Friday, March 19, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 21

Original Dungeons & Dragons famously opened the door to monster player characters, boldly stating "there is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything." On page 21 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax all but closes that door and, in doing so, offers a very clear statement on his belief that "ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably 'humanocentric'." That's a perspective with which I strongly agree, though I suspect it's quite controversial these days (and, to be fair, was probably controversial in some quarters even in 1979). Let's take a look at what he says.

Gygax begins his examination of the topic of "the monster as a player character" by imputing an ignoble motive to any plater with "a strong desire to operate as a monster." He suggests that such a player does this "principally because the player sees the desire monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign." This seems like the wrong foot on which to begin this discussion and one that makes it so much easier to dismiss everything he says afterwards. It's a common flaw in Gygax's authorial style, unfortunately.

From there, Gygax makes a subtle elision. The section is ostensibly about allowing monsters as player characters, but he quite quickly moves from monsters to demihumans and humanoids. About the latter, he says that they occupy "various orbits around the sun of humanity." He elaborates in a way that comports with my own thinking

Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users – whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies … there is a point where the well-equipped, high-level party of adventurers can challenge a demon prince, an arch-devil, or a demi-god. While there might well be some near or part humans with the group so doing, it is certain that the leaders will be human. In co-operation men bring ruin upon monsterdom, for they have no upper limits as to level or acquired power from spells or items.

Gygax goes on to say that humanocentrism simply makes sense.

The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design perspective it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!

For Gygax, this seems to be the crux of it. He saw a need for grounding even in fantasy and believed that humanocentrism was the simplest means of providing that grounding. It's an unusual take on the question, though not wholly without precedent. Gygax seems to have felt that playing a non-human was exceedingly difficult and, in fact, an impediment to approaching fantasy. M.A.R. Barker believed something akin to this, in as much as he felt that very people could play one of a non-human character on Tékumel (which, to be fair, is plausible, given how alien many of them are). 

Gygax further comments that there are very few models for non-human characters to use as inspiration..

When history, folklore, myth, fable, and fiction can be incorporated or used as reference for the campaign, the magnitude of the effort required is reduced by several degrees. Even actual sciences can be used – geography, chemistry, physics, and so forth. Alien viewpoints can be found, of course, but not in quantity (and often not in much quality either). Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu. Even then, how can such an effort rival one which borrows from the talents of genius and imaginative thinking which come to us from literature?

I doubt many gamers today would be convinced by this line of thought. Even I, who strongly prefers humanocentric fantasy, find it a weak line of argument. I think Gygax's larger point might have been better served if he'd simply acknowledged his preference for humanocentrism and then marshaled evidence, drawn on his own experiences as both a player and a referee, of why humanocentrism led him to prefer human-centered fantasy. 

The remainder of the section deals with the rules-related challenges of allowing monsters as player characters. His concerns seem to be about "game domination" (to use Gygax's phrase), which echoes what he said at the start of this section. If that's his primary concern, I think it's a more understandable one, even to those who are temperamentally inclined to freely allow the playing of non-humans. Like so much in the Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a lot to chew on here, though it's couched in ways that muddle his legitimate points. 


  1. Not only do I agree with Gygax, but I'll take it one step further. By making non-Humans playable races, it opens the door to racial and ethnic stereotyping. Witness the rise of Scottish Dwarves, LGBTQ Elves, Afro-American Orcs & Half-Orcs, Jewish Gnomes, etc. None of those races were depicted with those stereotypes in 1978 as far as I know but look at what's happenened in the intervening 40+ years? Since non-humans are not real, writers and players end up relying on exaggerating certain human cultural stereotypes to the point of minstrelsy. The devolution from folkloric depiction to modern minstrel shows sickens my stomach. This is why I no longer allow non-humans at my gaming table.

    1. Sure, but using such races solely as antagonists, especially the ones that are automatically evil in the MM, doesn't exactly close the door on unconsciously imbuing them with stereotypical racist physical or behavioral characteristics.

      And if you don't think any of those tropes wound up in the 1e MM you need to read it again. Hobgoblins wore Asian armor, goblins were little yellow men, hobgoblins were big yellow men (making all goblinoids stereotypically East Asian in one way or another), and orcs are brown or olive men who (we can infer from the presence of half-orcs) are prone to raping "our" women, and the half-orcs resulting from these unions are "unsavory mongrels".

    2. Gnomes are supposedly a Jewish stereotype? Not for anyone who started in the last twenty years or so. They've been trickster fey folk with a vaguely anime-inspired look for the entirety of WotC's run. Even before then those idiotic tinker gnomes from Krynn were what most people thought of in my circles. That, or literal garden gnomes with the conical hats - which fits the "live in harmony with small animals" and "dwell in shallow tunnels" thing the earlier D&D emphasized.

    3. No Scottish dwarves, LGBT elves, Afro-American Orcs & Half-Orcs, or Jewish gnomes or the like IMC. Or in any campaign in which I've played.

      As for the "Asian" goblinoids, the 1E MM has this to say about their appearance:
      "Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in skin color."
      "The hairy hides of hobgoblins range from dark reddish-brown to gray black. Their faces are bright red-orange to red. Large males will have blue-red noses."

      So, no, not Asian in appearance.

  2. I would just like to add that my experience is in line with the start of the argument, which is players only choose to play monsters for min maxing and super powers, not roleplaying opportunities. I hear it is possible, I mean there is a game about sentient rabbits, but my experience is always about bonuses.

    1. I agree. Nobody I've ever played with, other than complete beginners, has picked a race for any reason other than stat bonuses and multi classing.

    2. FWIW I've been playing a long succession of Dwarven characters since the mid-Seventies that are all from the same extended family and span several generations now. The Krakaroks have had close to a dozen sons go adventuring at this point, and some of them even lived to retire. Never chose to play any of them based on stats or racial abliities, although stats did influence my choice of class.

      Yeah, Krakarok. I was young when I started this thing, the family's produced a number of noteworthy jewelers over the years, and "krakarok" is Dwarven for "gemcutter" in my headcanon.

      That said, every other D&D PC I've run has been human, so I regard my karma as balanced enough to excuse a fondness for playing a string of what amount to short, greedy Hollywood Vikings over the years. :)

    3. well, dwarves aren't monsters, they are just non-human. and while I often see people choose race according to bonuses, I also see them choose for flavor, so I leave it to them

  3. Ironically, my D&D memories over the years include far, far more nonhuman PCs than most other RPGs I've been involved with - Gamma World being the major exception to that, with Talislanta a distant third. Only games where you were expected to play nonhumans (eg Vampire the Masquerade) ever had fewer regular old homo saps in the PC mix than D&D.

    My Traveller group might include an Aslan or Vargr now and then, a rare few Runequest games saw a PC uz or duck and once even an outcast baboon, Star Wars regularly featured an alien or two - but D&D? Party after party where humans were in the minority. Even I'm pretty evenly split between playing humans and Dwarves in various editions of D&D. And it's not just a modern trend, that, for all the complaints people have about WotC opening the gates to all sorts of freakshow races. They've done that, sure, but basic D&D and AD&D did just as much to encouarge playing nonhuman races. Even in OD&D there were a heck of a lot of elves and half-elves around, which was such a common thing that Talislanta built their ads around it as a joke.

    Gary may have thought he making a game universe that revolved around humans, but the player base has been bucking that since day one. Even the first D&D-inspired novel, Quag Keep prominently features a lizard man in th e"party" of mains.

    1. No big surprise given the incentives. A new player, making a character at first level, compares humans to each other race and sees a giant bag of goodies attached to each of the non-human races (Elves, post-B/X, being the prime offenders of course): extra languages, extra hiding/listening/searching/dungeoneering abilities, infravision, bonuses to weapon proficiencies, spells AND fighting AND unrestricted weapons+armor, versus... what? You don't get capped at level 10? What's the change you'll ever make it that far -- one in a hundred?

      So Gary has nobody to blame there but himself, for making demihumans a million times more powerful than humans at first level.

      As for the impossibility of building a non-humanocentric world if you're not a genius: frankly, Gygaxian Naturalism is so compelling because of its screwball, quixotic nature. Gary's absolute faith in his own ability to accurately simulate the operations of a medieval world, much less one with magic and monsters, is what makes his worldbuilding so lovable and laughable at the same time.

    2. My first experience with AD&D was with a *hugely* elfocentric DM. He loved elves, thought everybody should play an elf, and gave us huge incentives to do so, along with stripping all the class restrictions and level caps. So, naturally, we all played elves. It wasn't until my later teenage years, running my own games, that I ever even thought anything was odd about that; why would there be all these other races when everybody plays elves?

    3. I think I read that Norton played in one of Gary's games prior to writing Quag Keep. The Rogues Gallery has an entry for a character that was reincarnated as a lizard man so that character probably came indirectly from play.

    4. That would explain a lot. Always kind of wondered where Norton came up with the idea, it seemed kind of random and out of place.

  4. I have several thoughts on this.
    1. First, I think between OD&D and AD&D Gary ran into That Guy, who definitely wanted to dominate the table to the detriment of all the other players. So we see a switch in the rules. I would expect this happened at a convention as Gary's home table probably had a preferred way of playing where the players supported each other against the dungeon. I've seen this in other gaming products where the developer assumes everyone will play the game the same way and then run into unexpected situations once the product gets into the wild and players with different playstyles get ahold of it. A notable example was the Illuminati: New World Order CCG which became notorious with its monthly errata limiting card powers and entirely re-writing rules text for some cards.

    2. OD&D is the new thing and needed players, so why close any doors? Let the players play anything they want as long as the Referee is OK with it. AD&D is the tournament version after the game was established and needed to rope in things to keep everyone in the same ballpark (to mix some metaphors). It is hard to write challenging adventures when you have no idea what to expect the players to bring to the table.

    3. In some ways, Gary lacked vision. His literature argument never expected decades of fantasy writing influenced by D&D, let alone the video games and the books. Or fan-fiction either. he was a Midwesterner and a salesman when he wrote what were originally fairly modest rules. 50 years later, some of his early assumptions were clearly wrong or missed the point.

    I'm starting to muddle around, so I'll stop here.

  5. It was this section of the AD&D DMG that I can specifically point to as one of the key things that started my migration away from Dungeons and Dragons.

    It was the opposite of my thinking in all respects, even at 12-13. I was not/am not, by default, a Fantasy fan but a Science Fiction fan. In all of my favorite sources, from Star Trek and Star Wars to Niven's Known Space, White's Sector General, and of course E.E. Smith's Lensman series, multiple species are allied together toward the common goal of fighting the forces of evil.

    So here to we have Humans, Elves, Halflings, Dwarves, and Gnomes...but not Goblins, Orcs, Bugbears, or any other example of the seemingly infinite number of intelligent people? Sure one person playing a Dragon while the rest are mere mortals might not work 'game wise' but that wasn't what I was thinking, seeing, or asking for back then.

    I was just asking for it all to make sense. Elves are an extremely long lived and 'magical' people but can't advance as Wizard past...wait...Dwarves can't be clerics? Why? It was for game balance (or such was the excuse) but it never worked in my head. When my friends asked me why this was, why any of this was, I could not explain it in a way that satisfied me.

    It made me look more closely at other parts of the game and as time went on I played more and more games that said, 'Yes you can do that' and 'Here's how to make that work' and fewer games of D&D and its 'Use your imagination but don't do this, you can't do that, and that isn't how that works'.

  6. I enjoy this website, though I usually don't comment since I don't know much of the topic at hand. I like learning about the genre since my sons are into it, having grown up in the 00s when Harry Potter and LoTR were all the rage. But I did want to say I now understand something.

    They play the modern version of D&D, 5th edition. They also play the original, since even though I didn't play much in the day, like almost every kid I knew in the early 80s, I bought the main books. Because of their high quality production, I still have them. And they have also played the old versions of the game (at least the AD&D version).

    Recently, however, they've been told on forums they frequent that the older AD&D they play is 'the racist' edition. I had no clue what could be meant by this. Now, upon reading a couple comments, it makes sense. At least it makes sense what is meant. Personally I never saw things that way, I don't recall anyone I knew seeing it either. Elves were elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, etc.. I don't think anyone imagined it meant these or those people over there. Nor does it seem to be a worry Mr. Gygax had when talking about the importance of a human-centered world. I personally think it speaks more about our current times than anything Mr. Gygax and company, or those playing the game back then, would have thought. But like fundamentalists playing records backwards to hear Satanic messages, if that's what you're looking for, that's what you'll find. But at least now I get what my sons were saying.

    1. It's also worth noting that, if you try to buy any classic (pre-Wizards) D&D materials on DriveThruRPG, you have to go through a goofy disclaimer that these books are all racist and you're a bad man for wanting them. Histrionic, but a sign of the times.

    2. I heard about that. I suppose we should thank our lucky stars they're at least available. With the growing tide of banning and eliminating books, movies, shows, music and other production based on an ever broadening net of material deemed offensive, the moral disclaimers suddenly don't seem so bad. The sad part is that a generation is emerging that's pretty sure anything in the past, and those who produced it, was as reprehensible as my generation was taught to view production from Germany in the 1930s - and apparently that includes Gygax and company.

    3. I'll point out that modern "progressive" cancel culture bears a remarkable resemblance to the 80s reactionary attempts at censorship and erasure that we saw throughout the Satanic Panic, the principle difference being the choice of scapegoat. It's almost as though extremism of any stripe might be ill-advised or something.

    4. That's probably a more accurate comparison than the ones I hear comparing this to McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Because like today, the Satanic Panic was as much cultural and media driven as religious. I remember news casts about 'Satanism in America' and various reports on the occult through the early 80s. Just like it wasn't merely religious fundamentalists who torpedoed D&D at the height of its popularity, but a coalition of everyone. Same here. This is as much supported by and driven by media and even pop culture and business interests as anything. Which is why it has become so devastating.

  7. James, thanks for the insights and high quality writing and topics to discuss. I'm glad to see that this is a location where these things can be debated calmly.

    I agree that Gygax often obscures some good points by starting his writing with his conclusions rather than reaching them after he's discussed the issues.

    I'm with him on the idea that the game should be human centric and I'm 100% in agreement that men are the worst monsters. That's certainly true in life today as much as it was in the seventies.

    Forty years on the representations of dwarves, elves et cetera are so far away from what they were in the seventies and they are now referencing novels and comics which were written by people who played D&D or its imitators. I personally prefer the folktale versions from Norse and Celtic mythology but then that's because they are relevant to where I live (Scotland).

    I think that Gygax is also right about the effort required to build and be consistent about non-humans' characters and their societies. It invariably means that each gamer has a different view of how elves behave and their society is constructed, whereas we can all more or less agree on what a pseudo-medieval European society would be like, even if we are in reality all very wrong.

  8. To keep things human centric I give humans a 10% xp bonus. I get that Gary wants human centric but without an incentive, other than some far off promise of higher max level, people gravitate to the races that have superior starting benifits.

    My last 1e campaign took 60 sessions or so to get the highest players to 8th level. Level caps are meaningless unless you power game and gain levels every other session.

  9. Level limits of course were there at the beginning. It was not really to "balance" anything; re-read OD&D. What benefits did demi-humans get?

    Dwarves: A bit of magic resistance, proto-"Stonecunning," a handful of languages, and the ability to wield a specific artifact.

    Elves: The ability to switch between fighter and magic-user, better at finding secret doors, a few minor combat bonuses, and a few languages.

    Halflings: A bit of magic resistance and a bonus to hit with missiles.

    And at this point, demi-humans did not have infravision.

    And what were the limits in return?

    Dwarves were limited to 6th level as fighter, elves to 4th level (!) as fighters and 8th level as magic-users, and halflings were limited to 4th level (!) as fighters.

    Now, that's all got nothing to do with game balance with those additional abilities.

    What it does have to do with is emulation of the fantasy literature upon which races were based.

    We are all spoiled by the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. They portray dwarves and elves as amazing killing machines, vastly superior to any humans, and even hobbits were pretty damn awesome, all told. But that is not at ALL like how they were portrayed in the books.

    By the time of the Lord of the Rings, elves and dwarves were well passed their prime. Humans, by dint of history or will of Eru, were ascendant.

    There were a handful of great elven lords still left, rattling around in their ancient realms, but they were ineffectual, and their people were essentially engaged in a long series of parties ere they retreat back to the West.

    The dwarves, too, were greatly reduced; only the Iron Hills and the delves in the Blue Mountains were left to them from their ancient homelands, their numbers were in great decline, and the 13 dwarves of Thorin's Company were THE BEST heroes of their people. Think on THAT. That was what was left of the dwarven people.

    And the hobbits were a rustic, bucolic people, who mostly considered adventure to be anathema. Their great strength? Big hearts, honesty, and a natural toughness that 17 centuries of Shire-living had not quite yet bred out of them.

    The demi-humans of OD&D were designed to emulate this -- for better and for worse. Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age was a world of Men, not Elves, Dwarves, or even Hobbits.

    Then power creep came along and even by the time of the advent of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, demi-humans had gone from being the secondary, has-been or rustic peoples they were in the original literature to being an irresistible bag of special abilities and tricks, even gaining further in their "level limits" such that they now reached double digits. And, of course, for some reason, most demi-humans were also now multi-classed with the thief class, because they could.

    So demi-humans were becoming an unbalancing influence. And some of the things added to counter that -- ability score minimums, for example -- were just as often ignored as were the level limits to begin with.

    Which is why adventuring parties all started emulating Thorin's Company or the Fellowship of the Ring, which is not what Gary envisioned, nor do I think how they played at his table. Which is one of the reasons, I think, that you can feel a bit of seething at what had become of this aspect of the game in that DMG entry.

    Now, in one's own OD&D games, obviously, Gary was for the wild and wahoo aspect of playing whatever you want. In your own campaigns, if you want parties of balrogs and dragons and panda ninjas, go for it. But AD&D was not only supposed to be the hard and fast rule-set for tournaments (a very, very important part of TSR's profit strategy at the time), it was also supposed to be Gary's definitive edition, the "Director's Cut" of Dungeons & Dragons. So there, he wanted to showcase what was his vision of Dungeons & Dragons and the assumed world thereof. And in his case, it was humanocentric, based on his literary and game play experiences.

  10. I applaud this academic forum, although I am in no way qualified to participate with this level of digestion. When I picked up on this game, I did it because swords were cool, monsters were mean and a ruined moathouse was awesome. The deep dark woods. With glowing red eyes. Maybe a howl or scream out there.

    We had a friend who was a super-car-mag guy. He would yelp about how a Ferrari 308 GTB could run 0-60 in 5.4 seconds (1984ish). An older brother laughed at him one day: "That's how you know he's a nerd. No one races 0-60. You race 0-120, or until you blow a tire, your car shakes too much, or you lose your nerve."

    I would highlight the aforementioned terms Practicality, Simple, Sense, and consistent. The goal was always to get on with the game. Never split the party. Don't bicker over rules. Stitches and Scars beat silly Tattoos any day.

    Get on with the game!

  11. It's a tricky subject.
    I usually prefer my fantasy novels to be humanocentric, though not always.
    My gaming... not so much, unless I'm aiming for something very specific.
    Want to play a Bugbear? Ok.

    By the way, I don't buy the "alien mindset" justification or the "boring stereotypes" one that are often used to remove playable demihumans from D&D.
    For one, I think that fairy creatures, as individuals and groups, have been portrayed from the beginnings as stereotypical.
    They are allegories of human traits (greed, rage, lust, wisdom, grace...).
    So, no, I don't think dwarfs or elfs are too alien, and I expect them to be, at least partially, stereotypes.
    And that's precisely what sets them apart from the varied and individualistic humans.
    It could also be argued that precisely this quality is what justifies level limits in D&D.

  12. Gary's arguments are debatable, but my experience (which goes back to 77) makes me agree with him for a different reason. If you are DMing a human medieval-ish fantasy world, how do you reconcile having all these non-human adventures running around? Shouldn't the mix of adventurers roughly resemble the population demographics?
    After having a campaign implode because there were no humans remaining in the party (WHFRP Death on the Truck, using Pathfinder); I've gone back to Chivalry & Sorcery to make players roll.for their character race. They're usually human, but I had a werebear show up last year.

    His point about how difficult it is for players to consistently roleplay a different culture is very valid. That's been discussed for years under the topic of 'Men in Funny Hats'

  13. My feeling is that it should depend on the setting, and we shouldn't feel the need to conform to only one way. I'll gladly run campaigns where only humans are playable (my players may not like that but I certainly will), campaigns where humans and only three or four race-as-class demihumans are available, or kitchen-sink worlds full of playable monsters and aliens. It can and should vary with the genre being emulated.

    I'm running one game now set in 1920s Europe, so it's humans only. I have another going at the same time which is a Middle Earth pastiche, so I only allowed human and hobbit player characters at the outset (but elves, dwarves, and orcs will be playable later as the main party encounters each people). My next campaign in the works will be set in a fantasy not!Russia, so it will draw from Slavic folklore and be mostly human-centric, but with the (remote) possibility of PC domovoi, strigoi, and leshi.

    The one thing I can't abide, though, are stereotypical Scottish-accented dwarves whose players run them as loud, violent, drunken boors. You play Alefist mac Axebeard at my table? That's not what a dwarf is, and I will take your character sheet from you, erase "dwarf", and write "fighter" in its place while you watch.

    1. Is it not possible for an individual dwarf to have that kind of personality?