Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Gygaxian Example

If you want to know why so often D&D is played as a two-dimensional game, one need only go to the source. Gygax’s own prejudices are written out plain for anyone to see. And while many of those who play are clever enough to see through those prejudices, you cannot blame the thousands who took the words as gospel and who justly played the game as a thoughtless, manipulative hack-and-slash campaign.

The following text comes from page 96 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, beginning at the bottom of the first column, where it reads, “The First Dungeon Adventure.”

Assume that you have assembled a group of players. Each has created a character, determined his or her race and profession, and spent some time carefully equipping these neophyte adventurers with everything that the limited funds available could purchase. Your participants are now eagerly awaiting instructions from you as to how to find the place they are to seek their fortunes in.


Well, this is a fair beginning, if a bit trite. The section is meant to be an example of play, so I have no troubles with this sort of benign Romanticism. I want to point out that, for seasoned campaigns, the above circumstance occurs only once—as every other session picks up where the previous session left off. Thus the usefulness to the general description of the game in describing the first ignorant group of players on the first campaign already assumes that this circumstance will be common.

In essence, the manufacturers of the book prepared for you to be a boob, without being introduced to the game by an experienced DM, or without additional experienced players to interact with. I cannot remember such a circumstance occurring in relation to the game since...well, ever. I have never played a single campaign where someone did not already know what everything meant or what was going on.

Yet this is still the approach that companies take in their introductions to various campaign games. Even though it has been thirty years, the first few pages are STILL dedicated to that rare dolt who chances to pick up this volume without having had any previous experience with the game. This seems moronic to me. But I digress.

You inform them that there is a rumour in the village that something strange and terrible lurks in the abandoned monastery not far from the place.


Yes well, there it is. The cheesy introduction to the adventure. It would be nice if such introductions were a thing of the past, but sadly they’re not. I’m still reading online adventures which begin pretty much this same way.

Why doesn’t the DM simply say, “You’re going to the monastery, and that’s that”? It would certainly save time. Because you and I both know that if you turn as a player to the DM and tell him you don’t feel like poking around all night in a flipping monastery, the DM is going to whine and complain that that’s all he has prepared at the moment and that what the hell, it will be fun! So there you are, playing a character you’ve carefully constructed, and the plot has already been written for you.

In fact, one of the braver villagers will serve as a guide if they wish to explore the ruins!


Yes, well isn’t that convenient? Naturally this well-meaning soul has nothing else to do, no party would ever question his motivations or his purpose or why he would want to go to the terrible nasty ruins with a bunch of total strangers who just blew into town and dumped a few hundred gold pieces on the local merchants. No, this fellow is only the local boy scout.

Exactly how stupid are we? Let’s see, it’s a monastery, it’s two miles from town...if the architect’s had the slightest of brains they would have built it on some kind of hill. Does that mean the guide needs to do more than take the party to the edge of town and point? Oh well, let’s see what happens.

(This seemingly innocent guide might be nothing more than he seems, or possibly an agent of some good or evil power, or a thief in disguise, or just about anything else. In this case, however, let it be a thief, for reasons you will discover soon.)


Oh, what a surprise. That was certainly a clever twist.

The party readily agrees, and so the adventure begins.


Here again we have the manipulative nature of the DM. The inclusion of the “guide” is only there to tell the party, “You’re going. Period.” So the phrase should really read, “The party acquiesces to the DM’s expectations, and the DM’s agenda begins.”

You inform them after about a two mile trek along a seldom-used road, they come to the edge of a fen. A narrow causeway leads out to a low mound upon which stand the walls and buildings of the deserted monastery.


Oh, so there’s a road. Do we have to pay this guide money? Since this monastery has more than one building, and walls, can we not assume that if the party had walked in the general direction for an hour or two, they would have found it? Or is it that the local area is covered with monasteries, and the guide is there to make sure the party finds the right one?

And why, exactly, is it a “monastery.” That’s a puzzling Judeo-Christian reference, isn’t it? It’s not described like any Tibetan monastery I ever heard of, and even if it was, where is the Buddhist section of the Deities and Demigods volume? Or the Christian section, for that matter.

While I’m at it, can I just ask, for the moment, why this ridiculous fabricated adventure exists at all? Assuming that there is a deserted monastery, and that the town knows about it and avoids it, why isn’t it being dealt with by the local constabulary? Is it because they’re not sufficient level? I assume this group of neophytes is first level. Wouldn't it make sense that the Reeve or the Hayward of the region, or one of the many soldiers of this particular church might be interested in making the territory safe for their daughters who like to ride in the afternoons? Yes, there have been abandoned churches throughout history, but they have been actually ABANDONED...not loaded up with monsters and treasures waiting for total strangers to poke about and get rich on. Hell, if the constabulary is too pussy to take on this Monastery, let’s go beat the crap out of the local constabulary and fuck the DM’s pre-planned adventure. I’ll bet HIS residence isn’t hip-deep in player-killing traps.

Ah, but that is thinking outside of Gygax’s little box.

One of the players inquires if the mound appears to be travelled, and you inform the party that only a very faint path is discernible—as if any traffic is light and infrequent.


This sentence simply baffles me. We have already been told the monastery is “abandoned.” I would assume that meant “lightly trafficked.” I’m even less clear about why the path would be “faint.” Abandoned paths are usually “overgrown” and “hard to find.” At any rate, since the monastery is visible and sitting on a big mound, any route between where the party is standing and the monastery is pretty bloody obvious, not faint.

Finally, the difference between “light” and “infrequent” escapes me. Do we mean that the traffic, when it occurs at all, doesn’t weigh much? Because otherwise light and infrequent mean the same thing.

Somewhat reassured, another player asks if anything else is apparent. You describe the general bleakness of the bog, with little to relieve the view save a few clumps of brush and tamarack sprouting here and there (probably on bits of higher ground) and a fairly dense cluster of the same type of growth apparently half a mile beyond the abandoned place. Thus, the party has only one place to go—along the causeway—if they wish to adventure.


I’m a little unclear as to why the party is reassured when they’re told no one comes around here. Do they think, by some stretch of the imagination, that the monastery is actually abandoned? I.e., not inhabited at all? Why the crap did we come out here?

All right, we get a little bit of fluff. Here’s a question, one which my players would definitely ask: “You said earlier that it was a fen. Now you’re telling me it’s a bog. Which is it—a fen or a bog?” At which point you’re forced to tell them it doesn’t matter, which makes the whole description scene pretty dumb and a waste of time since, in fact, it doesn’t matter. After all, is the DM prepared for the party saying, “We’ve decided to leave the Abbey alone and go check out the group of trees half a mile away. Is there another group of trees half a mile beyond that?”

Fluff is fine, but at this point the DM should be describing the MONASTERY, which is relevant, and not the local flora, which is not relevant. How many buildings are there? How tall are they? What are they made of? Has any work been done at all? Will the various buildings burn if lit? These are more important things that are totally ignored here.

The leading member of the group (whether appointed or self-elected, it makes no difference)...


Excuse me? What do you FUCKING mean it makes no difference. Who the hell is this boss man to tell me what the hell I’m doing with my character? Is he the DM’s best friend? Is he a shill for the DM? What the hell is going on here.

Okay, that’s extreme. But it’s moronic to assume that someone just “takes command” of the party, and that the party isn’t going to argue about it FOR HALF AN HOUR. I thought this Gygax fellow had played this game.

...orders that the party should proceed along the raised pathway to the monastery, and the real adventure begins.


Yeah, the real adventure. The DM’s adventure. As a player I soooooo feel part of something special.

The so-called guide, the thief, is a 3rd level non-player character. You placed him in the village and gave the reason for his being there as a desire for a huge fire opal which the abbot of the place is said to have hidden when the monastery was under siege. The fellow died, according to legend, before revealing it to anyone, so somewhere within the ruins lies a fortune.


If the fellow died before revealing the huge fire opal to anyone, how does this thief know? How come the religious order which once held this Monastery DOESN’T know? How come the local Lord hasn’t had the place pulled apart brick by brick looking for it? Why hasn’t anyone used MAGIC to see if anything of value is located there. Hell, Augury is a spell any third level cleric has. You don’t think there’s a third level cleric who hasn’t asked his god, “Any special treasures up at that old Monastery on the mound?”

No, of course not. But this first level party, they’re going to stumble right in and find this wonderful, rare HUGE opal. Uh huh.

Does this smell to you, too?

But this particular thief lacks courage, so he has been living frugally in the village while seeking some means of obtaining the gem without undue risk to himself. Now, he has the party to serve his means. If they invite him along, then he will go—with seeming reluctance, of course. If they do not, he will lurk near the entrance hoping to obtain any loot they will have gleaned from the adventure when they return, doing so either by stealth or by force if the party is sufficiently weakened from the perils they have faced.


Now, I don’t know about you, but by the time my party was alone with this guy, they would have either skewered him, or had him trussed up, sword to his throat and asking, “What’s the deal with this abbey?” My parties aren’t very trusting. At the very least they would probably have spoken to someone else in town...including the reference that this character offered to be a guide. Now, judging from the above, the thief isn’t a local, so why would anyone say anything but, “I don’t know him, he keeps to himself a lot and things have been going missing since he showed up”?

Oh, and the “reluctance” thing. Weren’t we told at the beginning that one of the “braver” members of the village was ready to guide for us? Details matter.

Before you are three maps: a large-scale map which shows the village and the surrounding territory, including the fen and monastery, the secret entrance/exit from the place, and lairs of any monsters who happen to dwell in the area...

Well, there’s nothing really wrong with that. It would be nice if there were other lairs around the party could investigate, but we’ve already been told three times, by both the DM and the self-appointed party leader, that we’re going into the Monastery. So maybe the big map will get used next week.

...at hand also is a small-scale (1 square to 10’ might be in order)...


And thus Gygax establishes D&D as the only combat game in the universe NOT to use the logical, rational and practical hex map for movement and battle. I’ve noticed that 4e seems committed to carrying on the tradition.

These people know that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is longer than either of the two sides, right? Or is it that we as humans are unable to move diagonally?

...map of the ruined monastery which shows building interiors, insets for upper levels, and a numbered key for descriptions and encounters; lastly, you have the small scale map of the storage chambers and crypts beneath the upper works of the place...likewise keyed by numbers for descriptions and encounters. So no matter what the party decides upon, you have the wherewithal to handle the situation.


There’s no ruin without a dungeon. Remember that. Also remember that the most logical place in D&D to build a crypt is under a Monastery or a church, even though every religious entity since the dawn of history has specifically not done so (another building is always built expressly for housing the dead).

I’m glad the party is at least being given the decision in terms of which maze direction they take first. It appeases the rats to think they have a choice.

When they come to the area shown on the second map, the one depicting the monastery complex, you set aside map one, and begin a more detailed narrative of what they “see,” possibly referring to the number key from time to time as they explore the place.


I’m only going to say this. We’re not completely brain dead. I think we could figure this part out.

Movement within buildings is actually the same as in the underground setting. Each square represents an area of 10’ per side, and movement is very slow as observation and map making and searching takes considerable time.


I’m sure the various elite military and professional brigades would be very interested to know that, when attacking an inhabited installation, it is important to move irrationally slowly and to map out, down to the inch, every since detail.

Strange that videos showing military and police groups storming a residence seem to be moving rather quickly and deftly checking all the corners of a building before moving on. Surprising that this can be done in seconds, so that a building the size of a church can be entered and secured amazingly quickly...apparently in the time it takes a Gygaxian character to get the quill out of his backpack.

Also, I don’t know about this particular monastery...but I’ve been in monasteries, and they’re not exactly built in a manner that it’s easy to get lost in them. There’s usually one big room or courtyard in the middle with a few hallways and some little cells for sleeping. Do I really have to map it to find my way out again?

It is a mystery that people at a trade show or moving around a fair ground aren’t constantly seen carefully measuring the distances between booths so they can map them correctly and thus never get lost. Or is it possibly that this whole, “My character with his 17 intelligence is incapable of keeping in his memory four rooms in order for the space of a half-hour.”

Base movement rate translates to 1 square per 1 factor in a turn (10 minute period).


One minute per ten feet, huh? That is an impressive 2 inches per second. Goddamn. A hero sure likes to feel the wind in his face.

In like manner, examination and mapping of a room or chamber will require about a 10 minute period.


Hell, let’s not forget that these are characters have spend literally Years and Hundreds of gold pieces on their training to go up one level (see gaining experience levels, page 86). This kind of return guarantees that these extraordinary heroes are the true fighting elite. It may take ten minutes, but DAMN! That room FEELS examined.

Thorough searching of contents and examination of walls, floor, and possibly the ceiling as well is also a lengthy process.


This is doubly true with “abandoned” areas. I know that as a child, whenever entering an old house, or examining a cave, I would be there eight, ten hours...it was never the old in-out for me!

How are doors and secret doors opened?


Let me think... Nope. Tell me how you open a door.

And what about locks and fastenings?


These abandoned places sure have good security.

It is vital that the DM know such details thoroughly, so that the mundane processes of dungeon adventuring can be carried out rapidly, clearly, and in a fashion which will be interesting and exciting.


Because, really, if you’re going to micro-manage your parties through the walking down unused roads, along faint pathways, next to bogs (possibly fens), through rooms and opening doors and unfastening things, you better bloody well know your stuff. You wouldn't want the party just going off and doing...whatever. That might get boring.

Say if you want that I’m being unfair. That this is meant to be representational. What I answer is that, if this is representational, then there’s no surprise that the game is dull, that the DMs are inflexible and obtuse, that the players are disappointed and unmotivated, that the game demands constant and never-ending re-invention (since the real, actual considerations of time and human ability are hammered into narrow frameworks which bear less examination than a ten-by-ten room) and that nothing ever changes. If Gygax and his cronies are representative of the highest level of play that we can hope to achieve—and they must be, since the good old days are given the degree of praise usually reserved for klingon operas—we can quit now. Because this is garbage. This manner of play and this methodology NEEDS improvement. It needs a better Representative than what’s out there.

8 comments:

Norman Harman said...

I'm not a fan of Gygaxian. But I'm much less a fan of wrong.

Light traffic is one or two people. Heavy traffic would be a company of mercenaries, a couple wagons, etc. So, it does indeed refer to the weight. Saying it is light and infrequent is not redundant.


"D&D as the only combat game in the universe NOT to use the logical, rational and practical hex map for movement and battle"

First, I'd argue that D&D is not a combat game. But that's more of an opinion than fact.

Second, that map is not for battle and only for abstract movement. If miniatures are used they'd be placed on map/table drawn to scale and movement would be measured like in real war games. Note how movement was always in " inches, that's why.

Thirdly, drawing buildings/dungeons with hexes sucks ass, D&D uses hexes for wilderness maps.

Fourthly Tactics the first board wargame and certainly a "combat game" used squares.


"crypt is under a Monastery or a church, even though every religious entity since the dawn of history has specifically not done so"

try rome or Vienna the bones within them were moved to the catacombs below the church. Burials directly in the catacombs occurred until 1783.

Most damning of all A crypt is a stone chamber or vault beneath the floor of a church. Try looking it up in a dictionary next time.


Diatribes against straw men should have fewer errors.

Alexis said...

Captain Detail has a point. That point is that I am not perfect.

I apologize for all my imperfections.

If anyone, however, has a comment addressing my point, I'd be interested.

JimLotFP said...

The point is that this post is crappy.

>>In essence, the manufacturers of the book prepared for you to be a boob, without being introduced to the game by an experienced DM, or without additional experienced players to interact with. I cannot remember such a circumstance occurring in relation to the game since...well, ever. I have never played a single campaign where someone did not already know what everything meant or what was going on.

Yet many people picked these books up at the local mainstream book or toy stores back then, fueled by curiosity and publicity/panic, with no prior connection to the hobby. This stuff needed to be in a D&D core product, for sure, and I dare say that any RPG available for general retail sale today that doesn't explain how to play a role-playing game is woefully incomplete.

You take "The First Dungeon Adventure" and pick apart writing designed to hold the hands of completely inexperienced players (and DMs) and then hold it up as the height of Gygaxian gaming?

If you're going to do this exercise, the "starter example" is not where you do it.

Page 86-94, "The Campaign," try this train of thought on those sections.

>>Assuming that there is a deserted monastery, and that the town knows about it and avoids it, why isn’t it being dealt with by the local constabulary?

Because it's not their jobs to go dungeoneering, especially if things from the monastery aren't threatening the town. And exploring places that people don't go is quite dangerous.

>>Hell, if the constabulary is too pussy to take on this Monastery, let’s go beat the crap out of the local constabulary and fuck the DM’s pre-planned adventure.

... which would benefit the PCs how, exactly? "Yay, we take on an organized band of local cops at maybe, maybe, a couple dozen XP apiece, while gaining possibly DOZENS MORE coins in the bargain!"

And you're being disingenuous with the word "abandoned"... as far as the shit-ignorant local townsfolk is concerned, it is abandoned, because no right-thinking people ever go there.

>>The leading member of the group (whether appointed or self-elected, it makes no difference)...

... and there's always the possibility that an experienced player might be amongst the newcomers and decide to show them the ropes. The point is, in the end it is completely irrelevant how a leader of the group is chosen (especially to the matter at hand), as long as someone can make decisions when the group is otherwise deadlocked about what to do.

Every group I've ever seen has a leader fulfilling such a role, even if nobody comes out and says/admits that there is a leader.

Re-read your Augury spell description. It doesn't do what you think it does.

>>It would be nice if there were other lairs around the party could investigate, but we’ve already been told three times, by both the DM and the self-appointed party leader, that we’re going into the Monastery. So maybe the big map will get used next week.

Again, such things wouldn't be helpful in getting the the example of play. Page 96, second column, in the third full paragraph, it talks about the immediate environs and how there should be lairs of other monsters in the area. You'd have to ignore this, and the entire preceding Campaign section, to take the example of play intended for beginners as entirely representative of AD&D play.

Holy shit man, did you read the first dozen pages of Mentzer's Basic and consider it garbage since obviously the cleric is going to die and the fighter will always lose to the evil wizard, as demonstrated by the representative example of D&D play?

>>And thus Gygax establishes D&D as the only combat game in the universe NOT to use the logical, rational and practical hex map for movement and battle.

There is a battle described in the example text... and hey, no miniatures or tactical map used. That 1 square = 10' must not be for that purpose then...

(and notice that the start of the major combat later on is the END of the example of play... that would be odd if D&D was just a "combat game."

>>I’m sure the various elite military and professional brigades would be very interested to know that, when attacking an inhabited installation, it is important to move irrationally slowly and to map out, down to the inch, every since detail.

They're not attacking the crypts, they are exploring them. This isn't a military operation.

>>One minute per ten feet, huh? That is an impressive 2 inches per second. Goddamn.

This is fairly odd. The original white box (and Holmes Basic) had movement rates double this... which is still slow, but perhaps explainable if adventurers really are mapping the area and counting out "this passage is 35' long exactly, this chamber is 20' x 30' exactly, with entrances at this, that, and the other points which are all exactly 10' wide."

Maybe that exact mapping is overkill (and characters using different techniques should perhaps be allowed to move faster, again earlier editions allow for this), but it's also a common (and Gygaxian) theme for their to be dungeon-based tricks which make mapping very valuable to finding hidden areas or even not getting lost... I know I wouldn't want to be in a structure the size of Castle Greyhawk without knowing where I am or the fastest way back to the entrance (less wandering monster checks that way when wanting to make a quick exit).

>>Because, really, if you’re going to micro-manage your parties through the walking down unused roads, along faint pathways, next to bogs (possibly fens), through rooms and opening doors and unfastening things, you better bloody well know your stuff.

Yeah, you better. Since D&D is an exploration (and treasure-finding!) game, and not all about combat, perhaps details (and focus on) the actual exploration might be in order... because exploring an area that has no color or detail *is* going to be damn boring, *every* time.

Mr. Nicoll said...

This post is a lame rant. Why don't you make your suggestions as to how a sample beginners dungeon crawl should be written?

Alexis said...

Mr. Nicoll,

Your assumptions are wrong. I don't write dungeon crawls. For the reasons given. They are lame also.

M. C. Planck said...

The problem, I think, is that you're using the wrong mythos.

D&D was taken from "The Dying Earth." In that book, the locals don't go to the monastery because it could be infested with any random senseless absurdity. Walking in there on holy days could turn you into a frog. Taking even a single brick from the place and using it to patch your house could result in a giant flaming iron golem appearing and destroying your entire village.

Vance's world was a rotting, festering madhouse of ancient technology and magic, inhabited by tiny groups of ignorant people barely capable of survival. Everyone was a wicked scammer; the concepts of "good" and "cooperation" was as futile looking for a hooker with a heart of gold in Times Square.

As Frank & K have said, D&D was modeled after the Iron Age, not the Medieval Age. Random city-states that don't even know the others exist, not continent-spanning aristocracies.

Played in that vein, Gygax et. al. make a lot more sense. But dang it, we DMs keep making empires instead of post-apocalyptic wastelands. :D

riprock said...

Norman has already mentioned that people were quite frequently bured within churches. For that matter, some ascetics walled themselves up inside churches while they were still alive and had food passed in through a tiny hole.

I disagree with Planck -- D&D is *not* a good match for Vance's Dying Earth. D&D is a crazy quilt of mismatched odds and ends. The Dying Earth fiction is in a different league. (The Dying Earth RPG, sadly, didn't impress me.)

As for dungeon crawling, blame Arneson a little. Arneson was a killer DM -- perhaps the very first -- and he made players sweat. So things like ten minutes to check for traps might have started with him.

Then again, Gygax may have had a lot to do with it. Due to idiotic lawyers, we won't know in this lifetime, because Gygax and Arneson would have been sued to death if they had talked about it.

riprock said...

"If anyone, however, has a comment addressing my point, I'd be interested."

Is your point that Gygax was not a very good writer? I agree.

Is your point that Gygax was assertive, self-contradictory, and illogical? I think most people would agree.

Is your point that Gygax wrote in cliches? I partly agree. Part of the problem is that Gygax got set in his ways around 1974, at which time this was not yet a cliche. By the time everyone else heard about it in 1980, it was fresh for two minutes, then it was a cliche. More problematic is that Gygax had trouble breaking out of his rut.