Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

On a Cult of Gygax

Jerry Stratton, December 6, 2023

The Grand Game Master: Gary Jackson let me down!; game masters; Gary Gygax; cartoons; Knights of the Dinner Table; KoDT

“You can’t go around tampering with dragons. They’re sacred!” (From Knights of the Dinner Table #1, By the Book)

I recently re-read the Dungeon Masters Guide and was struck by how much it treated the reader as an equal. Gygax not only expected great things from his reader, he expected that his reader was inclined to greatness. When you expect strong opinions from readers, you can safely express strong opinions yourself. You don’t have to hold back out of fear of being taken too dogmatically.1

Reading the DMG again made me wonder about the legendary “Cult of Gygax” that supposedly permeated D&D fandom during Gygax’s tenure at TSR. The cult is exaggerated to great effect in Jolly Blackburn’s hilarious Knights of the Dinner Table, with the fictional Gary Jackson even returning from the dead at one point!

I’ve been haphazardly discussing the cult and Gygax’s alleged dogmatism in Alarums & Excursions, but what got me thinking about the cult—or the idea of the cult—in a way that allowed me to get my thoughts down (somewhat) more clearly was a recent blog post by James Maliszewski on Grognardia:

Also notable is the way that Mentzer, who provided this issue’s answers, mentions that he agrees with “Gary” on this point—another example of the Cult of Gygax that was popularized in the pages of TSR periodicals.

Mentzer was writing a rules clarification column, and what he wrote was in response to a reader wondering about a particular interpretation of an AD&D rule:

Q: My 1/2 elf cleric/magic-user has invented a long-range curing spell, which is exactly the same as a magic missile except that it cures instead of damaging. What do you think of this, and what level should the spell be?

A: Our opinion matches Gary’s, here: a ranged cure is too powerful. ALL the cure spells are by touch, and relate back to the mythological “laying on hands” attributed to folklore curing of all types. Sorry, but note that the cleric may wear ANY type of armor, and may get into the fighting while staying protected. You’re getting into game balance here, too. This could have extensive long-range effects, and would need lots of playtesting before addition to a campaign.

“Our opinion matches Gary’s here” sounds to me a lot more like evidence against a “Cult of Gygax” than evidence for it. Both Mentzer’s position and Gygax’s position are specifically opinions, not rules, and the way Mentzer words his answer emphasizes not just that this is opinion, but that opinions may differ. Writing that “Our opinion matches” implies strongly that it is both possible and reasonable that opinions might also not match. He even goes on to explain his thoughts and provide advice that the new spell should be playtested before becoming a permanent feature of the writer’s game.2

The universe is a big place—possibly the biggest—and I’m sure someone somewhere had and may still have a shrine to Gary Gygax in their basement that their group chants to before beginning the night’s game. But clearly some of what passes as evidence for a cult of Gygax is nothing of the sort. When just mentioning Gygax’s opinion is considered evidence that there was a cult of Gygax, the whole myth has to come into question.

The cult of Gygax is a self-perpetuating myth: even evidence against it is taken as evidence for it.

I’d almost argue that there is a cult of a cult of Gygax, searching obscure documents and re-interpreting ancient writings to prove that such an elusive enemy to good roleplaying existed and may still exist hidden in the dim borderlands of gaming even today.

Mentzer wrote this answer in 1982, long before corporate team-designed role-playing games dominated the market. Gary Gygax was the author of the book that Mentzer and the reader were referring to. Why wouldn’t you give the author of a book’s opinion priority when attempting to decipher a book’s meaning?

1982 was a lot closer to the dawn of the game than we are now. It’s easy to forget just how new fantasy roleplaying was then. In 1982, almost all games were written by one or two authors—very likely one or two authors that gamers could easily meet. Not only could you have opinions about the game, you could talk about your opinions with the game’s creators after official events at gaming conventions.3

Final Arbiter meme: “To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task… Being a true DM requires cleverness and imagination which no set of rules books can bestow.”; game masters; Gary Gygax; game rules

Imagine an official fanzine based around, say, Carrie, in which a letter-writer suggests an interpretation, and the fanzine editor responds that “Our opinion matches Stephen’s here”. Is that evidence for a cult of King, or is it just acknowledging that, you know, Stephen King literally wrote the book and his “opinion” on the book’s interpretation carries more weight than a fanzine editor and some random reader?

All over the net, D&D 5E players today often reference Jonathan Tweet when interpreting 5E’s rules, and he wasn’t even the author, just one author among many.

Nowadays we’ve separated fantasy fiction from fantasy games enough that gamers are expected to have their own opinion about games to an extent that readers of fantasy fiction are not.4 This is especially true among the culture of grognards who read OSR blogs like Malisziewski’s, gamers who have little respect for corporate rules written by committee. It’s less true among casual gamers who just want to get down to playing—who probably don’t even recognize when rules have been changed by the GM, because they don’t study the official rules.

That the terms “official rules” and “house rules” even exist is a testament to how different roleplaying games are from other games and other books.

As I wrote at the beginning of this blog post, Gygax appears to have expected his readers to have strong opinions, and occasionally poked them to examine those opinions. This itself was at least somewhat revolutionary. Normally, when you’re the author, you don’t have to justify your “opinions” about the book you wrote. Gygax (and others at TSR such as Mentzer) thought that a game writer should! Rather than perpetuating an authorial approach to game rules, that all rules matter, Gygax was confident enough in his readers to express strong opinions about what rules matter more—and to do so in a way that assumed the reader deserved to understand why the author had made the choices he made in crafting the rules.

This is very different from other books, or even other kinds of games, of the era. Monopoly does not justify its rules, nor do fiction writers generally justify the choices they make in their novels.

Much of the complaints about Gygax’s supposed dogmatism requires taking his advice about how to run an individual campaign out of context, and satire at face value, and then say, see, how dogmatic he was!

As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. (p. 8)

Another of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll, wrote in Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing that when you make a joke about other people in writing, you should exaggerate to the point that people know you’re not being serious. This sure sounds like that to me. It’s difficult to believe people could take “less than worthy of honorable death” as serious.

Similarly, much of Gygax’s advice in the Dungeon Masters Guide treads the fine line between providing a game where standards exist so that players can move from game to game with “some degree of uniformity”; and providing building blocks that can be “cut… as needed to maintain excitement”.

…ADVANCED D&D is more than a framework around which individual DMs construct their respective milieux, it is above all a set of boundaries for all of the “worlds” devised by referees everywhere. (p. 7)

In context, these are merely explanations for his opinions, not a prohibition on changing the game—much of the time, this either follows or is followed by the advice that ultimately each game master must be the arbiter of the rules, and the final arbiter, rather than an interpreter of the author. This is as far from dogmatism as you can get.

To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it… Being a true DM requires cleverness and imagination which no set of rules books can bestow.

This is a cult I can get behind.

January 24, 2024: Gygax and Lakofka on Wargaming in 1969

I’ve been scanning a lot of old cookbooks lately; while I’ve written a script to help streamline the process, the scanning itself is limited to the time it takes the scanner to draw in each page, page by page… by page… by page. This leaves me bored for very short periods during every scan.

This morning as I write this, I used that time to search on some of the related vintage cooking topics that interest me: Eddie Doucette, and quiet ovens. But having exhausted that, and because I’d just finished putting The Cult of Gygax to bed, I typed “Gary Gygax” into newspaper.com’s search field.

It is apparently an uncommon name. Almost all of the hits were for the Gary Gygax we’re familiar with. I was surprised, however, to see hits from 1969. It turns out to be a fascinating wire article1 that appeared over the 1969-1970 holiday season, predating Dungeons and Dragons. All of the hits were for that one article; it’s the only hit on his name pre-Dungeons and Dragons.

Game Provides the Way To Shape Our HistoryThe Sedalia DemocratDec 22, 1969
History Is Rewritten By Avid WargamersThe Waxahachie Daily LightDec 23, 1969
History is Rewritten by Avid WargamersCarroll Daily Times HeraldDec 24, 1969
Wargamers Replay Historic Battles to New ConclusionsBeckley Post-Herald/Raleigh RegisterJan 4, 1970
History Being Rewritten By ‘Wargamers’Colorado Springs Gazette-TelegraphJan 10, 1970

Newspapers.com doesn’t archive every newspaper, and their OCR is often incorrect, so it probably appeared in others as well. For example, two of the newspapers above didn’t come up in my initial search for Gygax, but only when I did a search on the author of the piece, Jim Crossley, to see if he’d written other articles on gaming. Which he appears to have not.

December 24, 1969: History is Rewritten by Avid Wargamers

(NEA Travel-Recreation Writer)1

We now have with us a game growing so complicated that it will one day require a computer for efficient play.

Ever hear of “wargaming”?

Last August, this elite hobby came of age at Lake Geneva, Wis. The second national convention of the International Federation of Wargaming was held there. Several hundred attended and the hobby problem now is growth, rather than2 survival.

Wargamers at play do their best to rewrite3 history. A number of firms manufacture game boards which recreate historic battles, like Gettysburg, Waterloo, D-Day or Battle of the Bulge.

“The hobby has established itself as chess, checkers and bridge have done before,” says Leonard Lakofka, a vice-president of the international federation. “However, the hobby allows for variation and complexity these other games only hoped for.”

In its simplest form, the game is played on an authentic layout of the battleground in question. Summoning knowledge and strategic brain power, two opponents, or teams of opponents, mastermind the clash of arms all over again4. The original troops, supplies and machines5 of war are deployed6 in the form of stacks of cardboard markers.

Clashes occur when piles intercept each other on the battlefield grid. Complex rules involving tossing dice add an element of chance — though this element is supplementary to the skill involved.

Even so, a computer would help.

  1. For a more straightforward book about roleplaying from Gygax, his Role-Playing Mastery is aimed more at newcomers, and is thus less personal and so less interesting.

  2. My own fascination with that letter-writer is in wondering if that reverse magic missile is a cleric spell, a magic-user spell, or a unique spell type only usable by cleric/magic-users!

  3. Mixing fan interpretation with author interpretation is possibly a feature shared with science fiction fandom of the era or at least an earlier era.

  4. Publishers still haven’t really come to terms with fanfic; my sense is that most readers do not give what happens in fanfic anywhere near the weight that they give works written by the official author.

  1. <- Cellphone problem