Thursday, June 15, 2017

FBI Unabomber Investigation Report on Gary Gygax: "[Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon..."

Gary Gygax in 1999

What follows is a funny and fascinating piece of history.

A year ago, C.J. Ciaramella, a criminal justice reporter at Reason, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any FBI files on TSR. Among other things, Ciaramella appears to have been looking for information pertaining to the FBI search of TSR offices in 1980, an incident based on a misunderstanding that a note written on TSR stationary involving the game Top Secret, alluded to a real-life assassination plot.

Ciaramella received back five documents. None of them were connected to the infamous 1980 search. Rather, there were two documents concerning a 1983 investigation into cocaine trafficking in Lake Geneva, which appeared to name Gary Gygax as a possible source, witness or even suspect (the crucial passages that would explain this are redacted).

In addition, and more interestingly, there were three 1995 documents concerning the Unabomber investigation. The FBI seems to have been following a lead that the bomber might have had some connection to a legal dispute between TSR and the Fresno Gaming Association. So they apparently interviewed someone at TSR.

The primary document spends a number of pages explaining the history of TSR and wargaming/roleplaying, I assume making use of information largely or entirely picked up from the source. It humorously gets a few things wrong, and (in my view) exaggerates an alleged feud between wargamers and roleplayers. As part of that, it records the snooty attitude of its TSR source towards wargamers:
[Redacted] advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.
Then the topic moves on to Gary Gygax, who was not at that time part of the company (having essentially been kicked out a number of years, before), but was still living in Lake Geneva. There was still a lot of bad blood between TSR and Gygax, and one can only imagine the barely suppressed glee that the unnamed source had in describing Gygax to the FBI in the most unflattering possible light. He was a drug abuser, gun nut and tax evader who had a weird obsession with prisoners and prisons. Perhaps he had some connection to the Unabomber?
In 1986 TSR bought out GYGAX's stock and guaranteed him a royalty on his gameware from 1986 through 1989. That agreement involved approximately $3 million. GYGAX later infringed TSR copyrights and was sued by TSR. [Redacted] determined that a settlement was more financially sound and GYGAX was guaranteed $50,000 per year for ten years. In the early 1980’s, GYGAX had been generating about $1 million per year in income. [Redacted] advised that GYGAX spent his money frivolously. GYGAX was involved in an unpleasant divorce and [Redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser. GYGAX is approximately 55 years of age and is currently [redacted]. He lives on Madison Street in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and may be contacted at (414) xxx-xxxx. GYGAX maintains a mailing address as follows: P. O. Box 388, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. [Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison. GYGAX set up a holding company in Liberia to avoid paying taxes. He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.
The actual Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was arrested less than a year later. As far as I know, it was never determined that he had any connection to the wargaming or roleplaying hobbies.

During his bombing campaign, Kaczynski used the initials "FC," to describe his "group." He would later explain that it stood for "Freedom Club." But at the time, the FBI was desperately asking sources whether they had any ideas as to its meaning. This is what they came up with at TSR:
In the historical war context, F.C. stood for "Forward Center" which was a troop movement designation. It was also inscribed on cannons in the Franco-Prussian War, probably as an insignia.
Before presenting the document, let me say that in his short blog post, Reason reporter Ciaramella frames the situation misleadingly. He oddly does not reference the Unabomber case at all, and sort of implies that the FBI "kept a file on" Gygax. This isn't really true (as far as we know). And whatever one thinks of the FBI in general or the FBI in 1995 or whatever, I don't think it unreasonable for the agency to have followed all possible leads in this notorious pre-9/11 terrorism investigation - including even, I suppose, checking out wargamers and roleplayers. After all, the Unabomber turned out to be highly intelligent (especially in mathematics), eccentric, individualistic, socially awkward and very dedicated to his particular "hobby." That describes a few of us, I think. Or at least a few of us, back in the day.

And finally, who is "Redacted"? I assume it is Lorraine Williams, who headed TSR from 1986 until 1997, and had a dislike for both Gary Gygax and (according to many reports) gamers in general. Presumably, FBI agents are trained to take down the statements of sources and witnesses accurately, whatever they might think of their motivation or bias. And I imagine that veteran agents would have seen everything, including gossipy people dishing the dirt on former colleagues.

So, I think this is not so much an FBI thing, but a Lorraine Williams thing. It's not the government, say, tracking the activities of a potential subversive, but, rather, Lorraine Williams dissing Gygax - her former boss and the man who hired her - to the FBI.      

Here is a cleaned up version of the full document. The actual scan can be found here.
May 25 1995
FBI – San Francisco
[Redacted] TSR, INCORPORATED 201 Sheridan Springs Road, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, telephone number [redacted] was advised of the identity of the interviewing Agents. The interview was conducted in an attempt to determine the relationship between TSR. INCORPORATED [redacted] as FRESNO GAMING ASSOCIATION AND COMPANY. TSR was present during the interview. [Redacted] provided the following information.
TSR, INC. (TSR) is an entertainment industry which produces publications and holds licenses related to fantasy role-playing games. The games are researched, written and illustrated by TSR employees or by freelance artists. The material is finalized and forwarded to a print agency and returned to TSR for packaging. TSR derives a majority of their profits from publications and the licensing of its copyrighted gaming materials. TSR licenses computer games as well and participates in numerous industry conventions nationwide.
TSR founded and operates the largest gaming convention in the world called GEN-CON. GEN-CON was originally named with reference to the GENEVA CONVENTION. The convention attracts approximately 25,000 attendees and focuses primarily on role-playing rather than war gaming. It is routinely held in August of each year and is marking its 27th year in 1995.
TSR employs approximately 120 persons and is considered to be the largest national role playing gaming corporation. [Redacted] noted that TSR has an extremely high concentration of very intelligent persons in employment. She added that many of the employees have parents in academia, often outstanding in' their respective fields. TSR formerly operated two offices in California, one in Beverly Hills and one in Westwood. Both California offices have been closed and TSR only maintains offices in Lake Geneva and England. TSR originated in the 1970s as a direct result of the gaming activities of persons affiliated with the GENEVA WAR GAMING ASSOCIATION. TSR originally was an acronym for TACTICAL STUDIES RULES, however only the initials have been retained as the name of the corporation.
War gaming and fantasy role playing differ in that war gaming involves a reenactment of historical wars and fantasy role playing involves adventures of fictional scenarios and characters. War gaming traditionally involved the staging of one day of battle in one war for strategic review by the war gamers. Miniature figures, often hand painted in the appropriate colors for the battle, would be arranged in a manner identical to the troop placement at the actual battle. The subsequent day of battle may not be reenacted for a month while the strategic possibilities are examined. The miniature figures originally were 25mm lead figures, but were-later formed of aluminum and pewter alloys. [Redacted] advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (D & D) was a fantasy role playing game originally named CHAINMAIL, produced by GARY GYGAX and DAVE ARNESON in 1972 and sold from GYGAX’S basement. In 1973, GYGAX, DONALD KAYE and [Redacted] formed a partnership in the gaming industry that evolved in 1975 into TSR. GYGAX operated the TSR branch office in Beverly Hills, California, doing business as DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS ENTERTAINMENT CORPORATION (DDEC).
In approximately 1976, the war gaming industry experienced a realignment that resulted in the traditional war gamers becoming very angry and resentful toward TSR. A major war gaming company named SIMULATION PUBLICATION, INC. (SPI) encountered significant financial trouble and was purchased by TSR. At the time of the buyout, SPI was a war gaming company and TSR was a fantasy role playing company. Many of the war gamers believe that SPI was sabotaged by TSR so that they could be acquired and quashed. [Redacted] believed that the purchase of SPI, which occurred [redacted] involved a forgiveness of debt and no funds actually changed hands. [redacted] has not been able to locate an itemization of game titles which were included in the deal and advised that there is still some confusion about the details of the purchase. [Redacted] noted that some war gamers continue to hold the anger from this purchase. She recalled a message on the Internet approximately three weeks ago which recalled TSR's acquisition of SPI in a derogatory connotation.
War gamers from the era of the 1970s are now aged in their late 40s to early 50s. Following the sale of SPI, they became further enraged at TSR when TSR began to scale back the war gaming portion of their company until it was almost non-existent. [Redacted] advised that war gaming appealed to a small but fiercely loyal population and war game production was not even profitable enough to be maintained at SPI's levels. A major portion of production costs were devoted to “counters" which were cardboard punch-out pieces designed to represent war vehicles. The "counters" reduced the profits of war gaming sets to a level that TSR found unacceptable. [Redacted] noted that fantasy role playing sets seldom required counters, could be produced for a fraction of the cost and appealed to a much larger audience.
In the [redacted] FRESNO had promised the reissue of the SPI titles to their constituents and had allegedly engaged in copyright infringement of certain games which had not come under their legal control. TSR dealt with litigation against FRESNO for years and then forwarded the management of the copyright infringement matter to JENNER BLOCK, 1 IBM PLAZA, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS. Through JENNER threatened to sue FRESNO. Attorneys for TSR forwarded a “Cease and Desist" order and [Redacted] learned that FRESNO blamed TSR for their impending bankruptcy. The attorneys at JENNER & BLOCK who handled this matter included [Redacted]. All records related to this litigation are maintained at the offices of JENNER & BLOCK. With the sale of the SPI titles to DECISION GAMES, the litigation against FRESNO became the concern of DECISION GAMES. TSR retains only 7 or 8 war gaming titles of the original 200 obtained with the purchase of SPI.
[Redacted] described the company as financially unstable and in need of reorganization [redacted]. TSR continued to produce war gaming sets and even sold several strategy modules to the Pentagon, however [Redacted] found the interaction with GYGAX at TSR to be very difficult. In 1986 TSR bought out GYGAX's stock and guaranteed him a royalty on his gameware from 1986 through 1989. That agreement involved approximately $3 million. GYGAX later infringed TSR copyrights and was sued by TSR. [Redacted] determined that a settlement was more financially sound and GYGAX was guaranteed $50,000 per year for ten years. In the early 1980’s, GYGAX had been generating about $1 million per year in income. [Redacted] advised that GYGAX spent his money frivolously. GYGAX was involved in an unpleasant divorce and [Redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser. GYGAX is approximately 55 years of age and is currently [redacted]. He lives on Madison Street in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and may be contacted at (414) xxx-xxxx. GYGAX maintains a mailing address as follows: P. O. Box 388, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. [Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison. GYGAX set up a holding company in Liberia to avoid paying taxes. He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.
GYGAX is probably familiar with [redacted]. [Redacted] believes that GYGAX would be extremely uncooperative if the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI attempted to interview him regarding his knowledge of [Redacted] FRESNO. [Redacted] added that war gamers are very loyal to one another and interviewees should be selected carefully so that the investigation is not jeopardized.
In 1988 TSR sold approximately 25 of the war gaming titles which TSR had acquired of SP1. The purchaser of these titles was WORLD WIDE WARGAMES which may have been located in Bekersfield, California. [Redacted] were affiliated with WWW at the time of the sale.
In 1994 TSR sold about 100 of the former-SPI titles to DECISION GAMES.
[Redacted]
[Redacted] FRESNO GAMING ASSOCIATION (FRESNO) prior to the acquisition of SPI by TSR. FRESNO was an informal club composed of a variety of war gamers however the organization did not appear to function as a company. Ultimately, FRESNO may have incorporated to collect dues to cover the cost of publication. [Redacted] was not aware of [Redacted] official capacity in the organization. She recalled that [Redacted] was involved with SPI prior to TSR’s purchase and had offered a small amount of money for war gaming titles which TSR had made available for sale. [Redacted] did not obtain the rights to any of the titles.
In the historical war context, F.C. stood for "Forward Center" which was a troop movement designation. It was also inscribed on cannons in the Franco-Prussian War, probably as an insignia.
[Redacted] were presented with the photographs of the wooden box utilized for the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) which was mailed aboard American Airlines flight #444 on 11/15/79. Neither could provide information regarding the origin or purpose of the box. Neither was familiar with the hinge on the box as depicted in the photographs and further described by the Agents.
[Redacted] were presented with the composite drawing of the suspect in the captioned matter. Neither had ever met [Redacted] and therefore could not comment on any possible resemblance. I advised that TSR employee [Redacted] and may be contacted regarding this.
[Redacted]
[Redacted]
TSR was the victim of two separate bomb threat incidents. No detonation occurred and the perpetrator(s) were never determined. The first incident occurred in 1986 and involved a series of phone calls which served as a countdown to the alleged day of detonation. Another threat in 1992 or 1993 was also received at TSR. TSR agreed with the conclusion of the Lake Geneva Police that most recent threat was probably just a prank. The Lake Geneva, Wisconsin police departments should have record of these incidents.
[Redacted] could not provide additional information regarding these threats. She advised that she would contact TSR’s [Redacted] for additional information.
[Redacted] that it would not be in the best interests of TSR to broadcast the receipt of the aforementioned threats. Further, [Redacted] preferred that the employees were not made aware of the presence of Agents of the FBI at TSR. [redacted] added that this kind of information could easily end up posted on the Internet system by the end of the day.
[Redacted] suggested that the dates of the placement and detonation of the captioned case devices may coincide with events of the Vietnam War. [Redacted] recalled the passion of the students at UCB during the War and suggested that the suspect may have arisen from that era. [Redacted ] also recalled a scandal in the mid to late 1980s involving several Professors at UCB and some east coast universities wherein renowned research was later determined to have been plagiarized.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Is D&D About Storytelling?


I think it clearly is.

Now, I know that "story," "story game," "storytelling" and so on are almost trigger words for some people (they are for me). People who use these terms are often intentionally telegraphing that they are on a particular side, sometimes in the edition wars or roleplaying philosophy wars, or sometimes even on a particular political side - "It's about storytelling, not killing things and taking their gold, you violent and greedy fascist!" But still, the basic fact that Dungeons & Dragons is about storytelling seems undeniable. That doesn't mean that D&D is only about storytelling; it's about a lot of other things, as well. But story is a big part of it.

Story often conjures up touchy-feely images of Native American shamans telling tales of the Earth Mother around the fire, or teenage girls discussing their EMO Drow crushes or whatever. But, of course, it doesn't have to be anything like that.

Actually, I think many non-RPG games are in part about telling stories, especially games with a lot of "realistic" detail. When I had the time and a willing partner who had the time (my father), I used to love playing World in Flames. That's the WWII monster game that involves multiple card tables covered with maps and chits. It took weeks to play. I always preferred strategic WWII games to tactical games, partly because I felt that the war was  a fascinating story (as horrible as it was for the actual people involved). And "alternative" WWII stories were just as fascinating to me. I remember to this day the story that my father and I simulated about the invasion of Britain. It started with paratroop drops in Wales and Northern Scotland and went from there. (My father was a great competitor, but if he had a weakness, it was for failing to anticipate weird things that never actually happened. He never thought the Germans would be so bold or - to him - foolhardy as to create a beachhead in the Scottish highlands.) The alternative history Battle of Britain was still raging two years later when the Americans entered the war, but it was so hot that the Yanks had to land in Ireland.

It's the story that I remember. I don't remember the actual rules much at all.

In some ways, even abstract games create stories. Think back to the most exciting Little League game you ever played.

But I digress. What also seems undeniable to me is that every D&D game that was ever played has featured a story being told or acted out by a combination of the DM and the players. It's never one or the other. Indeed, I'm not sure the degree to which it's told by one or the other has ever varied that much.

So, to me, the interesting question is not about who tells the story, but about who creates the story, or how it is created.

Previously, I made fun of Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio for implying that in our "liberated" times, it's the players telling the story (as opposed to a Gygaxian DM), or as she put it, "many voices are greater than one." I was harsh on her, for, as I argued, getting the history of D&D exactly wrong. To be fair to her, she never said that the "many voices" were creating the story, though I think she implied it. But the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel. The way I see it, her "many voices" are all in a sense jointly telling the same story, but it's a story that has largely already been created for them by the scenario author (in the contemporary published modules she seems to favor). I actually think that's a bit creepy. Many voices singing the same tune, imposed upon them by someone else. Whatever that is, it's not liberation, nor is really a game anymore. Nor, to paraphrase an AD&D Gygaxianism, is it really D&D.

It sounds like that dystopian scene from A Wrinkle in Time.

I exaggerate, of course. Players (and DM's) still have a fair amount of freedom to come up with their own mini-stories, even in the most railroady of adventures. But the general point stands. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about players as puppets. Even though it was clear where my preferences were, I tried to be somewhat neutral on the issue. One commenter wrote that sitting back and merely participating in a story (without really creating it) could sometimes be fun, at least for short sessions. I mostly agree with that.

Another commented that when he was a DM in school (I'm not sure of the era), his players didn't really want to drive the story, but preferred to be more passive. They didn't really want to think, or at least think in ways that would change the game (the thinking thing is me interpreting it, not the commenter). Without condemning those players or their attitude as wrong, I'm still going to take a "kids these days" line. Kids these days don't want to think. They don't know how not to be passive. They must be spoon-fed everything.

Kids these days.

When I was a a kid (back in other days) and a DM, my fellow kid players were never passive. Indeed, it often was positively annoying. You put all of this thought and planning into creating a fun adventure experience just for them, and then they went tramping off in another direction just to be ornery and difficult. How ungrateful.

I ran my share of quasi-railroady adventures. For example, I read and reread In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords - that's the one where your players all wake up with no weapons, armor, magic items or spells in a completely dark cave. (Obviously, you probably have to railroad them into that). Earth tremors are going off at increasing intervals, and the players have to find their way out by combating disgusting giant bugs and fungi creatures. I couldn't wait to play it, or, rather, I couldn't wait to run my players through it.

My players. Run them.

Okay, player-characters, but still.

Finally, I did. And I think we all had fun. But here's the thing. I remember a bit of the scenario (through reading it), but I don't remember a damn thing about what my players did in the scenario. They got out, but I don't remember how.

The main things by far that I remember about my campaign were not the times where I ran the players through an adventure, but all the quirky goofy things that my players did to create their own adventures.

Once, they were in a city, trying to see a high-level wizard so that he could identify a magic item, or some such. The wizard's assistant was being obnoxious. He would stick his hand out the little window of the door in the wizard's tower and demand money, "promising" to fetch the wizard. But he never did. Rather, he would just open the window again, stick his hand out, demand more money and shut the window. The players would knock yet again. Out went the hand for more money. And so on. I can't remember whether I rolled that or just made it up or whatever. But that irritating little man just kept sticking his hand out.

At a certain point, the fighter said, "I've had enough of this." He took out his axe and chopped the man's hand off.

The next two sessions revolved around the players trying to figure out how to escape the city without getting spelled to death. Or, rather, they pretended they were trying to escape, but were in fact taking it to the wizard by coming up with an ingenious plan to kill him. In the end they succeeded, barely. If I forget everything else about the overall campaign, I will never forget that little mini-adventure. If I forget everything else about the mini-adventure, I'll never forget the look on the other players' faces when the fighter (I imagined) put the bloody axe back in his belt.

I can't speak for all the players, but it was the most fun I ever had as a DM.

And I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Most of the time I just sat back and watched them plan.

I know, reading my DM stories is a bit like being forced to watch home movies. I'll stop now. But I hope you get the point.

You have those stories, too.

I understand when people complain about players bickering among themselves or arguing for an hour about which turn to take or whatever, but I actually think even that can often be fun, in moderation, of course. At least they're creating their own story.

Another commenter wrote that we in the OSR tend to romanticize early D&D as being more player-driven and sandboxy than it really was. I think that's true to a point. I guess I had a much more railroady philosophy (though I wouldn't have called it that or didn't realize it) back in the day. I've grown up (or so I'd like to think).

But maybe many DM's have the control impulse inside us, at least a little. We need the OSR to "cure" us, even though we can never be completely cured. It's like that other thing with the three-letter acronym that starts and ends with "A."

"My name is Oakes Spalding, and I'm a story-creating DM." 

The first D&D campaigns were all built around megadungeons. My first campaign started with my own megadungeon. It's easy for critics like D'Anastasio to imply that these were symbols of DM control. They were dungeons, after all, designed and administered by the DM. There were only a few entrances and exits. And once you got out, there was only a little village, or whatever, at least at first.

But while the DM created the dungeon, he didn't create the story. In the beginning, there was no story, just a map and a room key.

In a sense, the very term "Dungeon Master" created a misunderstanding. Men & Magic didn't use the term, going with "referee" instead. (The first use of "Dungeon Master" or "DM" in a rule set was, ironically, in the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls.)

"Dungeon Master" would soon conjure up images of an immature sadist in a bad Tom Hanks movie, getting his jollies out of killing the characters of his players or putting them into bizarre and uncomfortable situations just to mess with their heads. I'm sure that sort of thing was not unknown. But I never encountered anyone who played that way. 

I think "referee" gets it exactly right.

Why do you even need a referee? One reason is that the level of detail in D&D is so high that you couldn't possibly simulate it all with unambiguous rules. Someone has to interpret them or make rulings on the fly. Another is that part of the fun of D&D is exploration and surprise. You need someone outside and above the game who knows things that the players do not, or do not know yet.

But the role of the referee is not that of a story teller (although partly due to that unknown element, he will end up doing a fair amount of telling), nor, more importantly, is it to create a story. Rather, the referee designs the environment (or studies one designed by others). The story is created by the players interacting with the environment, with the referee there to, well, to referee.

Or, at least, that's the ideal.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld

The Darkness Beneath, published in serial form in the magazine Fight On!

There has been some interesting blogging on megadungeons, recently.

Yesterday, Wayne Rossi at Semper Iniativus Unum asked, Why Build a Megadungeon in 2017? Peter V. Dell'Orto at Dungeon Fantastic followed it up with More Thoughts on Megadungeons, and then Rossi posted Megadungeons, Bosses and Goals, today. Both authors have written many great posts on the subject over the years.

Dell'Orto has a useful page on his site that compiles his posts, as well as directing the reader to a more general compilation of megadungeon resources at Ken "Rusty" H's The Rusty Battle Axe.

David Hartlage at DmDavid has compiled a useful list of published megadungeons (as of late 2015), here.

Rossi and Dell-Orto make a number of helpful and interesting points, but the most memorable part of the exchange is Rossi's claim that to him, using a megadungeon that you didn't design yourself is like wearing someone else's pants to your own wedding. This is one of those times where even though personal preference is obviously important, there's room for a bit of objective analysis and persuasion. I still have no problem running Stonehell or contemplating running Barrowmaze or whatever, but I admit that Rossi pushed me a bit more into thinking about going back to my own dungeon projects.

The exchange also prompted me to reread Jason Cone's short section on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" in his seminal Philotomy's Musings, A collection of interpretations, house rulings, expansions, and general pontification on the nature of the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Many, if not most of you are no doubt familiar with this 49-page PDF. If you're not, you're in for a treat. It's one of the main resources that got me excited about coming back into the hobby a few years ago, as well as making me consider or reconsider OD&D (as opposed to, say, AD&D).

Cone (AKA Philotomy) argues that the dungeon or megadungeon may be usefully thought of as more than just a big hole in the ground with levels, monsters and treasures. Rather, it may be a "mythic" world of its own, possibly even subject to its own rules or laws. Thus, one need not be embarrassed or feel like one has to completely justify or explain the dungeon's contrived seeming elements by coming up with a completely coherent dungeon "ecology" or whatever. That weird things happen - all dungeon inhabitants can see in the dark (until they join your party), doors shut mysteriously and so on - may be a feature not a bug. I'm not putting it very well. As you'll see, below, Cone is much more articulate and persuasive.

I don't think Cone is arguing that a dungeon should be a completely random "funhouse," but he makes a good case that something a bit more than a totally "naturalistic" interpretation may sometimes be satisfying. This conception goes back to OD&D and its vibe. But, of course, there's no reason why one couldn't adapt it to AD&D or even 5e mechanics.

I've taken the liberty of excerpting the entire section. If you don't have a copy of the PDF of Musings, you can download a free version here, in a nice-looking OD&D style layout put together by Jason Vey. Greg Gorgonmilk also "recovered" it here.

In other places in the Musings, Cone has a funny style. "Considering OD&D?" he titles one section, as if he's innocuously handing you a religious pamphlet or asking you to try a new drug you might have heard about. "Well, here's what you should know," he could have added. And then there's the way he ends his discourse on the mythic dungeon, a place where you may end up alone in the dark, wondering why your monstrous pursuers always have such an easy time opening those doors: "And boy, is it fun."           
THE DUNGEON AS A MYTHIC UNDERWORLD 
There are many interpretations of "the dungeon" in D&D. OD&D, in particular, lends itself to a certain type of dungeon that is often called a "megadungeon" and that I usually refer to as "the underworld." There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should "make sense" as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn't necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it. For example, consider the OD&D approach to doors and to vision in the underworld: 
Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength…Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut…In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns, and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg 9) 
Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter, and it is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters. (Monsters & Treasure, pg 5) 
Notice that all characters, including those which can see in normal darkness (e.g. elves, dwarves), require a light source in the underworld, while all denizens of the place possess infravision or the ability to see in total darkness. Even more telling, a monster that enters the service of a character loses this special vision. Similarly, characters must force their way through doors and have difficulty keeping them open; however, these same doors automatically open for monsters. This is a clear example of how the normal rules do not apply to the underworld, and how the underworld, itself, works against the characters exploring it. 
Of course, none of this demands that every dungeon need be a mythic underworld; there could be natural caves and delved dungeon sites that are not in the "underworld" category, and follow more natural laws. Nevertheless, the central dungeon of the campaign benefits from the strange other-worldliness that characterizes a mythic underworld. 
A mythic underworld should not be confused with the concept of the "underdark." The underdark concept is that of an underground wilderness composed of miles of caves, tunnels, delved sites, and even whole underground cities. This is a cool fantasy concept, but is distinct from the concept of a mythic underworld that obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things. (There is no reason a referee couldn't join the two concepts of underworld and underdark, though.) 
Some common characteristics and philosophies for a mythic underworld or megadungeon (keep these in mind when creating your dungeon):
  1. It's big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
  2. It follows its own ecological and physical rules
  3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
  4. It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
  5. There are many ways to move up and down through the levels.
  6. Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
  7. It's inimical to those exploring it
  8. Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
  9. It's a (the?) central feature of the campaign 
If you embrace these concepts, you'll be playing OD&D according to some of the original assumptions of the game. And boy, is it fun.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jeffro Johnson on Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair

I'm an opponent of the politicization of gaming, just as I'm an opponent of the politicization of fantasy and science fiction literature. That doesn't mean I'm against political fiction or even political gaming per se. So, what do I mean?

Many of the best works in classic fantasy and science fiction were certainly political to one degree or another. What I'm against is one political group - in current times, it's a vocal and bullying minority within the left - taking on the self-imposed role of gatekeeper and censor against authors and political views in opposition to their own or whom they don't like.

Why am I against this? Well, largely because, as strongly as I may feel about certain political issues, some of the fantasy and science fiction novels that I have learned the most from and/or have enjoyed the most have been written from a point of view opposed to mine, often diametrically opposed to mine. People are people, and just because you disagree with them, or even just because they (you think) are objectively wrong about this or that, doesn't mean they don't have something important (to you) to say. Indeed, I would even argue that this is largely how we learn.

I'm not bragging about having a particularly tolerant point of view, or whatever. Rather I assume many if not most readers in the genre have similar experiences and would agree. It's only human, I think.

That's why the bullies want to stamp it out.

Jeffro Johnson makes a number of "controversial" claims in his recent book, Appendix N: A Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, some of which are, I suppose, in some sense "political" if the term has any meaning. He makes some counter-intuitive observations and arguments about sex and sexism, as well as Christianity - observations and arguments that have not unsurprisingly raised the hackles of some on the left. One of his recommendations is "regress harder," which sounds, and arguably is, reactionary (if that term has any meaning). Not that there's anything wrong with it.

But I think it's important to note that this is only one aspect of Appendix N (an aspect that I think is more than fine, but still). Or rather, if it is the primary aspect, it's meaning may be misunderstood. The authors and books on Gary Gygax's Appendix N list are a diverse lot. About the only things they have in common are 1) they're all on the list, 2) they're mostly forgotten or neglected by current critics and readers, 3) they all influenced to a lesser or greater extent the rules mechanics and/or vibe of original Dungeons & Dragons, and 4) they're all (or almost all) hugely worthwhile to read.

The politics and philosophies of the authors are all across the map.

One of the things I've always admired about Johnson, is despite his opinionated viewpoints (a condition of most OSR bloggers and commentators, of course), he always goes out of his way to find and promote the best or most interesting claims from a wide diversity of people - especially those who might have different politics. This is true for the bloggers he favorably cites or riffs on. It's also true for the authors he talks about in Appendix N.

This might sound like I'm heaping praise on Johnson. Actually, I'm not, or not per se. Rather, it's the natural human approach. And it's how most fantasy and science critics used to go about things. It's only the contemporary politicized bullies that have a problem with it.

Consider the author Margaret St. Clair (1911-95). St. Clair is one of the least well known authors on the Appendix N list, at least today. I'm fairly well acquainted with the history of fantasy and Appendix N lore, but I had never known anything about her (other than knowing she was on the list), and had not read her.

But Gygax included her on his list. Why?

Let's put that question aside for a moment and look at Johnson's first paragraph on her in his chapter, "Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair":
Margaret St. Clair’s formula for an original novel is to start with a realistic dystopian near-future, then layer in a major fantasy element for counter-point, incorporate widespread drug use and hallucinations, and finally throw in at least two over-the-top science-fiction elements that (in comic book fashion) fail to disrupt either the setting or the plot overmuch. It’s a potent combination that so dazzled her publishers that they could only explain her writing talent as being due to her feminine proximity to the primitive, her consciousness of the moon-pulls, and her Bene Gesserit-like awareness of “humankind’s obscure and ancient past.”
Chances are you've never read St. Clair, but if that bit doesn't make you want to read her, I don't know what.

St. Clair was the son of a Democrat politician, a feminist (I think), a Wiccan, a sometime devotee of nudist colonies (along with her husband) and a lifelong supporter of the American Friends Service Committee. In other words, not exactly a right-wing Heinleinesque sort of figure.

She was also, quite probably, one of the inventors (in terms of her influence) of the megadungeon:
Take, for example, this recent comment from game blogger DM David:
In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.
This is just not the case. The archetypal Gygaxian dungeon really does have a literary antecedent, and it’s here in this book [Sign of the Labrys]. Each level has a different theme, from living areas for survivors of the apocalypse to scientists and their unusual wandering monster creations, creations, and on to the VIP level, where everyone is doped up on euph pills. Exploration is a key part of the plot as the lower levels are only connected by secret passages. At the same time—just like in the best dungeon designs—there is also more than one way to get from one level to the next and sometimes ways to bypass levels entirely. Finally, the action of the novel is focused on exactly the sort of thing that consumes the bulk of so many game sessions to this day: a battle within a dungeon by two rival factions.
As far as I know, no one has ever made this connection, even though Gygax telegraphed it, more than forty years ago. (The "official" Appendix N list of 29 authors appeared in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide, published in 1979. However an earlier and shorter list, containing 21 authors - 20 of whom would carry over into Appendix N, appeared in the December, 1976 issue of The Dragon magazine under the heading "Fantasy/Swords & Sorcery: Recommended Reading, From Gary Gygax.")   

Not to rub things in against poor feminist blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio, but her tyrannical patriarchal Gygaxian dungeon was actually in part invented by a Wiccan pacifist.

There's much more in the chapter than this, including more of an argument and explanation for the megadungeon thing, and more about the complexity of St. Clair's Wiccan (yes, Wiccan) perspective. You'll have to read it on your own. But here's how the chapter ends:
No, after thinking this over, there is really not one thing I’d change about this book. From the publisher’s bizarre back cover blurb to the original inspiration of the Gygaxian megadungeon, from the drug-infused apocalypse to the bizarre mixing and matching of science-fiction and fantasy elements, this book is a masterpiece. There’s something intensely satisfying about the fact that conventions in tabletop games that we take for granted today sprang from something that was so fiercely original. This is a book that is so weird on so many levels that it really shouldn’t even exist. That’s why it’s awesome.
My own view is that Johnson is rekindling an interest in these works, just as Lin Carter and Ballantine Books did in a different way in the sixties with their "Adult Fantasy Series." And other authors and bloggers are starting to take up the challenge.

As the fantasy and science fiction author John C. Wright says in his Introduction to Appendix N:
Ignore the Thought Police. Read. Decide. Learn to enjoy what you enjoy. Because the heritage belongs to us all. And who knows? You may find the books that your favorite author read as his favorite books when he was young. All these worlds are yours. You have merely to claim them.
Personally, I find that an invitation almost impossible to resist. Clever scribbler, that John C. Wright.

All these worlds are yours. You have merely to claim them.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jeffro Johnson on Old School vs. New School

Old School fun (uncredited illustration from the Basic Fantasy RPG)

In a recent post at Castalia House, Jeffro Johnson critiques some of the critiques of his book, Appendix N. Also buried in the comments is Jeffro's quick explanation of Old School vs. New School D&D. Many old schoolers have tried their hand at it. I did so here. But I think this effort is about as good as any:
The difference between old school and new school in a nutshell:
Old School: The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor. They have planned for an hour, coming up with a sort of Rube Goldberg type scheme to do something. They go into the dungeon and things look like they will work. Then… something unexpected goes wrong. Something goes sideways. One player panics. Then another does something stupid. The dungeon master rules what happens next and the players are not surprised by any of the die rolls that are required– they knew the odds for various things from the beginning. But then an awesome conjunction of player choice, dungeon design, rules, and chance conspire to create something no one expected. Player morale plummets as things fall apart and player characters start to die. The party splits up to flee the dungeon at different movement rates, with wandering monsters greeting the stragglers as the mage and thief make the exit. When the delve comes to a close, players roll up some new characters while everyone argues excitedly about what a newer and better plan would entail.
New School: Everyone knows that there is some sort of “boss encounter” they are being shepherded toward. Players are almost guaranteed to level up after the first session– and maybe level up after the second encounter. Nobody dies and no one is surprised when the party has just enough hit points and so forth to defeat the big baddie at the end of the session. Everything feels linear and pre-plotted. Choice doesn’t seem to matter except at the tactical level. People don’t imagine anything, they just make skill checks for everything. There isn’t the same need to learn how to cooperate because everything is set up in advance for the players to pretty well win.
Now, as far as the first two sentences go, I wouldn't have put it quite that way (remember, it was a quick comment): "The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor." I mean, I think I know what he's getting at - among other things, that players should be given the benefit of the doubt on the possibility of succeeding or for trying pretty much anything - but that every ruling or interpretation should go their way sounds more New School to me. I know when I was playing in a 4th edition campaign, I lost all interest in it when it became clear that the referee was interpreting all dice rolls - both open and secret - in such a way such that I would not die. And I know Jeffro doesn't advocate that. See the rest of his comment.

And of course, Jeffro arguably exaggerates the fun/deadly nature of many old school games and the goofy/clever plans and abilities of old school players, as well as the boring/stupid railroady totalitarianism of new school games - railroady totalitarianism in the interests of being nice, of course.

But exaggeration or, rather, highlighting what something is in its pure form, is exactly what one does when one tries to give an explanation or definition.

I can vouch for much of what Jeffro says from my own early games. In my first megadungeon, the first room after the entrance contained a number of stirges - it was quickly dubbed "The Stirge Room" and became a sort of legend. I didn't intend to make it a particularly tough room, but I guess I underestimated the power of those cute little bloodsuckers. There were two or three TPKs before a party made it past them into the dungeon proper.

Now, if you want to say that was bad dungeon design, you would perhaps be right. But the point is it ended up actually being fun (I think) for the players. They knew I wasn't out to get them, but nor was I going to hold their hands. The stirges were simply there, and they had to figure out how to get through them. And when they did finally make it through (I don't remember what the plan was, but it worked), there was a huge sense of accomplishment on everyone's part (including my own - it was my first dungeon, after all). And this was just one generic room with a bunch of fairly vanilla low-level monsters.

The fact that they had earned that (albeit with a bit of help from the dice), set the tone for the rest of the dungeon. Among other things, whatever tougher things they would go on to face, they all now had a bit more confidence in their own smarts and abilities.

And they would go on, many sessions later, to mount an attack on the Big Bad (or Big Bads - it was a huge goblin lair) somewhat before I thought they would ever dare to, or were ready.

They won, of course.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: Preview to a Review


I'm midway through reading Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: a Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, published by Castalia House. I'm going slowly and it's been a sort of surreal experience for reasons having nothing to do with the book itself. Rather, since Appendix N is not yet available in hard copy, and since I do not own a Kindle or tablet, I'm reading it entirely on my iPhone - a first for me. And for reasons of pride or habit or whatever, that means I'm reading it exclusively on busy train rides. It's sort of an experiment. I'll probably reread it quickly on my desk computer.

The book is wonderful.

If you haven't read Appendix N but you've heard a bit about it, I wonder what you think it is. I had thought it would be more of a straight literary analysis of books that Gygax and others claimed had influenced D&D, which would of course have been fine. But in fact there are many more references and discussions of gaming than I anticipated, which is more than fine.

It's interesting to compare it to the discussions of the relevant fantasy literature in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. A bit of the same ground is covered, but of course Johnson has the space to go into much more detail, as well as marching into new and interesting territory - he does a lot more than look at alignments or the Vancian origins of magic, etc. Just to take one example, there's a neat discussion of how Vance's Dying Earth setting was perhaps at least part of the inspiration for the random encounter tables on Castles in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures - inspiration that was largely overlooked or forgotten, as well as becoming somewhat of a lost opportunity as the game developed.

Peterson was the neutral historian, a stance that was precisely appropriate for his task. I've read his 698 page book twice and think it's clearly the book of record on the overall historical topic, as well as being endlessly fascinating. But I can see how some (who might have a mild aversion to long history books or whatever) might call it "dry."

Johnson's Appendix N is anything but, partly because the genre of Appendix N (it was for a while - still is? - number one in the Criticism and Theory category on Amazon) allows for and requires more in the way of opinions - an area in which Johnson does not disappoint - but also because, unlike the historian, Peterson, Johnson is writing as an active gamer, in part for active gamers. So, for example, in the middle of a discussion of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall - a book that I inexplicably didn't like twenty-five years ago, but that I am now convinced I must read again - there's an out of the blue (or so it first seemed) detailed discussion of how to run a good "domain game" in Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, the discussion makes sense in the context of de Camp's book. High-level player-characters run by 21st century players are in somewhat the same position as the time-traveling 20th century protagonist of Darkness. But it was still a delightful surprise.

Johnson also incorporates some input from current game bloggers, as well as including in his appendix, reviews of three game products as well as a fascinating interview with Tunnels & Trolls designer Ken St. Andre.

In fairness to me, or to my initial misunderstanding of the contents of the book, Johnson had earlier summarized some of his conclusions after reading and reviewing (in blog form) most of the Appendix N literature. None of them directly addressed game questions per se. If some of the following claims sound counter-intuitive or even a bit outrageous, I urge you to read the arguments for them in the book:

  • Tolkien’s ascendancy was not inevitable. It’s really a fluke that he even became the template for the modern fantasy epic
  • A half dozen authors would have easily been considered on par with Tolkien in the seventies . . .
  • Entire genres have been all but eliminated. The majority of the Appendix N list falls under either planetary romance, science fantasy, or weird fiction. Most people’s readings of AD&D and OD&D are done without a familiarity of these genres.
  • Science fiction and fantasy were much more related up through the seventies. Several Appendix N authors did top notch work in both genres. Some did work that could be classified as neither.
  • It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977. There was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.
  • Modern fandom is now divorced from its past in a way that would be completely alien to game designers in the seventies. They had no problem synthesizing elements from classics, grandmasters of the thirties, and new wave authors.

Read the rest here.

Full review to follow, but if anyone who hasn't purchased or read it yet, wants to jump on board now, you won't be disappointed.