Friday, December 23, 2022

(Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition) Dungeon Master's Guide

 I'm over the hump now. I have a lot of 3rd edition books in front of me, but surely none of them will have the characteristic DMG blend of dryly picayune (tell me how a flask of holy water will bounce if a player misses with their attack roll) and the dryly abstract (explain what a "dungeon" is, keeping in mind that at this point the word is basically jargon). From this point on, at least until I read the 3.5 version of the cores, all my D&D books are going to be about something.

But it really wasn't that bad. I may have spent the bulk of my time as a Dungeon Master doing whatever I could to avoid having to crack open the Dungeon Master's Guide, but now, as an exercise in nostalgia, I had fun keeping my eyes open for little dramatic ironies. The book can say, "[rolling for AC as a] variant rule comes in handy at high levels, where high-level fighters always hit with their primary attacks and other characters rarely do," and I can jump up and down, clapping my hands and shouting, "OMG! They knew! The fundamental math of the game was broken by design!"

But, of course, the fact that this disparity was apparent even from the start serves only to raise the question - if they designed the attack-roll system to work so that warrior-types would hit often and non-warriors would hit rarely, then exactly what was the underlying design goal of 3rd edition in the first place? You're 20th level and the game the fighters are playing is fundamentally different than the game the wizards are playing and maybe that's a form of niche protection? Fighters have competitive attrition and wizards have a save-or-die slot machine, with each spell slot giving them another pull at the lever, and ideally, these divergent playstyles deliver a gameplay experience tailored to the sort of people who would have chosen those classes at 1st level?

A bold move, if true. I'm not sure I approve. At the very least, the line "Dungeon Masters who are real sticklers for class balance may want to avoid modifying character classes altogether" strikes me as . . . a bit overconfident. 

But that's just me being a smug little dork. It's only with the wisdom of hindsight that I realized being able to target your foe's weakest save with an incapacitating spell is a much more powerful tactic than whittling down their hit points. There's plenty in this book that I've been ignoring since 2001. Mostly the world-building advice. It does that weird D&D thing where it empowers you to make a hundred different variations of the same highly specific idea. Why are you telling me that "all druids are at least nominally members of [a] druidic society which spans the globe?" Why does my goblin or orc PC need to have been "reared by humans, elves, dwarves, or another nonevil race?"

The thing is, I know the future. D&D 3rd edition is going to give us a lot of material to work with. And somehow, it's going to break through to the mainstream, even though 5th edition was deliberately designed to be conservative. At some point the tide is going to turn, and we'll get more support for diverse worldbuilding than this book's sad half-page about converting the game to an east-Asian setting. I'm just not sure when it's going to happen.

But that's really the worst thing I can say about The Dungeon Master's Guide. Monte Cooke, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams did not reinvent the wheel, even though they had every opportunity to reinvent the wheel, and this particular wheel was long overdue for a good reinventing (seriously, the xp award section was stultifyingly old-school in its reluctance to give xp for anything but combat encounters). However, given the basic limitations of the project - a new D&D ruleset in an environment that had not yet had the opportunity to discover a new D&D culture - these guys are at the top of their game. A book this dry could have been a hell of a lot drier, if you know what I mean.

My favorite part (aside from the magic item chapter, whose primary strength was that it preserved the best stuff from prior editions) was the introduction of Prestige Classes. These things are going to be huge, and I am here for it. 

At the risk of sounding back-handed, prestige classes offer us a peek into an alternate universe where every class is as interesting as the monk or the bard. And yes, you're better off playing a fighter than a monk or a wizard than a bard, but still, despite their relative weakness, they get interesting abilities, driven by a strong concept, narrowed into a setting and party niche . . . like prestige classes. 

The downside to most prestige classes is that you can't play them from level 1. The Assassin would be a really good class if you were getting their 4th level spells at level 8 instead of level 12. The Arcane Archer is a great concept, held back by its lack of a dedicated spell-casting mechanic (instead of delivering regular spells via arrow, it should have a list of magical arrows with spell-like effects). The Shadowdancer should just be a regular rogue build (as in, "shadow jump" should be a feat or something, that any high-level rogue can take). These are character-defining concepts, but they exist off to the side of normal class progression. 

It really gets to the dilemma at the heart of 3rd-edition's class design. Even as early as the core, it's possible to see a fully modular approach to character progression - build any character imaginable using only modular elements like feats, skills, and spells. True20 is going to do this with its Adept, Warrior, and Expert classes and it's going to be great. Alternately, you could build an entire game around a large number of highly-specific classes. . . and I can't think of a game (besides Ukss d20, that is) that does that, but it might turn out pretty interesting. Or you could do what 3.0/3.5 did in practice, which is to recklessly mix the two design tendencies, both in full and prestige classes, so the Fighter exists alongside the Druid and the Dwarven Defender competes with classes that are transparent patches to the multiclass system (though they won't actually show up until around the time of the 3.5 cores). 

Overall, I'm pretty glad to have read the Dungeon Master's Guide, and not just to quickly get it out of the way. I'm at the start of a journey into the most vibrantly creative period of D&D history, and the DMG reminds me that, though the pace is definitely going to accelerate, there was some movement even at the start.

Ukss Contribution: So let's go backwards! To a magic item that was present in both 2nd and 1st edition. The Mirror of Opposition. You look into the mirror and an opposite alignment duplicate jumps out and tries to kill you. It's my favorite kind of magic - specific and powerful and completely unclear as to why anyone would make such a thing. I'll probably give it some other use besides screwing over adventurers (it's not listed as a cursed item, but what is it if not a trap?), but the essential function will remain.

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