling picture of what it must have been like to play at his table. At the same time, he does, I think, paint the job of the referee as a difficult, even off-putting one.

If all of this seems too much to handle, never fear! Just as your players are learning and gaining real experience at D&D, so too will you be improving your ability as DM. The work necessary to become a master of the art is great, far greater than that necessary to be a top player, but the rewards are proportionate. You will bring untold enjoyment to many players in your role as DM, and all the while you will have the opportunity to exercise your imagination and creative ability to the fullest. May each of your adventure episodes always be a wondrous experience! 

Over the years, I've noted that fewer and fewer roleplayers seem interested in becoming referees, to the point where I frequently hear people bemoaning this fact. I can't speak to the way that most contemporary games present the role of the referee, but, if these complaints are true, I can't help but wonder if it's because they don't make it seem as compelling as Gygax does in the passage above – what a shame!


  1. Gary's advice and examples (whether town, wilderness, or dungeon) in B2 is pure gold.

  2. Many current RPGs not only downplay the contribution of referees, but treat them as if they were an obstacle to the players' enjoyment. In cultivating disrespect and distrust, is it any wonder that fewer gamers wish to assume the effort and responsibility? Certain publishers think all the money is in the players, but there is no play without referees unless one resorts to GM-less RPGs or solitaire adventures. There is a market for it, but it's far smaller than traditional role-play.

    1. I'm confused. Referees make up the majority of sales - they buy the rulebooks, and the adventures. Companies have tried and largely failed to make a lot of money off the players.

    2. Yeah, that makes no sense and certainly isn't true of modern publishing. GMs buy more books on average, that I'll believe, but the players outnumber them five or six to one at minimum, and there are far more books printed that are aimed at players than GMs. Even modules and campaign books aren't the excusive domain of GMs, since some players buy them anyway and a fair number contain added material that is aimed at players.

  3. I agree that it's an insight into what the game at his table, particularly the ones involving his kids.

    While I've seen the odd discussion on what it was like to play D&D with Gary, I'd like to see someone make an effort to interview as many of the original players from the 70s and 80s as possible to record what they felt his table was like and what adventures they played.

  4. "The role of DM is all-powerful." Handle with care, therein lies the railroad. Players are shareholders in the game and need to have the means to influence its course and content. I remember one DM who argued that my medieval cleric would not know that charcoal can make a black mark! Good grief, there's a lot to be said for listening to the players.

  5. The advise that you should feel empowered to change the adventure to fit your world is rock solid, saying you are leaving parts blank to allow the referee to fill in the details always feels like a cop out to me. Changing the existing is just as easy, some times easier, than filling in a blank and leaving a blank just makes work for those with no desire to change things.