Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Emperor is Dead!

(Before your eyes glaze over: this post includes a fair bit of Tékumel talk, but it is not, strictly speaking, about Tékumel. Rather, Tékumel is being used as an example for my musings about a larger topic of interest, I hope, to players and referees of any RPG.)

Victor Raymond recently reminded me of an article that appeared in issue #6 of The Space Gamer (June/July 1976), approximately a year after the release of TSR's Empire of the Petal Throne – which is important, as you'll see. The issue contains an article written by Robert L. Large, Jr., in which he presents a report of a major event from his home EPT campaign, namely the death, at the age of 73, of the Seal Emperor of Tsolyánu, Hirkáne Tlakotáni. The report dwells not on the death of the God-Emperor but rather on the Kólumejàlim, "the Choosing of the Emperor," a ritual by which all the deceased emperor's children, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, contend with one another before the eyes of the Omnipotent Azure Legion to determine which of them will ascend the Petal Throne (while those who lose are ritually sacrificed to prevent the possibility of attempted usurpation and/or civil war). 

It should be noted that, at the time this article appeared, no such event had occurred on "Tékumel Prime," the version of Tékumel that Professor Barker presented to his players. (Hirkáne did eventually die in Barker's campaign but much later and under very different circumstances.) It's also worth noting that there were only three Tékumel sources available when Large's article appeared: Empire of the Petal Throne, War of Wizards, and a single article in the pages of The Strategic Review. Despite this, it's clear that Large had not only made Tékumel his own by extrapolating based on what he had read about the setting in those limited sources but also by introducing elements that made sense to him. He didn't hesitate or worry that he might do something differently than Professor Barker did. In short, he behaved as any good referee ought.

Large's account of the Kólumejàlim suggests that he actually played it out, allowing his players to take the roles of the various claimants to the Petal Throne. For example, the first part of the trials involved an arena duel, which Large notes was handled by means of FGU's Gladiators. Likewise, magical duels were handled by means of War of Wizards. Reading the article, two things struck me. The first is that Large involved his players in determining the outcome of this important campaign event, not as their player characters but as Imperial princes. The second is that the outcome itself was an unexpected one, owing no doubt to a combination of player action and dice rolls

Upon completing the article, I knew that, when the time comes for similar events to occur in my House of Worms campaign, I will involve the players too. A big reason why is the possibility of an unexpected result, one I'd never choose on my own. In Large's campaign, the ultimate winner of the contest between heirs was Princess Ma'ín, who has been described as spoiled and whimsical – hardly likely to emerge victorious in a real power struggle. And yet, in Large's campaign, she did and he describes how it came to pass. It's terrific stuff, all the more so because it seems as if the outcome was not predetermined or based on his own wishes. That's how it should be, in my opinion.

As a referee, I have certain predilections and tics that, absent other ideas, tend to impel me toward certain things. I love over-complicated intrigue, with factions fighting in the shadows. I also love magic, mystery, and secrets, which is why so many of my campaigns feature these elements, sometimes to their detriment. Left purely to my own devices, I will almost always develop my campaign in ways that highlight these things. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, especially if the players enjoy it. But, as I get older, I have become more and more convinced that, if one's goal is a long lasting campaign, it's vital that there be surprises and turns that no one, not even the referee, can predict. 

This is part of my renewed interest in wargames and conflict simulations. I remember, back in high school, being obsessed with learning more about "the Game" that GDW used to create the future history that connected Twilight: 2000 and Traveller: 2300. The notion that a game company had conducted a giant, free-form wargame/simulation to help them establish three hundred years of history was so incredibly compelling to me, not least because that future wasn't an obviously predictable one. Whatever flaws Traveller: 2300 had, I appreciated the way that its setting didn't fully embrace expectations, with its diminished USA and Russia and ascendant French Empire, for example. That's precisely the kind of unexpected turns I want in my campaigns too.

I have heard that the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór on Tékumel was intended, at least in part, as a way for miniatures gamers to get involved with the setting. Professor Barker was himself an avid player of miniatures wargaming and he fought many battles of this war against his players. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have allowed the results of those battles to have become canonical in his campaign, opting instead merely to take those elements of them he most liked. I can certainly understand why he might have done this, but, for me, the whole point of gaming out a crucial battle in the context of a campaign is to take its outcome somewhat out of my hands. I know I harp in this a lot but that's only because it's true: the referee is also a player and, as a player, he's as entitled to surprises as his players.

This is why I continue to seek new ways to "automate" campaign events or at least lessen the amount of impact my own preferences have on their outcome. I want my campaign worlds to live and grow somewhat of their own accord and much of the joy I get as a referee is in watching the players interact with the situations and NPCs I've created in unexpected ways. Few people enjoy knowing the ending of a story before they read it. Why should RPG campaigns be any different?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Retrospective: Thieves' Guild

Despite my Hamlet-esque waffling about the merits of thieves as a character class in Dungeons & Dragons, I'm actually a huge fan of the archetype of the thief. From Bilbo Baggins to the Gray Mouser to Cugel the Clever, fantasy literature is filled with innumerable examples of thieves, burglars, and mountebanks as protagonists, so many that it could reasonably be argued that the thief is a much more foundational fantasy archetype than the cleric (but that's an argument for a different time). Consequently, I've long had a hankering to run a campaign in which all the characters are members of a criminal gang in a fantasy city. Not only would this be a lot of fun but it's a set-up that drinks deeply from the literary wells that watered the early hobby.

In thinking about this, I was reminded of Thieves' Guild, a 1980 product written by Richard Meyer and Kerry Lord, published by Gamelords (whom I knew well from their many excellent Traveller books). Intended as "the first in a continuing series of player and GM aids providing rules and scenarios for adventuring in the medieval underworld," Thieves' Guild was not, in fact, a mere add-on to D&D or other fantasy RPGs – though it could be used as such – but rather a complete game in its own right, released as 128 three-hole punched pages in a bag. Its system, known by the rather bland name of the "FANTASY SYSTEM" [sic], is clearly a close cousin of both D&D  (it has levels, for example) and Basic Role-Playing, cribbing elements of both, resulting in something that is simultaneously just familiar enough to be largely intelligible without much effort but just different enough that you need to keep checking the rules to see how various aspects of play are handled. 

Rules-wise, Thieves' Guild is probably most notable in two areas. The first is in its selection of available character races. In addition to the usual suspects of humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits, there are also centaurs, goblins, kobolds, orcs, and pixies. There are also rules for cross-breeding these various races, should one care about such matters. More interesting, I think, are the skills, which, as one might expect, give a lot of attention to those used by thieves. There are also skills for many legitimate professions, quite a few of which have relevance in a campaign set in and around a large urban location. By most standards, the skill system is nothing special, but it's hard not to appreciate that the designers recognized the need to flesh out other professions in order to provide some context to the adventures of thieves. 

Intriguingly, there are no rules for magic in Thieves' Guild. Magic exists in the world of Gateway (as the game's setting is known) but it's not something thieves are likely to know. As in D&D, thieves can attempt to make use of scrolls, but it's a risky endeavor not to be undertaken lightly. More information is instead provided on combat, including various forms of non-lethal combat, since many thieves find it useful simply to incapacitate rather than kill (thereby leaving open the door for "rogues with hearts of gold" and similar characters). Disguises, fencing stolen goods, ransoming prisoners, and similar activities in which thieves might engage also get fair treatments, as do the workings of the Thieves' Guild and the legal system. None of these topics is covered at immense length, but the very fact that they're covered at all is a step up from most fantasy RPGs in 1980.

Where Thieves' Guild really stands out is in its scenarios, many of which are included after the rules. These scenarios are divided into categories, like "bandit," "highwayman," and "cat burglary," among others. In this way, the writers did a great service to referees and players alike, highlighting that the profession of thief includes more than just simple robbery. The breadth of scenario types is quite impressive and the scenarios themselves, while far from masterpieces, are nevertheless engaging. If nothing else, they offer the novice referee models to use in crafting his own, including maps of locations both outside and inside.

I never owned or saw Thieves' Guild back in the day, though I was aware of its existence from many advertisements in Dragon magazine. When I finally did see it years later, I wished I had encountered it sooner, as it's something I would almost certainly have enjoyed. Gamelords supported the line with supplements, each one offering additional scenarios and rules to expand the scope of a thief-centric fantasy campaign. The company also released a boxed set describing the Free City of Haven, another product I would have loved to have owned in my youth and only ever saw many years later. I have no idea how successful or well-received the series was, only that I think it remains a great idea and one I'd like to make use of at some point in the future.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Strange Attractor Press News

Back in October, Strange Attractor Press announced an upcoming anthology of pulp fantasy literature entitled Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons & Dragons. The book is now available for sale here. I hope to do a review of it at some point in the future. I'm particularly intrigued by its endpapers, which depict an old school blue-and-white dungeon that reminds me vaguely of the sample dungeon from the Holmes Basic Set. 

Different Worlds: Issue #3

Issue #3 of Different Worlds (June/July 1979) features a positively delightful cover by Tom Clark. It's exactly the kind of weird, "out there" art, neither clearly fantasy nor sci-fi, that I associate with the 1970s. Beautiful! The issue begins with a review of Bushido by Steven Lortz. The review is quite positive, praising the game for providing players with more to do than "kill and pillage." Immediately afterward come the next two articles in the "My Life and Role-Playing" series, this time offering up articles by two truly heavy hitters: Dave Arneson and Steve Perrin.

Arneson's contribution is both long and filled with details, most of which are probably well known nowadays. He states early on that "Blackmoor was not the first RPG that I was in. Not by a long shot." He then goes on to relate tales from earlier campaigns, such as the Napoleonic one set in the town of Brownstein [sic] and his adventures stirring up trouble in South America, two events discussed at greater length in the Secrets of Blackmoor film. The rest of the article is filled with biographical details, insights into Arneson's personal perspective on RPGs as an activity, and additional bits of history. Steve Perrin's article is similar, though the details differ, of course. Of particular interest to me is Perrin's reminiscences about the foundation of the Society of Creative Anachronism in 1966 and his involvement in it – involvement, I might add, that played a role in his development of both the Perrin Conventions for OD&D and the rules behind RuneQuest

"Research and Rules" is a short article by Steve Marsh, offering five steps for the creation of good RPG rules: Define the Thing to be Written About, Define the User/Situation, Get Acquainted with the Material, Simulate the Rules in Your Present Situation, and Understand the Whys. The article is brief, so none of these steps gets much attention, leaving the end result less satisfying than it might have been. Mike Ginderloy's "Specialty Mages" variant for Dungeons & Dragons gets a third part, this time presenting lightning, crystal, acid, and wind mages. 

"Role-Playing: How to Do It (An Immodest Proposal)" is a lengthy article by Clint Bigglestone, in which he offers his thoughts on both playing and GMing, with an emphasis on the former. Bigglestone is very interested in the creation of plausible characters based on all the factors that describe him, from his physical and mental game stats to cultural background. He also reminds readers that a RPG is a game and one should never lose sight of that fact, no matter how attached one becomes to a character. Dennis Sustare's "Druid's Valley" is an overview of his Bunnies & Burrows campaign setting. I found it incredibly fascinating, because he not only details the setting and its characters but also talks about events from his campaign and his reasoning as a referee. I love this kind of stuff and continue to find these articles some of the best material in Different Worlds.

"The Three Feathered Rivals Cult" by Ray Turney is, of course, a new cult for use with RuneQuest. "A Letter from Gigi" includes numerous bits of then-current gaming gossip, such as the ongoing lawsuit between Arneson and Gygax. Speaking of Gygax, the column comments on the advertisement from White Dwarf featuring Elise Gygax. Also mentioned is the appearance of "yet another article on pole arms" in the pages of Dragon. Apparently people were making fun of Gary's obsession even back in the day. "Different Views" is a collection of letters from readers, one of whom, John T. Sapienza, provides the issue's last article, "A New Cleric Cure System." A variant for D&D, Sapienza effectively rewrites the cleric class, turning it into more of a flexible healer class than a warrior-priest with some healing ability. I'm not sure I like it, but it's an intriguing take on the subject.

Issue #3 of Different Worlds is another good one, particularly in those articles were writers and designers of the hobby let us peak in on their own gaming. That's a topic of which I never tire and hope that future issues will bring more of this. Though I do appreciate rules options and variants, those can be found anywhere. What Different Worlds offers that I've rarely seen elsewhere is a glimpse of what it was like to play in the early days of the hobby and that is worth a great deal to me.

Monday, February 22, 2021


I'm knee-deep in putting the final touches on the text of issue #13 of my Tékumel fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, which I hope will be released sometime next month. The cover of the issue depicts an idol of the Salarvyáni goddess Shiringgáyi, as imagined by my regular cover artist, Zhu Bajiee

One thing that pleases me about this issue is that it includes a couple of articles by writers other than myself, something I hope continues in future issues. One of my goals for the 'zine has been to broaden not just interest in Tékumel but also contributions to it. It's a slow process, as people understandably feel that Tékumel is so complex and esoteric that they can't play in it, let alone write for it. Nevertheless, I soldier on and look forward to the release of yet another issue/

Pulp Fantasy Library: Bulfinch's Mythology

In my eternal quest to stretch the definition of "pulp fantasy" to the point of meaninglessness – or at least to "books I like and want to talk about this week" – I present Bulfinch's Mythology. I can't recall precisely when I first encountered this magnificent tome but it had to have been quite early, perhaps around the age of seven or eight. I borrowed it from the local library so often that one of my relatives purchased a copy of it for me and it became one of my prize possessions. I carried it with me everywhere I went for a couple of years and, even decades later, that original copy had pride of place on my bookshelves. Unfortunately, I misplaced it during one of my moves and never replaced it, partly because, if I did so, I'd want a copy just like the one I had in childhood, with its wonderfully evocative illustrations. 

Despite the fact that it is usually presented as a single volume, Bulfinch's Mythology is in fact a compilation of three different books, each one by the 19th century American writer, Thomas Bulfinch. The first of these books is The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes, first published in 1855. Consisting of forty-one chapters, The Age of Fable concerns itself primarily (but not exclusively) with the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. It was from these chapters that I first recall delving into the tales of Hercules and Theseus and Perseus and all their kin, both human and divine. Naturally, what I loved most were all the monsters these heroes fought – the minotaur, Medusa, the cylcopes – which left me with a lifelong affection for hideous beasts, not to mention an appetite for movies like Jason and the Argonauts or the various Sinbad films.

The Age of Fable didn't limit itself to Greco-Roman Antiquity, however. There were also chapters devoted to the myths and legends of the Egyptians, Persians, and Indians, as well as brief discussions of oddities like the medieval stories of Prester John. Even more appealing to me were the chapters devoted to the gods of the Norse. My first taste of Norse mythology came, I believe, in the pages of a reader in Grade 2. The reader included a story entitled something like "Thor's Visit to Jotunheim" and I was instantly hooked. I read this section of Bulfinch's Mythology over and over and it left a lasting impression on me that persists to the present day.

The second book book included in the collection is The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur, first published in 1858. Much like the Norse section of The Age of Fable, I read this portion of Bulfinch's Mythology often. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were among my favorites, which no doubt explains my immense fondness for Chaosium's Pendragon. In addition to the usual stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawaine, and the rest, Bulfinch also included plenty of social and cultural notes about medieval England that fascinated me. He also appended a section on the Welsh Mabinogion, some of whose stories form the basis of later Arthurian tales. Whereas I was aware of King Arthur before I read this book, I don't believe I'd ever heard of Geraint, Pwyll, or Branwen and so The Age of Chivalry was an eye-opener for me.

The third and final book included in Bulfinch's Mythology was Legends of Charlemagne, first published in 1863. Of the three, this is the one about whose contents I had the least knowledge, which is to say, no knowledge. Charlemagne was not a name I'd even heard of, so reading these stories of Rinaldo and Orlando, Bradamante and Rogero, not to mention Ogier the Dane. At the time, these didn't thrill me in quite the same way but I was nevertheless grateful for the knowledge they imparted to me, if only because they prepared me for the fateful day when I first cracked upon the Players Handbook and came across the paladin character class. In the years since, I've become much more of an aficionado of the Matter of France, though I've not yet acquired Chaosium's Paladin, an omission I'd like to rectify sometime in the coming years.

After Bulfinch's death, the three constituent books were collected together in a single volume in 1881 and became more or less the standard collection of myths and legends in the English speaking world (since superseded by many others, such as Edith Hamilton's Mythology.) Its impact on me was immense and I suspect that it had a similar effect on many of the writers and designers who had a hand in the creation of roleplaying games. The book is mentioned in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules, for example, which suggests it was still inspiring people as late as 1981. Regardless, Bulfinch's Mythology is a key component of my Appendix N and I am glad to have encountered it at a young and impressionable age.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

REVIEW: Knock! #1

Coinciding with – and fueled by – the Old School Renaissance, gaming fanzines have been undergoing a resurgence. 'Zines were a vital part of the early history of the hobby, serving not just as an "analog Internet" that enabled roleplayers to share ideas (and argue about them) but also as the incubator of rules innovations and even entire RPGs. That's why I'm genuinely gladdened to see so many fanzines being published and enjoyed in the 21st century. 

Another type of publication from those early days is the "companion," a compendium of new, alternate, and optional rules for an existing game and written by a pool of different writers. Chaosium was particularly well known for its companions, such as those for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu (while the never-produced D&D Companion – not to be confused with Frank Mentzer's Companion Rulesremains a topic of speculation for me). What I always liked about those companions of old was the way that the plethora of choices they offered, with no expectation that anyone would use all of them in any single game. "We take what we want and leave the rest, like your salad bar," as a wise man once said.

While companions as such have not had the same kind of resurgence that fanzines, there have been a number of publications that occupy a similar niche, such as Feretory for Mörk Borg, which, at the time, I described as both a gallimaufry and a smörgåsbord, but perhaps I should have said bric-a-brac. That's the word chosen by The Merry Mushmen to describe their remarkable publication, Knock!, the first issue of which was released recently. A full-color, 212-page, A5-sized softcover, Knock! is very much like those companions I enjoyed so much back in the day. Its content consists of dozens of articles by dozens of authors, ranging in size and content from single-page random tables to full adventures, complete with maps. Nearly everything you might imagine an old school fantasy RPG companion to contain – erudite musings, house rules, monsters, character classes, magic items, and more – can be found within the pages of issue #1. It's probably the most catholic presentation of old school gaming articles under a single cover published in the last decade – an impressive achievement by any stretch of the imagination.

Not all of the contents were to my taste. Indeed, there were a couple here and there that left me wondering why they were there at all (no, I'm not going to tell you which ones they were), but, as I've said in other contexts, so what? "Old school" has always been a broad church; not everything published under its banner will have universal appeal. Further, old schoolers are a cantankerous, opinionated lot who still break into arguments over the merits of alignment, race-as-class, and ascending armor class. What are the odds that any one of them would like everything in a given book? So, my cavils about one or two articles ultimately amount to little, though I do encourage anyone interested in Knock! to take a look at the list of contributors and some of its contents here.

I would be remiss in not commenting on Knock!'s layout and graphic design, which I jokingly described as "What if Mörk Borg used more than three colors?" Humor aside, Knock! does bear certain similarities with Mörk Borg, most notably its bold use of fonts, pull quotes, and other graphical elements to ensure that no two pages look the same. The result is striking without straining even my aged eyes, which is worthy of praise. The issue also features artwork by many notable old school artists and cartographers, such as Dyson Logos and Jason Sholtis, in addition to well-chosen bits of public domain artwork. All in all, it's a unique and impressive presentation.

Whether one ought to get issue #1 of Knock! depends, I imagine, on one's feelings toward gaming anthologies filled with a large diversity of articles by a large number of individual writers. Even if one is more open-minded than I, there might be some hesitancy about buying a grab bag of material like this one. In this case, though, I think it's unwarranted. The new classes (like the ne'er-do-well), monsters (like the treasure frog), and adventures alone are worth the price of the book and that's not taking into account the inspirational random tables (e.g. "300 Useless Magical Loot"), useful tools ("Sewers of Mistery"), rules options ("Hit Dice are Meant to be Rolled"), and thoughtful essays ("Borderlands") found within its pages. There's a lot to like here, whatever one's preferences and predilections.

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Groups without a referee"

While reading issue #22 of Dragon, I came across this advertisement from GDW relating to Traveller. The ad is for the game's first two supplements, Animal Encounters and 1001 Characters. Both supplements consist of pages of pregenerated material for use with the game. Over the years, I've found them to be great time savers, though nowadays I imagine that an online program of some sort would better serve the same purpose. 

 What's notable about the advertisement, though, is the way that it states that the supplements "are also useful to the solitary gamer, and to groups without a referee." Traveller's suitability for solitaire play has been remarked upon (and advertised) since the start and I can attest to how much pleasure I've got from simply rolling up characters and subsectors. It's not the same as playing an adventure or campaign with other people, but it's an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. On the other hand: "groups without a referee?" What does that even mean? Truly, I find myself baffled by this turn of phrase and wonder what such a group would look like. I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 112

Page 112 of the Dungeon Masters Guide contains a number of interesting sections, each of which is worthy of highlighting and discussions. For today, though, I want to focus on the section entitled "The Ongoing Campaign," since it relates to several topics near and dear to my heart. In the first paragraph, Gygax lays out one of the primary threats to a long campaign: boredom.

While it might seem highly unlikely to those who have not been involved in fantasy adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off – perhaps a few months or a year, depending on the intensity of play – some participants will become bored and move to other gaming forms, returning to your campaign only occasionally. Shortly thereafter even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges.

I find it intriguing that Gygax uses the phrase "fantasy adventure gaming" here. It's clearly a synonym for "fantasy role-playing game" and similar formulations, but it's also a reminder that, even in 1979, five years after the publication of OD&D, the matter of just what to call this hobby was still in flux (cue the comments telling me I need to read The Elusive Shift – yes, I do). 

In any case, what Gygax describes here is likely familiar to anyone who's been involved in the hobby for any length of time. Maintaining player interest is an eternal struggle and, in my experience, has only become stronger as the hobby has aged. As a younger person, the dangers lie in other activities or pursuits that competed with one's attention, while nowadays I've observed that it is the plethora of available RPGs that poses the greatest threat. "Gamer ADD" seems very prevalent these days and is the bane of any referee hoping to keep his campaign going for more than a few months. Despite this, Gygax holds out hope that "it is possible … to devise a campaign which will have a very minimal amount of participant attrition and enthusiast ennui, and it is not particularly difficult to do so."

He goes on:

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge, There must be always something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen.

This is a perennial topic for Gygax and one, I think, that was born out of extensive experience as a referee. He rightly understood that more fun – and long-term interest – depends in not a small way on the establishment of stakes for the players. This is why, for example, the possibility of character death is, in my opinion, vital to the long-term viability of a campaign. He continues:

Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be a backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in experience, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. 

Gygax packs a lot into this section, touching on three different topics in the space of a few sentences. First, he points out the necessity for a campaign setting, a wider world in which the characters live and against which their adventures are set. Second, he seems to suggest that the increase in a character's power, as represented by level and experience, mirrors their growth in importance in the setting itself. I don't think that's particularly controversial, but I'm not sure I've seen it articulated in this way. Finally, he connects the growth in character power to greater involvement to "the cosmic game." Given this perspective, it becomes clearer why Gygax continued place such an importance on alignment and why his Gord the Rogue series evolved the way it did. In any case, he clearly felt that one of the keys to keeping a campaign alive was to ensure that the actions of the player characters "have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement."

His next paragraph contains a great deal of wisdom as well.

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole, whether some side dungeon or quest or minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional "pure fun" scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment.

I can find little disagree with here, since it's all good sense, in particular the reminder that RPGs are, above all, games. This may explain in part his hostility toward amateur thespianism. Even if the two are unconnected, I do think we forget the "gamey-ness" of roleplaying at our peril. Like the pulp literature that inspired it, roleplaying games are meant to be enjoyed as a form of escapism. That's not to say that RPGs can't, let alone shouldn't occasionally touch on matters of lasting import, but that shouldn't be their primary purpose. Among the many lessons I've learned from my ongoing House of Worms campaign is that "serious" matters should never predominate. Continued enthusiasm and long-term engagement comes from an emphasis on "adventuresome" matters placed in a larger context and punctuated by occasional diversions. I'd say that Gygax's advice in the Dungeon Masters Guide comports with my own experience quite closely, demonstrating that, whatever his flaws as a businessman or public face for TSR, he knew what he was talking about when it came to refereeing. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Gygax, SPI, and AD&D

Issue #22 of Dragon (February 1979) is noteworthy for its inclusion of a lengthy "sneak preview" of the upcoming (August 1979) release of the Dungeon Masters Guide. The issue reprints most of the significant charts and tables from the DMG, as well as many new magic items (all of which, I believe, had appeared in AD&D modules) to help bridge the gap between OD&D and AD&D. As a historical document of the interim period between the publication of the last OD&D supplement (1976) and the completion of AD&D, I find it fascinating.

Even more fascinating, though, is a short piece by Gary Gygax entitled "SPI on AD&D®" (please note the registered trademark symbol). In it, Gygax is reacting to "a recent review of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® PLAYERS HANDBOOK on SPI's house organ, STRATEGY & TACTICS." Gygax doesn't cite the specific issue in which this review, by Richard Berg, appears, but I assume it must be from either late 1978 or early 1979. He takes issue with Berg's comments on the PHB and accuses him of "pontificating from a lofty height," despite the fact that Berg "does not play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS®." According to Gygax, Berg's sin is in asserting that the "PLAYERS HANDBOOK was not a game design but merely a rewriting of what had already been given in the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS." Now we begin to see the crux of the matter!

Gygax sums up his position in the article's last paragraph:

Leaving aside the schoolyard name-calling, it's clear that what really chaps Gygax's hide is the not-unreasonable claim that AD&D is derivative of OD&D. Despite his boasting about sales, I don't believe it was because his ego was bruised that Gygax wrote this and other similar articles in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. Rather, it's because, at this moment in time, Dave Arneson was launching court cases against TSR predicated in large part on the claim that he was owed royalties for works derivative of OD&D. If, as Berg suggests, AD&D is nothing more than a rehash of OD&D, then Arneson's claim has some credence and TSR would owe him a great deal of money. 

I don't think this is controversial; others have commented on it many times before. What I find interesting about this particular instance is that Gygax – and presumably TSR – felt the need to vociferously denounce a single review that, from what I gather wasn't even negative in the main, simply because its author alluded to the ultimate pedigree of AD&D. Granted, Strategy & Tactics was an important and influential hobby magazine at the time and Berg an important designer, but, absent context, Gygax's little article seems needlessly incendiary and petty. When one realizes how much was actually at stake, it begins to make much more sense, though I still can't help but feel that Gygax's approach was unworthy of him.