Thursday, February 19, 2009

High Gygaxian

Whatever other virtues later editions of Dungeons & Dragons may possess, none of them can compare to the baroque splendor of High Gygaxian speech. It is, hands down, the one thing I miss most about D&D. Reading Gygax at his florid best -- even when he's misusing words, which he sometimes did -- transports me in a way that no other gaming books ever have. Consider this classic description of the alignment restrictions on the assassin class:
Assassins are evil in alignment (perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal).
Perforce? Anthithesis of weal? Who writes like that anymore? In what game book can you find such prose nowadays?

Modern game books read like what they are: technical manuals. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I much prefer my roleplaying books to be quirky, idiosyncratic things that reveal the mind of their authors. I like to be reminded that there was an actual human being behind these volumes, whose word choices reflect his personality and preferences rather than the demands of mere utility.

High Gygaxian speech sounds to me like a local dialect of High Vancian. I once told Gary my opinion on this and he demurred. He didn't think his own peculiar voice was anywhere as erudite and witty as that of Jack Vance, saying that it was mostly the result of his having read a lot of rather "old fashioned" books when he was a kid, coupled with his lifelong love of dictionaries and thesauruses. Even so, there's something rapturous about the way Gary wrote and it's part of the lasting appeal 1e has for me. There are hints of it in OD&D, even in the three little brown books, but it's not until later that it reaches its fullest flower.

I know there are many for whom High Gygaxian is the thing they miss least about D&D. I can certainly understand not liking the particular way Gary wrote, as it's an acquired taste, but I have a hard time fathoming a preference for game books being treated primarily as instruction manuals rather than as occasions to inspire, exhort, and enchant one's imagination through words, like this bit from Vault of the Drow:
The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite -- which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.

The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.
Again, I say, you'll find few passages in contemporary adventures that are as evocative.

Like Gary himself, I've demurred when someone called my style of writing "Gygaxian." I lack Gary's flair and too many years in academia have infected my writing with adverbitis. Yet, I can't deny that High Gygaxian was a major influence on me as a kid. I know that my vocabulary grew considerably as a result of reading my AD&D books. His writing was challenging and often difficult to decipher, but it also showed me the importance of finding one's own unique voice and using it to make connections to other people. Goodness knows Gary connected to me through his writings and, as I've been recently reminded, in this respect I certainly am following in his footsteps.

47 comments:

  1. I owe several portions of my vocabulary to Gygax, even though I found his voice a bit frustratingly verbose at times. In the context of Role Playing Books, I often had to puzzle them out via context or go scrambling to the Oxford.

    Those words just seep in whether one wishes them to or not, as any eight year old kid who could use the word legerdemain in a sentence could tell you. Gygax taught me that sometimes it's actually preferable to use a platinum word when one worth a copper would do.

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  2. The description of the Vault of the Drow is great. It perfectly straddles the realms of the ridiculous and the evocative.

    Therein lies it charm.

    I think what makes this prose work in the final analysis is that, despite what some might call "over-writing," it really manages to express and capture Gygax's sheer excitement in his imaginary creation. As a boy, I read that passage again and again and again.

    I think its beautiful.

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  3. I remember being surprised that a teacher praised my vocabulary when I used the phrase "feign death" in a history assignment.

    What surprises me more though is how much I dislike EGG's fiction writing, when you consider how much I enjoyed his gaming writing. For some reason I just found his fiction to be so much lamentable belaborment.

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  4. Say what you will about his colourful (verbose) style of writing, but I had to wrap my head around all that vexing text with dyslexia! AD&D was the only rules available to me at the time, and I had to learn it on my own. All the effort helped me overcome my disability! At the time, I was really annoyed, but I was damned determined, and later I became more appreciative - after all, it opened a whole wide world of literature to me, and for that, I'm vary, vary thankful!!! :D

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  5. I remember getting the Dungeon master's Guide and reading bits of it over and over just for the occult allure of the language. I knew I wasn't understanding half of it, but that was part of the appeal.

    I'll bet that PTR's story about "feign death" is true in soem version or another for many of us. I think mine was "portcullis".

    What? Doesn't every fifth grader use that word? :)

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  6. Gygax's descriptive text was marvelous... but perhaps the technical writing bits - the actual rules - were not best served by this style.

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  7. Yeah, I think there's a point at which the Gygaxian style becomes a hindrance - i.e. when explaining the rules. For flavour, it's great.

    I have to take issue with the idea that modern gamebooks are all like technical manuals though. Most are, but some - notably Changeling: The Dreaming, Unknown Armies, Ars Magica and some others - are pretty nicely written, I think.

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  8. There's no doubt that Gary's writing style drew me into the game, engaged me, and made me want to stay there. I actually think the fact that it permeated the rules was a benefit, not a hindrance, as it created the sense of this other world into which we were venturing. Conversely, the modern, technical style has reached its nadir in the D&D 4E rulebooks, which have had all the flavour squeezed out of them, and are painfully unreadable in their blandness.

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  9. I know that my vocabulary grew considerably as a result of reading my AD&D books. His writing was challenging and often difficult to decipher, but it also showed me the importance of finding one's own unique voice..

    I loved (and still appreciate) Gygax's baroque style, perhaps a little too much and a little too early. Though all-in-all it probably improved my writing tremendously, it was quite the minor hindrance when I started writing academic papers. I once had a Roman history professor give me a "C" on a term paper, explaining that I wrote like a "19th century German metaphysician." Took me a moment to realize it wasn't a compliment, and that I needed to tone it down some :).

    On the word misuse side of the equation, there were a number of words I myself misused and resisted guidance about until a fairly late stage, simply because I assumed that because Gygax was brilliant that his usage was definitive. I still spell "ax" with an "e" on the end sometimes..not that it comes up that often.

    He certainly didn't write at the recommended 3rd grade (or whatever it is) journalistic level, though, and my appreciation for that at age 11 was tremendous. And I think it had a lot to do with my subsequent high scores on certain college entrance exams.

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  10. I can't agree more. (And after yesterday, thanks for the opportunity, James.) I have always had a deep appreciation for EGG's writing style. It's evocative and intelligent. Personally, I enjoy books that represent an intellectual challenge to the reader, and I wish more RPGs took full advantage of the fact that most gamers are uncommonly intelligent people. Gary's writing was both a challenge and a service to my 8 year-old mind.

    My own RPG writing is tainted by a scientific career. However I do make a point to set the bar a bit above the lowest common denominator (see?!), and restrain from dumbing things down.

    Now I am not against 4E in all aspects... however as an example, I found those character race blurbs: "Play a dragonborn if you want... to look like a dragon!" to be downright insulting. -It made me feel like my 33 year-old self was crawling around the McDonald PlayPlace. -Kinda dirty.

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  11. Gygax taught me that sometimes it's actually preferable to use a platinum word when one worth a copper would do.

    That's very well put!

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  12. It perfectly straddles the realms of the ridiculous and the evocative.

    Also very well said! I think you raise a very important point here: D&D itself straddles the realms of the ridiculous and the evocative. Part of the appeal of High Gygaxian for me is that it conveys this dual nature of the game better than most other prose does.

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  13. For some reason I just found his fiction to be so much lamentable belaborment.

    Gygax's fiction is very hit or miss with me. I still adore Saga of Old City, his first Gord the Rogue novel, which is a terrific pastiche of Leiber, but most of his later fiction leaves me cold. I'm reading his Death in Delhi right now as part of my monthly Planet Stories fix and I'm ambivalent about it. It's better than expected but certainly not high art.

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  14. All the effort helped me overcome my disability!

    That's really remarkable. Wow.

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  15. I'll bet that PTR's story about "feign death" is true in soem version or another for many of us. I think mine was "portcullis".

    With me, it was all those Latin abbreviations. It's a wonder my teachers didn't slap me around for being such a show-off.

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  16. Gygax's descriptive text was marvelous... but perhaps the technical writing bits - the actual rules - were not best served by this style.

    I hear people say this, but, honestly, I can't recall a single instance where AD&D's rules issues were the result of High Gygaxian prose. When 1e's rules were hard to understand, more often than not, it was because the rules were wonky (like unarmed combat) rather than badly written.

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  17. I have to take issue with the idea that modern gamebooks are all like technical manuals though. Most are, but some - notably Changeling: The Dreaming, Unknown Armies, Ars Magica and some others - are pretty nicely written, I think.

    Oh, certainly there are some modern games that are well written and evocative, but those are exceptions rather than the norm. In my experience, when games nowadays diverge from the technical manual approach, they tend to be written "in character" instead and that frequently annoys me. The faux cowboy patois of Deadlands was, for me, a HUGE turn-off, even if it was evocative in a way.

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  18. That description from the Vault of the Drow is one of my favorite passages anywhere in gaming literature. It's amazing. I love authors who can conjure a vision with words and description. That passage approaches the degree of talent of my favorite author, Clark Ashton Smith -- a true wizard with words.

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  19. >>I hear people say this, but, honestly, I can't recall a single instance where AD&D's rules issues were the result of High Gygaxian prose. When 1e's rules were hard to understand, more often than not, it was because the rules were wonky (like unarmed combat) rather than badly written.

    I see this as two sides of the same coin. His writing was unnecessarily flowery (yet that excess gave the writing its unique style and charm and was a key ingredient in igniting a lot of imaginations), and his mechanics (unarmed combat, initiative, training, etc) was similarly flowery, but the result might not be called "charm."

    I don't think it's an accident that Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer are all much easier to grasp than OD&D or AD&D (I also think there is a reason why a lot of people were using, sometimes unwittingly, "Basic" D&D mechanics in their AD&D game), and I don't think it all comes down to intended audience.

    (Not that this is a strict criticism of Gygax, since if his mind worked differently and his style wasn't as it is, we's likely all be doing something far different as far as hobbies go...)

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  20. It is the first time that I've read Gygax' description of the Vault of teh Drow, and it's Gygax at his best. There is nothing ridiculous about it and it even falls short of becoming purple prose, his style in that instance less tedious than, say, Bernard Cornwall's or tolkien's. Keep in mind that he is describing an underground geodesic dome, and in 1970's those were a cutting edge concept in civil engineering, methinks. What makes Gygax' AD&D writing great (and there are different kinds of great writing), is that in tradition of Shakespeare (and less famously, Dean Koontz) when he wrote his game manuals, he brought his vision, his entire knowledge and world view into the writing of his manuals. Just like when Stephen Jay Gould used to write about biology, he wasn't just writing about biology, but also about history and his philosophy. To paraphrase, Gary Gygax' AD&D writing WAS his philosophy, which makes him interesting to read, whether you agree with him or not. This quality of writing already starts lacking in the "Complete book..." AD&D 2nd Edition supplements. The problem with later editions and with other RPG books is not that that are technical manuals, but that they were written as brightly colored marketing packages by graphic designers and by committees seeking to produce a simple and playable product that would interest a pre-teen. Any notion of intellectualism is gone from the WOTC, along with Gygaxian bombast and the fascination with the occult, gothicism and baroqueness.

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  21. He certainly didn't write at the recommended 3rd grade (or whatever it is) journalistic level, though, and my appreciation for that at age 11 was tremendous. And I think it had a lot to do with my subsequent high scores on certain college entrance exams.

    Again, I expect your experiences are not unusual. I know many people whose appreciation for the English language was greatly enhanced because of Gygax.

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  22. (I also think there is a reason why a lot of people were using, sometimes unwittingly, "Basic" D&D mechanics in their AD&D game), and I don't think it all comes down to intended audience.

    I attribute that to the fact that, at least when I started in the hobby, we didn't really make fine distinctions between the game lines. They were all D&D to us and so we used them interchangeably. At least in my group, we swiped rules equally from Holmes, Moldvay, and AD&D. For example, we used Moldvay initiative and 1e weapon vs AC and speed factors never thought twice about it. I don't think our preference for simpler initiative rules had anything to do with High Gygaxian; it was simply that we preferred the Moldvay approach in this case.

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  23. To paraphrase, Gary Gygax' AD&D writing WAS his philosophy, which makes him interesting to read, whether you agree with him or not.

    Absolutely. As I said in my post, you know there was a real person behind the High Gygaxian prose, not a Turing machine. Sometimes that was good and sometimes that was bad but it was always interesting. I certainly can't say the same for later editions of the game.

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  24. Now I am not against 4E in all aspects... however as an example, I found those character race blurbs: "Play a dragonborn if you want... to look like a dragon!" to be downright insulting. -It made me feel like my 33 year-old self was crawling around the McDonald PlayPlace. -Kinda dirty.

    4e strikes me as very much in line with the writing in 3e, which I also disliked. I found the regular use of the pronoun "you" to refer to the character to be a confusing infelicity, for example.

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  25. 4e strikes me as very much in line with the writing in 3e, which I also disliked. I found the regular use of the pronoun "you" to refer to the character to be a confusing infelicity, for example.

    Agreed. 3E succeeded in turning me off from the D&D line, which probably had as much to do with style as it did with substance. I really was hoping 3E would be a hybrid of what I saw to be the best of 1E and 2E, including the style. Of course, I wasn't surprised WoTC didn't work to my satisfy my personal tastes. However, they did give the gift of the OGL and I thank them for that.

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  26. I, too, miss the individual voice - although once again I have to recommend GURPS Goblins as the most evocative and slyly witty game book I've read.

    There's an aspect of Gary's writing that has come to bother me over time, though, and that is exactly the "moral direction" of D&D. It's nicely captured in the crusading/manifest destiny tone of the "go adventure" piece you quoted recently, and another aspect of it is here:
    the killing of humans and other intelligent life for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal

    You need to have a very particular kind of blindness, I think, not to spot any contradictions here. He's writing in and for a genre, of course, and I don't know the gamut of his writings so there may be a place where he drops the mask and reveals another side. I think the point is relevant, because I think this moral direction, while it opens up certain vistas for gaming, forecloses a lot of others.

    I know this is OT. If you reply with a number, I'll understand.

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  27. Another good post.

    You know, I revel whenever reading I come across an unfamiliar word or turn of phrase. I enjoy making the effort to learn about it. Gary and his game always gave me learning opportunities, which was part of the attraction.

    This was one of those things I admire about Gary. He expected that his reader knew how to use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a library. Well, that may not be the right way to put it. Probably more accurate to simply say that he wrote as if he were writing to himself. Simply being himself. Neither striving for more or less.

    If his wording obscured a rule, I think Gary wouldn’t have cared. More often than not, he seemed to think the rules didn’t need to be precisely formed, precisely communicated, or precisely followed. (I recall the time he stopped by the C&C playtest forum to let us know he thought we were arguing over trifles.)

    There are still writers in this hobby who have and don’t hide their own voice. Of course, their own voice isn’t Gygaxian, and it shouldn’t be.

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  28. You mean not everybody wrote rulebooks in this manner? ;)

    Honestly, it never occurred to me back in the day (from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears 15 year old) that Gary's prosaic style of rules writing was anything more than than the standard for such things. I expected that the reason I didn't know many of the words I read was because I was a youngster reading adult materials. Obviously, I thought, The author is older than I, and more worldly. Therefore, I too must learn to write like this to be an adult.

    Ah, youth. To this day, my writing "voice" is much more deliberate, polysyllabic, and - dare I say, flowery - than my speaking voice. Thank you, Gary. :)

    [BTW: "Tumkeoite?" "Lacofcite?" Cute. :P]

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  29. [BTW again: I use the term "prosaic" here to mean rules written in prose - not to mean dull. Just in case anybody thinks I would dare call Gary's writing "dull." :P]

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  30. "That's really remarkable. Wow."

    Yes it is! After EGG passed away, I was reading a flood of comments and replies on online memorials, and in all the clutter, I found that I was not the only one who was benefited by his word-heavy writing style - and that is something truly special and touching!

    If I got into the game through an easy to read book like the B/X rules, I would likely stuck with just comic books and video games as my primary source of literature and gaming. By the way, I have read the 4e DMG, and as someone who has been through remedial (special) education system - I have NEVER read anything that so treats the reader like a dame slack-jawed retard!!!

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  31. When we talk about Gygaxian prose, it's interesting to me to note the context of when he was writing. The DMG, the greatest artifact of the High Gygaxian mode, was written by 1979, when the game was still sunk deep into its hobbyist roots. There was still a tension between TSR's desire to publish definitive rules - which the DMG managed to become, to some extent - and the hobby orientation of the game at large. Gygax was writing to a definite conversation, and not a timeless void, in which his word was hotly contested and controversial, and absolutely not holy writ.

    In many ways, I think we can say that Gygax won the conversation. AD&D left the plane it had been on and became "the rules" to a far greater extent than OD&D had been. After that, the whole idea of an individual writing in a hobby context was replaced by the idea of a company handing out the official rules as holy writ. WotC, which is used to producing competetive games where rules fidelity trumps imagination ten times out of ten, has taken this style to the point where the current rulebooks are too boring to read.

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  32. Gary Gygax could use the words 'fane' and 'fain' in their correct contexts *and* with a straight face. For that I salute him.

    We need more gamebooks written in High Gygaxian: it's a subtle linguistic cue telling you that "you ain't in Kansas anymore. Expect the uncanny, the baroque and the exotic."

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  33. I love High Gygaxian as well. But let us not kid ourselves, it's not exactly accessible, which I suspect is part of the reason it went away, for good or ill.

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  34. However, they did give the gift of the OGL and I thank them for that.

    That they did and I am forever thankful for the work guys like Ryan Dancey did to ensure that at least a part of the Gygaxo-Arnesonian heritage of the game survives the vicissitudes of WotC's brand strategy.

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  35. You need to have a very particular kind of blindness, I think, not to spot any contradictions here. He's writing in and for a genre, of course, and I don't know the gamut of his writings so there may be a place where he drops the mask and reveals another side. I think the point is relevant, because I think this moral direction, while it opens up certain vistas for gaming, forecloses a lot of others.

    I think Gary would have been the first to admit that D&D isn't a "values neutral" game and that it brings with it a number of philosophical assumptions in its default style of play. People can and have altered those assumptions, but, by my lights anyway, the end result is usually a game that feels nothing like D&D. For some, that's a good thing, for others not. For myself, it's not a huge issue, since I play the game in a swords-and-sorcery fashion, with all the moral depth that entails.

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  36. There are still writers in this hobby who have and don’t hide their own voice. Of course, their own voice isn’t Gygaxian, and it shouldn’t be.

    Very well said.

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  37. But let us not kid ourselves, it's not exactly accessible, which I suspect is part of the reason it went away, for good or ill.

    I don't think it's inaccessible so much as hard to access without the determination to do so. I mean, when I first read the DMG at the tender age of 11, I certainly didn't understand a lot of the words Gygax used. So, I popped open a dictionary and barreled my way through it, in the process gaining both a better vocabulary and some stylistic flourishes that I retain to the present day.

    High Gygaxian is challenging certainly. It's not written at the Grade 5 level of comprehension that modern newspapers are, but I think that's a good thing. Gamers love to think of themselves as smarter than the average person and so Gary wrote as if that self-perception were indeed true.

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  38. Ah.

    This was, in fact, the moment, that my parents decided, Satanic or not, D&D was OK.

    We were in the car somewhere, and I piped up something about meritocracies, gerontocracies, and autocracies.

    They asked me if I'd learnedabout these various government types in school. Surprised, I answered, "No, D&D."

    From that moment on, in my household, Gary Gygax and his works were A-OK.

    Adam

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  39. I thought you’d like to know that this blog post was mentioned in Dragon #383. In the “D&D Alumni” column, Bart Carrol looks back at the historical background and development of the Underdark. At one point he writes:

    - - -

    It’s rich narrative, which often made these adventures such glorious reading for the DMs (regardless of how much detail was passed on to the actual players). James Maliszwski, author of the Grognardia blog, noted as much in his “High Gygaxian” article, describing similar language used later in the series for the Vault of the Drow.

    - - -

    With links to your blog as well as to this specific article.

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  40. And the correct spelling is of course “Bart Carroll”.

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  41. Better than High Lovecraftian, at any rate.

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  42. Gygax wrote with his audience in mind. In the late 1970's, this meant the sort of genius types who could appreciate his writing style.

    While I did not understand every word, I understood the context.

    Gygax's writing style makes sense when you read Lovecraft and Howard. These two writers were clearly strong influences on Gygax.

    But the Vault of the Drow! Magic! Hell...the very word "drow," plucked out of the Dark Ages word pool and given new meaning...genius.

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  43. It is the magic ingredient missing in so many RPG books today. I vividly remember playing a module in college when the gamemaster read a room description that Gygax had written that prominently featured a magical ewer. "Ewer"? What the hell is that? We searched dictionaries but none of them contained such an archaic word. We decided it was some sort of staff and moved on (although there was considerable chortling that it could be a new type of pole arm). Only years later did I discover it was a pitcher. LOL!

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  44. I enjoyed this sort of writing when I was a kid. My only comment is that I'm sad we tend to refer to this style as baroque, because this flowery, wordy language has far more in common with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and other 19th-century writers than it does with the literature of the baroque era, especially in its devotion to the thesaurus.

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  45. Wonderful. This love of those old books, their smell, the obtuse and antiquated prose, these are the things that drew me back to this hobby and inspired me to start blogging about it.

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