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magic items (all of which, I believe, had appeared in AD&D modules) to help bridge the gap between OD&D and AD&D. As a historical document of the interim period between the publication of the last OD&D supplement (1976) and the completion of AD&D, I find it fascinating.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.

21 comments:

  1. The band ABBA said it best (as they do),
    Money, Money, Money

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  2. Berg was quite a characterat this time. His BROLG was often hilarious.

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  3. Gary the Businessman was never a good look for him. I much prefer Gary the Gamer circa 74-77 ish.

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  4. This is really the era when Gary should have kept his mouth shut, as everything he said make him sound like a total dick.

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  5. was this just a Briefing? I don't remember it at all, I do remember a quick B on Gamma World, but nothing on the players handbook

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    1. Yes, just a Briefing. S&T #71 (1978 Nov/Dec) page 20. I put the text of Richard Berg's review here:
      http://unvisiblecitadel.blogspot.com/2013/11/spi-on-ad-mostly-pig-lips.html

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  6. "needlessly incendiary and petty"

    An unfortunately accurate characterization of almost everything Gygax had to say in the pages of Dragon magazine about any of TSR's competitors. That may have been par for the course in gossipy amateur-level newsletters, but as TSR's profile increased and they became at least ostensibly more professional it became increasingly offputting (and, for fans, embarrassing). Nobody likes a sore winner.

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    1. is there anyone Gygax did not fight with? Brush off? be simply unable to work with? the list seems endless

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    2. The only possibility I can think of is maybe the guys at GDW? They attended early GenCons (and submitted cartoons to early issues of The Strategic Review) and Gary seemed to regard Traveller as one of the only worthy competitors to D&D (rather than dismissing it as a rip-off). They were on good enough terms that GDW was willing to partner with him to publish Dangerous Journeys and even when that blew up in everyone's faces none of them seemed to have anything bad to say about each other (at least in public).

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    3. ...and trying to belittle Berg's own achievements? Richard H. Berg? Classy.

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    4. In fairness (possibly undeserved though it may be) the original review that triggered this wasn't exactly polite and professional either. Most creators would reasonably take offense at having the bulk of their work called "a pile of pig lips" or a quite blatant insinuation that the PHB existed solely as a mean to sell players material that they had already purchased in other products.

      Both sides in this spat were prats IMO, and they tarnished both their reputations.

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  7. From Strategy & Tactics #71 (Cassino issue), Briefings, page 20: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (TSR Games, PO Box 756, Lake Geneva, WI, 53147m $9.95). A Players Handbook, compiling all sorts of information for the D&D crowd. Hardbound (it resembles one of those Golden Wonder Books I used to get stuck with when I was a kid), this is a method to get you to buy what you already have (unless you don't have it, in which case it's not a bad idea). Sort of like the middle ages of rock, when they would put out an album of "Willy One-Book's Greatest Hits". Now you already have everything on the album, in one form or another, but you wouldn't be caught dead without the new item. Same goes for this book. Now it's not that I don't think D&D is a worthwhile pastime; most certainly, it is. A great deal of it is quite clever; then again, most of it is a mound of pig's lips. Alas, I know I will be branded a pariah for this outburst. Suffice to say, D&Ders will drool mightily over this. So will Gary G's accountant. Written (rather than grace it with the word designed) by Gary Gygax. One further word: D&D had managed to avoid the great pitfall of role-playing games -- rampant silliness. For that it deserves much credit; it is faithful to itself.

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  8. BTW the S&T issue was N0v-Dec 1978.

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    1. ok, found it. wow, that IS pretty scathing review

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  9. Gygax was if nothing else a company man. Whatever the company needed him to say at the time, he said, and clung to fiercely.

    D&D was in need of new players/customers from the fandom community? He'd talk up the Tolkien connections. Tolkien estate sends lawyers after TSR? Tolkien's influence on the game is "minimal" and he doesn't even like the books.

    AD&D needs new material to keep the company afloat? Not to worry; we've got City State of Stoink, new character classes, all sorts of things ready to go. He gets tossed out in 1986? All that material was lost, doubtless destroyed by the evil Lorraine. (Spoiler: He had all the material in his files.)

    Those are just two examples off the top of my head.

    I don't necessarily fault him for this. It's a testament to his loyalty to whatever company he was working for at the time. But his version of the truth was, shall we say, malleable in the service of that loyalty.

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  10. Thanks to everyone who found Berg's review. That is very helpful.

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  11. Interesting. I never knew there was any issue between the two companies. I remembered that there were some games published with both SPI and TSR logos. I just looked at 1986's Terrible Swift Sword and noticed that SPI is a registered trademark of TSR. Not sure if this adds to your discussion about Gary, but I believe it adds some context to the aftermath of the disagreement between the two companies.

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    1. Those games appeared after TSR offered a promissory note to SPI, to help SPI with its debts, a note TSR quickly called, thereby bringing about SPI's demise and the acquisition of its assets by TSR. The whole matter is quite sordid and, if anything, demonstrates that TSR continued to have it in for SPI for many years. There's a good, if somewhat biased, account of the whole affair here: http://www.costik.com/spisins.html

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    2. Ah, Greg's article. Haven't read that one in a long time now. I remember the furor about TSR refusing to honor S&T subscriptions back then. He's certainly right about that aspect of things.

      I wonder what Costikyan thinks of the modern market, where multiplayer, low-sim/high-playability new-player-friendly board games have a market a thousand times greater than the ancient head-to-head historical "proper" wargames ever did - and they're doing it in the face of more PC and online gaming options than ever. That's one thing he conveniently ignores there in his eagerness to lambast TSR's treachery. Wargame sales in the late 80s and early 90s were starting to see the rise of computer gaming, including emulations and improvements on board war games. The improvements in tech and home computing did a lot to drive the decline of SPI-style wargaming sales - and Greg knows it full well. Complicates his narrative, though.

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  12. I remember seeing this back in the day. It helped confirm my feeling that Gary was a dick.

    Berg’s review isn’t wrong either. Old school D&D is a fantastic idea poorly implemented.

    I dropped out of the hobby around 1983 (and have given up D&D for RuneQuest earlier), but sometime in the interim I am happy to see that someone bothered to design D&D and put some care in to how the whole thing worked.

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