Friday, October 10, 2008

Yet More Buzzwords

I'm always pleased when I see that people have taken something I wrote and run with it. That's what's happened over at the Paizo forums, where there's a long thread that spun off from my post about Gygaxian Naturalism. Aside from the generally thoughtful tone of the thread, I was particularly impressed with its introduction of two more terms that I plan to add to my vocabulary: Gygaxian Methodology and Gygaxian Canon.

As defined by poster Jeremy MacDonald, Gygaxian Methodology consists of:
the use of tables to enhance authenticity. Rules and rulings that don't have anything to do with the players but are simply aspects of the world at large. The creation of adventures that are internally consistent and not modified one way or another simply because your players party does or does not have a Paladin. Adventures that have secrets that might or might not be discovered by the players.

Authenticity is the key here even if it trumps story.

Gygaxian Canon on the other hand:
This is adherence to Gygax's original view of the monsters and their themes and of the Great Wheel Cosmology. Kobolds are fecund little dogmen, Mind Flayers plot to extinguish the sun and there are hints that that they are either from the future or the past but they are deffinitly not from this time line. Drow are led by powerful woman and they are always evil. They worship the Goddess Lolth.
In both cases, I have quibbles and qualifications I'd make, but I agree with the general thrust of both definitions. I find these new terms useful because they help to highlight where some of the fault lines lie in "old school" vs. "new school" debates, particularly as it relates to the WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons. In my case, it's the deviation from the Gygaxian Methodology (of which Naturalism is a sub-set) that bothers me more about the WotC editions than it is the deviations from the Gygaxian Canon.

Now, obviously, I like many aspects of the Canon and have indulged in my fair share of potshots at the re-evaluations of the Canon, but I'm actually much more open to doing so than I am to changes to the Methodology. For me, the Gygaxian Methodology is where D&D "lives," so to speak, and it's what has long distinguished it from other RPGs, both in the past and now. I have a lot of sympathy for folks who want to "save the Great Wheel" and all that, but I think it's a mistake to conflate D&D with the Gygaxian Canon, even if the Canon has such a long history with the game that it's practically synonymous with it. On this point, I don't think 4e necessarily made any mistakes by changing the Canon (even if I think many of the specific changes are just plain idiotic).

The Gygaxian Methodology, however, not only undergirds the game's mechanics (at least from late OD&D onward), but it's central to the way the game was played and experienced by most gamers before 1983 or thereabouts. That's where the "soul" of old school D&D resides, like it or not. Indeed, I suspect, far moreso than the Gygaxian Canon, it's the Methodology that's at the root of whether one has sympathy for the old school or not. That's not to say there aren't other parallel, equally valid Methodologies -- Dave Arneson assuredly has his own -- but I imagine these parallels share much with the Gygaxian one, so much so that you could easily create a superset to describe their characteristics.

With all that aside, I think it's a mistake to fixate too much on the Gygaxian Canon, love it though I do. Over the years, I've deviated from it in various ways and I plan to do so again in my next campaign. At the same time, I plan to hew very closely to the Gygaxian Methodology. One of the reasons I object to equating old school play with "a feel" is that this position tends to downplay the close connection between the Methodology and the mechanics. If you look back at the history of 2e, though, what you'll see is that each of TSR's many campaign settings either replaced large swaths of the core rules in order to accommodate a different Methodology or, if they didn't, gamers complained that the D&D rules weren't "right" for the setting in question. This is an important lesson to those who would argue that "old school" is a flavor that can be easily added to any rules set.


  1. It seems that I've been using Gygaxian Methodology without even knowing the term for it during the design of the Dungeon Not Yet Named.

    No conerns about balancing encounters towards a party other than consideration of what level of the dungeon they're placed in, using lots of tables to determine things within the setting, placement of secret and hidden clues that encourage thorough investigation, but are not part of the greater whole, and not worrying that an encounter might be too rough should the party not have an x,y or z within their ranks. That's what running away is for.

    I will now include this term in my gaming vocabulary and over-all design plan.

  2. It sure looks to me that if you start with nothing or as close to it as you can, the Method will lead you naturally away from the Canon. That leads to a natural tension between the DIY joys of striking out on your own and holy-crap-Greyhawk-is-awesome-why-am-I-wasting-time-making-my-own-setting-itis. But at the heart of the matter, I think the more we use the Canon the more we're cover bands when we maybe should be making our own rock-n-roll.

  3. But at the heart of the matter, I think the more we use the Canon the more we're cover bands when we maybe should be making our own rock-n-roll.

    Nicely said, as ever, Jeff.

    My feeling remains that undue devotion to the Gygaxian Canon inevitably leads to another version of brandification. Much as I love all the cool names and places Gary invented, it's wrong to locate "D&D" in any of them. They're just examples to inspire and guide rather than replace one's own creativity.

  4. If Gygaxian Canon is the first great rock standards, 2E is Muzak.