Referee. Judge. Administrator. Dungeon Master. Game Master. Should you take up this mantle by any name, make first this oath before your fellow players to prove you take serious the having of games-playing fun. And by ancient tradition, apply your will and best judgement in altering this creed to suit those players whom you serve. Only make and keep your oath if you wish eternal and unlimited adventure.
I solemnly swear to fulfill this covenant to the best of my ability and judgment.
I will respect the wisdom accumulated over time by those game masters in whose footsteps I travel, and gladly will I share such knowledge with my comrades and any who follow.
I identify as my greatest resource imagination, my own and that of the other players, which implies the freedom to try anything. Never will I force action on a player character. Always will I fulfill my duty to imagine an exciting world and describe reactions as the players enjoy their free will.
I will judge circumstances impartially with prudence and a sense of proportion. Neither will I fall to nihilistic randomness, nor will I rule by secret fiat out of misplaced allegiance to a narrative. By my hand will fate weigh in the balance ever in service to the ultimate goal, an enjoyable game.
I will honor game mastery as a craft, part art and part science, remembering that rules may bend to inspire a sense of wonder, but rules make triumph possible. As such, I will allow the ingenuity of players to supersede abstract contests decided by dice.
Yet when intuition offers no obvious ruling, I will admit “I do not know”. In such circumstances I will rely on the chaos of casting dice to stand in for unknown variables. Remaining true to the game, I will accept the outcome even if it spells doom.
I will set the scene, offer choices and answer questions to the greatest extent possible, always taking care to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. I will adhere to the precedents of campaign history, employing precise tracking of deeds and resources.
So long as I honor this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling, and may I long experience the joy of playing with those who seek my mastery.
A hexagonal tablet, 25 feet across has risen from the soft earth. The grinning face of Molok adorns a trap door in the center. The old folk tell of mummified priests guarding vast treasures. Not even your DM knows how deep nor how dangerous this crypt will be. Will you escape with untold wealth, or will your living soul be consumed to sustain the undeath of Molok’s Mummies?
I built this considering the constraints of the contest, not just that it must fit on one page but also that it should be system-neutral. I minimized space given to art and the map because it’s hard to get the information density as high as can be done with text. I like to be surprised at the table along with the players. I could drop this into my Basic Fantasy RPG game without much preparation beyond copying monster stats into doc for reference.
Black Pudding AC 14, HD 10* (+9), #At 1 pseudopod, Dam 3d8, Mv 20′, Sv F10, Ml 12, XP 1390
Blood Shroud AC 12, HD 4, #At 1 whip or 1 blood spray, Dam 1d4 or special, Mv Fly 60’, Sv F4, Ml 9, XP 320
Bone Chimera AC 17, HD 2, #At 1 bites/2 claws/2 tails, Dam 2d6 bite/1d6 claw/1d10 tail, Mv 60′, Sv F5, Ml 12, XP 240
Bone Golem AC 19 ‡, HD 8, #At 4 weapons, Dam 1d6/1d6/1d6/1d6 or by weapon, Mv 40′ (10′), Sv F4, Ml 12, XP 945
Clay Golem AC 22, HD 11 (+9), #At 1 fist, Dam 3d10, Mv 20′, Sv F6, Ml 12, XP 1,765
Diabolus AC 14, HD 15, #At 1 bite, Dam 2d6+4 + ghoul paralysis, Mv 60’ Fly 20’, Sv F15, Ml 12, XP 3100
Flesh Golem AC 20 ‡, HD 9 (+8), #At 2 fists, Dam 2d8/2d8, Mv 30′, Sv F5, Ml 12, XP 1225
Gellybone AC 14, HD 2, #At 1 slap, Dam 1d6, Mv 40′, Sv F2, Ml 12, XP 75
Ghast AC 15, HD 2, #At 2 claws/1 bite, Dam 1d4/1d4/1d4 + paralysis + stench, Mv 30′, Sv F2, Ml 9, XP 125
Ghostcap Bloom AC 12, HD 4, #At 1, Dam 1d4 + special, Mv 0′, Sv F4, Ml 12, XP 240
Ghoul AC 14, HD 2, #At 2 claws/1 bite, Dam 1d4/1d4/1d4, all plus paralysis, Mv 30′, Sv F2, Ml 9, XP 100
Green Slime AC can always be hit, HD 2, #At 1, Dam special, Mv 1′, Sv F2, Ml 12, XP 125
Mummy AC 17 ‡, HD 5, #At 1 touch + disease, Dam 1d12 + disease, Mv 20′, Sv F5, Ml 12, XP 450
Shadow AC 13 ‡, HD 2*, #At 1 touch, Dam 1d4 + 1 point Strength loss, Mv 30′, Sv F2, Ml 12, XP 100
Skeletal Flayer AC 15, HD 1, #At 1 whip/1 claw, Dam 1d6 + 1d6, Mv 40′, Sv F1, Ml 12, XP 37
Skeleton AC 13, HD 1, #At 1, Dam 1d6, Mv 40′, Sv F1, Ml 12, XP 25
Spectre AC 17 ‡, HD 6, #At 1 touch, Dam Energy drain 2 levels/touch, Mv Fly 100′, Sv F6, Ml 11, XP 610
Vampire AC 18 ‡, HD 7, #At 1 weapon or special, Dam 1d8 or by weapon or special, Mv 40′ Fly 60′, Sv F7, Ml 11, XP 800
Wraith AC 15 ‡, HD 4, #At 1 touch, Dam 1d6 + energy drain (1 level), Mv Fly 80′, Sv F4, Ml 12, XP 320
Zombie AC 12, HD 2, #At 1, Dam 1d8, Mv 20′, Sv F2, Ml 12, XP 75
The following monster reaction chart from the Mentzer red box edition of D&D shows up frequently on blogs and twitter. Every time I see it, I wonder about the chances of each end result. So, I worked out the chances by doing the multiplication.
For example, roll a 3 for a possible attack. Then roll a 9, uncertain. Finally, roll a 5 for an attack. That’s a 25% chance of rolling 3-5. A second roll of 9-12 happens 28% of the time. A third roll of 5 also has a chance of 28%. That works out to 0.15%. However, there are many rows that end up as attack that must be added together. The following table reproduces the original with d100.
Red Box converted to Percentile
A roll of a 2 on 2d6 is really 2.78%. The leave result should really be 14.95%, but I donated remainders to the first and last results to keep it to increments of 1%.
Other Basic Editions
Of course, this got me wondering about other editions. The chart from the third volume of the little brown books looks like the following.
OD&D The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures page 13 – Random Actions by Monsters
With such a high chance of an uncertain result, maybe it’s trying to tell the DM to figure it out himself. But said DM might say to himself, “uncertain, eh? I wonder which way they are leaning.” And then he’ll roll again. Maybe that’s how we got the nested Mentzer table.
Next, I looked at what’s in the Holmes book, which breaks up the negative and positive reactions into less likely immediate reactions. Nearly half the time, though, you’re rolling again.
Uncertain, make another offer, roll again
Accepts offer, friendly
Enthusiastic, volunteers help
Holmes Basic Reaction Rolls page 11
Presumably only a roll of 6-8 requires a re-roll. I’d probably interpret a 6 as being vaguely hostile. Now consider the Rules Cyclopedia.
This table has a bias for monsters being hostile or at least not helpful. That probably makes more sense for monsters in a dungeon into which a party of adventurers just showed up, busting down doors. I appreciate how this table has a memory for previous results. Imagine first getting a 6. The monsters growl in response. The players have a chance to do something. If they keep talking, though, the best they can do is push the monsters to a cautious state.
Monster is aggressive
Monster is cautious
Monster is neutral
Monster is friendly
D&D Rules Cyclopedia percentages
The rules for using this table go into more detail. Don’t apply any charisma bonus on the first roll, but do afterwards. Adjust based on what the characters are doing. A cowardly or outmatched monster should run rather than attack. Lastly, never roll more than three times. After that, the monsters attack or retreat.
Following is the chart provided in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.
Interestingly, Gygax provides a percentile chart in AD&D. Though not explicitly stated, I assume an uncertain result should cause a second roll with a bonus or penalty of 55%. That seems to mean that a roll of 45 prevents getting back to a neutral state unless some other bonuses are in effect. In the chart below, you can see how the AD&D table is symmetric, not biased towards hostility from monsters.
Violently hostile, immediate attack or check morale
Hostile, immediate action or check morale
Uncertain but prone towards negative
Neutral, uninterested or uncertain
Uncertain but prone towards positive
Friendly, immediate action
AD&D reaction percentages
Since my game runs on Basic Fantasy, I also computed percentages for the reaction table from that game. The table is presented as being for monsters.
The results are only slightly biased towards hostility. It’s closest to OD&D.
Basic Fantasy reaction percentages
The AD&D 2E rules use 2d10 and a cross reference against player stance (friendly, indifferent, threatening hostile) to produce the monster stance, which produces the same four stances plus flight. It looks like rolling for monster reactions went away in 3E. I don’t see it in 5E, either.
Comparing these methods, I’m inclined to adapt the Rules Cyclopedia ideas for my campaign. I like the idea of the dice pushing me in a direction when it’s not obvious how the foes should react. I also like the idea of the exchange playing out over three rolls.
Leon’s Reaction Table
Here’s what I plan go with in my game.
The time for talk is over. Check morale. Failure means flight or surrender. Otherwise, attack immediately.
Someone will get their head bashed in. Attitude is aggressive and negative. Apply -4 to the next check if there’s room for negotiation. Otherwise, it’s fight or flight.
Clear and present danger. Cautious and aware of possible trouble. Disengage without violence if possible, or provide a final warning.
Trust and verify. Neutral and open to a fair exchange. Apply +4 to the next check. Any final offers are take-it-or-leave-it.
This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Relaxed presumption of courtesy.
Leon’s Monster Reaction Table
Move the interaction through three phases, generally divided by exchanges of dialog but not necessarily only one round long.
Determine initial attitude without the benefit or penalty of charisma. Apply ±4 for any non-verbal biases, such displaying the symbols of an enemy tribe or being a filthy barbarian among perfumed concubines.
Roll again, applying relevant charisma bonuses. Ignore the biases from first impressions, but include any new information. Friendly gestures or bribes promote a friendly reaction. Rude or aggressive behavior promotes negative reactions. Consider the actions of participants.
Make one, final roll. Conclude the encounter with role-playing or combat.
I created the following short rules to model an earthquake created by the closure of a portal to the land of the dead. The narrative of how it played out is at the beginning of the Session #82 entry over at Empty Z.
The setup is a low rumble followed by shaking. It’s not an actual earthquake, rather a magic event that spans a few minutes. As a DM, I want uncertainty for myself to keep the action surprising. I also want the rules set ahead of time lest I feel tempted to improvise something overly influenced by my mood at that particular moment. That is, I want to be Crom, merely setting the world in motion.
The players are inside a church. The doors are spiked closed from outside. They can try to force the doors open using the rules for smashing open a locked door, which is rolling d10 and getting in the range of 1 plus their strength bonus. The strongest character has a 30% chance each round to make this happen. There’s also a way out they way they came: up stairs to the roof, across the roof, down a rope 30′ to the ground. They can take two rounds to safely repel or try going down in one round, but risk a save versus death or take 1d6 in damage.
I did not anticipate escape via the stained glass windows which I’d described a couple of sessions previously. I improvised that they were 10′ up and would take 10 damage before breaking apart.
The progression of the magical earthquake used the following procedure.
Each round, roll a die. Start with d12. Use a smaller die each round using the sequence d12, d10, d8, d6, d4 and then keep going with d4. Check the result.
On a 1, the entire structure collapses. Anyone still inside takes 3d6 damage. Anyone on the roof takes 2d6 damage.
On a 2 or 3, part of the roof gives way, either dropping a large chunk or opening a hole underneath one character. Choose the character at random.
The sequence of ever-smaller dice means collapse becomes more likely with each round. However, I can’t know exactly when, though most likely it would happen in five rounds or sooner. I communicated urgency. The players picked up on the uncertainty of what could happen and responded with creative problem solved that was both action-oriented and not combat.
Dungeons and Dragons eludes complete understanding. Secrets of Blackmoor offers one step on your way to enlightenment.
Despite re-reading the 239 pages of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide as a kid, the game remained inscrutable. Despite this, I recall my first encounter with the game as effortlessly joyful. Though it was easy to catch on to the varied and vigorous opinions about proper play in The Dragon magazine, some force drove me onward, compelling me to re-read pages. Somehow, I aimed to solve the disconnect between the game as played by my friends versus the outlandish ideas in the books.
The written word, however erudite or evocative, can only suggest the experience of artwork. It cannot reproduce the feeling of gazing meditatively at The Starry Night. I thought if I could just decipher the jumble of thoughts in the rule books, I’d reach some nirvana of RPG mastery. Eventually I concluded, playing is a craft you learn by doing, hopefully with the guiding hand of a master, in the same way you learn to build a fence with your dad.
I have read Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s deep. It’s essential. And it illuminates a thousand other paths to explore. I’ve read Jeffro Johnson’s APPENDIX N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It inspires, offering additional twisting trails to follow. Two aspects of Secrets of Blackmoor make it uniquely compelling: the focus on Dave Arneson and the experience of first hand accounts.
The confident voice of Gary Gygax echoes across the years. Though sharing equal billing with Arneson on the original little brown books, the misconception that the D&D was his invention is easy to understand. By the time AD&D arrived, it was the Gygax name alone on the front cover. By the end of the 1980s, it’s as if he gave birth to the genre and all other games descended from his wisdom. Fortunately, historians are uncovering the complete story.
The more we learn from the originators, the better our play today. I am completely happy to spend weeks pouring over 720 pages of thick, comprehensive history. At the same time, I’m grateful for a 2 hour documentary I can share with my sons. It offers a concentrated impact to receive the legends related by the heroes themselves. It communicates an infectious passion for the hobby.
As this film is labeled as the first volume, I do look forward to a continuation of the series. The more we all enjoy this work, the more it will encourage and enable the creation of additional volumes in the series. As I write this, physical copies are still available from the Secrets of Blackmoor store. You can also stream the film from Vimeo or Amazon.