Monday, January 25, 2021

Variance in Interpretation

Last week, I shared a section from Gary Gygax's letter to Alarums & Excursions from July 1975, in which he shared his thoughts about the development of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, both before and after publication. In it, Gygax expressed his "refusal to play god" for other referees when it came to rules interpretations, a theme to which he returns later in the same letter:

I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a "variant", and there is no "official interpretation" from me or anyone else. If a game of "Dungeons and Beavers" suits a group, all I say is more power to them, for every fine referee runs his own variant of D&D anyway.

For those who care, "Dungeons and Beavers" is a reference to the Warlock variant of D&D played at CalTech and with which J. Eric Holmes was familiar. As to why the variant was referred to as such, I have no idea, but I'll wager that one or more of my readers does.

Gygax goes on, in response to the writer of a previous letter (Ted Johnstone), who asserted that "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." 

Please inform Ted that I too subscribe to the slogan "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." Gosh and golly! Whoever said anything else. However, pal, best remember that it is far too good to leave to you or any other individual or little group either! It now belongs to the thousands of players enjoying it worldwide, most of whom will probably never hear of you or your opinions unless you get them into THE STRATEGIC REVIEW. As soon as we can manage it, we intend to have expand SR, publish bimonthly and include a letter column.

Once more, I find it difficult to dispute Gygax's perspective here, one with which, I imagine, most referees agree in practice if not necessarily in principle. In the past, I regularly encountered a wide variety of house rules and rules interpretations, even within the relatively small geographical area in which I traveled. I wonder if the rise of the Internet has made such variability more or less common, as it's become easier for people far removed from one another to share their ideas despite the distance between them. 

All that said, some degree of standardization is probably necessary, if only to ensure a "common language" for communication between players. If everything is open to individual interpretation, "Dungeons & Dragons" will quickly cease to be meaningful. From my own observations of variants, then and now, there are a few "bedrock" elements of D&D that rarely get eliminated entirely, such as character classes, hit points, and saving throws, for example. Pile enough these together and the resulting heap is generally recognizable as "D&D," even if some of the specifics vary. It's an interesting question: how much can you change D&D's rules before it becomes another game entirely. I'm not certain there's an easy answer and it's a topic over which players have been puzzling since the earliest days of the hobby. 


  1. I have thought over the years many misinterpreted Gygax approach in the DMG. Although he presented ideas in a way that many would say was "Gygaxian" I often wonder if his presentation wasn't a desire to present the rules in the third person. In a way like a wise sage or experienced traveler you would talk to about the game and providing advice from that perspective. I know there was an obvious motivation to standardize the rules for Gencon play, but that has always been present in my mind even back in the day.

  2. "I wonder if the rise of the Internet has made such variability more or less common, as it's become easier for people far removed from one another to share their ideas despite the distance between them."
    It both. To resolve that seemingly contradictory answer keep in mind there are two social trends as work.

    1) The internet is very efficient at allowing small niches to flourish, share, and communicate. No longer anything needs weight of numbers in order for its fans to find each other.

    Sure it easier when you are popular but it not like in the old days where there limits of capacity everywhere. Limited print space, limited shelves, and so on.

    2) Organized Gaming has come of age is another social trend. Basically the weekly games at the game store and semi-regular convention games are an important part of the hobby. As well as being a source of material for independent group.

    For organized gaming, it is important to be fair and consistent. Hence the trend is towards standardization.

    As with small niches, the Internet caters to large niches as well. Allow thousands if not tens of thousands of fans of organized play to find support and players.

    One had to keep in mind that there is a tremendous amount of bias here as one, organized play, is very visible and easily surveyed. While the other, the huge number of small RPG niches, is not as discoverable.

    The OSR is just the tip of a very large iceberg of independent gamers stretching back decades.

  3. If I had to venture at answering "what makes D&D, D&D", I would say it is that the game mechanics always have a credible connection to the fictional narrative. When you start to have abilities and actions that aren't explicable via the narrative, that's when you start to get complaints that it feels like a video game, not D&D. Some writers referred to these as "dissociated mechanics", and the one edition (4e) that leaned into dissociating the mechanics from the narrative is the only edition of D&D to date that had a significant proportion of players say, "This doesn't feel like D&D anymore", even if they were still enjoying the game on its own merits.

    You can change the specifics of the rules around a lot (although I agree, things like hit points, classes, armor class, saving throws, etc., are fundamental to what I think of as D&D) but if the rules frequently break the suspension of the disbelief or immersion in the narrative, I think that's when it becomes a different game entirely.

    1. This. 4e is "how much can you change D&D's rules before it becomes another game entirely."

      However, I would say that continuity of design is what makes a product an heir to its predecessors rather than a new thing entirely. 4e was not the fourth edition of anything; it was the first edition of a brand new game that was built from the ground up to emulate MMORPGs and was, at best, vaguely inspired by D&D in the same way that World of Warcraft was.

      A new game is all well and good, but if there is no continuity of design with a previous game, the new one has no right to bear the older one's name. 4e was Dungeons and Dragons in name only, simply because the trademark holders are legally allowed to slap that brand label on whatever they want.

  4. I’ve been running 3 Black Hack 2E games for almost a year - they feel like the D&D I played when I was 10 and forgot most of the rules in the 2E books I got at the mall and tried to run games for my friends. Which is to say, loose and fun and focused on what me and my players like. I don’t care much about “immersion” or “narrative” - I leave that to the players. I’m just the referee.