Advice for Players from… the Players Handbook

There’s a whole section in the back of the Players Handbook called “Successful Adventures.” I liked to think I was being pretty slick, since I read it over and over, and none of the other people I played with at the time seemed to even realize it existed in the “flyover country” between the spell descriptions and psionics.

What is painfully evident to me now, that didn’t really register at the time, was how geared that advice was to a very specific mode of play, and it wasn’t mine. To wit; play with a large party (7 or more players) in what we would now call a megadungeon environment. Here are some of the italicized portions from the section:

  • set an objective
  • survival at lower levels is usually dependent upon group action and team spirit
  • A map is very important because it helps assure that the party will be able to return to the surface
  • Avoid unnecessary encounters
  • Do not be sidetracked.
  • If the party becomes lost, the objective must immediately be changed to discovery of a way out.
  • Co-operation assumes mutual trust and confidence

There is a throwaway paragraph about urban and wilderness adventures, basically stating “what was just said for dungeons goes for them, too.” So a page and a half about how to conduct a successful dungeon adventure, where the implicit understanding is that the dungeon is large enough that there are multiple possible objectives, the place is large enough that it is easy to become lost, and party members turning on one another is a Bad Thing.

Elsewhere we also see references to a Party Caller, who actually is responsible for guiding the party as a whole, with the implication that with ten or more people, such a role is necessary because otherwise there would be too many people to be able to run the game effectively.

It was certainly a different world in Lake Geneva than the vast majority of us in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw. We usually played with four players including myself, often just one on one, and the dungeons were small and focused. “Being sidetracked” meant exploring two rooms and then getting on with the business at hand.

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 “Advice for Players from… the Players Handbook

  1. It was certainly a different world in Lake Geneva.

    It was.

    I played the Keep on the Borderlands tonight for the first time. And even after 20+ years of DM'ing, it was still fun.

    With one character with four hirelings, I was able to survive the first excursion and immerge (barely) profitable.

    It's still (as much as you want it to be) 1970's D&D, and that's still fun.

  2. Yeah, as soon as you mentioned the role of "Party Caller", I remembered reading that chapter back in the early 1980's and thinking: "Gee, no one plays like that around here!"

  3. I found had groups of 10+ players back then. I found the caller as given in the OD&D and AD&D books somewhat harmful to player enjoyment. I found it as easy to just go around the table and let each player speak.

    Smart players did appoint an experienced and level-headed player as their "emergency" leader, however, whose job it was to say what everyone was doing in an emergency (like the ceiling was collapsing) where there was no time at all for discussion.

  4. I love this list – good find. I also like how you could flip it around to be DM advice for said dungeon:

    Provide choices for mutual objectives. Create situations that will require teamwork and trust. Create elements that will get them lost, and require a map. Ensure there are unnecessary (but avoidable) encounter.


  5. I played a B/X game a few weeks ago that had 12 players… Not a fan.

    What's nice about that is that the game is splitting and I'm going to playtest ADD! I've got a pending request for membership on the boards. Did you get it?

  6. I think advice on how to handle a small group might have been less useful than advice on handling a large group. A large group is harder to manage and we don't have as much experience with that. The PHB was giving advice that would have been more difficult to discover on our own.

  7. I found as a DM 'back then' that large groups of 7 or more players never latest long as some players were more vocal and some took a back seat and could lose interst. I would say a group of around four or five worked best. It was adifferent world, not just in Lake Geneva 🙂

  8. My own self-imposed limit is 6 these days, plus myself. I find that the perfect sized group. Others will have a different comfort zone, obviously.

  9. Reverse-engineering the PHB player advice is definitely one of the best things a DM can do to create a challenging dungeon level.

    I've enjoyed small and large groups, but these days we usually play with 5-7 folks in our regular campaign (a few of us have had to drop, of late), while at conventions I still prefer to run 8-12 player tables (although I've also never been a fan of The Caller).


  10. I'm not sure I try to be a "caller" as much as, when I do it, in being a clarifier. When we've got a party splitting up or heading in different directions or doing multiple things in the same round I like to sit back for a second, process it and then give a recap (even as a player) just so that there's no doubt in ours or our DM's mind on exactly what we're doing.

    I dunno if Joe's noticed me doing that or even if he (or the other players) get annoyed at me doing that, but I find it helps keep everyone's understand of exactly what's going to happen clear.

    But player sizes? Yeah, I hadn't played a six person game before Joe's group. Never mind the eight plus I've seen mention of!

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