Friday, April 16, 2010

Something We Forget About Gary Gygax...

...namely that he had his moments of really being crankily down on those tinkering with house rules and variants in D&D. A fact that we, the so-called old school, tend to readily gloss over in our rush to embrace a DIY ethic. Re-reading an ancient issue of Dragon magazine (#16, July 1978) yesterday I was surprised how early indeed he was travelling down this warpath.

A few eyebrow raisers:

ON CRITICAL HITS (one of the most common of house rules)

"The “critical hit” or “double damage” on a “to hit” die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D...the point must be made that whole game system is perverted, and the game possibly ruined, by the inclusion of “instant death” rules, be they aimed at monsters or characters. In the former case they imbalance the play and move the challenge which has been carefully placed into D&D. In the latter, “instant death” no longer allows participants to use judgement when playing. Certainly some monsters are capable of delivering death at a single stroke, but players know these monsters and can take precautions. If everything that is faced has an excellent chance to kill characters, they will surely die before long. Then the game loses its continuity and appeal, for lasting character identification cannot be developed."

ON WEAPON EXPERTISE (guess a view he ditched when Unearthed Arcana reared its head)

"There are a number of foolish misconceptions which tend to periodically crop up also. Weapons expertise is one. Given the basic assumption that those normally employing weapons are typical of the medieval period, and D&D is plainly stated as a medieval fantasy game, it should follow in the minds of knowledgeable players that any fighting man worth the name made it a point to practice daily with all forms of arms. There was a prejudice against the use of the bow by knights, granted...The truth of the matter with respect to weapon expertise is, I believe, another attempt to move players closer to the “instant death” ability. For those who insist on giving weapons expertise bonuses due to the supposed extra training and ability of the character, I reply: What character could be more familiar and expert with a chosen weapon type than are monsters born and bred to their fangs, claws, hooves, horns, and other body weaponry? Therefore, the monsters must likewise receive weapons expertise bonuses. While this does put part of the system into balance again, it moves player characters closer to situations where they can be killed before they can opt to follow a course of action aimed at extricating themselves. Again, this feature is undesirable and must be discarded."


"Spell point systems are also currently in vogue amongst the fringe group which haunt the pages of “Amateur Press Association” publications. Now APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere...From this morass rose the notion that a spell point system should be inserted into D&D...[The D&D magic system is] inspired by the superb writing of Jack Vance. This “Vancian” magic system works splendidly in the game. If it has any fault, it is towards making characters who are magic-users too powerful. This sort of fault is better corrected within the existing framework of the game — by requiring more time to cast spells, by making magic-users progress more slowly in experience levels. Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game."

Beyond enjoying the sheer snarky beauty of this particular rant, I draw two somewhat contradictory lessons from reading this:
1. that those of us monkeying around with the rules shouldn't bow to any infallible authority--even to that of figures we tend to respect. It is your game after all and all the putzing around under the game hood out there is a good and healthy thing. Can I get an amen?
2. That said, one should always keep a sharp eye for the balances that were built into the game at the get go. Thus the seeming weakness and illogical nature of one class (magic users not being able to wield swords is a classic example) may be hardwired into the game for good reasons. Keep an eye out especially for changes that muck up actual play at the table and be clear-minded enough to discard your own "brilliant" ideas when they just simply don't work.

More later next week on how and why we ditched any number of "brilliant" house rules in our campaign.


  1. I'm a pretty big fan of cranky Gygax - his editorial on Tunnels and Trolls is one of the most condescending things I've ever read (early issue of Dragon, I forget which) - and there's some priceless venom in the Dragonsfoot Q&A threads for sure!

  2. His "APAs are generally beneath contempt" is priceless in this age of blogs and e-publishing. Sad that he was so viciously against people who enjoyed writing about games enough to share it with their friends though. Back in ages past I was a member of two different APAs and I quite enjoyed being part of those communities, in fact I am still friends with some of the people I met through them.

  3. 1. that those of us monkeying around with the rules shouldn't bow to any infallible authority--even to that of figures we tend to respect. It is your game after all and all the putzing around under the game hood out there is a good and healthy thing. Can I get an amen?

    Amen! :)

  4. AMEN! All I can think of when I read that is "Comic Book Guy".

  5. To be honest, as much as EGG's rants damaged his credibility, I am pretty sure the APAs were just as filled with venomous contempt towards D&D as any Internet forum can be today.

  6. Ludicrous comments not worth the paper they were printed on.

    Gary may have understood what balanced or unbalanced his own game with his own players, but he could not possibly pass judgment on what would work at other people's home games.

    I'm sure some of his vehemence was caused by a perceived need to show TSR as the ultimate authority as opposed to other companies that made D&D-compatible products, but it is still insulting to intelligent players everywhere.

    No DM, not even Gygax, is an authority on all styles of D&D play. And to say there can only be one style of play is foolish, and denies a huge part of the appeal of the game - namely, customizability.