Saturday, February 13, 2021

Gary as adversarial GM?

This is a pretty funny meme, especially the "quote" at the bottom. (Not sure I've ever put air-quotes around the word quote before. Seems very meta.)

Funny as it is, from a more realistic standpoint it is clear that Gary was in an arms race with players from 1974-1980. 

You know about the module S1: The Tomb of Horrors, right? We've all seen this beautiful Erol Otus (no relation) image? I have to wonder, why this was the back cover instead of the front!

Anyway, this dungeon has the reputation of being a stone cold killer. But of course it's not an example of Gary writing a dungeon just to be mean. Or ... well ... it is, but you have to know the context. Gary wrote it specifically to test high level players. He wrote it for convention/tournament play (not to kill off long-lived beloved home-group characters) and he wrote it after his player's boasted they could handle anything AD&D had to throw at them. He did nothing to hide his mindset when planning/writing S1: "I admit to chuckling evilly as I did so." And he designed it specifically to challenge the likes of Rob Kuntz' Robilar and Ernie Gygax's Tenser, characters that had been around, literally, longer than D&D had been in print. 

All of this is to make a point I think we all already knew. However, popular, revisionist thinking likes to paint Gygax as a mean-spirited character killer and an autocratic GM. He was some of that, but his players were murder hobos. And it's a chicken-and-egg argument as to which came first. It was just the culture of the table. I don't think those early players went around crying about Gary being too tough or unfairly wiping out their favorite PCs. 

If you go looking for advice from Gary about how to kill PCs or make their lives hell, you will find it. If you go looking for words from Gary about their being only one way to play D&D (his way), you'll find them. But the opposite is also true. I can easily go find places where Gary suggests alternative challenges that are less likely to kill characters and places where he told you to make it up and have fun rather than writing to him for answers. (Both of the ones I'm thinking of right now, by the way, were in volume III of original D&D).

We shouldn't be too hasty to discount adversarial play if it is conducted in a spirit of fun and fairness. Not all players want to breeze through a heroic story. Some want to explore, face challenges, and fully experience the outcome of their choices. Some want to test themselves against a dangerous and often capricious environment.

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