Monday, August 22, 2022

"Ya Don't Tug on Superman's Cape"

As I'm sure readers of this blog already know, "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" was the name of Gary Gygax's regular column in the pages of Dragon. It was here that he would share previews of upcoming AD&D rules additions and changes, as well as offer his opinions on various topics of the day. Those opinions were often controversial, particularly when they pertained to the "right" way to play Dungeons & Dragons and generated a lot of pushback in the letters pages to Dragon. In retrospect, I wonder if that wasn't part of their point.

The column that appeared in issue #27 (July 1979) is quite unusual, because Gygax turns it over Bob Bledsaw of Judges Guild. Bledsaw uses the space to offer up a "personal opinion," entitled "What Judges Guild Has Done for Dungeons & Dragons." It's a fairly interesting read in its own right, but there's a short section toward the end of the piece that I want to highlight in this post.

I find it remarkable that, while Bledsaw praises uniqueness and originality in one's own campaign, he also suggests that rules changes, especially those relating to "play balance," run the risk of changing the game so much that one is no longer playing D&D. This is the position Gary Gygax himself advanced in many of his "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" columns and elsewhere. Agree or disagree, there's a logic to it and I suspect that Bledsaw, whose company produced official D&D (and, later, AD&D) materials under license from TSR, knew that this was a line he had no choice but to toe.

After that, Bledsaw then gives an example of when Gygax corrected him regarding rules changes he was using in his own campaign. This concerned the "instant kill rule (20 … 19 or 20)." What's he talking about here? No edition of D&D with which I am familiar has an instant kill rule, let alone the one he seems to describe. On the other hand, Empire of the Petal Throne does and the rule Bledsaw mentions seems almost identical to it. Is this the rule Bledsaw meant? Had he imported the EPT rule into his home campaign? If so, why did Gygax care? I understand that Gary strongly disapproved of critical hits, which is fair. However, if Bledsaw was using them in his home campaign, what difference did it make? So long as he wans't importing them into Judges Guild D&D products – and he says he was not – I don't see why Gygax should "call [him] on this very subject."

Have I misread what Bledsaw is saying? 


  1. This is a fascinating snapshot of RPG history....

  2. I think you're reading Bledsaw absolutely correctly, down to where the "instant kill rule" probably came from. What seems to bother Gygax here, though, is not so much that Bledsaw uses that rule in D&D, or even that he modifies it, as how he modifies it. As I read it, Gygax thought Bledsaw let the players kill monsters instantly with high attack rolls, but limited the monsters to doing double damage with those same high attack rolls. That really would upset game balance. As to why Gygax called Bledsaw on it, why did he gripe about anyone altering the rules? All the reasons that have been suggested over the years apply in this case. Furthermore, Bledsaw published licensed D&D products, so Gygax may have been particularly concerned with his respect for the rules: it would not do for Bledsaw to publish anything that could be seen as giving official sanction to altering the rules.

  3. Perhaps giving away a bit too much of my professional life here, but I do wonder if there wasn't some little bit of intellectual property concerns informing Mr. Gygax's take(s) here. I don't think it was by any means a sole or primary factor, but I can see it as something a savvy business person might have mentioned at some point. Were you to publish all sorts of different rules for "Dungeons & Dragons" there would eventually be a risk of genericizing the trademark (think "aspirin" in the U.S., which was originally a trademark). Were I advising Lake Geneva in those early days, I might have mentioned that it would be wise to keep the game narrowly defined, lest "D&D" simply come to mean "table-top roleplaying." I am by no means an expert in the history here, and could certainly be wrong, but it's a thought that keeps recurring for me. At any rate, cheers, everyone.

  4. It is possible that Bob used that rule, adopted as you say from EPT, in a D&D game at a convention or even in Lake Geneva while visiting TSR.

    All the edition wars and rules kerfuffle aside, of course, if you change the rules enough, you are no longer on laying D&D, you are playing some other RPG based, loosely or otherwise, on a D&D chassis, so to speak. Change enough rules and you end up with T&T or maybe RuneQuest or Rolemaster, etc.

    Make a few house rules that do not break rules but accessorize or complement them, that's still D&D. Make some rules that break or change the rules, that's not D&D, just D&D Adjacent.

    Varying damage rules? House rules. Add Critical Hit tables as core to the game a la Rolemaster? That's a new game.

    The thing is, everyone has a different level of tolerance for a House Rule versus a New Game Rule... And there's the rub.

    Plus, you have to consider regional rules differences that started at House Rules level to adjudicate the wibbly wobbly OD&D rules with full on New Game Rules as many such developed. Each region had their own version of Interpreted D&D, sometimes not compatible with D&D as Interpretated in other regions.

    A big googly moogly mess, from a play perspective and from a sales perspective, setting off negative reactions from both Gamer Gary and Business Gary...

  5. I have to admit, I find Gygax's statements in using the rules as written to be... odd, especially since in his later years he mentioned that there were large swathes of rules he never used, like the weapon vs armour types and psionics. Personally I find his statements on the inviolability of the AD&D rules to come across... more than a little asshole-ish, to be frank, sometimes I'm not surprised that his business relations could be fraught.

    As for crits, I've always used them, but that's because my RPG journey started with 3e where they're built-in from the start (and I still hold to them, it's one of those ones I will gladly house rule in). Monsters always had the chance to get them too, or at least I always ran that, but the 3e style requiring a confirmation roll for crit damage helps mitigate that a bit.