The Need to Know

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about rulebooks and how they are– and should be– organized. Naturally, the AD&D 1E rulebooks are the prototype for a great many RPGs; divided, in their pristine state, into one book for players, and two for the dungeon master. These are then supplemented with new material (Deities & Demigods, Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, Oriental Adventures, etc.) that adds to one or more of those three “core” rulebooks.

In that model, since there is only one dungeon master per playing group (in theory, at least), only the game master needs to shell out the money for the complete set of rulebooks. The non-DM players can, if they choose, only purchase the PH and get along fine. Obviously, in real life, that wasn’t the case in the majority of cases, as players wanted to see what was in that DMG, or swapped out the role of DM and needed all the books. But in theory, that’s how it worked.

The other end of the spectrum is to put all the rules into a single book that both the game master and the players would use during play. Often, they would be internally divided into a “players section” and a “game masters section”, because the game master would need a lot of information that was completely superfluous to the players; how to create planets, etc. The thing is that as supplements come out the players need to buy them all, if they are to have access to the full panoply of the rules available to them.

I most definitely lean towards the splitting of books by type, and will be taking that approach with Emprise!™, but in the process of going through the PH, DMG, and UA books, I must wonder at some of the choices that were made as regards to what is included in what book. In the end, I put it down to the production process; since the DMG came out a year or so after the PH, it perhaps contains additional information that might have made it into the PH if time had allowed it to be so.

There are some things that, I think, absolutely need to be made available to the players. The mechanics of turning undead, for example. I see no reason why such information would be for the DM’s eyes only; that’s why in my game, it’s going in the Players Manual. Ditto for the details regarding followers at higher levels; it’s a simple roll on a table– hardly an arcane mystery– and I see no reason to keep it from the players.

That said, I disagree with the idea of putting information about treasure, particularly magical items and the like, in a player’s guide. In 4E, it makes a warped kind of sense, given the new game’s mechanics regarding “trading in” magical items and letting the DM know ahead of time what sort of magic items would “fit with the player’s vision of the character”. (Fah! You’ll get a vorpal sword over the cold dead body of the pit fiend that’s wielding it. But I digress.) But in a game that attempts to recall the sense of wonder and novelty of struggling and making do with what the campaign gives you, I don’t see much sense in it.

There are a bunch of things like that, that I’m finding myself integrating into the Players Manual for Emprise!™ that Gary Gygax either felt was better kept in the DMG, or which he came up with after the fact. Things like some of the extra information about clerics in the Deities & Demigods book. Details about followers and the construction of strongholds (I am particularly keen on including that in the Players Manual because I’d like to place a little more emphasis on that sort of end game than it has received in the past). Full information on healing and combat. Starting spells for magic-users. Character aging is a no-brainer to go into the Players Manual. Characters use poison; why not include the information where they can find it? That sort of thing.

The Game Masters Guide would have a lot more information on conducting the game and campaign design. There are some assumptions built into the rules that require the game master to make some decisions; just how far does the local druid hierarchy extend? What sort of special powers and spells are available to clerics of different faiths in the campaign? Rather than a whole book detailing the statistics of various sorts of gods and goddesses, there’s going to be a couple of sample pantheons of deities, to give the game master an idea of what he needs to do in his own campaign (or what he should expect to see in a pre-packaged campaign setting). What sort of cultures are available to have as homelands for barbarian player characters? Hell, for that matter, what sort of decisions does the game master need to make before starting anything more than a pickup game? Are you going to allow drow and deep gnomes? What are the implications of doing so? Plus those game mechanics that the game master really does need that are superfluous to the players (or at least the sausage that they don’t need to see being made). The combat tables. Magical items. Random tables to help when help is needed. That sort of thing.

This brings me to a point I’ve been sorta kinda wrestling with. Since the game master is the only one who really needs (or should have) the stats on monsters, why break them out into their own book? Why not include them in the Game Masters Guide? Simple economics says that one thick book is going to be cheaper than two thinner books. On the other hand, the pull of tradition is a strong thing, and there might be practical reasons for breaking out the monsters into their own book that I’ve not considered. On the other other hand, putting everything into a single book for players and game masters alike is the logical conclusion of that line of reasoning (although I think such a book would be too unwieldy to use in play, so there is a practical consideration). Thoughts?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “The Need to Know

  1. If cost is taken off the table, Joe, I'd stick with the three book format. DM's book, Player's book, and Monster book.
    You could stick monsters in the DM's book, but I actually think having that information seperate is more convinient during a game.

    And also, everybody likes to read monster books, players and DMs.
    I just don't let players reference a monster book during the game.

  2. I'm quite impressed with the way Pathfinder broke up the books. All the rules in one place, the monsters in another. Since I almost never use magic items as is in the rules putting magic item information in the same book as the PC information is not a problem. There should be no secrets from the players about game mechanics; but, pulling out the monsters allows for a GM to limit access to monster info during the game. It also helps with the business by being able to charge for a second book. Then, in the monster book have each monster on a separate page for easy reference and photocopying (or printing in PDF format.)

    The three book break-up of AD&D 1e always seemed capricious and unhelpful to me.

  3. I definitely agree with your splitting the rules in two: one for the players, the others for the DM. And I think combining the monsters’ book and the DM’s book makes a lot of sense too, although there does seem to be many who feel that there just has to be three books. C&C has a Players’ Handbook (the rule book) and Monsters & Treasures (the book covering monsters, treasures, and a few other DM bits) and I think that set-up works quite well.

  4. I'm definitely in the Dave Arneson camp when it comes to gaming: I would rather the characters know little, if anything, about the mechanics. Give them enough so they understand the principles behind various mechanics (at 3rd level, Clerics have a slim chance of turning Wraiths; what that chance is, is unknown).

    Therefore, I prefer a Player's handbook that, as they say in the modern rpg lingo, is heavy on "fluff" but light on "crunch"

  5. I am squarely in the three book department. For printed books it has a practical reason in that you may need to keep it open to run a monster and reference a DM rule at the same time.
    4E putting magic items is one of my biggest beefs. It is essentially taking -more- power from the DM's hands and putting it in the players. It's nearly as bad as putting player essential info in setting books that has plot spoilers in it.

  6. Having the rules split between two or three books does allow you to have more than one section open for reference at a time. Particularly in games like D&D, where the monsters can be dropped into play straight from the manual, a separate momster book is a useful thing to have at the table, especially when the players wander off the map or I'm just winging it anyway!

  7. I put my monsters in with the Game Referee's guide for my Siege Perilous rules. The GM rules section was pretty light to begin with. It made more sense that way, to me. But I'm also not dealing with AD&D level of information. In that regards, I'd stick with the 3.

  8. I prefer to see all of the rules in one place, dealing with each subject in its own chapter. Whether that is broken up into one or more volumes makes no odds to me, but "combat" rules should all be in one place and so on.

  9. I think that with creature selection being one of the most powerful ways of creating campaign identity, a monster book is inevitably packed with creatures that a given buyer uses seldom or not at all. I, for example, can't recall ever using any of the Greek themed monsters, nor any of the extra-planar selections, from the 1st Ed MMs.

    Therefore placing those same creatures in a book that every GM will use every session is a mistake that creates wasted paper & needless page flipping, unless the game is so small that only 1 book is desirable in the first place (as with Moldvay).

  10. I think my love for my old AD&D books colors my perceptions, but I've always loved how things are organized there.

    One of the factors (for me) is having something in each book to pore over relentlessly, wallowing the details. In the DMG, it's the magic items. In the PHB, it's the magic spells, and in the monster manual, it's the monsters themselves. As a player, I loved looking for more minutae in the spells. As a DM, I loved finding interesting magic items to use in intersting ways.

  11. In answer to your question (monsters in GM Guide or not) I agree with your assessment that there's no reason for monsters to have a separate book. I think there is a convenience factor when the monster list is EXTENSIVE (as it is with AD&D)…the combo would be fairly unwieldy. But if you can keep both the GM procedures AND the monster lists brief enough, putting them in the same book makes a lot of sense.

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