Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Are They All Crazy?

I've been known to say that the past is a foreign country By this, I only mean that, when looking at the past, we would do well to approach it with unbiased eyes, lest we become baffled by how different things were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. This is especially true when you're looking at the history of RPGs. Nowadays, the term "roleplaying game" is widely known and understood, even by people who have never played one. In 1981, though, it was a comparatively new coinage and sometimes misunderstood. Furthermore, the premier RPG – then, as now – was Dungeons & Dragons and had acquired associations in the minds of some that made the entire hobby seem like the realm of weirdos and deviants. 

That's the context for the penultimate chapter of J. Eric Holmes's 1981 book, Fantasy Role Playing Games. Entitled "Are They All Crazy?," the chapter seeks to address popular questions, such as "Isn't that the game where the students from Michigan were playing in the steam tunnels and one of them got killed?" As an avid player of the game, as well as a physician who taught at the Department of Neurology at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, Holmes had both a personal and professional interest in confronting these and other questions. From the vantage point of 2020, some of these concerns no doubt seem bizarre, but, as many readers will no doubt attest, they were not uncommon at the time. The chapter is fascinating too for the insight it provides into what the gaming scene was like four decades ago.

Holmes immediately notes that at least some players of RPGs encourage the impression that the hobby is odd, because they gain "some sort of status from the reputation for unusual behavior." This wasn't true in my own personal experience, but, given the behavior of friends involved in other "odd" sub-cultures, I can believe it to be the case. He adds that charges of "obsession" are misplaced, as it's in the nature of teenagers, who form a prime demographic for RPGs, to become single minded about a subject, "whether it be rock music, or baseball, or Dungeons & Dragons, or a new girlfriend."  Furthermore, compared to many other activities in which teenagers might engage, RPGs are quite tame, even beneficial in many ways.

Holmes puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that roleplaying games are a social activity, which helps "shy, introverted people who have problems getting along with others" to learn to overcome those handicaps. Learning to cooperate with others is one of "the moral lessons built into the game," one he believes was intentionally placed there by Gary Gygax.

In the D&D world fighters can not do magic, but magicians are so weak that they need to be protected by fighters. Clerics can heal wounds and do a lot of fighting but are no good at long distance offensives because they can not shoot arrows or throw offensive spells. The constraints of the rules practically dictate cooperation and mutual respect for the talents and weaknesses of each class, and I find it hard to believe that Gygax was not fully conscious of the principle when he wrote them.

It's an intriguing thesis, though I don't imagine it will hold much weight with many. Regardless, it's merely one of Holmes's examples of the essentially beneficial nature of the hobby. He also cites the games' encouragement of reading.

Anyone who can master Gygax's prose and vocabulary has to be able to read at college level. The Advanced D&D Dungeon Master's Guide does have a short glossary, but the reader will need a regular English dictionary to get through book. How many of my readers (who are not Dungeon Masters), for instance can define: ethereal, levitation, barbican, machicolation, oligarchy, chevalier, polymorph, lammasu, shaman, or chalcedony, to pick a few at random?

There's much truth in this, as we've discussed previously. Holmes also claims that RPGs teach "map reading, memorization, problem solving, and a fair amount of rapid arithmetic." His point here is not so much that RPGs should be played solely for their moral or scholastic benefits, only that, far from being wastes of time, roleplaying games do confer benefits on those who participate in them.

The chief benefit, in his opinion, is allowing players to develop their imaginations. 

Without imaginary speculation about what might be or might have been there would be no religion, no literature, no atomic physics, no molecular biology. Human progress comes from man's ability to speculate imaginatively about things he does not understand and then translate those speculations into action.

He also addresses "all the violence and bloodshed" that occurs in some gaming sessions first by pointing out that "conflict is the stuff of drama" and then agreeing with H.G. Wells, who in his Little Wars, noted that imaginary conflict is much better than the real thing. He goes on to say that there is nothing wrong in "letting off a little steam ... [by] daydreaming of punching the boss in the face." Because society often denies people easy outlets for such feelings, RPGs provides them with a way of doing so harmlessly. 

Holmes concludes this chapter by pondering why roleplaying games have become so popular. His answer is worth pondering, because I think his answer is a good, though incomplete one:

the appeal of the games comes from the element of escape from reality which is not solitary but social, a return to the childhood world of "Let's pretend." It fulfills the secret desire we all cherish, to find a world where the heroes are always handsome, the heroines always lovely, good is always beautiful, and evil is always ugly. It is a world as one would like it to be, people by a finer, or at least more powerful version of our very selves.

I say "incomplete," because I think Holmes has forgotten to address why the referee might enjoy RPGs. His answer applies largely to players and overlooks the distinct pleasures that come from what Tolkien called the act of sub-creation. Over the course of my four decades in the hobby, I've primarily been a referee rather than a player and it's creating and orchestrating imaginary worlds that give me joy. This isn't a criticism of Holmes; I simply thought it important to note that he seems not to have considered this other reason for the appeal of the hobby.


  1. I don't know that Holmes's answer is as incomplete as you suggest. He speaks of a desire to find a "world as one would like it to be"; replace "find" with "make" and you have the referee's source of pleasure.

  2. Somehow, as a kid, I was already well aware of 'role playing' as a term for a tool in psychology. So at first I though that D&D was created by a doctor who turned his therapy technique into a game.
    So 'crazy' was in its DNA.

  3. Thanks for mining these great thoughts from Holmes! He was a good thinker and it shows. I love his basic set and sample dungeon.

  4. Nice insight. I think that Holmes is one of the few intellectuals who was around at that time in gaming. He loved the game was also intrigued by it and wanted to understand it better. And then share that insight with us.

    At 48yo I agree with his comments. It's certainly what brought me back to a hobby that I stopped 25 previously. That plus trying to educate my own kids as to where many of the conventions and themes in games such as minecraft come from.

  5. This book brings back memories. I picked it up in a 2nd hand bookshop in Belgium(!) somewhere during the mid-eighties, and in a sense, it was a big revelation to me. Up to that point, I wasn't really aware of roleplaying games, being mostly a wargamer. So in a sense, this book was partly the entry into the hobby for me.

  6. This was great to read. Arguably Arnson and Gygax were intellectual in their own way. MAR Barker certainly was. Happy a few people read that book.