The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) game is a game of the imagination. It's this characteristic more than any other that sets AD&D apart from chess, checkers, charades, poker, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Space Invaders, and just about any other game that comes to mind. All of these other games are defined by their rules-pass "Go" to collect $200, a flush beats a straight, and so forth. The AD&D game, on the other hand, doesn't really have any rules. The Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master Guide aren't full of rules in the conventional sense-they're more like suggestions. AD&D players are expected to take these suggestions and use them to create their own games ideally suited to their own tastes.
As a result, each AD&D session can be a unique and rewarding experience. It isn't just a game; it's an educational experience, a social event, and an outlet for creative energy. Because there are no absolute rules to fall back on, however, the AD&D game is only as much fun as the players can make it. A game of the imagination isn't very interesting unless the players are inventive. As both referee and guardian of the game world, much of this creative burden rests squarely on the shoulders of the Dungeon Master (DM). Good DMing is the key to a rewarding AD&D campaign. A good DM can make the most mundane adventures come to life, while all the rulebooks and dice in the world can't save the ailing campaign of a poor DM.
A good DM is a writer, actor, game designer, storyteller, and referee all rolled into one. Taking on all these roles is not easy; effective DMing is more art than science. Beginning with this issue, Dragon Magazine devotes a few pages each month to exploring the art of Dungeoncraft. In the months ahead, you'll have an opportunity to peek behind the scenes as I prepare and run a complete AD&D campaign. Along the way, I'll discuss how I designed and ran various aspects of the campaign. I'll also give you tips for creating or improving your own campaigns and for handling special situations that arise during play. Future installments of this column will cover topics ranging from worldbuilding and character creation to dungeon design and playing effective NPCs.
Although "Dungeoncraft" is an obvious starting point for beginners running their first games, experienced dungeon-crawlers should find plenty of interesting material in these pages as well. Along the way, you're bound to encounter some new rules, techniques, and tricks to help you spice up even a long-running campaign. Between "Dungeoncraft," the monthly "Sage Advice" rules column, and the occasional "Dungeon Mastery" articles on special topics related to DMing, each issue of Dragon Magazine should provide just about any DM with plenty of food for thought.
"Dungeoncraft" will include advice on how to handle the sticky situations that arise in your own games. Need advice on how to deal with a "difficult" player? Wondering how much treasure to place in your dungeons? Want to know how to run a doppleganger effectively? If so, drop me a line at the address above.
With all that out of the way, we can move on to this month's topic: getting started. A good DM knows that lots of prep time is necessary before building a new campaign. There are maps to draw, stories to write, characters to create, and dungeons to stock. Because the many tasks that must be completed before beginning play are obviously interconnected, it's sometimes difficult to decide where to begin.
Begin by asking yourself a few key questions. Although a couple of these queries might sound a bit trite, having clear answers in mind for each of them up front is bound to save you lots of time and headaches later. In order, the key questions are:
1. Should I DM?
Running your own AD&D campaign can be incredibly rewarding. In essence, you get to create an entire world, write its history, populate it as you see fit, and craft your own legends. What's more, if your campaign is effective, you might experience the unique satisfaction of creating something that eventually attains a depth and a life of its own. Some AD&D campaigns have run for twenty years or more and have generated enough tales to fill several volumes. On the other hand, you should recognize that DMing isn't a responsibility to be assumed lightly. Before you begin, you should take some time to make sure that you're ready to start a game.
DMs face two real problems. The first is a lack of time. While it's certainly enjoyable work, preparing and running an AD&D campaign is just that-work. In the early going, you should count on spending three to four hours per week (in addition to actual playing time) preparing adventures, drawing maps, and adding little details to your setting. If you don't have the time to spend, don't even try to run the game; you'll only frustrate your players. You can significantly decrease prep time by using published adventures and settings, but as a practical rule, you're likely to get only as much out of these products as you're willing to put into them. Never try to run a published adventure without reading it thoroughly prior to play.
The second problem facing DMs is a lack of restraint. If you think you'd rather be a player, don't DM. Part of the DM's job is to let the players grab center stage. A good DM always gives the players the last word and lets them decide what happens next. While this advice might sound straightforward, losing sight of it has been the downfall of many a campaign. Once play begins, you're going to have to resist the urge to use favorite NPCs to steal the spotlight from the players. You'll also need to keep an open mind about the outcome of the adventures and storylines you create lest you steer the players toward the endings you favor. Ultimately, the stories arising from your campaign belong to the players. If you have a problem with that, let someone else run the game.
"False starts" can waste a lot of time (yours and the players') and they inevitably make it even harder to set up a viable game later.
2. How Many Players Do I Want? Where Will I Find Them?
Unlike a lot of newer roleplaying games, AD&D works best with a lot of players. Think of the ideal AD&D adventuring party-you need at least a couple of fighters to engage monsters and protect the weaker adventurers in combat, a cleric to cast healing spells, a thief to deal with tricks and traps, and a wizard or two to decipher magical clues and provide an extra punch in important battles. If any of these key roles aren't filled, the players are bound to run into trouble; many AD&D supplements were designed under the assumption that all these skills would be available to the players' party. Similarly, it is nice if one or two of the players choose to play nonhuman races, giving the party even more capabilities and flexibility with regards to language, etc. Because players are free to choose any role they wish, it's wise to plan on four or more players to guarantee a well-balanced party. If your players are willing to give up some of their options while creating their characters, you might get away with only four or five players (more on this in a later installment devoted to character creation). Playing with fewer than four players is likely to prove difficult in all but the most unusual campaigns.
On the upper end, you'll want to limit yourself to eight or ten players as a general rule. With more than ten players, it's easy to lose control of the game. For similar reasons, less-experienced DMs might want to limit themselves to six or seven players for the time being; you can always add more later. In any case, since you should always have enough room at the game table(s) to comfortably accommodate all players, it's far more likely that the real limit on the number of players proves to be a function of the space available.
If you don't know enough potential players to fill all the slots you have in mind, there are plenty of ways to locate new players. Find out if any local colleges have a gaming club (most do). Attend a local gaming convention and play in an AD&D tournament. Check with the retailers who sell AD&D products in your area to see if any of them will allow you to post a "players wanted" notice in their shops. You can also post notices in appropriate places on the Internet. The social element is one of the characteristics that makes AD&D such a great game; over the years, thousands of lifelong friendships have formed over the gaming table.
3. How Often Should We Play?
How often you expect to play also affects all sorts of DM decisions. Effective pacing is one of the most important attributes of a successful AD&D campaign, and only by understanding how often you expect to play can you take steps to pace your campaign so that events unfold in an appropriate time frame.
If at all possible, try to play at a regular time, once per week. More often than once per week is going to force you to spend an extraordinary amount of free time preparing adventures and materials. Unless you have this much time to spend, you're likely to burn out before your campaign really gets off the ground. Playing less frequently than once per week, on the other hand, makes it difficult for the players to keep the details of the game fresh in their mind. You'll also find that the less frequently you play, the more likely it is that some of your key players will miss game sessions. The more frequent and regular your game times, the easier it will be for the players to remember them and plan accordingly.
If you can't play once per week, you might get away with any regular interval up to once per month. In this event, it's important to schedule each game session as long in advance as possible and to take careful notes during each session, so you can refresh the players' memories of the game situation at the start of the next session.
Note that for now, you need only estimate how often you expect to play on average. Once things get going, you might play slightly more or less often in certain situations depending on how the game progresses. To finish off a particularly climactic storyline, for instance, you might want to schedule an extra session. Similarly, after a lengthy storyline comes to a close, you might take a week off, giving you extra time to prepare the next set of adventures.
4. What Rulebooks and Accessories Will I Need?
I'm going to assume that you've played the AD&D game before and know that you're interested in continuing. If you haven't played the AD&D game before, your best bet is to pick up the D&D Game Fast-Play Rules or the Introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and follow the instructions therein to run a few sample games. This should give you a nice opportunity to get your feet wet and to decide whether or not you're interested in investing further time and money. Once you're ready to create your own adventures and start a full-blown campaign, you can follow the advice below.
To run your own AD&D campaign, I recommend beginning with just five items: the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide, Monstrous Manual book, a DM's Screen, and a set of AD&D Character Record Sheets. All together, these items add up to roughly a $100 investment. Yes, that's a lot of money, but you don't have to spend it all at once. Start by purchasing the Player's Handbook and take time to read and absorb it fully. Then purchase the Dungeon Master Guide and completely peruse it before moving on to the Monstrous Manual book. In this fashion, you can spread the investment over several months, while simultaneously insuring that you're not trying to tackle too much material at a time. If the cost is still a problem, see if your players might be interested in contributing to the cost of the rulebooks.
The Player's Handbook (PH) contains the basic rules for creating characters and handling combats, as well as complete descriptions of all the game's basic magic spells. Although the PH is primarily for players, as DM, you'll find it an essential part of your library as well. You'll use its rules for creating the NPCs who populate your campaign setting, and you'll need its spell descriptions to create tricks and traps and to conduct play.
The Dungeon Master Guide (DMG) reiterates the rules for combat, includes lots of indispensable rules for running campaigns and offers complete descriptions of all the game's basic magical items. The DMG will prove extremely useful while you're creating adventures and during play itself.
The Monstrous Manual is a complete listing of all the statistics for the monsters inhabiting the average AD&D game world. While it's possible to begin play without the MM (particularly if you plan to kick off your campaign with published adventures), I recommend buying it for three reasons. First, the Monstrous Manual includes a useful illustration of each of its creatures. These illustrations make it much easier to describe the beasts to your players. Second, the monster entries include lots of information that is omitted from the capsule monster descriptions found in published adventures, and this missing information (ecology, motivation, feeding habits and so forth) is often the key to bringing the creature to life. Lastly, perhaps more than any other AD&D accessory, the Monstrous Manual book is a rich font of ideas. Each of its 350-odd creatures is an adventure waiting to happen; just a quick flip through its pages is bound to plant a few seeds for interesting encounters, obstacles, and storylines. Once play begins, you'll quickly realize that you can use every idea you can get your hands on.
AD&D Character Record Sheets are blank forms your players can use to keep track of their character's statistics, hit points, magical items, etc. While the sheets aren't strictly necessary, I recommend that you pick up a set and ask your players to use them. Using well-organized character sheets like these saves lots of time during play. Once they see how useful the sheets are, players might want to buy their own.
The AD&D DM's Screen is a cardstock screen you can stand up at your position at the game table and use to conceal your notes and dice rolls from the players. Printed on the inside of the screen, you'll find all the most frequently used game charts and lists, making it unnecessary to waste time flipping though the rulebooks to locate this information during play. While an enterprising craftsman can easily photocopy a few charts from the rulebooks and create his or her own screen out of poster board, the official screen isn't terribly expensive. In later installments, I'll explore some specific techniques you can use in conjunction with the a screen to add some spice to your games.
Other Books and Items
Beginners are often confused by the staggering variety of available AD&D products. For now, it's best to ignore all those other products. You won't need them to get your campaign up and running. In later installments I'll explore a wide range of available products and discuss ways in which you might gradually introduce new material to add variety to your campaign.
If you're a more experienced DM and plan to use additional material right from the start (perhaps something from the Player's Option or Complete Handbook series), it's a good idea to note exactly which products you'll be using before you go any further. Your choice of products might well influence a few of the basic design decisions ahead.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Now that that's over with, it's time to move on to something a bit trickier.
Once you have answers in mind for all four fundamental questions, you're ready
to start building your campaign. Meet me here in thirty days for "World
Building, Part I."