Friday, January 9, 2009

Examining Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax, Part VIII

Gary Gygax was one of the most influential, inspirational, and evocative creative minds of the 20th Century... and one of the worst technical writers of that period.

Gygax's writing enabled, encouraged, and empowered millions of people to make creations of their own, creations that gave people joy in their own homes, and in a few instances, creations that later went on to become widely experienced on their own. His influence was far reaching, from the mundane and everyday to the bizarre fringe: His creations helped otherwise socially hopeless troglodytes find their niche and make friends, his creations helped extreme fundamentalists and grieving parents something irrelevant to bitch about, and his creations ended up being the engine that created the console and home computer markets. His presentation of his and others' concepts have had an incredible impact on this world when you think about it starting with some people pretending to be elves and exploring a castle that never existed.

But man oh man, as evocative and inspiration as Gary's work was, it also has to be said that it was also a complete mess. Perhaps the combination and the results it had were not unrelated. Maybe the whole thing wouldn't have worked if it had been any other way. But while Gary was blowing people mind's and changing the way their imagination worked, he was confusing the hell out of everyone as well.

OD&D doesn't explain itself very well. Not at all. If someone unfamiliar with RPGs picks that up (especially decades later when Chainmail and Outdoor Survival aren't a trip to the hobby shop away), are they going to be able to sit down and play a game? Thirty-five years later and people still can't agree exactly what "By the Book OD&D" actually is. I have my sinister doubts that the "It's meant to be customized and house-ruled!" was intended from the beginning, a happy accident resulting from not knowing how to exactly explain what to do rather than an attempt to present an open-ended product.

That by itself wouldn't be a criticism of Gary's writing. RPGs were something brand new, and it wasn't expected to appeal to Middle American Youth that weren't also voracious wargame players. Certain forgiveness is to be made for a pioneer who presents something rough around the edges when nobody yet has a concept of what a slick presentation would look like, or even where the edges even are.

(I still wonder how bad Dave Arneson's organization had to be, if we take Tim Kask's accounts at face value, if it was considered horrendous by Gygaxian standards...)

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was a different story. This set of rules was intended from the start to be standardized and used for tournament play. It had one byline on the books - Gygax's - so no excuses, even if he obviously wasn't the sole contributor. The buck stopped with him.

And it's an organizational mess. Yes, the organization is logical, but it's hardly useful, and I defy anyone to tell me about one single session in which they ran an AD&D game by the book. Especially combat and initiative.

It can't be done.

I suspect J. Eric Holmes', Tom Moldvay's, and Frank Mentzer's efforts in providing Gygaxian-to-English translations and simplifications had a good amount to do with ongoing D&D play after AD&D came out. As it turns out, half the stuff people were doing with AD&D were actually based in the "Basic" versions of the game. Because by-the-book AD&D is impenetrable.

... which is strangely not a valid criticism of Gygax as a writer or D&D or AD&D as games. Because we took those things and played the hell out of them, and still continue to do so all this time later, with decades of RPG development of new offerings behind us, largely because of how Gygax wrote and how he energized the people around him. That's the way creative talent works... although it could be argued that the same impetus that got millions gaming also encouraged future revisions that we so revile today... but artists getting their creations mangled by the businessmen is an age-old tale as well.

Chapter 6: Searching and Researching

First up in this chapter? How to choose a role-playing game that's right for you! Seriously, on page 104 on a book on role-playing mastery, that's included all the stuff I've discussed (and much more - this analysis is intended as a companion for the book, not a bypass), it actually says, "If you are contemplating purchasing and learning a role-playing game for the first time..."

Yes, the logic is there (last chapter's explanation about how rules work together should enable someone to then know what kind of rules they'd want and blah blah blah) but it's absolutely insane to expect someone just getting interested, without having played yet, to sit through this book to get to this point where it starts talking to them.

So here we get the discussion of genres and the more popular games of the genres (for the record: Fantasy, science fantasy, science fiction, post-holocaust, horror, time travel, espionage, detective, and historical), and that goes for a few pages.

Then the section entitled Knowing the World of Your PC ramps up the Gygaxian Way of Things.

As a participant in a role-playing game campaign, you must be an expert on the world in which your game persona lives and has adventures.

Basically... you are commanded to study! Gary gives an example of a game he participated in at Stanford University (with Don Kaye, among others) in the mid-1960s called The Ad Hoc Committee for the Reconstruction of WWII.

I participated in the role of the Chinese Communist Commander... I proceeded to acquire books on the history, culture, agriculture, politics, and literature of China. I needed to know these things to understand the people and the politics of China. Of course, I bought maps, military histories, and even writings of Chairman Mao - the person I played in the game.

He then goes on to note that the game aborted before getting off the ground because the game directors were far too ambitious, but Gygax says he enjoyed the experience and the learning anyway.

Gygax notes that RPG campaigns don't require just fastidious scholarship, but "complete immersion in the make-believe world actually requires a fair amount of real knowledge."

... I recommend the reading of works such as A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, Town Government in the Sixteenth Century, The Domesday Book, The Welsh Wars of Edward II, and Numbers in History. Armor, weapons, fortification, siegecraft, costume, agriculture, politics, heraldry, and warfare are the meat and drink of a serious participant in a game such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Just one look at the pole-arm fetish present in the AD&D books lets you know he's not kidding.

He recommends, beyond careful study of the game you're about to play, reading the works of the authors that inspired the game. "The pyramid gets broader as we go deeper; in some cases, a really energetic student of a game based on a single author's work may benefit from examining the works that influence the author's and designer's sources, and so on."

Gygax also suggests investing in the games that may have influenced the design of the particular game you're about to play.

And as we go out into the seemingly batshit insanity even further:

Consider two other works. One is the Boy Scout Handbook. The other is the Army Survival Manual. If you were actually to perform or experience everything contained within the pages of these two books, you would be well on your way to becoming a true explorer. In real terms, you would be self-sufficient under extreme conditions; you would be able to survive, or at least to survive more easily and more comfortably, by using your knowledge. In game terms, you could use this same knowledge to enable your character(s) to function and survive under adverse physical conditions in the majority of the make-believe worlds of adventure. Since these make-believe worlds are, by and large, are actually based on Earth or at least on an Earthlike environment, your real-world knowledge is transferable. You (and your characters) will know how to determine direction and thus, it is hoped, keep from getting lost. You will know how to perform basic first aid, which could save the life of a character in dire straits. And the list goes on... Coupled with what you know now and what you will learn in the future, how much broader is your knowledge base? How much greater your self-sufficiency level in other conditions? While there is no method of actually learning magic and there are no starships to pilot (yet!), much of what lies between can be known.

I love that "(yet!)" in there.

I also love this idea that this player knowledge, in Gygax's view, is expected to be applicable in-game, otherwise independent of a character's abilities. Player knowledge and ability should matter, and people that are clueless outside of the game shouldn't suddenly expect to be clueful inside of it. This also means that knowledgeable players could take their GMs for a ride if the GM isn't up on half the stuff the players are.

Those of us in bloggyland designing campaigns and megadungeons right now aren't really prepared for all that, are we?

I do believe that this was not a new philosophy of Gygax's, as stories from his early games are filled with shout-outs to literature he's read, not to mention the foundation of the wargaming hobby was knowing a thing or two about strategy and tactics. He expected a role-playing game to use all the real-world knowledge the referee and player had, and he expected the game to extend that real-world knowledge even further.

It really sounds insane to suggest that sort of thinking in today's role-playing environment... and it certainly goes against Gygax's DMG admonition that this is simply an "amusing and diverting pastime."

But doesn't that just sound better than letting some stat on your sheet take care of everything for you?

Man, that was quite the chapter. Everything bad, and everything great, about Gygax contained within 14 pages.

Next up will be Chapter 7: Tactical Mastery.


  1. Wow. Very awesome. Great insight. I'm so glad I'm checking out these blogs after a few years away from gaming. Even though I started in the late 70's, there is a lot for me to learn about behind the scenes stuff. I never went to a lot of conventions or hung out at gamestores after my teen years, and it's blowing me away to hear gaming discussed in such brilliant terms and styles.

    I'm Looking forward to the next post on this. keep 'em coming.

    As for having to wing it with the rules before AD&D, well, I think it made us better DM's and gamers in general. I have a strong desire to chuck my current olds school AD&D game and go true old school - just using the first three original books like James at Grognardia and other old schoolers seem to be doing.

  2. I saw a video recently on YouTube where Gygax was interviewed for a film called "The Dungeons & Dragons Experience."

    He talked about how fans of the game had approached him over the years and thanked him sincerely for, among many other things, encouraging them toward higher learning.

    I'm going to offer up the opinion that, far from being "batshit insanity", Gary's passion for learning and *insistance* on expecting on nothing less from his readers, may be one of the great unsung virtues of his work.

    It's no exaggeration to say that I know a lot more about the world I inhabit now than I would have if I'd never taken the old man's advice and picked up some of those crusty old books!

  3. Rest assured that my use of the term 'batshit insanity' is purely sarcastic here, and mainly my guess as to what the average new role-player would think of the whole idea.

  4. I assumed that, Jim. Sorry if I seemed overly confrontational in doing so. I was just eager to shed another light on my experience with these writings.

    Probably just another case of people acclimated to he usual super-macho Internet slang talking right past one another.