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 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

Comments

Paragon Lost

Explorer
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

Explorer
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.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
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!
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
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.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
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.
 

mwittig

Explorer
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.
The great thing about Kuntz's observation is that it can be immediately applied by any DM to improve their game-- no drama classes required! The parallel Kuntz draws to Hitchcock's work makes a lot of sense, and seems to underscore the universal nature of the principle of getting the audience immersed through creating anxiety.
 
Hey Rob,

Awesome story.

More and more I am a huge advocate for the original game and methodology. Many years of fiddling with this and that rule, all in order to somehow capture more of the essence of reality?

The more rules people fill their heads with the farther they get from the active ingredient such as you describe in this article. It makes me think of games like Cthulu where one has an actual mechanic to define fear. Once you turn experience into mechanical properties you've actually lost the essence. It just vanishes.

This immersive experience is something we conjure during play and often banish without knowing it.

I love these gotcha events like mysterious footsteps. When I ran Tonisborg at Gary Con last year I had a similar situation arise. My players didn't seem to be feeling the essence of the experience. And I was asking myself - why are they acting like they are in a Walmart, what have I done wrong?

Near the end of the session the players found some curtains made of an old dust covered material blocking their way. Out come the ten foot poles to lift the curtains as they advance cautiously. Then one guy decides to examine the material itself. So I say - What seemed to be a dusty fabric is actually old dried skin which is most likely human, you can even see a face sewn into the curtain.

The session was video taped and it is at this point that you can hear a player unconsciously react by groaning off screen - GOTCHA!

No one had lost hit points, or used anything mechanical. It was just pure interactive immersion.

I think everyone who plays is like an addict chasing a high. There is that first time where you are here in the reality and everything you are told to experience is real. Every decision you make has terrifying consequences. You come back for more hoping to get that immersion high again. Whether the moment was somehow magically conjured, or maybe it was hypnosis, you just keep coming back for more.

Rob, Thanks for the reminder on how to play it.

Also, hope to see you sometime soon. It'd be good to sit and talk face to face.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
The great thing about Kuntz's observation is that it can be immediately applied by any DM to improve their game-- no drama classes required! The parallel Kuntz draws to Hitchcock's work makes a lot of sense, and seems to underscore the universal nature of the principle of getting the audience immersed through creating anxiety.
Great observation of an observation. ;)
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Hey Rob,

Awesome story.

More and more I am a huge advocate for the original game and methodology. Many years of fiddling with this and that rule, all in order to somehow capture more of the essence of reality?

The more rules people fill their heads with the farther they get from the active ingredient such as you describe in this article. It makes me think of games like Cthulu where one has an actual mechanic to define fear. Once you turn experience into mechanical properties you've actually lost the essence. It just vanishes.

This immersive experience is something we conjure during play and often banish without knowing it.

I love these gotcha events like mysterious footsteps. When I ran Tonisborg at Gary Con last year I had a similar situation arise. My players didn't seem to be feeling the essence of the experience. And I was asking myself - why are they acting like they are in a Walmart, what have I done wrong?

Near the end of the session the players found some curtains made of an old dust covered material blocking their way. Out come the ten foot poles to lift the curtains as they advance cautiously. Then one guy decides to examine the material itself. So I say - What seemed to be a dusty fabric is actually old dried skin which is most likely human, you can even see a face sewn into the curtain.

The session was video taped and it is at this point that you can hear a player unconsciously react by groaning off screen - GOTCHA!

No one had lost hit points, or used anything mechanical. It was just pure interactive immersion.

I think everyone who plays is like an addict chasing a high. There is that first time where you are here in the reality and everything you are told to experience is real. Every decision you make has terrifying consequences. You come back for more hoping to get that immersion high again. Whether the moment was somehow magically conjured, or maybe it was hypnosis, you just keep coming back for more.

Rob, Thanks for the reminder on how to play it.

Also, hope to see you sometime soon. It'd be good to sit and talk face to face.
Hey Griiff,

What can be added. Gary and I were for the melding of the two portions of the game--immersive play and mechanical conclusions. It's a two-pronged interoperating architecture. Some want more of one while others want more of the second. We were right in the middle and at neither extreme. And it worked and still does. When grown men start worrying and frantically searching through their PC sheets and notes for an escape.. that's the real gotcha moment where our DM strategies were working at peak efficiency. :)

Looking forward to getting back to the States after X-mas; lots of meet-ups and you're on that drink, chat and be merry list for sure!
 

Connorsrpg

Adventurer
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.
Yep, I always print out a map and write where each monster is, and little triggers for when PCs might hear them and vice versa. A map with DM notes is very handy :)
 
Very interesting read!

Perhaps taking the line of thinking to the extreme – it suggests that by omitting a ‘call’ option from the mechanical apparatus or severing the link between the conceptual game component and the mechanical component – the players are left with doubt (overburdened with conceptual possibilities). Not knowing the ‘fixed’ rule to apply leaves not only fear and doubt but immersion by blurring the distinction between player and character (as both are in doubt).

It is an excellent example Robert because it works at several levels – space, time and emotional response. Thanks again for going this way with ENworld and the pioneers of the game.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Very interesting read!

Perhaps taking the line of thinking to the extreme – it suggests that by omitting a ‘call’ option from the mechanical apparatus or severing the link between the conceptual game component and the mechanical component – the players are left with doubt (overburdened with conceptual possibilities). Not knowing the ‘fixed’ rule to apply leaves not only fear and doubt but immersion by blurring the distinction between player and character (as both are in doubt).

It is an excellent example Robert because it works at several levels – space, time and emotional response. Thanks again for going this way with ENworld and the pioneers of the game.
Well maybe we could get more in depth on the particulars you are suggesting. As I noted upthread Gary and I balanced the mechanical and the conceptual parts (as I intimate in Dave Arneson's True Genius as well). After all it IS a conceptual game, most of what we do is imagine imaginary characters interacting in imaginary events in an imaginary world setting. PCs don't have imaginations; players do. So who are we in fact impressing? That was pretty obvious. PCs don't roll the dice, either. ;) I'll have much more to add to this but It's 2:15 am here in France and I've been up since 8 am previous. G' Night! Christian.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Fantastic article, Rob! I'm really looking forward to your new book.

'Thanks for the pregnant compliment' Merric (as Don Kaye would have said). More books and looks into the past with an eye to the future on the way! The taxi-meter's still humming... :)
 
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Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Very interesting read!

Perhaps taking the line of thinking to the extreme – it suggests that by omitting a ‘call’ option from the mechanical apparatus or severing the link between the conceptual game component and the mechanical component – the players are left with doubt (overburdened with conceptual possibilities). Not knowing the ‘fixed’ rule to apply leaves not only fear and doubt but immersion by blurring the distinction between player and character (as both are in doubt).

It is an excellent example Robert because it works at several levels – space, time and emotional response. Thanks again for going this way with ENworld and the pioneers of the game.

Also consider these two commentaries from my unpublished work, A New Ethos in Game Design: The Paradigm Shift Originated by Dungeons & Dragons 1972-1977 © 2012-2019. Robert J. Kuntz

C15: In real life our eyes and mind cooperate to picture for us what we are doing while about our daily routines. In the Fantasy realm of an RPG we have only our minds through which we accomplish this, and normally what “we” are doing within that landscape is not at all routine. In the former instance if we are startled by something out of the ordinary it’s because a feeling of incongruity arose in us upon seeing it. Thus we affected our own emotive circumstances. In the latter case the GM tells us what we have seen but we lack the incongruous possibility of the former due to the few passing sentences by which he or she described what we saw and which can never properly substitute as a medium for achieving a real emotive response. This information is assimilated by the passive realization that “we” are not actually in a fantastic environment but are instead comfortably in our game reality.

This defines a lack of immersion (a lack of seeing there and being there) in the fantastic that keeps us in the real world game reality only. The object of a fantastic immersion in game situations is to move the players to invest their emotive states in Fantasy environments and thereby close the door that is open upon the real. Just like in the reading of a Fantasy story, one can read it and be done with it. But if a person was not immersed while doing so, it becomes just another “read.”

C22: Immersion in the fantastic works more effectively when the action of the adventure is fast paced. Decision making in a pressure cooker of game thoughts and immersion effects can become as confusing as in real life situations. Consider the following: in real life combat situations a team at close quarters dissolves into individual confrontations. There is no more homogeneous team action. This is untrue to a greater degree in an RPG combat where the players maintain an omniscient view of what is transpiring. This can be alleviated to a degree by the uncertainty of each individual who has bought into anxiety and doubt during the adventure. The success rate of this can only be abstracted and is usually noted post-adventure by admission of a player “not knowing why” they did what they did in X situation. This occurrence was not uncommon in our adventures. These incidents also make for accumulated GM stories of the players do the strangest things variety.

Missed information may also account for such confused actions. That is, whether a particular player was listening to the GM or contextually understood what he or she said when a clue or pertinent fact (such as in a foreshadowing instance) was communicated preceding a combat. But this also speaks to why a quick tempo should be maintained, for information transmittal across many single spectrums is uncertain. When a group of six real people walk down a street they note and assimilate visual information around them at different rates and times, or possibly not at all, or as relative samples of other group members. Thus the idea of continuity of information is, again, a game mode reality; and active immersion states coupled with active pace can sometimes re-spawn the uncertainty principle in defiance of it.
 

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