Friday, March 7, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Seven: Dungeons & Beavers And Uncle Gary

Before I go any further, I'd like to recognize the efforts of both +Zach H (Zenopus himself) & Mr. +Jason Zavoda, without both of whom, this post would not have been possible. Zach helped me parse out exactly which issue of The Strategic Review Gygax talks about Warlock in and Jason reproduced Gary's long letters Alarums & Excursions from 1975 where Uncle Gary expresses two completely different opinions about games like Warlock. Further, I'd like to thank +Tony Rowe for pointing out Gygax's Roleplaying Mastery as another source of the varied opinions of Mr. E. Gary Gygax, many of which are incompatible with each other.

[As an editorial aside, this post has been difficult to write, for a few reasons. (A) Uncle Gary had a tendency to contradict himself, so it can be difficult to create a cohesive picture from the things he wrote. (B) We as gamers tend to think incredibly well of Uncle Gary -- which is his due -- and have a hard time admitting that he was anything short of infallible, and intimating otherwise especially during the week of March 4th is kind of tacky. Also (C), his views might have changed over time, but I make a few suppositions as to why this was that I don't have much evidence for and what evidence I have is largely circumstantial.]

Exhibit One: Gary Wants You To Have Fun Your Way

Uncle Gary wrote the following in Alarums & Excursions #2 back in July, 1975.
I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a "variant", and there is no "official interpretation" from me or anyone else. If a game of "Dungeons and Beavers" suits a group, all I say is more power to them, for every fine referee runs his own variant of D&D anyway.
 This seems pretty clear-cut, doesn't it? But wait, there's more.
We allow magic-users to employ the number of spells shown on the table, so a 1st level m-u gets exactly one 1st level spell to use once before he must go back to his books and prepare to use the spell once again -- or a spell once again. To allow unlimited use of the spell is to make the m-u's too powerful. There is a better solution, of course; one I have been aware of since the first. That is to utilize a point system based on the m-u's basic abilities and his or her level. Spell cost is then taken as a function of the spell and the circumstances in which it is cast and possibly how much force is put into the spell. All that would have required a great deal of space and been far more complex to handle, so I opted for the simple solution.
So, in an ideal world, where page count wasn't an issue and the basics of rpgs had already been tread and additional complexity could be borne out, Uncle Gary himself would have considered using a spell point system.

Every campaign should vary in rules from every other campaign and Gary had positive thoughts about spell point systems. Check. This sounds like the OD&D I know from the way it's played today. After all, how can we ever forget Uncle Gary's parting words from the Afterword in Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures:
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing. 
Customizing the rules to your game is in the goddamn rules.

Exhibit Two: Gary Wants You To Have Fun The Gary Way

Somewhere after A&E 2, Uncle Gary seems to have slipped in his estimation of homebrewing rules. Here he is in The Strategic Review, Volume 2, Issue 2 (also sometimes called Issue 7).
It requires no careful study to determine that D & D is aimed at progression which is geared to the approach noted above. There are no monsters to challenge the capabilities of 30th level lords, 40th level patriarchs, and so on. Now I know of the games played at CalTech where the rules have been expanded and changed to reflect incredibly high levels, comic book characters and spells, and so on. Okay. Different strokes for different folks, but that is not D & D. While D & D is pretty flexible, that sort of thing stretches it too far, and the boys out there are playing something entirely different — perhaps their own name “Dungeons & Beavers,” tells it best. It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.
 I feel like it's really telling that Gary specifically says "the boys out there are playing something entirely different... [from D&D]." At this point, it's already only April of '76, meaning that D&D had been out for all of two years and three months, but in that time, there had been a flurry of D&D fan activity. Some of it was even legal. Actually, most of it was legal, but Uncle Gary didn't necessarily see it that way. In Alarums & Excursions #8, Gary mentions that "it is illegal to copy works held under copyright, of course..." but not that the rules of games are not eligible for protection under copyright, but that's a topic for another time.

A little further along in A&E #15 (October '76), Gary comes back with more barbs for the Warlock crew, continuing a similar line of attack from his tSR #7 article, this time using the then-recent release of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes to support his argument.
It seems that Dungeons & Beavers players are getting paranoid. We did not design GODS' simply to shame them or whatever. The supplement was written to conform to the major type of play going on in the country. If the beings therein do not fit into their particular manner of play, it is easy enough to ignore the whole work -- or add a zero to the hit points each can take. Yes, fellows, I find 20th level to be absolutely incredible, for you won't get it in the games hereabouts -- or in most other places which I hear in talking with DMs. It makes good players angry to hear about umpteenth level characters when they have had to play two actual years, carefully and intelligently, to rise to tenth level or so.

Gary isn't outright condemning the Warlock guys, but he does seem to take on an air of superiority here. Now, I can't come remotely close to having even second-hand knowledge about the games, characters and DMing-style prevalent at CalTech back in the day, so I can't debunk Gary's accounts of high level characters in the Warlock games, BUT I'll bet that second-hand knowledge was the best he ever got. Sure, Warlock makes a point of having advancement tables that go up to 20, but each only goes up to 20 and not any higher (except for the Fighter table, which goes up to 22), but that doesn't mean that, at the point in time in question, they were used that high or even higher. There's nothing explicitly in the Warlock rules that encourages Monty Haul-style gaming.

That having been said, campaigns are far more than the sum of their rules. Obviously. As Gary will later point out, there are some features of the Warlock rule set that are, indeed, slightly exploitable.

Exhibit Three: Objects In The Mirror May Be Larger Than They Appear

As Mr. +Tony Rowe pointed out in a comment on an earlier post in this topic, in his 1987 book Role Playing Mastery, Uncle Gary wrote the following (p. 51-52):
There arose a line of thinking that asserted that magic in a fantasy game was best expressed in terms of spell points... The D&D and AD&D games were criticized harshly by advocates of this approach for being behind the times. The fad lasted for a time, with spell-casters spewing forth streams of sorcerous stuff as if they were magical Gatling guns... How much fun is a game in which any challenge or problem can be overcome by calling up yet another spell from a seemingly limitless storehouse of energy? Good-bye, spell-point magic system.
Sure, Gary doesn't call out Warlock by name, or even by the sobriquet "Dungeons & Beavers," but it's pretty obvious where his guns are aimed. Lest the mud of revisiting his prior bias get any less murky, before leaving the issue altogether, Gary goes on to say:
This is not a condemnation of the idea of using a point system, but the point system as advocated did not fit the D&D or AD&D game system spells, rules, assumptions or spirit. The idea is workable still, but needs its own body of surrounding material to operate effectively.
To me, this passage says "sure, someone can do a spell point system and it might not suck," which at first seems like a good direction for Gary to move in, but the tacking on of how it doesn't fit D&D's "...rules, assumptions or spirits" seems pretty targeted, a direct dig at Warlock's continued claim of being a D&D variant (even a "major variant" as TCW claims). 

Verdicts and Wild Conclusions

Let's look at Uncle Gary's arguments against the Warlock and TCW. At first, he's all for differing rule sets for different campaigns. He even writes it into Vol. III. He talks about it in A&E. This is the wild and open spirit of OD&D that gives us awesome stuff like All The Worlds' Monsters, Booty & The Beasts and the entire Wilderlands series. We get The Dungeoneer and White Dwarf. This is the OD&D that blew the lid off of wargaming and created fantasy gaming and made a place at the table for everyone. And then...

Gary's first argument against TCW seems to be all about level inflation. It seems to be about characters stretching beyond the 14th or so level that was the common "achievement cap" (not an actual cap, but a soft cap imposed by play rather than rules). But by the time 1978 rolls around and the 1e PHB is published (along with TCW), Gary seems to have packed in his objections that 20th-level characters are "absolutely incredible," what with levels usually going straight on to 20th level on the advancement tables and occasionally even above. 

So why does Gary feel, in 1987, a need to decry the spell point system in TCW, even if he doesn't do so by name? 

I don't want to be cynical about this, but I'm going to add another piece to this puzzle. 

By 1987 when Role Playing Mastery was released, Gary had already been ousted from TSR. He had either just published or was about to publish Cyborg Commando, which means that he was probably just getting started on a system called Dangerous Dimensions, a project that would come to be called Dangerous Journeys after a Cease-And-Desist order from TSR (for creating a game whose name, if abbreviated, would look an awful lot like the initials of another game Gary wrote). Guess how magic worked in Dangerous Journeys

Yep, it was a spell point system. Ostensibly with the "body of surrounding material to [make it] operate effectively." 

 I don't mean to intimate that Uncle Gary stole things from TCW. The concepts that TCW introduces are actually pretty easy to come up with. Once you have the basics of OD&D (classes, levels, spells, etc.), you can pretty well extrapolate higher levels and spell points. Rather, I suggest that Gary had an unreasonable bias against TCW, and he continues to bash it despite his willingness to adopt some of TCW's concepts. 

I mean no disrespect to the man's memory, but even a cursory examination of early OD&D and AD&D sources including the books themselves and articles written in first tSR and later the Dragon, demonstrates a gradually calcifying attitude toward non-TSR D&D products. From the first, Gary is open to rules deviations. By the time AD&D rolls around, however, the message is clear: no variation from the strict RAW can possibly be called D&D and no house rules should ever be tolerated. Why this change?

Allow me to play the cynic one more time with my suggested answer: money. 

By the time Gary's first arguments against TCW pop up, he's already a minority partner in TSR. By throwing the D&D brand's name around, Gary does everything he can to hedge out competitors (not always successfully) and make sure that only TSR (or the licensees of TSR like Judges Guild) is making money off of the D&D brand and game. It seems that TCW's continued insistence that it's only a D&D variant rather than a game in and of itself wrankles Uncle Gary; if TSR holds the copyright to D&D, why should anyone unauthorized make money off of it? (Again, the concept that one cannot copyright game rules seems to have evaded him.) I feel that this is the source of the bias, one that Gary continues to enforce even after his connection with TSR (and thereby D&D) had ended. "Sure," he says, "you can do spell points in an rpg, just not in D&D. If you want to do spell points, it has to be some other system." Which is more than a little self-serving of him to say, what with him working on a system reliant on spell points. 

And so yes, Uncle Gary didn't like Warlock. And yes, he had his reasons. 

But were they justified? 

I can't say they were.