Tips for a first-time AD&D DM

So you’re interested in the way things began?  You find yourself wondering with nostalgia and curiosity, “What was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons like when it was first released?  What did those first players think, feel, and experience?”

These are the thoughts that make you a first-time AD&D Dungeon Master in 2017.  These are the thoughts that brought me to that place.  And so here I am, preparing for my second campaign as DM.

Even though I had GMed many other RPGs–at least fifty games of D&D 4e, maybe more of FFG’s Star Wars RPG, with a smattering of others–I felt like it was best to start by going through some published AD&D modules.  If you’re a first-time AD&D DM, I’d encourage you to do the same: pick a good published module for beginning characters and start from there.

But if you are indeed going to take that route, let me give you a few words of advice that will put you light years ahead of where I was when I first started this journey:

Follow the directions, specifically…

Specifically, the direction to read the entire module first.  Trust me, as someone who has GMed many recently published modules, I tend to fudge on this a bit.  I would read the beginning, the end, and then skim the middle.  If you take that approach with an AD&D module, your players will suffer.  Let me explain.

First, compare the length of an AD&D module to that of a recently published module.  N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which I’m DMing now, is 28 pages long.  T1: The Village of Hommlet was maybe a few pages longer.  Then, look at something like Storm King’s Thunder.  It’s a 256 page adventure, intended for Levels 1-11.  So let’s do some math.  N1 and T1 are intended for levels 1-3.  On average, Storm King has ~26 pages per PC level, whereas these AD&D modules average 10 pages per level.  Why is this important?

AD&D modules expect the DM to do more heavy lifting than many modern modules.  They’re not just “sandboxy” adventures.  They’re skeletons of adventures.  I don’t know if this applies to every published AD&D module, as I’ve only read T1, N1, and D1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth.  But what do these modules provide for you?

  • They provide settings.
  • They provide NPCs with some statistics, including enemies.
  • They provide a starting point and an end point.
  • They provide raw material for story hooks, sometimes with an implied story hook.

You get the building blocks of a story, not a story.  As the DM, you will need to make beauty and order out of this raw material.  It’s good material.  It’s fun material.  It’s just not put in a place where you can jump in and go unprepared.  You’ll need to read it!

Keep your player characters in mind

The players in all of my RPG groups are relatively resilient.  They roll with the punches and enjoy the process of communal storytelling.  You know who isn’t resilient though?  Their characters.  AD&D characters die.  They just die and there’s nothing that can be done about…well, there is that one thing that you can do.

As the DM, you need to prepare player characters for the challenges ahead.  This means two things:

First, make sure they are the appropriate level to face the challenges ahead.  You can provide side quests to help with this, you can allow certain characters to start at a higher level (for N1, our clerics, druids, and magic-users all start at Lev. 2), or you can provide resources to the characters.

In T1: The Village of Hommlet, we had a particularly nasty experience with ghouls.  Our players were getting paralyzed and nobody could do anything about it.  What can be done about that?  Well, the first problem is [SPOILER ALERT] there is no AD&D solution to paralysis, unless you’re an elf.  Elves are immune to the ghoul’s paralysis effects…but we had no elves.  Second, there are tools available to the players (read: holy water) that could have helped.  But I didn’t make it readily available to the players.

As a DM, here’s what I should have done:

First, my careful reading of the module should have led me to realize this paralysis threat was coming.  I had no idea until the battle begun.

Second, I should have figured out either a house rule, or a special in-story tool that would have protected the characters from paralysis.  Or I should have holy water a bigger deal for them.

Again, you don’t want to spell things out for the players.  That’s the whole nature of AD&D.  It’s about problem-solving.  You want players to have the basic tools to figure out and overcome the challenge.  But I had put them in a situation that couldn’t be overcome.  I hadn’t given them the preparation or the skills to do well.

Therefore, as you read the module, take notes with an eye toward the player characters.  How can you prepare them for the challenges ahead?  Then, if they do get to the challenge and fail, not due to your diligence, but due to their lack of ingenuity and creativity, then the ball is in their court to come back and solve the problem.

Come up with a meaningful, compelling MacGuffin

I’m not only an AD&D DM, but I’m also a player being led through U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.  The MacGuffin presented to us is that a young girl has gone missing, likely to have stumbled over the side of a oceanside cliff.  It’s very Shutter Island, to cite a movie that I enjoy inordinately.  Our characters are trying to find her.  She’s the MacGuffin.

But why do we care?  First of all, we are all members of the Blue Bands, a sort of military police that investigates such situations.  Second, everybody feels bad for children who are lost or in danger.  Who couldn’t?  You see, we care.  You too need to find a meaningful, compelling MacGuffin.  Otherwise, it will be easy for players to lose the plot and the motivation.

When my players were in Hommlet, the MacGuffin was pretty crummy.  There’s weird stuff happening in Hommlet.  The regional government has issued an invitation for adventurers.  There’s money for those who solve the problem.  Meh.  Who cares?  I mean, really?!  When our assassin left the party, due to the threat on his life, all the other PCs were pissed.  But who could blame him?  He wasn’t getting paid enough to risk his life!

Money doesn’t motivate as well as you might think it does.  Especially when it’s fake D&D money.  But there are other things that motivate not only PCs, but players more.  Find a meaningful, compelling MacGuffin–one that will call the player characters to perseverance in the difficult task that lies ahead.

If at first you don’t succeed…

As I look back on T1: The Village of Hommlet, it was not my best-DMed campaign.  There were many missteps.  But, we were all learning the system together.  It was bound to be wonky.  Now that we’re more experienced, I’m approaching this new module in the new way prescribed above.  I’d encourage you to learn from my mistakes and take this approach to your first adventure.  It will be more enjoyable not only for your players, but also for you.

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4 thoughts on “Tips for a first-time AD&D DM

  1. Beoric says:

    If you are looking for an authentic first edition experience you probably shouldn’t hatch side quests to bump up the PCs levels. Players are supposed to identify what fights are too dangerous based on the information provided by you, and to run away when they are wrong. Running away is easy in 1e: I don’t remember if it was an actual rule, but we used to give team monster one free attack if you turned and ran, and if you survived that you were good.

    Of course, the corollary of that is you need to provide good information so the players can make informed choices. I would say that, as a DM, you need to prepare your players for the challenges ahead. The ghouls are found in burial crypts. “Most of the niches are empty, although a few contain splintered coffins, wrappings, and gnawed and split bones (a sure sign that all is not quite well. . .)”. Experienced players would expect undead, likely ghouls (from the gnawed bones), and know to break out the holy water or come up with a crazy scheme to keep ghouls at range. They would also peek around the corner before turning it, and likely see the ghouls. Also, the ghouls’ den, at the south end of the crypt, is “foul and damp” and “noisome”, so the PCs might also smell it.

    Note that it is also a teaching moment. The Ghouls’ treasure includes 7 vials of holy water (“oh, that’s why they put it on the equipment list!”) and a scroll of protection from undead.

    If your players are finding the modules a bit lethal they may want to run more characters. You should also remember that the designation “for levels 1-3” did not mean that you started at level 1 and expected to be level 3 by the end. It meant that you started the module at any level from 1st to 3rd; and if you were starting at 1st, you should probably bring more characters or avail yourself of any NPCs who are willing to join. Hommlet is not as clear on this as other modules, although there is a brief mention of it in the “Notes for the Dungeon Master”.

    A clearer example is in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which was marked as levels 8-12: “CAUTION: Only strong and experienced characters should adventure into these areas if the party is but 3 or 4 characters strong. The optimum mix for a group is 9 characters of various classes, with an average experience level of at least 9th, and armed with 2 or 3 magical items each. For a small party the most important thing is experience [emphasis in original, and by which he meant experienced players, not characters], and even a party of 3 or 4 highly experienced 9th level characters can expect a reasonable chance of survival if they use their knowledge and cunning to best advantage.”

    We never had enough players, so we sometimes doubled up on characters. Or we were very, very careful.

    • MadCleric says:

      Your comments are very well-taken. We learned quickly in Hommlet to drum up support from the locals. My more experienced AD&D players are playing N1 very differently than they did T1 to be sure!

  2. Saint Malice says:

    This was a great read, and a good laugh. I started my AD&D path in 1979. It’s been a long while since I’ve played this edition. Nice to see your struggles with it though, as well as you’re appreciation and understanding.

    I’d like to see you take a stab at 2nd edition and run the H series, particularly H4: Throne of Bloodstone. Try it at level 25 and then 100. I’d love to learn how far they get.

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