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 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.

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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.


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?

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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.

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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

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Very interesting Robert. Taking the two-component model again as framework for discussion. You are insinuating (effectively) that the shared open-model part benefits by the player-driven interaction threads created. So the conceptual part or open system model is largely defined by the interaction network or the size of the network - network being defined as the number of interaction threads and nodes between referee and players. Maybe I am just gone full theoretical/mad here, but immersion is then the ability to influence the network. I been looking into network theory to understand adventure design - a line of thinking that should almost certainly be on the compost heap alongside flat-earth theory - considering that adventures solely provide a skeletal framework for the interaction.

You are insinuating (effectively) that the shared open-model part benefits by the player-driven interaction threads created.

Well, IOW, i am suggesting what the system model implies and indeed requires: the full realization and implementation of ALL potential design elements, this to achieve its typification as a "Fantasy" Role-Playing "Game". NOTE: I will consider your other points and conclude with comments. Must write 1,000 words today at a minimum. :) "Back to the salt mine. Kuntz!" ;)

During that interim consider these additional commentaries from A New Ethos in Game Design, © 2012-2019. Robert Kuntz.

C7: The very idea imparted by the phrase that we “play “in” an adventure as opposed to playing a board game wherein we just “play it” separates the two forms as distinct concepts unrelated to each other. Strip the “in,” the activating imaginative system component, from an RPG and all of its remaining parts revert to their structured or static forms. In relation to an RPG they become lifeless appendages whereas the imagination can immediately substitute for these by creating new ones. Thus: An open system can create, animate and inform a multiplicity of extensible systems while this is never true with a closed system.

C13: Fantasy is in many respects open dreaming and, in part, actualizing those dreams through imitation. To act is to dream what one is in another persona as imagined through the conduit of the real. The immersion that takes place in an RPG can be like that. But unlike dream where one person is involved from beginning to end, there are other players involved in an RPG, and yet another, the GM, and yet another circumstance, the reality of being and the reality of the game, which are essentially the same thing: the immobile present. By removing their players from the present GMs in turn mobilize their imaginations. Thereafter anything can and will happen, just like in dreams.

C20: Fantasy world creation is a permeable state. League that with a permeable game and then add in leaps of dimension in design and play and you can pretty much start tossing aside all of your assumptions about maintaining any initial state.

C39: In a conceptual system like Classic D&D the GM is the storyteller/initiator and the one who along with the players immerses them in the environment, and is also the game adjudicator. All of these many facets, and more, combine to become immersion “in” Fantasy rather than just entertainment through it, even though we are entertained in the process. We can say it’s entertainment only and thus make it our whole object with no distinct particulars involved that are actually working in unison to the contrary. But that’s a choice based upon proclivity; and just like with a joke, some might be immersed and laugh by its telling and some may shrug due to their proclivity for certain jokes only.

The distinction is that Fantasy is supposed to be as immersive as jokes are intended to be, but only through the proper wielding of either can we actually produce the “In,” in that immersion; and if we don’t, hey, it was at least entertaining, right? But when Fantasy combines with fun we have a special sort of experience that has merged from many different directions at once and seemingly transcends mere fun. Because as you come down from this particular experience you instantly realize that you are no longer where it was that you’ve been and you yearn to be there again. It may immerse us, it may transport us, and it may speak to us in humorous tones at times, but Fantasy will announce itself by our feeling both absent and present at the same time; and this is what will always separate it from entertainment sprinkled with Fantasy motifs only.

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