Thursday, February 27, 2020

That time I met Gary Gygax


A lot of gamers today seem to revere Gary Gygax as a saint. (He lived from 1938 to 2008.) They write about “Gygaxian play” and the real “spirit of Gygax” in games. I agree that his early games and modules have a charm and freshness that goes with their pioneer status as original to the hobby. He ran one of the two first D&D campaigns, the other being that of Dave Arneson. But Gygax's design is not stellar. His prose is pretentious, his game systems were okay, but, as he was a founder, he deserves lots of credit.

When I met Gary Gygax, it was at GenCon, I think in 1992, probably my last time to GenCon. In those days, nobody in the gaming circles I knew thought so highly of Gygax. D&D was not a big deal at all. Other games had all the attention. Gygax’s recent game Cyborg Commando (1987) was an absolute rip-off, with a box of rules that did not even contain everything you needed to play.

As I wandered around the GenCon booths, there was a new game being pitched: Dangerous Journeys, with its Mythus setting. Nobody was stopping by this booth. Nobody cared about Dangerous Journeys. As I came up to take a peek, I glanced at the name tag of the old man sitting behind the booth with an old woman. “Gary Gygax,” it said. He was the author of this new game.

To be honest, he looked sad, like an exile from his original game which he had sold off. There were rumors of past acrimony between him and other D&D game designers. Now here was one of the founders of the hobby, sitting in the middle of GenCon, and nobody was coming to his booth. He looked lonely. Maybe TSR had already filed its injunction against the new game he was selling. This Gygax was not the figure of legend that he has become among OSR players. This was the real human.

 I asked, “Are you Gary Gygax?”

“Yes,” he answered in a tired way.

I paused. What would I say? I had not played anything he wrote, including D&D, for years, but I was grateful for the hobby. I looked him in the eyes and said, sincerely, “Thank you!” He smiled slightly and I walked on without spending more than thirty seconds on his game.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Send in the clones, the D&D clones...


One amazing feature of the table-top role-playing game hobby that developed in the time that I was away is the absurd number of D&D clones available now. Thanks, guys, but vintage rules are freely available already for those of us who do not already have them stored in old boxes.

There are dozens of these things. Rather than designing new games with better rules, gamers seem to have made a small industry of amateur inferior products based on the original amateur inferior game. It’s like rolling to check for traps over and over and over…

There is something fun and fresh about amateur products. They do not carry the plastic reek of corporate greed. Yet, as I read about the imploding OSR scene, it turns out that they are no more immune to the bane of corrupt leadership and factionalism than TSR was back in the early days that some gamers remember as sunny, happy times.

Take Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Am I the only one who can’t help laughing at this game? It’s like “This is Spinäl Tap” but unintentionally. If you are having fun playing it, I’m happy for you. But all you’re doing is playing old-time D&D. The LotFP rules are literally just a rewritten and slightly pared down old version of D&D. I found a freely available pdf version without the art and it’s one of the least impressive games I’ve ever seen. Sure, the designer went all out on that summoning spell. I understand that the version with the art has images that are supposed to shock and titillate, expressing the jaded mood intended for this particular rerun of the clunky old game. I can understand the wish to buy a game just for the mood evoked by the art, but we have the internet now, so why should I pay for a book of those images? In any case, LotFP is not how I’m going to introduce my kids or their friends to role-playing games: wonky rules with embarrassing images! I find it strange to retype D&D, add grotesque and racy pictures, and treat it like a new game. We could already do games like that with B/X D&D already. Heck, we already did, a long time ago.

Have fun with it, players, but don’t call clones creativity. It’s recycling.

If you want rules-lite old-fashioned adventure gaming, try Tiny Dungeon D6 2e. It works like a charm. It is made for house rules and DM rulings and you can attach any pictures you want to your setting. It is perfect for the OSR style of play.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Inclusive game worlds make for inclusive gaming


One thing my parents got right, for which I remain grateful, was that they explicitly taught me and my siblings that a person’s worth has nothing to do with skin color or ancestral origin. This mattered. When I was a kid, in the 70s and 80s, the people of my town were almost entirely white. To her credit, my mother encouraged me to befriend the new non-white kids whose families moved into the area in a trickle, without mentioning anything about their not being white. In hindsight, now as a father, I see what she did.

The one African-American boy I knew, James, was like my other friends in the 80s. He liked fantasy, sci-fi, and games. When Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay came out in 1986, James and I started a Warhammer game. He made a character. When I asked him to describe the character, he said, “He looks like me.” I asked him what he meant, and he said “black.”

I paused. Two irrelevant and stupid hangups came to mind. First, I usually encouraged players to take characters that were not transparent alter-egos of their real selves. This made it less painful when they got invested in a character who then died in the game. I foolishly thought that his playing a black character would be too close to his real self, whereas I never thought that about my white players. Second, as a teen, I was interested in “authenticity.” The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game was set in an alternate world in a place reminiscent of sixteenth-century Germany. The game was illustrated luxuriously with vivid, wicked, baroque black-and-white images of a “grim world of perilous adventure” that was unmistakably European. I told James that there were probably very few black people in the main setting of this game. He insisted that his character was black, and I foolishly argued with him about “getting the setting right.”

A few years before, when we became friends, James had confided in me about the outright persecution he and his family had experienced in his previous home. People had treated him with horrifying racist hostility. Once, someone even had thrown a brick at him. I remember feeling confused grief about it when he told me. I had blinked back tears just hearing about it. I couldn’t believe it, and it made no sense to me, but James wasn’t making it up. It was real.

With these experiences, James absolutely did not need to hear me tell him how his Warhammer character would stand out too much in a fantasy version of late medieval Germany. James was living this already. After a minute or two, I realized that what I was saying was wrong and I felt bad because of what it must have meant to him. I said, “Okay, James. Your character can look like whatever you want.” But I had dampened the spirit of character creation by arguing with him about his character’s skin color. The game didn’t go far.

In hindsight, I see not just how insensitive, but how stupid my argument was. The world of Warhammer is full of bizarre creatures that have nothing to do with sixteenth-century Germany. The characters can travel to distant lands and participate in fantastic events bearing no “European” character. My effort to capture an “authentic” historical atmosphere was misplaced. As a consequence, for the first time, my friend’s skin color had mattered overtly in our relationship. I felt bad and he must have felt worse.

Fantasy game worlds do not have to replicate real-world racism to be “authentic.” In a fantasy, authentic is whatever we say it is.

Decades later: my wife is making her first D&D character so she can play with our kids. She leaves it unfinished. That night, as we are going to bed, she says, “I’m not sure if my warrior should be female. I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with the sexism in a medieval-style world. I don’t want to have to prove myself constantly.”

This time, I gave a better answer. “Make your character however you want,” I said. “This is a fantasy world. I have decided that women in this world have equal status with men, generally. Anyway, sexism is not fun. The game is supposed to be fun. So don’t worry about that stuff. Your character won’t encounter men in charge who question her status as a female warrior. There are lots of female warriors like her.”

My wife smiled, nodded, and looked me in the eye. “Yes. Sexism is not fun.” She took on the role of her woman warrior with gusto.

Imagining a fantasy that mirrors real-world racism and sexism might be fun, if your players find that fun. But do they? If there are monsters and aliens to contend with in your game, you have already left “authentic” behind. There will be plenty of imaginary social conflicts in your game, but you lose nothing in creating a fantasy world in which racism and sexism do not mirror the painful problems that real-world players experience all the time. After all, your imagination exists in the real world.

Your imagination can welcome players or turn them away. Ultimately, inclusive game worlds make the hobby more fun for more people.