OD&D Basic DMing - The Advice of the Times

Iosue

Community Supporter
Hello, folks. What I'd like to do with this thread is basically a Let's Read of the advice explicitly aimed at new DMs back in the late 70s and early 80s. A lot of advice covered such topics as designing and stocking dungeons, the use of time, and retainers. I'm going to skip that, though, and focus on what this advice said about running the game, and the role of the DM. I'm going to look at the "Dungeon Mastering As A Fine Art" section of the Holmes Basic rules, the "How To Be An Effective Dungeon Master" sections of Mike Carr's B1 and Gary Gygax's B2, the "Dungeon Mastering As A Fine Art" sections of the Moldvay Basic rules and the Cook/Marsh Expert rules, and finally the Introduction of Mentzer's Basic Set Dungeon Masters Rulebook. Most of the time will be spent on B1, B2, Moldvay, and Cook/Marsh, as these are the places where the role of the DM is really explored in a concentrated manner.

The negative stereotype of the game during this era (possibly even a positive stereotype for some folks) is that the DM is adversarial and all-powerful, dungeons are highly lethal, and balance is not a consideration. I think there are certainly passages in the AD&D DMG that would lead people to this stereotype, and lead novice DMs to play this way. But I think it less true when it comes to D&D, sometimes to a profound degree. Speaking personally, such a stereotype doesn't match how I remember being "taught" to DM by materials such as these. The style of play encouraged by the D&D of this era is ostensibly meant to be emulated by D&D Next. I think these passages may prove good advice to folks intending to try playing this way.

To start with, much of Holmes' advice lies in the basic procedures of building a dungeon, with an example of play and a sample dungeon. Here are the parts most relevant to our subject:
J. Eric Holmes said:
Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety but those which a character might avoid or overcome with some quick thinking and a little luck. Falling into a relatively shallow pit would do damage only on a roll of 5 or 6 ( 1 - 6 hit points at most) but will delay the party while they get the trapped character out. Hidden rooms, movable walls, teleportation devices, illusion rooms, dead ends, etc., make interesting variations.
Since the game (and the dungeons) are limited only by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players, there is no end to the variation possible. Try to keep the dangers appropriate to the levels of the characters and the skill of your players. The possibility of "death" must be very real, but the players must be able to win through with luck and courage, or they will lose interest in the game and not come back.

Once the game begins, try to keep the action moving at a dramatic pace. If the going gets rough, the characters have the option of turning around and going back to the surface. If time runs out the characters can always be left at some appropriate spot within the dismal depths, time suspended, and the action taken up again another day. Dramatize the adventure as much as possible, describe the scenery, if any. Non-player characters should have appropriate speech, orcs are gruff and ungrammatical, knights talk in flowery phrases and always say "thou" rather than "you." When characters swear they call on the wrath of their appropriate deities, be it Zeus, Crom, Cthulhu or whatever. The dramatic talents of the Dungeon Master should be used to their fullest extent. It adds to the fun.

One player should map the dungeon from the Dungeon Master's descriptions as the game progresses. This is easiest done if he uses a piece of graph paper marked North, East, South, West with the entrance to the dungeon level drawn in near the center. One of the players should keep a "Chronicle" of the monsters killed, treasure obtained, etc. Another should act as "caller" and announce to the Dungeon Master what action the group is taking. Both mapper and caller must be in the front rank of the party. If the adventurers have a leader, the caller would logically be that player.

...

Obviously, the success of an expedition depends on the Dungeon Master and his creation, the dungeon. Many gamesters start with a trip across country to get to the entrance to the dungeon — a trip apt to be punctuated by attacks by brigands or wandering monsters or marked by strange and unusual encounters. The party then enters the underworld, tries to capture the maximum treasure with the minimal risk and escape alive. The Dungeon Master should have all this completely mapped out, hit points and attack die rolls calculated and recorded, so that the game will proceed most rapidly at the exciting moments when the enemy is encountered. Do not hesitate to have lawful or helpful characters chance by at times, your adventurers may need a little help!

The imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons obviously lies not too far from the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's great Lord of the Rings trilogy. The D & D universe also impinges on the fantasy worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Gardner F. Fox, classical mythology and any other source of inspiration the Dungeon Master wants to use.

A final word to the Dungeon Master from the authors. These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll — roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!
This advice is pretty succinct, but does touch on some elements that will come up time and again as we look at the other sources. First is an emphasis on game speed. While not specifically mentioned here, one purpose of the Caller is to streamline party decision making, so that the game keeps moving. Next is an emphasis on balance. Traps should not be auto-kill. The dangers of the dungeon should appropriate to the level of the characters. Finally is an emphasis on DM autonomy from the rules. Part of this goes back to the emphasis on game speed: something comes up you're not sure about, just improvise. Make up a percentage chance and roll! Part of it also goes to matching the game to the desires and expectations of the table.

B1 and Moldvay especially elaborate on these ideas, and some advice that seems adversarial and/or autocratic, like "The DM is the Boss!", has to be read in this context.

Next Time: Mike Carr on Basic DMing...
 
Along the way, D&D seems to have mostly lost the idea of "DM as referee" which is much more common in the earliest products.

Today, it's much more "DM as story collaborator" -- where the DM sets up and tells a story with the players, versus the original where the DM created a world/setting/dungeon to be interacted with and refereed interaction in an unbiased manner, with "story" emerging only after the interaction has taken place.

I much prefer the referee approach, but then I'm a bit of a grognard.
 

Hussar

Legend
B1 and Moldvay especially elaborate on these ideas, and some advice that seems adversarial and/or autocratic, like "The DM is the Boss!", has to be read in this context.
Sure, context is important. But, by the same token, the idea that "the DM is the Boss!" doesn't come from thin air either. Looking at the idea that you should roll the dice and see what happens is an example (either in the Moldvay Basic or Expert, I forget which) about a PC jumping into a chasm to escape. The idea is almost certain death. The advice is, basically, rig the numbers to reflect that - something like a 99% chance of instantly dying but a 1% chance of surviving.

There is very little advice on whether or not that will make the game better. Or any other approaches that could be taken.
 

Iosue

Community Supporter
Sure, context is important. But, by the same token, the idea that "the DM is the Boss!" doesn't come from thin air either. Looking at the idea that you should roll the dice and see what happens is an example (either in the Moldvay Basic or Expert, I forget which) about a PC jumping into a chasm to escape. The idea is almost certain death. The advice is, basically, rig the numbers to reflect that - something like a 99% chance of instantly dying but a 1% chance of surviving.

There is very little advice on whether or not that will make the game better. Or any other approaches that could be taken.
That's in the Moldvay advice, which I'll cover in more detail later. I think your take is a common one, but in actuality the "DM is the Boss" and section and the example with the chasm are in two different sections, addressing two different things. The "DM is the Boss" section is referring to disputes at the table, and refers to the DM being the final decision maker (and is far more nuanced than the heading suggests). The chasm example is actually in favor of being open to ideas and always allowing a chance. It just approaches the issue from a different direction. I believe Moldvay's intent with his example was, "Even such situations where you think a PC's action will result in certain death, always allow a chance." So rather than "rig the numbers to reflect almost certain death", the idea is "even if the situation is one of certain death, rig the numbers so that there's a chance of success." I do agree, though, that there's a missed opportunity, and the example would be more effective with even slightly higher numbers: say, 10% instead of 2%.

Definitely, I think the advice I'll be presenting in this thread reflects but one approach. The equivalent advice in 4e's DMG (which I greatly admire), or in a more story-oriented game like Burning Wheel would be something to the effect of, "By suggesting this brash action, the player has given you an opportunity to create new and interesting situations, and you should take advantage of it in your adjudication. Say 'yes, and' or 'yes, but'." The advice in these sources is more along the lines of, "Create the parameters of the game, and as much as possible leave everything else to player choice. Even if the player suggests something that's certain suicide, set a chance of success, tell the player and ask, 'Do you want to do this?'"
 

Iosue

Community Supporter
Moving on to Mike Carr's advice from B1 In Search of the Unknown:
Mike Carr said:
On How to be an Effective Dungeon MasterThe Dungeon Master, as referee, is the pivotal figure in any DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game. Accordingly, the DM's ability and expertise—as well as fairness—will be important factors in whether or not the game will be enjoyable for all of the participants.

The D&D game is a role-playing game, and is unlike traditional games which have a firm basis of regulated activity and repetitious action. A D&D adventure is free-flowing, and often goes in unknown and unpredictable directions—and that is precisely the reason it is so different and challenging. The Dungeon Master is best described as the moderator of the action, for the DM oversees the whole process, keeps the game moving, resolves the action based upon events occurring and player choices made, and monitors the actions and events outside the player group (i.e., handles monsters encountered, determines the actions of non-player characters encountered, etc.). The DM's responsibilities are considerable, but his or her foremost concern should be to provide an enjoyable game which is challenging to the players. This means that risk should be balanced with reward and that game situations are neither too "easy" nor too deadly. Above all, the DM must be fair, reasonable (without giving in to the unreasonable demands of the players), and worthy of the respect of all the participants.
In contrast to the popular stereotype, and much of Gygax's jocular advice in the 1e DMG, here in both of the opening paragraphs Carr stresses the advice [MENTION=22424]delericho[/MENTION] remembers: be fair. This was an important idea to get across in the early years of the game, as many people were moving from games where the rules enforced fairness to a game where much of in-game resolution was handled by a DM. Again also we see the concept of "balance", meaning both balanced challenges and balanced risk vs reward. But also here we see appeals that the DM be reasonable, and most interestingly, and perhaps not mentioned again in D&D DM advice, that the DM be "worthy of respect". This contrast nicely with Carr's comments on the DM being "the final arbiter" that come later. The DM makes the final decision, but to do that they require the respect of their players, which they must earn. This is dipping into Social Contract territory, years before that was popular concept.

Beginning Dungeon Masters who are not familiar with the game often ask the most common first question, "Exactly how do you referee the game?" The answer is that there is no single best way—different DM's have different styles, just as individual players do. However, there are certain guidelines which are important to follow...

First, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is a game based on player interaction and player choice. The game generally follows the course of the player's actions—if not always their plans! As moderator, you present an ever-changing situation as it occurs (sort of like an unfolding story, or even a movie, if you like to think in those terms), and the players respond pretty much as they desire. As the game goes on, you are presenting them with a hundred different opportunities and choices—exactly how the game goes will depend upon their response to those opportunities and choices. For instance, if players decide to walk down a corridor and find a dead end with three doors, they have a number of choices—simply turn around and ignore the doors, listen at one or more before proceeding elsewhere, try to open one or more (either normally, by forcing them, or even by simply bashing them in), or whatever. You describe the situation, then await their decision as to a course of action. Of course, some decisions will be more difficult, or quick, or crucial to survival—and as always, imagination and resourcefulness, as well as quick thinking, will usually be rewarded.
Here Carr against stresses the importance of player choice: he calls it the basis of the game. "You describe the situation, then await their decision as to a course of action." This is a fundamental part of DMing dungeoncrawls and sandboxes, yet it's easily forgotten. In my last session, I caught myself more than once making suggestions to my players of actions they might take.

Second, a good DM remains "above the battle" and does not attempt to influence player actions or channel the activity in a particular direction. The Dungeon Master should do everything possible to assist players in their quest without actually providing important information unless the players themselves discover it or put the pieces of a puzzling problem together through deduction or questioning, or a combination of the two. A large part of the game consists of player questions, many of which are, "What do we see?" Your job as gamemaster is to answer those questions without giving too much away. You need not hint to players any information that they do not ask for on their own, except in unusual instances. Allow them to ask the questions, and allow them to make the choices.

In the same vein, as Dungeon Master you will enjoy watching players wrestle with the problems you present them with. Although you may set up situations to challenge them, you must understand that you are not their adversary, nor are you necessarily out to "defeat" them. You will enjoy moderating a well-played game where players respond to the challenges encountered much more than one where the adventurers foolishly meet their demise in quick time. However, if your players abandon caution or make stupid mistakes, let them pay the price—but be fair. In many cases, a danger due to lack of caution can be overcome, or a mistake in judgment countered by quick thinking and resourcefulness, but let your players do the thinking and the doing.
To drive the point home he again notes that the DM is not against the players, and yet another appeal to fairness. In fact, he makes what I think is a tremendous statement: "The DM should do everything possible to assist players in their quest." This is after saying the player choice was important and that DMs should remain above the battle. The upshot is, you don't try to influence player action. You don't give away all the information. But when they make a decision, you support it full bore. What Carr means by supporting the players in their quest is that there must be counterbalance to the DM's position as creator of the dungeon and other challenges, and runner of the monsters and other NPCs. A common thing said about sandbox DM and/or older playstyles is that the PCs are not as important as the world. But Carr seems to be suggesting that to be fair, the DM provide the players with support. I don't believe he's saying that a game should be PC-centric, per se. Rather, because part of the DM's job is to act in opposition to the players, in order to be fair it's also part of his job to be for players.

The negative image of a TSR-D&D DM is one who removes player agency. The players must play "mother-may-I" and get the DM's permission to do anything. But Carr says "Allow them to ask questions, and allow them to make the choices" and "Let your players do the thinking and the doing." This all about freely giving agency to the players.

As Dungeon Master, you are the game moderator. This means you set the tempo of the game and are responsible for keeping it moving. Above all, you remain in control of the situation, although with reasonable players your game should always be in control. If players are unusually slow or dilly-dally unnecessarily, remind them that time is wasting. If they persist, allow additional chances for wandering monsters to appear—or at least start rolling the dice to make the players think that you are doing so. If players are argumentative with each other, remind them their noise also serves to attract unwelcome monsters; if they persist, show them that this is true.
Again we come to the issue of time, and keeping the game moving. At first glance, this almost seems to recommend punishing players in game for not playing at the tempo the game has set. But closer examination reveals Carr actually only recommending in-game consequences as a last resort. First the DM reminds the players that time is wasting, then they fake wandering monster rolls as a motivator. If players argue, the DM reminds players that wandering monsters may come. Only if the problem persists does it create in-game consequences. Here Carr is advocating communication with the players, not DM unilateralism.

Lastly, it is important to remember that the Dungeon Master is the final arbiter in his or her game. If players disagree with you, hear them out and reasonably consider their complaint. However, you are the final judge—and they should understand that, as well as the fact that not everything will go their
way, or as they expect. Be fair, but be firm. With human nature as it is, players will undoubtedly attempt to try to talk you into (or out of) all sorts of things; part of the fun of being a DM is this verbal interplay. But in the end, what you say is what goes.
Here we have the DM as "final arbiter". But again, he first recommends hearing players out and reasonably considering their arguments. And yet another appeal to be fair. He notes that argument is human nature, and what's more, part of the fun. The part about players understanding that the DM is the final judge, and not everything will go as they wish or expect, goes back to the DM being "worthy of respect".

IMO, if this was aimed at experienced DMs, I don't the "final arbiter" or "be firm" stuff is at all needed. But looking at it from the point of view of a newbie DM, I think it helps them feel in control of the situation. Being a first time DM can be intimidating. Here Carr seems to say, "If an issue comes up, discuss it reasonably, communicate with your group, then make a decision and feel confident in it." Since BD&D loads much of its resolution on the DM, group discussion and mutual respect is vital to make sure everyone's on the same page and that DM judgments not in favor of the characters are accepted without decreasing the fun.
 
Next is an emphasis on balance. Traps should not be auto-kill. The dangers of the dungeon should appropriate to the level of the characters. QUOTE]

It is important to add that advice mentions the skill of the players as well as the level of characters being played. Early adventures were designed for certain character level ranges that were intended to be matched with players of commensurate skill. A group of inexperienced players didn't have the same chance of success as a more seasoned group even if both groups used the same pregenerated characters.
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=6680772]Iosue[/MENTION], I've XPed you too recently to do so again - thanks for the thread!

The stuff you call out on social contract is interesting and prescient. But you mightn't be surprised that the bit I find the most interesting is Carr's reference to "an ever-changing situation". The idea of the GM as arbitrator of a situation which it is the players' responsibility to engage has a lot in common with the standard "indie" version of RPGing.

From that point of view, here's my take on the repeated insistence on being fair:

In a modern "indie" game, fairness is acheived mostly via a fair and functional distribution of (i) responsibilities, and (ii) metagame resources, within a mutually known action resolution system. The GM frames the situation; the players engage it via their PCs; and when the action resolution mechanics are invoked, both sides have their known and defined resources that they bring to bear.

In this early D&D, the responisbilities are pretty clearly defined, but the action resolution is very different. The fundamental orientation is, I think, simulationist rather than metagame (eg the chance of success is determined based on "what makes sense within the fiction", not "what would make for satisfying fiction"). So the action resolution is not known in advance, and the players and GM don't have pre-allocated bundles of metagame resources.

The GM therefore has a clear conflict of interest - s/he has to frame situations that will challenge the players (via challenging the PCs); but s/he also has to settle the action resolution techniques that will resolve those situations! Hence the importance of being fair. Of course a modern "indie" GM should be fair too, but for the reasons I tried to explain the idea of fairness isn't so important to the role, because the set up is intended to avoid the conflict-of-interest that I think is present in this early D&D.

I don't know if you have access to British materials, but Lewis Pulsipher had interesting GM advice articles in early White Dwarf magazines. His solution to the conflict of interest problem is for the GM to design every aspect of the dungeon in advance, and to make up nothing on the fly. So the GM frames the challenging situations independently of having to resolve them; and then when the GM has to make calls during action resolution, the actual content of the situation, and the way it unfolds, should be a matter of complete indifference.

My own view is that, while this solution can work well for a certain type of "location-based" adventure, as soon as it is adapted to more story-oriented goals it has an inherent tendency towards the railroad - because a non-railroaded story-style adventure precludes the GM working out the content of the situations in advance. (This is part of my own pet theory as to why, between the mid-80s and the decline of "early D&D", and the mid-to-late 90s and the emergence of "modern indie RPGs", we have a long trough of RPGs-as-railroads.)

Anyway, excellent thread. Once we're done with the GMing "style" advice can we look at the dungeon-building/scenario-design aspects? I think they're very interesting too.
 
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Iosue

Community Supporter
The stuff you call out on social contract is interesting and prescient. But you mightn't be surprised that the bit I find the most interesting is Carr's reference to "an ever-changing situation". The idea of the GM as arbitrator of a situation which it is the players' responsibility to engage has a lot in common with the standard "indie" version of RPGing.
Actually, a friend of mine visiting from the States just gave me a copy of Burning Wheel, which has provided quite an interesting perspective to contrast, as well as more context for your posts.

From that point of view, here's my take on the repeated insistence on being fair:

In a modern "indie" game, fairness is acheived mostly via a fair and functional distribution of (i) responsibilities, and (ii) metagame resources, within a mutually known action resolution system. The GM frames the situation; the players engage it via their PCs; and when the action resolution mechanics are invoked, both sides have their known and defined resources that they bring to bear.

In this early D&D, the responisbilities are pretty clearly defined, but the action resolution is very different. The fundamental orientation is, I think, simulationist rather than metagame (eg the chance of success is determined based on "what makes sense within the fiction", not "what would make for satisfying fiction"). So the action resolution is not known in advance, and the players and GM don't have pre-allocated bundles of metagame resources.
I agree in many respects, although I think these are muddy waters, especially after seeing this interview with Rob Kuntz, and his comments on open vs. closed systems. I think the early concept of D&D, in a sense of a prototypical RPG, was intentionally unmoored, so that it could easily be drifted towards "success based on DM interpretation of what makes sense within the fiction" or "success based on what would make for satisfying fiction". I think this aspect of the game was somewhat diminished by the introduction of AD&D, but remains at least partially present in the Basic versions of the game, and in Mike Carr's presentation of it. The crux is, the direction the game will take is pretty much all on the DM's shoulders (in consultation with the players, as Carr suggests). Just about every roll is subject to modification by the DM. The popular perception of this is indeed simulationist: what the DM decides as appropriate to the fiction. But I think Carr's presentation of the game is more open-ended. He makes no claims to "logic" or "making sense", but only to "the appropriate modifiers". Indeed, one conceivable, and perhaps not uncommon, form of the game is that the DM makes all the rolls, and can even dispense with them altogether. In Holmes, for example, players make to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and saving throws. But in Moldvay, the DM makes damage rolls. And in both, virtually every other roll is made by the DM. And in any case, even if players make rolls, they do so blind, not knowing how much they need to hit, or how many HP the monster has. (The exception is of course Saving Throws, which have generally binary pass/fail conditions.) This gets into the early game's blase attitude towards fudging. One would think that if the game's raison d'etre were pure gamist challenge, or fictional simulation, fudging would be discouraged. On the contrary, though, DM's are encouraged to fake rolls, freely modify rolls, and even ignore them. I think the subtext of this is "feel free as DM to adjudicate success based on what makes the most satisfying fiction, if that's what your table wants". But it's also "adjudicate based what seems logical for the world and setting, if that's what you want," as well as "adjudicate based on what makes for the best challenge, if that what you want."

Where I think your observations are most astute is that indie games handle this resolution through clear mechanics explicitly designed to support an intended playstyle or playstyles in a fair way. But in early D&D, it's all on the DM. The DM is the game, the DM is the resolution system. The rules and mechanics, such as they are, are merely to support the DM, rather than operate as a medium to facilitate play. Thus, while indie games disperse the metagame to all participants through metagame resources, the point of early D&D was that the DM took on virtually all of the metagame, so that the players need only concern themselves with the actions of their characters, in-fiction. Hence, another aspect of early D&D that can be seen in all these early materials is a veeeerrrrry fuzzy distinction between IC and OOC. Whereas my impression, and by all means correct me if I'm mistaken, the distinction is quite distinct in indie games.

If I may borrow a metaphor from Buddhism, IMO these are merely different paths to the top of the same mountain.

The GM therefore has a clear conflict of interest - s/he has to frame situations that will challenge the players (via challenging the PCs); but s/he also has to settle the action resolution techniques that will resolve those situations! Hence the importance of being fair. Of course a modern "indie" GM should be fair too, but for the reasons I tried to explain the idea of fairness isn't so important to the role, because the set up is intended to avoid the conflict-of-interest that I think is present in this early D&D.
Yes, exactly. This exactly my take, as well. Only I get the feeling this conflict of interest was seen as a feature, not a bug. It was, and is, however, a pit-trap for new DMs; hence Carr's repeated injunctions to be fair, and the remarkable admonition to be "worthy of respect".

I don't know if you have access to British materials, but Lewis Pulsipher had interesting GM advice articles in early White Dwarf magazines. His solution to the conflict of interest problem is for the GM to design every aspect of the dungeon in advance, and to make up nothing on the fly. So the GM frames the challenging situations independently of having to resolve them; and then when the GM has to make calls during action resolution, the actual content of the situation, and the way it unfolds, should be a matter of complete indifference.

My own view is that, while this solution can work well for a certain type of "location-based" adventure, as soon as it is adapted to more story-oriented goals it has an inherent tendency towards the railroad - because a non-railroaded story-style adventure precludes the GM working out the content of the situations in advance. (This is part of my own pet theory as to why, between the mid-80s and the decline of "early D&D", and the mid-to-late 90s and the emergence of "modern indie RPGs", we have a long trough of RPGs-as-railroads.)
I can see where Pulsipher is coming from, and I think I can relate through my own experiences running B/X. Also, you can see the seeds of this idea in the various sources of Basic advice. But I also like this interview with Tavis Allison, where he expounds on the early style of play particularly encouraged by the Judges Guild materials: that of copious use of random tables and random encounters. Again, we have a side of D&D that doesn't fall into a neat category of challenges, nor necessarily into simulationism, but another metagame tool through which the DM may bring about a game focused on satisfying fiction. And I see that in these materials as well. Like I said, early D&D is really unmoored, and is just naturally prone to drifting.

IMO, the de-emphasis of random tables in 2e (the core game had no random tables; merely guidance for making your own. A prospect to which a great many people said, "No thanks. Too much hassle.") is one of the reasons that you see the RPGs-as-railroads effect. Ideally, random encounters -- played as random encounters, not random battles -- blow up the railroad tracks, because they surprise the DM, as well, and create opportunities for situations outside of what the DM has prepared. Their (essential) absence deprived DMs of a valuable metagame tool. But I think too often they were seen as random combats at worst, and aids for underprepared DMs winging it in sandboxes at best.

Anyway, excellent thread. Once we're done with the GMing "style" advice can we look at the dungeon-building/scenario-design aspects? I think they're very interesting too.
Sure!
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=6680772]Iosue[/MENTION], thanks for the very interesting reply.

When I tried to run early D&D I was not very good at it! Whereas I think I'm not too bad at (what I think of as) a more "modern" style.

How have you found running D&D in the old style (which I gather you have been doing)?
 

Iosue

Community Supporter
@Iosue, thanks for the very interesting reply.

When I tried to run early D&D I was not very good at it! Whereas I think I'm not too bad at (what I think of as) a more "modern" style.

How have you found running D&D in the old style (which I gather you have been doing)?
I can't really say how good I may or may not be. My players seem to have fun. There is some 4e influence; we use minis, 4e dungeon tiles, and Monster Vault tokens, the majority of my players are regular 4e players, and I myself only felt comfortable running B/X with minis after experience with 4e. Which is not to say we use 4e minis rules. Merely that I don't know if we are approaching the game quite as someone would in the 70s.

Also, earlier I mentioned drift. When I played B/X back in the day, we drifted it to high fantasy heroic adventure. This current group, though, has 4e well-designed to handle that particular area. So I'm trying to keep largely to the "default" experience, focusing on somewhat suspenseful exploration in the dark. Also, I'm rusty as all hell as a DM. To this end, Pulsipher's idea of planning out the whole dungeon has served me well. OTOH, since B/X's method of dungeon stocking relies on random tables, there's this element of surprise, out of my control, as well. OK, now the game tells me there are bandits in this area of the dungeon. Oh, and there are traders over here! Maybe the bandits chased the traders? And how will the PCs interact with either party? I didn't really have to plan ahead there. The bandits were suspicious; the traders were frightened. But otherwise it depended very much on the reaction roll.

I think, as long as a group is interested in exploration, this works very effectively, and DMing feels quite easy. A pre-stocked, non-linear dungeon, random encounters, and random reaction and morale rules. I sit back and let the players play, as it were. The random aspects stimulate my imagination while reducing mental overhead. The randomness also goes a long way to resolving the conflict of interest. In my experience, it creates the independence Pulsipher talks about, while at the same time providing for surprises and new opportunities. I get a 1 on a Wandering Monster check. I roll to see what it is. I roll to check distance and direction. When the party and monster meet, I roll for surprise. If they talk I roll reaction. If they fight, I roll morale. In essence, I strive to treat the monsters/NPCs as Carr recommends for the players: allow them to make the decision. It's just that their decision making is decided by the dice, rather than primarily what I think is the personality of the NPC.

The hardest thing is to sit back and let it all happen, though. You want to make suggestions. You want to fix their map. You want to mitigate the player's mistakes. You want to nudge players towards a particular room you're sure they'll enjoy. I'm still working my way through that. Reading Mike Carr's B1 helps me get into the mindset.
 

pemerton

Legend
I strive to treat the monsters/NPCs as Carr recommends for the players: allow them to make the decision. It's just that their decision making is decided by the dice, rather than primarily what I think is the personality of the NPC.
This is very interesting. Do you read the reaction dice back into the NPC's personality - ie suppose the dice come up 6+6 = very friendly, do you infer from that something about the personality of the NPC (even if it's, say, an orc or a troll)? If so, that would be an interesting example of fortune in the middle, and quite different from more standard presentations today of free-formed social interaction.

I know [MENTION=386]LostSoul[/MENTION] uses B/X-style reaction dice, so I'm going to see if he'll drop into the thread.

The hardest thing is to sit back and let it all happen, though. You want to make suggestions. You want to fix their map. You want to mitigate the player's mistakes. You want to nudge players towards a particular room you're sure they'll enjoy. I'm still working my way through that.
I would be hopeless at that! I'm always chatting to my players, nudging them one way or another, reminding of what's at stake, sometimes playing one off against the other. It's a long time since I've just sat and watched in a neutral fashion.
 

LostSoul

Visitor
In essence, I strive to treat the monsters/NPCs as Carr recommends for the players: allow them to make the decision. It's just that their decision making is decided by the dice, rather than primarily what I think is the personality of the NPC.
That's pretty much how I play these days.

This is very interesting. Do you read the reaction dice back into the NPC's personality - ie suppose the dice come up 6+6 = very friendly, do you infer from that something about the personality of the NPC (even if it's, say, an orc or a troll)? If so, that would be an interesting example of fortune in the middle, and quite different from more standard presentations today of free-formed social interaction.
I would. It might even be that the troll with a very positive reaction is a polymorphed elf who has been looking for someone to remove the curse. Or anything like that.

On randomness in the game: [sblock]In my last game the PC ranger went hunting. He got a "stunning success". (I have been working on my wilderness/hexploration rules lately so I let the player pick some other kind of foraging result - as if she had taken two actions. She picked the "gemstone" result; I rolled on the treasure parcel table and got something worth 25 GP.)

Anyway, I said that he found a rabbit warren and had time to grab a bunch of rabbits or pick up the gem. Then I realized that was stupid - where's the gem going to go? - so I said that a rabbit was wearing a piece of jewellery. So he could catch that one or a bunch of the other ones.

She (the player) thought there must have been something special about that rabbit, so her PC tried talking to it. I made another random roll and it indicated that yes, he could talk. (Just a d6; I use a 1 is bad and 6 is good ad-hoc system. I rolled a 6.) He turned out to be the prince of rabbits in the area defined by the overland map.

Then I made a reaction roll ("uncertain, cautious and wary" was the result) and we social skill challenged it out; the ranger vowed to become a vegetarian, to be a protector of rabbits, and to drive out the local gnoll presence that was killing their warren. In exchange the ranger would be marked as a friend to all rabbits, and the prince would give him the ability to speak with rabbits. Which he did.[/sblock]
 

Iosue

Community Supporter
This is very interesting. Do you read the reaction dice back into the NPC's personality - ie suppose the dice come up 6+6 = very friendly, do you infer from that something about the personality of the NPC (even if it's, say, an orc or a troll)? If so, that would be an interesting example of fortune in the middle, and quite different from more standard presentations today of free-formed social interaction.
It's something of an emergent process, not something I have clearly worked out, but yes. To use something of a cliche just as an example, if the PCs took a very aggressive posture, and the reaction roll came up positive, I might have the orc lower his sword, laugh, and say, "You guys got spunk! I like that!" Or alternatively, the positive result might be that the orc says, "Whoa! You guys mean business. I give!" I might have a vague idea what each of the reaction results will be, or I may just go with whatever occurs to me in the moment. The result may indicate merely a localized behavior in context, or it may suggest a fuller personality trait. In a sense, it's not unlike random chargen, where I "meet" the character through ability score rolls. Each reaction roll tells me more about the NPC, and they get more and more fleshed out with each interaction, to lesser and greater degrees.

I know @LostSoul uses B/X-style reaction dice, so I'm going to see if he'll drop into the thread.
Given his contribution, I'd say, "Good call." :)

I would be hopeless at that! I'm always chatting to my players, nudging them one way or another, reminding of what's at stake, sometimes playing one off against the other. It's a long time since I've just sat and watched in a neutral fashion.
It can certainly be a challenge. Which is why I think Mike Carr's B1 is extremely underrated, and I think it's a shame that it was quickly replaced with B2. B2 is great, and it has some good advice in there, too. But Carr's clear statement, "First, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is a game based on player interaction and player choice" is something that I think should have been in every subsequent book. Because given the metagame powers virtually exclusive to the DM, the temptations to railroad, or to be an antagonistic DM, can be so strong. The DM's advice needed to say, "Look, you're very important to the game, you'll have a lot to do, and the game will be fun. But it's not about you."

On randomness in the game: [sblock]In my last game the PC ranger went hunting. He got a "stunning success". (I have been working on my wilderness/hexploration rules lately so I let the player pick some other kind of foraging result - as if she had taken two actions. She picked the "gemstone" result; I rolled on the treasure parcel table and got something worth 25 GP.)

Anyway, I said that he found a rabbit warren and had time to grab a bunch of rabbits or pick up the gem. Then I realized that was stupid - where's the gem going to go? - so I said that a rabbit was wearing a piece of jewellery. So he could catch that one or a bunch of the other ones.

She (the player) thought there must have been something special about that rabbit, so her PC tried talking to it. I made another random roll and it indicated that yes, he could talk. (Just a d6; I use a 1 is bad and 6 is good ad-hoc system. I rolled a 6.) He turned out to be the prince of rabbits in the area defined by the overland map.

Then I made a reaction roll ("uncertain, cautious and wary" was the result) and we social skill challenged it out; the ranger vowed to become a vegetarian, to be a protector of rabbits, and to drive out the local gnoll presence that was killing their warren. In exchange the ranger would be marked as a friend to all rabbits, and the prince would give him the ability to speak with rabbits. Which he did.[/sblock]
This is very awesome, and is what I'm striving for, but haven't quite reached.
 

pemerton

Legend
given the metagame powers virtually exclusive to the DM, the temptations to railroad, or to be an antagonistic DM, can be so strong.
This is what I like the metagame action resolution frameworks of "modern" games for. They let me play my antagonists, and kibbitz with the players, without falling into railroading or (unhealthy) antagonism. They provide a brake, if you like, which means I don't have to fight against myself (the conflict-of-interest problem).

Carr's clear statement, "First, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is a game based on player interaction and player choice" is something that I think should have been in every subsequent book.

<snip>

The DM's advice needed to say, "Look, you're very important to the game, you'll have a lot to do, and the game will be fun. But it's not about you."
I think this is good advice not ony for an early-D&D sort of game, but a "modern" game too.

The discussion of randomness is giving me a picture of two (broadly described) "architectures":

  • Classic D&D: the GM deals with the conflict of interest via a mixture of pre-prep and randomness for creating story content, thus creating a space in which player decisions and responses matter even though the players don't have much metagame control;

  • "Modern" RPGing: the GM deals with the conflict of interest by pushing hard against the players in creating and adjudicating story content - ie pretty much the opposite of pre-prep and randomness - but finely tuned metagame mechanics ensure that player decisions and responses matter even though the GM is pushing hard against them in introducing the story content.

Does that make any sense? Am I being fair to both approaches? Are there different implications for the importance of fictional positioning in resolution (I think it's generally regarded as a potential casualty of the "modern" approach)?

This is very awesome, and is what I'm striving for, but haven't quite reached.
Agreed. Nice example, [MENTION=386]LostSoul[/MENTION].
 

LostSoul

Visitor
This is very awesome, and is what I'm striving for, but haven't quite reached.
I think what I do is to try to stay aware of my own thoughts while DMing and use specific randomness mechanics when certain thoughts pop up in my head. Usually the trigger is "I have no idea" in response to something the player asks or the PC does.

The rabbit example was one of those "I have no idea" times; can it talk, and more to the point, why is it wearing a piece of jewellery? I didn't know, so I reached for my "game world randomizer" - the d6, with 1 being bad for the PCs and 6 being good. I was thinking the range of possible outcomes were that it was a horrible monster, the pet of someone good or bad, just a strange coincidence, or yeah, it can actually talk.

"Did they remember to bolt the trap door?" "Is there a stone on the ground in reach?" "Is there a hot poker in the fire?" When detailed questions about the game world come up and I think to myself, "I don't know," I reach for the d6. (If I do know, then I don't.)

Reaction rolls and social skill checks trigger off of that "I don't know" a lot. When I roll a wandering monster, I don't know how they are going to react. That's the most obvious example. When the PCs start talking, and they say something, and I don't know how the NPC is going to react to what's just been said, then I call for a social skill check.

I might do the same for physical actions - "I don't know if this will succeed" - but I don't really think about it.
 

Iosue

Community Supporter
This is what I like the metagame action resolution frameworks of "modern" games for. They let me play my antagonists, and kibbitz with the players, without falling into railroading or (unhealthy) antagonism. They provide a brake, if you like, which means I don't have to fight against myself (the conflict-of-interest problem).
Yup. I think the Classic D&D style* can perhaps put more responsibility on a DM than they are comfortable with, and/or provide less mechanical control than some players would like. Thus, the "modern" system works for them, as the responsibility and the control is evenly spread. OTOH, the Classic D&D style allows players to engage the game less through the mechanics, and more from an "in-character" stance.

I think this is good advice not ony for an early-D&D sort of game, but a "modern" game too.

The discussion of randomness is giving me a picture of two (broadly described) "architectures":

  • Classic D&D: the GM deals with the conflict of interest via a mixture of pre-prep and randomness for creating story content, thus creating a space in which player decisions and responses matter even though the players don't have much metagame control;
  • "Modern" RPGing: the GM deals with the conflict of interest by pushing hard against the players in creating and adjudicating story content - ie pretty much the opposite of pre-prep and randomness - but finely tuned metagame mechanics ensure that player decisions and responses matter even though the GM is pushing hard against them in introducing the story content.

Does that make any sense? Am I being fair to both approaches? Are there different implications for the importance of fictional positioning in resolution (I think it's generally regarded as a potential casualty of the "modern" approach)?
I think those are eminently fair and sensible takes. As far as fictional positioning, I think it becomes the players' primary entry to resolution in virtually everything in Classic D&D, aside from combat, and even then it can play a major role. One might say that loading most meta-game onto the DM is to allow players smooth access to fictional positioning. I think we can expand on this as we get further in the other materials, but one can see this in frequent admonitions to not get involved in rules discussions; the players are encouraged to engage the game through the fiction, and leave virtually all mechanics to the DM. Even such things as spells, turning undead, and thieves skills, while ostensibly mechanical ins for engaging the game, resolution of such resources are almost entirely DM-side.

*Classic D&D in this case (and pretty much all throughout this thread) refers to the game as described and suggested by the materials we're looking at. It should go without saying that not everyone played this way, even way back in the 70s.
 

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