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

pemerton

Legend
Rolemaster was a lot worse. Some spell attacks required rolling on four different tables to determine the outcome.
I ran RM for nearly 20 years - what spell attacks are you thinking of?

Base spell attacks (in D&D terms, condition-infliction spells) require a roll on the Base Spell Attack table and then a Resistance Roll (= saving throw) from the target.

Directed spell attacks (in D&D terms, damage-inflicting spells like firebolts and fireballs) require a roll on the appropriate spell attack chart (functionally identical, in RM, to a weapon attack chart) and then in most cases a follow-up crit roll (also the case for weapon attacks in RM).

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!
RM, like RQ, uses random determination for hit location (in RQ, you first determine the hit location then apply the damage; in RM you roll on the crit chart and this gives you both damage and hit location as a package). The ambush skill allows shifting results on the crit table, but not without limit.

So the man who designed the weapons vs. armor class table pretends he didn't care about unfun realism...
As I understand it, Gygax included the W vs A chart at the request of another player, but didn't use it himself. Personally I did use it - it helped two-handed weapon users compensate for the lack of magical shield AC bonus!

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.
In a system like D&D called shot rules are close to broken - as Gygax explained back in his DMG, they're simply not compatible with a hit point system for resolving attacks. In RQ or RM called shot rules are simply an issue of mathematical balance - in our RM game, we used a system derived from one of the RM companions, of +/-1 crit shift for every two points of OB foregone, but no shifting to 66 in this way (on the RM crit tables, 66 results are fairly deadly, similar to 96+ results).

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.
You can have condition infliction without hit locations, though - you just need to ration it in some other fashion! 4e is an example of this. And I find that the 4e condition infliction gives the same feel of "visual-ness"/visceralness that hit location results do, although in a less gritty way.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
I ran RM for nearly 20 years - what spell attacks are you thinking of?
I was thinking of a lightning bolt spell, which could result in a crit that required the consultation of three additional tables: First, an impact critical, then an electricity critical, and finally a fire critical.

I always felt that Rolemaster would be a perfect system to be used as a basis for a computer game, but for a table top RPG it was just too fiddly.
 

pemerton

Legend
I was thinking of a lightning bolt spell, which could result in a crit that required the consultation of three additional tables: First, an impact critical, then an electricity critical, and finally a fire critical.
OK! In my game, the player who rolled well enough to get a triple crit on a lightning bolt was happy to make the 3 crit checks! (It being highly lightly that the target of said lightning bolt would be rendered hors de combat!)
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
OK! In my game, the player who rolled well enough to get a triple crit on a lightning bolt was happy to make the 3 crit checks! (It being highly lightly that the target of said lightning bolt would be rendered hors de combat!)
Definitely. Chartmaster required tables but most of the time it wasn't that hard to deal with them. I never ran it for more than a small group of players, though, so it might have been awful with a large one.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
In a system like D&D called shot rules are close to broken - as Gygax explained back in his DMG, they're simply not compatible with a hit point system for resolving attacks. In RQ or RM called shot rules are simply an issue of mathematical balance - in our RM game, we used a system derived from one of the RM companions, of +/-1 crit shift for every two points of OB foregone, but no shifting to 66 in this way (on the RM crit tables, 66 results are fairly deadly, similar to 96+ results).
IMO Power Attacking or the like, i.e., voluntarily taking a penalty to hit for more damage, gives the benefits of called shots

Usually this is a feat of some sort but there's no really great reason it couldn't be a standard feature of things that require an attack roll. The feat could then make it better. For example, consider something like the following:

At the beginning of their turn, a PC can adopt one of three stances, Balanced, Offensive, or Defensive. This stance remains until the start of the PC's next turn.

Balanced Stance: This is "default" with no benefits or penalties.
Offensive Stance: The character focuses on dealing damage to foes but at the cost of potential harm. +3 to all damage rolls, -5 to AC.
Defensive Stance: The character focuses on not being hit, but at the cost of opportunities. -5 to all attack rolls, +3 AC.

These work with attack roll cantrips or spells, too, representing the warlock adopting a bold stand and sending powerful eldritch blasts down range. Feats could then make these better or more flexible. I'd need to think a bit how, but I think this has a lot of potential for making playing a fighting type character more interesting without a lot of overhead, and of course it simply defaults back to the base numbers if you prefer not to use it.

One other thing 5E failed to exploit was vulnerability, which is hardly ever used but does a great job encouraging things like weapon or attack switching.

All fo these kinds of things work without breaking the hit point system, which I agree, doesn't really like too many conditions.

Note: I just thought of these numbers, so they may be wrong. However, they were chosen to be static to avoid issues like critical dice chaining and so on.
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=6873517]Jay Verkuilen[/MENTION] - I like your suggestions better than power attack - the latter is purely an optimisation problem, whereas trading attack for defence involves intervening variables that are outside the player's control and that can't be readily computed. So it becomes more like choosing an orientation for your PC, than solving equations.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
[MENTION=6873517]Jay Verkuilen[/MENTION] - I like your suggestions better than power attack - the latter is purely an optimisation problem, whereas trading attack for defence involves intervening variables that are outside the player's control and that can't be readily computed. So it becomes more like choosing an orientation for your PC, than solving equations.
Yes, absolutely, and it also has game mechanics mirror fiction in a straightforward way without excessive reliance on limited resources via some kind of cooldown mechanic. The action economy does a Jim Dandy job of limiting many characters. Nothing more is really necessary but providing some useful and interesting options.

The feat can make things more balanced, for instance pushing it to +3/-3.
 

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