Thursday, January 21, 2021

Individualistic and Imaginative

Issue #2 of Lee Gold's famed Alarums & Excursions (July 1975) is well known for having published a letter by Gary Gygax, in which he offers his opinion on a number of topics, the most interesting part of which (to me anyway) is the following:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark. Let us consider the magic-user question.

Needless to say, I approve very strongly of what Gygax says here, but it's worth noting that it would seem to be in contradiction to his later statements that OD&D was a "non-game" because of its high degree of variability. This is an area of great interest to me: how individual referees took OD&D's basic framework and ran with it in different ways to suit their own campaigns. Even now, I love hearing about house rules and unique interpretations and implementations of the sparse text of OD&D and other RPGs. 

Likewise, this passage is yet more evidence in support of the notion of two Gary Gygaxes – the gamer and the corporate spokesman. The former clearly speaks in this letter, defending individualism and imagination and utterly rejecting any suggestion that he should "play god" for other referees (or, to quote OD&D's closing words, "do any more of your imagining for you.") The latter is the author of perfervid denunciations of deviations from the published rules in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere. I doubt I'm alone in preferring Gamer Gary over Corporate Gary nor, I hope, in recognizing that these two Garys could exist side by side. Nevertheless, I often ponder how the early history of the hobby might have been different, for good and for bad, if the Gary Gygax of this 1975 letter had been the only one.


  1. Jon Peterson's recently published The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity examines a lot of the early variability referees developed for different aspects of OD&D (at least in the first half, which is as far as I've read). It's good at outlining the different conflicts early gamemasters grappled with, such as how to use alignment, immersion in characters or adherence to rules, and others still debated today.

  2. If D&D was completely non-commercial (no modules or revised editions), imaginative and individualistic creators / DMs could make money by running their own awesome campaigns. Demand would increase as supply falls Thoughts?

  3. I wonder if anyone pointed out these contradictions to Gygax.

  4. I think the shifting attitude of GG from "do as you want" to "adher by the rules" is testimony of the changing context of D&D being merely a set of rules with a strong DIY ethos, towards a commercial very succesful product with a lot of other constraints involved besides the mere pleasure of games design.

    I think this is a dichotomy you see in many hobbies. As long as a hobby remains a niche, there's always a strong avant-garde and DIY component involved, with a lot of room for new ideas and fresh ideas. Once it starts to get commercial, it starts to solidify and more scripted, to cater for the large amount of people who do not have that "tinkerer" mentality.

    But the original creative crowd continues (now in the minority) continues to play the game as they think it should be played, sometimes with strong dose of resentment towards the more polished, commercial version for the masses.

  5. Very illuminating. I came across some of this long ago, but would not have been able to find it. Gamer Gary FTW! Thanks!

  6. I read on a blog (forgive me I cannot find it) that summarized a podcast with Tim Kask who recalled the need for consistent refereeing of tournament games (huge revenue source) was the genesis from a more explicit set of rules---AD&D. It was: "we need more DM's like us" to run tournament games.

    I think this talk of "do as you want" to "adhere to the rules" is all a bit of a red herring. The wonderful creativity of D&D comes more from creative content, than it does by fiddling with rules. The one is the base layer of the cake, and the other the icing. I think there's little hard evidence EGG was trying to squash the former.

    Many of the AD&D adjustments were an attempt at adding checks & balances to observed game-destabilizing excesses. Those are the most valuable to me---not the new classes, monsters, spells, magic-items, and whatnot. Those are easily home-brewed---and should be to keep things fresh!

  7. There would not be any D&D -- OD&D, AD&D, D&D 5E -- any of it -- if it were not for Corporate Gary.

    Though Gamer Gary often spoke up during the OD&D, pre-AD&D days, it was Corporate Gary who, when he played Dave's version of the game with his friends, saw the potential in what Dave did such that he took all the notes Dave could write and put it together in a relatively cohesive rules system ("OD&D") and bet his savings that it would sell.

    That's not the kind of thing you do unless you are in it for the money s well as the love of the game.

    It was ultimately Corporate Gary that kept things going. Gamer Gary would have been happy to stay at home and play the game with his family and friends. It was Corporate Gary that got out there and busted his ass at conventions selling the game, not just playing the game.

    It was Corporate Gary who, when he saw the financial success of the tournaments, decided to go big on the tournament scene at Gen Con and other conventions, which only built the fan base that much more.

    It was Corporate Gary who, when he saw the success that Judges Guild had with its modules, decided TSR would start publishing modules... growing the game that much more.

    It was Corporate Gary who, when he saw how the tournament business where they were investing so much time and effort to build the game, had difficulties due to the exact independence in play that Gamer Gary so personally cherished, decided to create a set of "definitive rules" so that tournament players -- and other players -- worldwide would know exactly what game they were going to play when they they sat down at a tournament table. And then he went and wrote those rules -- AD&D.

    And it was Corporate Gary who rode and directed that rocket when AD&D really took off, without which there would never have been a Moldvay/Cook basic, which is what really introduced the vast majority of gamers to the D&D game.

    Without Corporate Gary, Dave's "proto-D&D" would be something a handful of guys from the Twin Cities would reminisce about when they got together now and again and remembered their buddy Dave.

    Without Corporate Gary, "OD&D" would just be something that maybe a couple tens of thousands of guys in their 60's remember playing when they were in college.

    Without Corporate Gary, none of us would be here now to debate about the value between Corporate Gary and Gamer Gary.

    Thank goodness for Corporate Gary, for while I had the amazing honor to play at the table with and get to know Gamer Gary, I never would have been gaming at all without Corporate Gary.