Thursday, January 1, 2009

Idol Worship

It's been about a year now since I met Gary Gygax for the first and last time, and had the chance to play in a game session at his house. He was in poor health, but he ran the game none-the-less. From all reports that was what he was like, a generous man who loved to game.

If you see statements by the people who gamed with Gary regularly, they all say he was a cunning and brutal Dungeon Master. His tricks and traps could foil the best intentions of any thoughtful player. They say that gaming with Gary was a unique, and treasured, experience. I wish our game session could have been longer so that I could have seen the end effects that almost certainly would have occurred after my character foolishly man-handled an evil demon idol (and Gary mysteriously consulted some notes, made a die roll, and had a disconcerting look on his face...).

Since Gary died, there have been many changes in the gaming world. His death led to a disentanglement with Troll Lord Games of the properties Gary built. This has angered many people, I think partly because there are many people out there who believe that TLG is the "legitimate" heir to the Throne of Old-School, seeing Gary's involvement in their company as an exclusive endorsement of Castles & Crusades as the true successor to AD&D. But that is a topic for another day.

The issue I want to address here is related to the reactions of people who are mad that Gygax Games pulled the properties away from TLG. Forget for a moment that Gail Gygax has every right to do whatever she wants. Forget for just a while that getting through the loss of her husband is far more important a thing than worrying about what fans think.

The issue here is not what will happen to the Gygax properties. The issue here is that Gary is dead. People are worried about who will produce the next Gygaxian product, a product that is infused with the "Gygax Credibility." What people are either unwilling or unable to see is that this is an irrelevant issue. Gary is dead. It doesn't matter which company produces the next dungeon, source book, or what-have-you with the Gygax name on it, the fact is that Gary will never pen another thing. People may claim to be writing "in his spirit," whatever that means, or writing with exclusive access to Gary's secret notes as if they are magic writings lending some special recognition, but it doesn't lend any sort of special credibility to anyone. Anyone can write in his spirit if they are familiar with his many works.

When I was in the Greyhawk dungeon adventure with Gary at the helm, I had the chance to take a glance at the map he was using. You know what? It looked like every other dungeon map I've seen thoughtful DMs scribble down onto a 8.5 x 11 piece of graph paper. When Gary rolled dice he rolled them just like any other DM rolls dice.

The point I'm trying to make is that in the end what truly made an adventure "Gygaxian" was probably having Gary run the game. His unique cunning was best expressed at the gaming table. That's why all these concerns about who is "better informed" in the Gygaxian School, as if it is some torch to be passed along, are silly. They are concerns that are too wrapped up in the idol worship of fandom.

We shouldn't look for some kind of Gygax Official Seal on our dungeons before they are legit and worthy of being old-school. Gary wouldn't have wanted that anyway. No one can ever create like Gary, because no one else is Gary. We should all create the dungeons we think are fun, in whatever style we think is fun, and DM them as we see fit. That's the way Gary would want it, not creating or DMing with some sort of insecure need to have an official stamp. I submit that in the end what is truly Gygaxian is the whole concept of D&D. You can play in a module written by Gary, but I bet that the experience is different, not necessarily "better" mind you, if Gary actually ran it himself.

What we have really lost is Gary Gygax the person and DM. Gary Gygax the game is still alive in all of those copies of OD&D, AD&D, modules, and other writings that are out there. Those are your textbooks to old-school. Nobody should be seen as the "true" inheritor of Gygaxian Gaming, because we all are his heirs in that sense. So game on, secure in this inheritance, and don't worry about whether you are "good enough," because Gary wrote many times that each DM is the final arbitrator. He never asked people to seek him out for the final answer, because the final answer is with each game player. I would also say to be wary if anyone claims any special credibility when publishing "Gygaxian" material. That isn't to say that Gygax Games doesn't deserve support, because if they produce good product, then they certainly do deserve support. But we all need to keep things in perspective and realize that we can't get or expect "true Gygaxian" from anyone. Only Gary himself could do that.

18 comments:

JimLotFP said...

>>People may claim to be writing "in his spirit," whatever that means, or writing with exclusive access to Gary's secret notes as if they are magic writings lending some special recognition, but it doesn't lend any sort of special credibility to anyone.

I would think that, in the context of Castle Greyhawk/Zagyg at least, working from Gary's notes (and in collaboration with him) would have more credibility than just making new stuff up and slapping the brand name on it.

And while mindless idol-worshipping is a horrible thing, I believe keeping Gygaxian elements in mind is beneficial to the hobby as a whole, and essential to the "old-school" movement. It's too bad that Arneson and others didn't have a bigger voice in developing the game and relaying their early campaign experiences over the years, but because of that, "old school principles" (at least as far as D&D is concerned, and that's the language most of us are speaking when we say "old school") and "Gygaxian principles" are very closely related, and I'm not sure you can retain one and discard the other.

Dan of Earth said...

I would think that, in the context of Castle Greyhawk/Zagyg at least, working from Gary's notes (and in collaboration with him) would have more credibility than just making new stuff up and slapping the brand name on it.

Sure, I agree...but only to a point. The whole issue is credibility for what? Yes it would be nice to have new material written by Gary, but that's never going to happen of course. So what if we see a published dungeon based heavily on Gary's notes. Then what? We already have dungeons written and published by Gary. But what is the next step? You see, people want to snatch up stuff based on Gary's writing. They want to believe that anything new might have at least some portion of Gary in it. Some of these same people are people who aren't interested in new material by other authors. What I'm getting at is that we can fetishize Gary's writings for the rest of our lives, or we can move forward, accept that he is gone, and embrace each other's new creations. We don't need x% of Gary's notes in a product to accept that it is old-school, do we? If we do, then I'm not sure that there is a future for new old-school material or the "old-school movement," for that matter.

JimLotFP said...

I agree with your comments in general here... it's just in relation specifically to Castle Greyhawk that I disagree.

It's one of the real foundations that the entire hobby was built on... having it out there in the most authentic form possible is important, I think, else it should be called something else.

machfront said...

*Applause!*

I guess, to me, something truly "Gygaxian" is something the DM (as well as the group) comes up with on their own.

So many people have been chomping at the bit to play in Castle Greyhawk, but yet they wait and wait for decades for someone else to do it for them.

I have as much respect for Gary as the next fan, but to think that anything he wrote or created is any more special or "official" than anything we create ourselves is...well...a little bit sad and pathetic to me.
(Note: This isn't to say that I don't love what he wrote and created. I did and I do.)

-Eric

John Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Adams said...

I remember the first time I was told that Unearthed Arcana was not “canon.” I had grown up playing paladins that were sub classes of cavaliers. Were they too powerful? Maybe, but the DM I had knew this and adapted our gaming to it – just like every good DM would do. “Not canon?”

Later on, after had I got involved in playing Lejendary Adventures and was even trying to help Gary develop a level system for the game (one which he posted on many forums and asked us for our help), I just couldn't believe the amount of anger and frustration this caused long-time LA folk, a number of whom began saying, “Gary just isn't himself anymore.”

I understand that different people like different rule sets and/or gaming genres of D&D. I have no problem with that at all. I have my own personal preference as well. I do my best to honor the system/genre of a particular forum when I visit and post. At the same time, I think it is a good and commendable thing that folks are working hard at “cloning” versions of D&D in order to keep them alive for future generations. But when I start hearing people talk as if their personal preference is THE ONLY REAL D&D and that anyone who ever even thinks about playing, creating (or even publishing) something that isn't truly “Gygaxian” or “canon” is misguided at best or a heretic at worst - well, in my opinion, that's just silly.

I'm a pastor I know all I need to know about “canons, traditions and even heresy.” I'm glad to see new material being created based upon on and in the spirit of Gary's games and style of gaming. Gary never stopped creating, developing and expanding gaming. I don't think he would want us to either.

Good post Dan.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I think you are obscuring the issue here, to be honest. The main subject of contention is Castle Zagyg and whether or not those who purchase it trust those who develop it to be cleaving as closely as possible to what Gygax intended it to be.

None of the people who were involved in the production of the Upper Works, Yggsburgh, or Dark Chateau are slated to be involved in the production of future supplements, as far as I understand it.

That is an obstacle that Gygax Games appear to have created for themselves, and they may well brilliantly overcome it, but for the moment it is undermining both enthusiasm and trust in the project.

As far as producing "Gygaxian" material, that is certainly possible (though I would suggest that it is not something that just anybody can do, it requires some measure of skill and talent beyond familiarity with Gygax's own works).

On the other hand, I totally agree that what makes something really "Gygaxian" is having had the man himself run it for you. Of course, then there is the case to be made that there are different forms of Gygaxian, depending on the group dynamic and a myriad of other factors, but that is again obscuring the point.

Christopher B said...

I can only speak personally, but I am one of the people "worried about who will produce the next Gygaxian product." (Specifically, I'm referring to Castle Zagyg/Greyhawk/whatever.) I just wanted to clarify some things, at least from my PoV.

First, my concern over Gygax Games' retraction of TLG's license to produce Gary's IP is not a result of some odd/misplaced sense that C&C is somehow the true successor to D&D. My concern, and that of most people I know, is that TLG was closer to producing Gary's Castle Greyhawk than any other commercial entity has thus far been.

As a long time D&D player, I - like many others - have been swept up over the years in the mystique of Gary's ultimate dungeon. Intrigued by tales here and there of other players' forays into the dungeon, I've oft longed to see for myself what the Great DM ran his own players through.

For a time (albeit far too long a time) it looked like we would finally get to see Gary's grand creation. As it stands, we are at the 2/3 mark - and the plug has been pulled. Speaking from the point of view of someone who has longed for years to see this project completed, I could not help but be very concerned. After 20+ years of being promised Castle Greyhawk, it seemed as if we were suddenly thrown back into that limbo we were left in when Gary and TSR parted ways.

To make matters worse, Gail Gygax has done little to calm these fears. She has made references to following Gary's wishes, and vague assurances that things would be handled properly. But that's akin to an adult telling a child: "Hush, everything will be all right." It does not inform us how everything will be all right, and thus does little to alleviate our fear.

I'm not saying it's not Gail's right to keep her plans to herself. What I am saying is that this behavior ensures that our fears will rage unabated, and we should have every right to feel the way we do.

(And yes, I know Gary is dead. But it does matter who produces his product. I'd rather have Jeffrey Talanian (sp?) onboard, as he's worked most closely with Gary in getting the Castle Zagyg product to press. As a fan, I'd rather see the final 1/3 of the product produced with Jeff at the helm, working from Gary's notes, than see an entirely from-scratch product produced by someone who's never worked with Gary on the project.)

The other point I wanted to make was that just because I'm longing to see Castle Greyhawk given proper treatment does not mean that I'm sitting in a corner, pining away, shunning all other products and refusing to make my own. I do not look for "some kind of Gygax Official Seal on our dungeons." I make my own, I buy what I like- and I find this statement to be a huge generality - a rather inane one at that.

Thanks for the thoughtful post - I hope I've been able to give you a reasonable look at the "other side" of the issue.

Dan of Earth said...

I think you are obscuring the issue here, to be honest. The main subject of contention is Castle Zagyg and whether or not those who purchase it trust those who develop it to be cleaving as closely as possible to what Gygax intended it to be.

Your comment only proves the point I'm making!

See, I am trying to elucidate what the real issue is. I know this is the contention held by people, and what I am trying to point out is that it is wasted energy worrying about it. Gary is gone, and the sooner people come to grips with that the healthier attitudes will be, IMHO.

It wouldn't matter if the same people were involved in later Zagyg products. The truth is we can never really know how Gary intended it, because he didn't write it in all the years it was talked about. We already have plenty of examples of Gary's dungeon design. The real issue is people are worrying about whether any new dungeon with the Greyhawk/Zagyg name on it will "fit Gary's intentions," well what does that even mean, anyway? That there is x creature in room x and x treasure behind sliding wall y? What is there to "trust" in future publishers? Again, Gary is gone, we know he can't write anything else, so who exactly are we supposed to "trust" more than any other gamer who is familiar with Gary's work? It's just a bizarre concept.

See, it's just silly. The only way we would know what he wants is if he could write it, but he can't. If someone published his notes, that's just what they would be, his notes. In the end what we are talking about is posthumous collaboration, with the degree of the deceased collaboration questionable, no matter who gets to be the collaborator. I just think people should move on and focus on more productive lines of thought.

Who knows, maybe there will be a published megadungeon called Zagyg, or whatever, and it just might be a high quality product. But that is an entirely different issue. It's very sad that Gary didn't live to write the dungeon levels, but the fact is he didn't and nothing can change that.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Your comment only proves the point I'm making!

See, I am trying to elucidate what the real issue is. I know this is the contention held by people, and what I am trying to point out is that it is wasted energy worrying about it. Gary is gone, and the sooner people come to grips with that the healthier attitudes will be, IMHO.


Not at all, I think you are still missing the point here. In the case of Castle Zagyg (which is really the main point of contention) Gygax ceased being the primary author and developer many months before his death.

It is not about coming to terms with Gygax's death, it is just about the project and what happened after his death. Cleaving as close as possible to what was intended is not the same thing as getting what he intended the product to be (or what it would have been had he lived to see it to completion).

The point you are making runs parallel to this, in my opinion.

Dan of Earth said...

Cleaving as close as possible to what was intended...

But what would it mean to cleave as close to what Gary intended?

Dan of Earth said...

I guess maybe I failed to express myself very well. Here is what I'm getting at...

In the case of Castle Zagyg...Gygax ceased being the primary author and developer many months before his death.

Given that fact, Gary isn't even around to consult anymore. He was in such poor health that he was barely able to manage this. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but aside from his gaming notes, we would have no evidence of what Gary ever intended.

Matthew James Stanham said...

But what would it mean to cleave as close to what Gary intended?

Now you cut to the heart of the issue! In many ways it is a confidence trick, as it can only be subjectively defined, which means that the criteria will satisfy folks to different degrees and in different ways.

What you have with folks complaining about the changes in direction are people who were confident that the product would have been as close as possible to what Gygax intended.

Telling them that it would never be what Gygax wrote, as he is dead, is just silly... they know.

Dan of Earth said...

Telling them that it would never be what Gygax wrote, as he is dead, is just silly... they know.

I don't know about that. Sure, intellectually people know this, but not emotionally. It seems that what people want is to be able to reproduce the gaming experience of Gary running people through his dungeon. But obviously this can never happen.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I don't know about that. Sure, intellectually people know this, but not emotionally. It seems that what people want is to be able to reproduce the gaming experience of Gary running people through his dungeon. But obviously this can never happen.

Well, then, let me put it another way. Telling me that it will never be what would have been is just silly. ;)

I imagine the game experience would be different from year to year and group to group with regard to playing with Gygax as game master, but the "Castle Greyhawk experience" was never what the project was primarily about.

From what I can tell of Gygax's own statements on the subject, the idea was to design and develop a castle and dungeons based on his own Castle Greyhawk. At some point, people have confused this with "getting the real Castle Greyhawk" (possibly as a result of marketing).

Dan of Earth said...

At some point, people have confused this with "getting the real Castle Greyhawk" (possibly as a result of marketing).

Yes! That's what I mean, no matter what happens with the property at this point, we will never, and could never, get "the real thing."

Dan of Earth said...

I do not look for "some kind of Gygax Official Seal on our dungeons." I make my own, I buy what I like- and I find this statement to be a huge generality - a rather inane one at that.

Fair enough ;-)

Matthew James Stanham said...

Yes! That's what I mean, no matter what happens with the property at this point, we will never, and could never, get "the real thing."

Quite so, but I think that was the case from the beginning. The "real thing" as an absolute object never existed, it is the contents of the "Castle Zagyg Bible" and their relationship to Gygax's own mind (which would not be static).

Maybe I give people more credit than they are due, but I don not think that is the source of any acrimony or misgivings towards Gygax Games.