Friday, February 13, 2015

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Introduction and DM's Job

The introduction to the Mentzer Basic DMR gives us the three elements of a (basic) D&D game: monsters, treasure and dungeons.  After providing some examples from the Players Manual tutorial, it tells us that there are more of all of these things in this book, plus ways to put them all together to create your own games and have a lot of fun.

Terms and Abbreviations:
The preface to this section actually gives us a good bit of advice to remember when playing RPGs like this, and one that is easily overlooked or forgotten:
The D&D games you will run are actually stories about the PCs in a fantasy world, and you and your players will make up these stories together. [p. 2, emphasis added]
The stories are not the sole province of the DM, or the module writer, or the game designer.  They are developed cooperatively by everyone at the table (implying also that you don't get a "story now," you get a story later when all's said and done).

Next is a list of common terms defined for us: player, character, class, dungeon, DM, NPC, etc.  This is followed by a long list of abbreviations for common terms, including the above defined terms, ability scores, monster stats, character classes, and treasure.  The only real interesting definition I find is the definition of alignment:
A term generally describing the behavior of any creature -- Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic [p. 2]

The word "generally" is important here.  Alignment in BECMI is not a straight jacket, and should not prevent one from role-playing their PC as they like.  No one is 100% consistent in their behavior in all situations and every day.

The Most Important Rule:
 This section gives us the golden rule of the Game Master: be fair in how you adjudicate the rules, don't play adversarially against the players, and make sure your rulings and house rules are applied consistently to the players AND the monsters. 

The Dungeon Master's Job:
This section tells us that the game consists of encounters, connected by other activities such as movement and problem solving.  The dice rolls (mechanics) are used to find results of choices.  Players get to make most of their own rolls, while the DM rolls for NPCs and monsters.  Simple enough.

The DM's Roles:
This section gives the fledgling DM advice on how to run monsters (and NPCs) in the game, and while basic, it is still good advice.  First off, while a DM has many more creatures to play than the players do, the creatures are usually simpler to play and die rolls can help determine their actions.  Think of how the creature feels, and what it wants.  This may alter what the dice tell you.  Mentzer advises the DM to not be slavish to the dice with reaction rolls, modify them based on the creature's intelligence, alignment, and feelings (or in my terms, Wants and Needs).

Finally, the DM should remember that the monsters exist not to give the DM tools to defeat the players, but to entertain everyone.  Once they've served their purpose, forget about them.  Good advice for the new DM.

The reaction roll is briefly explained, as well as ways monsters might react to adventurers (and adventurers to monsters).  And it's fairly explicit that while some monsters (like ghouls) will attack anything living on sight, most monsters will not, and the DM should roll reactions (unless the PCs just charge in and attack).  I'm not sure where my friends and I picked up the bad habit, shared by many gaming groups I've encountered or read about, of the DM saying, "You enter the room.  There are seven orcs.  Roll for initiative."  Mentzer is pretty straightforward in stating that this should be rare, and dependent on the monster encountered.  Maybe it came from modules (not that we were playing any in our early games), and maybe it came from video games, where the monsters always attack.

Running the Game:
It's the DM's job to set the stage for the players, then sit back and let them act.  Reading this again, I find it interesting just how proactive the players are assumed to be by Mentzer.  He even quips that as the players explore and problem solve, the DM can sit back and relax!  It's only when monsters are encountered, and during combat, that the DM needs to be in careful control of the situation.

Mentzer notes that running multiple monsters and characters is hard, and so is playing monsters fairly so that the DM doesn't favor either the monsters or the PCs.  And it takes a bit of experience to do so (implication, don't worry too much if you have trouble with this at first, it will come with practice).  In order to help the DM concentrate on running the monsters fairly, three guideline charts are given.  The first is "Order of Events in an Encounter" followed by "Order of Events in a Game Turn" and finally "Order of Events in Combat."  Obviously those first two should have been switched around, but for some reason they're not.

One interesting thing is that "Number Appearing" is listed as the first step of running an encounter, and this doesn't specify it's only for random encounters.  I suppose in a dungeon setting that is run as a "living dungeon" that makes sense.  There are normally wolves or orcs or whatever in this area.  How many of them are here now?  Most modules, and the sample adventure later in the book already have the number listed though.


The next section begins the DM Tutorial sample adventure.  Tune in next time for that!


  1. Regarding the usual shtick of "open door, see monsters, roll initi", I agree that this should be rare, in the beginning...

    If you run your adventures as "living dungeons", as you say, and the PCs kill first, ask questions later and allow, or are unable to prevent, survivors from escaping, eventually word will get around among the inhabitants of the dungeon that there's the group of wanna-be heroes heading down that will slaughter you on sight. In that scenario, I think it's entirely likely that monsters will be ready to go, difficult to surprise, and perhaps even have ambushes and tactics planned should the party show up in their lair.

    1. Definitely. But even then, in a situation like you describe, a reaction roll might help decide if a group of monsters carry through with their ambush or decide to break and run before hostilities ensue, due to the rumors of ferociousness of the party, or offer terms to end the rampage from their fortified position, etc.

      Like I mentioned above, I think video games influenced us to just have monsters attack when encountered when I was young. These days, I love the reaction roll, and some really great moments have arisen because of it.

      For example, in a Ravenloft (original module) game a few years back, there was a random encounter with spectres in the chapel during the night, but a reaction roll indicated non-hostile. I quickly decided that it was a procession of a black mass. The players wisely decided not to engage and were sorta freaked out by the events. If the spectres had just attacked, we never would have had that great bit of atmosphere building.

  2. It seems that the Flying swordsman files are unreachable :(