Saturday, January 5, 2019

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide - Reaction

I think this book may be a genuine Classic. I don't necessarily mean that as an unalloyed compliment. And I don't necessarily don't mean it as a compliment. I think the book is beyond all that, beyond our petty judgements of good or bad, right or wrong. It belongs to history now, and it is only in history that it may be judged.

It's just funny. Many times I would read a bit of the Dungeon Masters Guide and I'd be stunned to find the seed of about a half-dozen flame wars I've had over the years. It's all there, right from the beginning. That's what makes it a Classic (with a capital C). It is so foundational to the hobby that even its flaws would describe whole branches of gaming's grand taxonomy.

It used to be a pet peeve of mine when amateur games (or even the occasional older professional one) would go out of their way to point out how they weren't like D&D, but I get it now. I respect Gary Gygax. I'm extremely grateful for his contributions to our shared hobby. But there were times in this book when he would talk about the nature and limits of the game, or about what made for a good roleplaying experience, and he'd be flat-out wrong.

And I don't mean this as a dig at Gygaxian-style dungeons crawls. This isn't a case where he was presenting a set of guidelines to create a particular Gary Gygax type of fun and I'm dinging him because I have a different set of preferences. After reading this book, I can, indeed, see the appeal in doing things his way.

But, he had an unfortunate tendency to not see himself inside the context of the hobby as a whole, and instead to declaim from on high as the ultimate roleplaying authority and there's no kind way to put this, but it was just obnoxious. I don't know exactly how many times it happened, because I didn't bother to keep count, but there would be whole paragraphs where he would shoot down some particular idea as being a surefire disaster that would inevitably ruin any game, and I'd know for a fact that some later game did exactly that and was positively great. But he always sounded so sure of himself, so willing to condescend to any who might disagree. There were times when I simply had to set down the book and shout "Oh, come on!" to the ether.

I'll give you an example, so you don't think that I'm pulling such a harsh criticism entirely out of my ass. Consider the following passage:

Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign - and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off.

He is just flat-out calling players who want to play monsters stupid. What the hell, man?! You realize that your definition of "monster" is just "any living thing that shows up in an encounter, including stuff like benign human merchants," right? And that there are tons of monsters that are just fun classical fantasy creatures, like centaurs, fairies, goblins, and snakemen? And that, despite what you said earlier about fantasy needing limits to be relatable, your selection of PC races was completely arbitrary? Or that there would be a dozen rpgs on my shelf alone that prove you wrong, some even produced by TSR.

I don't want to get too far into it. It was aggravating, but now its over. Lets move on to the bones of the book - the actual AD&D system . . .

Play BECM. Play 5th Edition. Play any number of OSR games. Google "fantasy heartbreaker" and play the one that is damned with the faintest praise. There are many games out there that try to capture the AD&D experience, and almost without exception, they wind up out-AD&Ding AD&D itself.

Look, I don't mean to be cruel here. I don't want to underplay the AD&D rulebooks as an accomplishment . . . but they needed an editor. They needed someone who didn't know the rules to go over the first draft and try to learn the rules from the manuscript. The rules for initiative (to just choose an example, avoiding the low-hanging fruit of the grappling rules) are two paragraphs (and these are full-throated Gary Gygax paragraphs, mind) long when they should be two sentences, and they still manage to be completely misleading - the party with the higher roll is said to "possess the initiative," but every subsequent example shows the party who rolled lowest with the advantage.

There are the bones of a good game here. But that game is D&D Basic.

Which isn't to say the whole book is bad. There are moments of inspiration. The last third of the main text (before the Appendices) is devoted to magic items, and those are pretty decent. Hell, more than decent - memorable, fun, occasionally iconic, and only sometimes completely baffling. I'm pretty sure it's reprinted almost word-for-word in AD&D 2nd edition, and has heavily inspired similar sections in both 3rd and 5th edition. And for good reason. It's one of the all-time greats.

Attempting to sum up my feelings for this book, I'm left with a deep conflict I don't really know how to resolve. To be blunt, I didn't like it. But I like many of the things that came out of it. I've got a ton of AD&D 2nd Edition books that are among my most prized possessions. And that makes me feel like I should like it. For the sake of the things I love, I should make peace with their immediate ancestor.

But that's not my truth. In the end, I simply did not enjoy myself while reading this book. I saw the shadows of things I would eventually come to enjoy, but they were not enough.

UKSS Contribution - This one is a bit subtle and meta, but I kind of like magic wands. Not necessarily as they are implemented mechanically - as spell batteries with limited charges - but as they are presented in the flavor text - as instruments for working a particular type of magic. I like the idea of having, say, a Wand of Illumination, which can control and manipulate light in various ways, and having that as the basis for a mage's magical discipline. To be a mage, then, is to learn to control a particular wand, with its own particular legend.

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