Wednesday, May 22, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I wonder what tabletop gaming was like in 1989. There's just so much in this book that doesn't track. The races chapter, in warning about allowing new race/class combinations, suggests that if you were to allow elves to be paladins, you'd have an entire party wanting to play elf paladins. And then it goes on to imply that this is a bad thing. As if the players didn't just hand you a whole campaign premise on a silver platter. As if a group of six elf paladins, traveling the land fighting evil in the name of the sylvan gods wouldn't wind up being an absolute legendary campaign. Honestly, it was so baffling an objection that it left me wondering if perhaps I was missing something.

But really, there's a lot of stuff like that going through the book. There's an assumption of an adversarial relationship between players and DM, where the players are always trying to get away with something and it's up to the DM to try and keep them in line. It's an odd dynamic that misses a lot of tricks narratively and socially.

It probably explains the abundance of cursed items in the magic items section, though. At least a dozen times you'd get an item that quite explicitly says "this looks exactly like some other benign item that your PCs are going to want, but it will kill them dead." Like, there's an enchanted broomstick that if you sit on it and command it to fly, it will just straight-up start beating the shit out of you. It's a hilarious slapstick image, but it raises some difficult worldbuilding questions. Who is making them? Why are they even still around? Wouldn't they get destroyed the first time they killed someone? Or at the very least get warning labels attached?

Ultimately, this adversarial relationship is probably at the root of the bad DMing advice this book keeps throwing at you. Present the players with misleading information, re: magic items. Elves can't get to the highest levels of the wizard class to preserve game balance, because being able to detect secret doors 1/6th of the time is worth giving up the ability to cast "wish." If the characters have too much money (by whatever nebulous definition you want to use) then you should jerk them around by targeting them with taxes, curses, or thieves.

Then again, maybe there's a paradigmatic issue at work here. When the book passive-aggressively dismisses the idea of critical hit tables (proving that even D&D itself can do "unlike other games") it does so with notion that it would be "unfair" not to use those tables against PCs. The game is almost ideologically opposed to asymmetrical mechanics, but it doesn't seem to acknowledge that the DM's role is almost by definition asymmetrical. They could just spawn hundreds of high level monsters at any time. So when the book expresses concern that allowing monsters to break bones or sever limbs will make the game too difficult for the PCs, it rings a bit hollow when a few pages later it lists a poison that can kill instantly.

I figure there must have been a culture surrounding D&D that I'm just not getting. A complex of shared assumptions that make the odd leaps seem logical. Yet looking back, it is clear that I was never actually part of that culture. I remember playing the game "wrong," but if I'm going by the rules as written, there are very few that I didn't use. So that vague memory I have, of a sensation of ignoring large portions of the text, it must have come from me glossing over the balance and advancement sections and just using the game as a story engine, rather than the weird inconsistently-tuned, chaos-embracing, trap-ridden tournament strategy game it thought itself to be.

I think I made the right choice, all those years ago, in turning my back on this game. Nothing I've read here has inspired any particular regret, and I can say with confidence that there are at least 4 versions of D&D I'd choose over this (4th, 3rd, BECM, and 5th - in that order). But that confidence is worth something to me. It means that when I read all the classic supplements I still adore, I'll be thinking in terms of conversion to a new system, rather than trying to recapture an imagined past.

UKSS Contribution: Domesticated yaks. Sure, I could have gone with one of the more amusing magical items. There are certainly plenty of colorful and evocative ones to choose from. But the book makes a point of giving special movement rules for yaks, in the middle of its discussion on riding animals for long-distance travel. I figure that means I can take a moment to remember them too.

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