Dragon Reflections #16 – Gygax Fights Back!

The Dragon Issue 16 was published in July 1978. It is 40 pages long, with a cover price of $1.50. In this issue we Eric Holmes talks Cthulhu, we learn why clerics and wizards can't use swords, and Gary Gygax hits back at his critics and talks about realism in D&D!


I must start by mentioning the wonderfully dramatic cover by Dean Morrissey, depicting an ancient warrior reaching for his sword as he stares defiantly into an oncoming storm. Morrissey painted many other covers for The Dragon, including the celebrated "Wingship" of Dragon #91.

Editor Tim Kask is once more on the defensive for publishing fiction, and writes:

"Due to the length of the conclusion of THE GREEN MAGICIAN, we found it necessary to add an additional four pages this issue. Contrary to what some Philistines might think, this is not a fiction magazine. The Philistines I refer to are the ones that don’t want to see any fiction at all in these pages. To forestall the howls, the extra four pages were added to compensate, not that the story NEEDS compensating for."​

Kask always wore his heart on his sleeve, which is what makes his editorials so readable, even after all these years. He goes on to complain that so many gamers lack a sense of humor, which meant the amateur 'zines were now full of "vitriol and bickering" and "satire goes unnoticed and/or unappreciated; humor is unwelcome."

Mark Ratner, the creator of the Space Marines miniatures game, shares new rules for Metamorphosis Alpha, giving some much-needed buffs to mutant animal PCs. With TSR soon to release Gamma World, this would be one of the last MA articles published in The Dragon.

Jerome Arkenberg gives some more mythic stats, this time for "Near Eastern" gods such as An, Marduk, and Baal. I am curious as to whether Deities and Demi-gods used Arkenberg's work at all. I'll have to do some research when I get a moment.

Speaking of mythic stats, you may recall that Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz published statistics for the Cthulhu mythos in The Dragon #12. This generated a critical response from Gerald Guinn in The Dragon #14, taking apart the statistics monster by monster. Eric Holmes responds in kind in this issue, first noting that "when one gets into religious controversy the first thing one discovers is that the scriptures are themselves self-contradictory or are subject to varying interpretations." He gives his point-by-point rebuttal, before suggesting that Lovecraft himself would find such a debate hilarious.

This issue includes a new NPC class, the Ninja. These NPC classes always puzzled me a bit, as they supplied all the information you would need to play the class, and then insisted they were strictly NPC only. Players would have to wait a few years before getting an official Ninja class, but this article looks well researched.

Jim Ward shares another one of Monty Haul's adventures, and this one really plays into the eponymous stereotype. Ward says, "I had decided to take my little thirteenth level wizard. He was kind of weak, having only sixty-nine hit points and eighteen’s in all his categories save strength... Tom complained that all he had left were demi-gods and so we made him start out with a new character at the twelfth level. It served him right, having to start out all over like that." The article is also notable as containing (I believe) the first mention of the word "Drow" in the magazine's history.

There is a short piece titled "Why Magic Users and Clerics Cannot Use Swords", which gives a somewhat labored answer to this question. It essentially comes down to a curse laid on the land long ago. How dull. I'm grateful for the rather more elegant solution 5e came up with to address this issue.

By far the most interesting article is "Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell Points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs" by Gary Gygax, published in the "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column. It is classic Gygax, too, covering a swathe of topics in a tone that permits no argument. It's an important article and I will spend some time working through it.

Gygax starts by reminding everyone of his company's preeminent place in the hobby, noting that TSR originated "the concept of a paper & pencil fantasy role-playing game." He then shares an ongoing frustration:

"I do admit to becoming a trifle irritated at times to read an article in some obscure D&D fan magazine or a letter to the editor of some small publication which attacks the game — or claims to be sure to improve D&D if only their new and “improved” rules are followed — with ill-conceived or asinine logic."​

He then describes the most common complaint:

"Interestingly, most of the variant systems which purport to “improve” the game are presented under the banner of realism... “Realism” has become a bugaboo in the hobby, and all too many of the publishers... make offerings to this god too frequently. The very definition of a game gives the lie to this false diety... A game is real, but its subject matter can, at most, give only a “sense” of what actually took place or exists."​

Gygax goes on to describe what he thinks makes D&D fun, and why he rejected a more sophisticated combat system:

"In general, the enjoyment of D&D is the fantasy: identification with a supernormal character, the challenges presented to this character as he or she seeks to gain gold and glory... the images conjured up in participants’ minds as they explore weird labyrinths underground and forsaken wildernesses above, and of course the satisfaction of defeating opponents and gaining some fabulous treasure. This is the stuff of which D&D is made. Protracted combat situations which stress “realism” will destroy the popularity of the game... The players desire action, but all but the odd few will readily tell you that endless die rolling to determine where a hit lands, having to specify what sort of attack is being made, how their character will defend against an attack, and so on are the opposite of action; they are tedious."​

Gygax aimed to create a fun game, not some sort of medieval combat simulator. The subsequent years would see some remarkably complicated RPG systems published, with the complexity justified in the name of "realism". Such systems had their fans, but not that many. And it's not too much of a stretch to say the "game first" mentality is one of the reasons for 5E's phenomenal success. Having dealt with the realism bugbear, Gygax moves on to address the other major criticism coming out of the amateur press:

"Certain small publishers of amateur magazines or second-rate work have accused TSR of maintaining a proprietary interest in DUNGEONS & DRAGONS from a purely mercenary motivation. This is usually because they have fervent desire to trade on D&D’s repute and make a reputation or quick buck on its merits rather than their own. Oddly enough, some individuals also fault TSR for being careful to protect its trade marks and copyrights and reputation, blandly faulting a desire to profit from our labors."​

The accusation is familiar to anyone who does creative work and seeks some form of compensation for it. Many will quickly tell you that you should be giving your work away for free, and some are almost morally offended at the thought of paying a few dollars for your hard work. Gygax then explains why TSR has been so hard-nosed about preventing people from claiming their products are "compatible" with D&D:

"...we also take every possible step to prevent exploitation of D&D enthusiasts by publishers who hide shoddy products under a fantasy role playing guise. We cannot stop them from putting worthless material into print, but we can certainly make it clear that it is neither recommended nor approved for use with DUNGEONS & DRAGONS."​

Those who know their RPG history will appreciate the irony in some of these comments. It was only a few years later that Gygax would find himself the target of TSR litigation, all done in the name of protecting their IP and the integrity of D&D.

All that aside, this is a very important essay, giving valuable insight into the design philosophy behind D&D, and also the rationale for TSR to be so heavily litigious. And it is also great fun to read!

Next issue, we get Vampires, Angels, and Tesseracts!

This article was contributed by M.T. Black as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. M.T. Black is a game designer and DMs Guild Adept. Please follow him on Twitter @mtblack2567 and sign up to his mailing list. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
M.T. Black

Comments

dwayne

Explorer
What is 5e's answer to the question of why clerics and wizards can't use swords?
What is this gobblygook back in my day it was staves and clubs buddy and we liked them and were thankful there of, "ALL HAIL GREYHAWK AND GYGAX" ..ut funning is all :)
 

AriochQ

Explorer
Surprised no one has mentioned Rolemaster by Iron Crown Enterprises in terms of combat complexity. I never played RuneQuest, but my brief stint with Rolemaster made me feel like an accountant auditing the books for some corporation. So many tables that cross refer for every attack. It did give super detailed combat results, so if that was your thing the game was ideal.
 

Dioltach

Adventurer
Was it just MERP, or did Rolemaster also have those brilliant crit tables? "Lightning strike to side of head. Brain turned to jelly. Earwax removed." And "Your weapon flies out of your hand. Your opponent laughs so hard he stabs himself in the foot." That kind of thing.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Yeah, Rolemaster was notorious, wasn't it? Didn't they nickname it "Tablemaster" or something like that?
Chartmaster! :cool:

I played/ran it a good bit back in the day. There were many good ideas but they really, really liked charts and percentile dice.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Was it just MERP, or did Rolemaster also have those brilliant crit tables? "Lightning strike to side of head. Brain turned to jelly. Earwax removed." And "Your weapon flies out of your hand. Your opponent laughs so hard he stabs himself in the foot." That kind of thing.
MERP was Diet Rolemaster.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I know, I have both of them in my bookcase. I just can't remember whether Rolemaster had as much fun with the tables as MERP. (And it's late, and I'm working, so no, I'm not going to check now.)
I think MERP had a subset of the full RM charts simply by virtue of it being a subset of RM.
 

pemerton

Legend
I just can't remember whether Rolemaster had as much fun with the tables as MERP.
I GMed RM for nearly 20 years, but not for about a decade now. I do remember "Get a mop" at the top of the "E" Impact column, and something like "Foe destroyed, nothing left but the whiff of ozone" at the top of the "E" Electricity column.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
MERP was Diet Rolemaster.
Indeed. Rolemaster was a lot worse. Some spell attacks required rolling on four different tables to determine the outcome.

One of my favorites in MERP was 'you stumble over an invisible turtle.'

Also quite memorable: the one time we actually tried to play MERP my character tried to slit the throat of a guard only to hit him in the foot... hilarious!
 

Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
Yeah, my son and I had a look through Cyberpunk 2020 on the weekend, figuring out the combat system. Gosh, so many tables to look up, and so many little sub-systems to manage! It looked like a pretty good simulation, but it's not really what I go for in terms of gameplay.
CP2020 is actually a lot easier than it first looks. I'd suggest limiting supplements, and taking a relaxed attitude to the more fiddly bits (and probably ignore Netrunning altogether). It is very dated, but the underlying system is fairly easy and smooth.
 

mrswing

Community Supporter
So the man who designed the weapons vs. armor class table pretends he didn't care about unfun realism...
When we tried Runequest back in the day, the use of hit locations was a real 'aha!' moment. We didn't like the world too much (sorry) but really enjoyed the more visual aspects of the system. D&D's abstract HP combat system is still my biggest disappointment in the entire system. That and the related lack of good called shot rules.
 

Fluerdemal

Villager
CP2020 is actually a lot easier than it first looks. I'd suggest limiting supplements, and taking a relaxed attitude to the more fiddly bits (and probably ignore Netrunning altogether). It is very dated, but the underlying system is fairly easy and smooth.
Yeah, I've run CP2020 for years, and it's a pretty simple system. I'm honestly trying to remember what tables you'd be rolling on for combat other than the "Hollywood Death Tables" and pulling a blank..?

D.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
CP2020 is actually a lot easier than it first looks. I'd suggest limiting supplements, and taking a relaxed attitude to the more fiddly bits (and probably ignore Netrunning altogether). It is very dated, but the underlying system is fairly easy and smooth.
It was generalized and became Fuzion as I recall. It was one of the first "official" systems that had a free release of the core rules.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
So the man who designed the weapons vs. armor class table pretends he didn't care about unfun realism...
I'm not actually sure who did the egregious weapon vs. armor or polearm (fauchard fork!) tables. EGG may have been the culprit but a lot of the AD&D books were compilations of Dragon articles not entirely done by him. That kind of table is very much the sort of thing wargames would have, though.


When we tried Runequest back in the day, the use of hit locations was a real 'aha!' moment. We didn't like the world too much (sorry) but really enjoyed the more visual aspects of the system. D&D's abstract HP combat system is still my biggest disappointment in the entire system. That and the related lack of good called shot rules.
Interesting. I tend to prefer using something more abstract like Power Attack, which simulates the general idea of hitting more difficult targets and hence trading accuracy for more damage. That lets me describe the blows as I like without requiring to check for hit location, especially rolling for hit location.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The debate through the 1980s tended to be coined as "Role-playing vs Roll-Playing", which was a nascent form of debate to what eventually seems to have been coined as "Narrativism vs Simulationism" in the 1990s.
I tended to think of roleplaying vs. roll-playing at the time as being more about people who wanted to resolve everything with dice (roll-playing) vs. people who were actually playing in character (roleplaying). But those were the mostly pre-internet days so terms differed a lot.
 
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mrswing

Community Supporter
I tended to think of roleplaying vs. roll-playing at the time as being more about people who wanted to resolve everything with dice (roll-playing) vs. people who were actually playing in character (roleplaying). But those were the mostly pre-internet days.
Both approaches work, depending on player preference... In Top Secret/SI, you rolled to hit and hit location at the same time. The system used percentile dice, and you reversed your to hit number to find where you hit... an elegant solution that keeps the tempo up.

I admit that I like the visual representation baked into the rules. That is partially also due to the fact that hit locations usually mean that combats resolve faster due to conditions, disabling/destroying body parts etc.
 

Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
It was generalized and became Fuzion as I recall. It was one of the first "official" systems that had a free release of the core rules.
Yeah, while Fuzion had some improvements over the earlier Interlock system, it was a hot mess--buggy as hell and felt unfinished.
 

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