TSR Gary’s Immersion in Castle El Raja Key: The Four-Way Footsteps

(Very early 1973, 1st level of my Castle El Raja Key) -- In November of 1972 four stalwarts of the LGTSA (Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association; of which I was then its current president)--namely Gary Gygax, myself, Ernie Gygax and my brother Terry Kuntz--experienced our first, and also comprehensive, RPG adventure via Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting. During it we also experienced the...

(Very early 1973, 1st level of my Castle El Raja Key) -- In November of 1972 four stalwarts of the LGTSA (Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association; of which I was then its current president)--namely Gary Gygax, myself, Ernie Gygax and my brother Terry Kuntz--experienced our first, and also comprehensive, RPG adventure via Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting. During it we also experienced the various levels of DM interactive strategies that Arneson could and did wield.

A very important one that both Gary and I learned from Arneson and were to forward on our own during the play-tests of D&D (in both Castle Greyhawk and Castle El Raja Key and their shared environs used by Gary and myself) was what I refer to as “Immersion”. In other words, the ability through the DM’s properly deployed and timed descriptions in interaction with the players to excite the latter’s emotive states via the imaginative impressions made upon them during such interactions.

#1Castle El Raja Key concept art:notice.jpg


I have written and been interviewed about this in the past (most recently for the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary). In essence Arneson had us scared to death (and running) during the latter part of the adventure into Blackmoor.

Now let us skip forward a few more years of Gary and I DMing players and DMing each other and while considering what we had learned and knew between us (all of the DM secrets shared between us); and then place my PC, Robilar, in front of the primal Tomb of Horrors via an invite by Gary for me to “play-test a new level” he’d just finished... There should be no wonder whatsoever why I was so cautious then, for the proof of Gary’s “design” was in how he initially described that foreboding place to me. Anxiety. It was a staple for both of us, but you could not relieve such a tension unless you faced your building fears...

Several years before that ToH play-test, in a mind far, far removed in conceptual time, I had affected Gary’s perceptions and worked in this same doubt and anxiety. This was during Gary’s earliest forays into Castle El Raja Key with his PCs Yrag and Mordenkainen.

#2_Morden1_small.jpg

The interchange between EGG as player and myself as DM went like this as he entered a four-way:

R: “You hear footsteps to the east.”​
G: “We beat it north and stop to listen...”​
R: “The footsteps recede to the south.”​
G: “Huh? We go back to the four-way...”​
R: “You hear footsteps to the west.”​
G: “We run back north and stop to listen.”​
R: “The footsteps move off to the east.”​
G: “Heh? We go back to the four-way...”​
R: “You hear footsteps to the south.”​
G: “We run north and prepare for battle...”​
R: “The footsteps enter the four-way and proceed north, right towards your position.”​
G: “What do we see?”​
R: “Nothing...”​

This was a magical noise activated by entering the four-way. In each case its origin and exit points were determined by separate d4 rolls. This may seem a simple, “Heh, gotcha,” but thereʼs much more beneath the surface. First, note Garyʼs anxiety factor is on the rise. The real is substituted for by the imagined in this instance. Are the next footsteps he hears, perhaps hours later and at a different point in the adventure, then real or a hoax? And... If one encounters these future footsteps and we describe them with the same cadence and tone as at the four-way, what are the possible mental affects on a player experiencing this combination?

#3lv 1 cerk fw foot.png

Also compare: If it had instead been an encounter with goblins, for instance, this “physical” encounter would not have fashioned itself as anxiety in fantasy immersion terms but primarily in game terms only, and then only briefly as the mind moved to focus on the combat and statistics side through immediate evaluation of circumstances. In the former instance evaluation occurred after anxiety and doubt had been fully achieved. The repetition of the footsteps continued to grow anxiety and doubt because Gary could not relieve these by identifying the source and thereafter dispensing with it through combat. The initial anxiety is removed at the end, but a greater doubt (and respect) for the environment now exists.

Where does this early immersive aspect that both of us utilized as DMs derive from? Well it starts many places in life, when one is spooked as a child by “those shadows in the room,” or when one is reading a scary bit in a story, or when being affected by scenes from a movie. Both Gary and I were big Alfred Hitchcock fans and Hitchcock was the master of suspense and, due to that, of anxiety.

Both Gary and I immediately recognized, and separated, the game parts from the immersive world, the latter which we concentrated on. Itʼs Fantasy after all; and one doesn’t summon fantastic moods by having PCs strolling down dungeon corridors as if they are doing a Sunday walk in the park. This idea had been re-initiated when this new, immersive medium had been made known to us by Arneson in 1972. It was just a matter of using staged, verbal elements (as in film or story) for making striking (and well-timed) visual impressions upon the playersʼ minds. Gary and I never let up on our players in this regard; and that included when DMing one another.

This particular encounter occurred very early in the 1st level of my castle. From that point forward Garyʼs usual daredevil approach became much more restrained. I had earned a respect (for me and the environ) by placing doubt in his mind: not everything could be assumed to be what it first appeared to be. So the Gygax and Kuntz credo was: Always keep your players guessing; and the best way that is accomplished is to always keep them at the edge of doubt through rising and falling anxiety.

#4 EB Castle final web:notice.jpg


Consider my last (for now) commentary on this strategy that Gary and I held as a sacred rule of thumb (all of which I fully expand upon in forthcoming works):

Imagine: You’re in this foreign environment with decrepit rooms, cobwebbed walls and uneven and stained floors, and wherein the smell of decay and other foreign scents are constantly assailing you; where noises are at times close and closing or far-away and receding, with both instances offset by periods of eerie silence; then a pitter patter of something scurrying; then a wretched squeal, more silence, and then a gust of wind filled with the stench of ages that blows out your torch... And so it goes. We can either work particles such as these into the adventure and achieve immersion or ignore them as inconsequential and continue in game mode to the “next door or room.” One route leads to Fantasy plus a die roll, while the other leads only to the latter.

Image and Text Copyright 2019, Robert J. Kuntz.
 

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Robert J. Kuntz

Robert J. Kuntz

TSR Veteran

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Heh. Fun read. Causing immersive tension is a great thing. When you have your players on the edge of their seats, sometimes rapid firing questions at you because they're sure that their characters are in substantial danger, you know as a GM you're doing it right. I love these insights to the early days, I hope we get to read many more articles of this nature.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I like the magic effect at a crossroads magic effect described in this article. As I DM, I try to create tension through description but with everything you need to keep track of it can be easy to fall into "game mode." Therefore, I've found it helpful to build in elements like this that are triggered by entering certain areas.

One thing that I've been thinking of doing is doing this for non-magical triggers. I've been thinking of coming up with map symbols to represent smells, sounds, etc. That way, just my looking at the DM map I can be reminded to provide bits of flavor that help built tension or otherwise set the theme and feel of an area.

Currently, I'm run Rappan Athuk. Bill Web and team have done a great job providing notes on the smells, sounds, and other thematic elements of various areas, but you need to read the beginning notes for that area and keep it in your head or keep flipping back to remind you. It think it would be better to have a way to provide some short notes on the map itself.
 

Lidgar

Gongfarmer
Four ways of footsteps? More like four ways of awesome sauce! ;)

Great article Rob. We could all use a reminder how important it is to create tension through atmosphere (with the help of the occasional phantasm). One of my favorite aspects of the 1e DMG (and the 5e DMG took a cue from) were the lists of random smells and sounds - dungeon dressings - for when exploring dungeons. As DM, always found those useful to introduce more tension and mystery.
 


Heh. Fun read. Causing immersive tension is a great thing. When you have your players on the edge of their seats, sometimes rapid firing questions at you because they're sure that their characters are in substantial danger, you know as a GM you're doing it right. I love these insights to the early days, I hope we get to read many more articles of this nature.

More on the way here and elsewhere!
 

Four ways of footsteps? More like four ways of awesome sauce! ;)

Great article Rob. We could all use a reminder how important it is to create tension through atmosphere (with the help of the occasional phantasm). One of my favorite aspects of the 1e DMG (and the 5e DMG took a cue from) were the lists of random smells and sounds - dungeon dressings - for when exploring dungeons. As DM, always found those useful to introduce more tension and mystery.

There weren't (and are not) any non-anxiety moments in Castles Greyhawk and El Raja Key. You 'roled' and rolled with it all.
 

Immersed players: great. Players who spend ten minutes opening a (every) door because it might have a magical trap: whoops, I might have overdone it.

The OP was great, and I'm hoping a future one will be about un-immersing players ;)

Right. Of course our intent was to infuse both aspects as one so a balance was reached and challenges, both tactical and psychological, remained intertwined. The main idea was to take players out of presumed game mode by building respect for the environ so that they never took it for granted and not to slow their progress otherwise. Gary and I both realized that the Fantasy in FRPG had to be summoned and sustained in order to do justice to the full FRPG concept.
 



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