Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Thought about "Gonzo" Gaming

When I played role-playing games in the old days, nobody talked about "gonzo" gaming. Now it seems to be a normal thing to talk about, and to look for, especially with the OSR crowd.

What is gonzo? In the '70s and '80s, when I was a kid, it meant one of two things, as this guy remembers. It could refer to that sweet but pathetic hook-nosed Muppet with the chicken girlfriends. Otherwise it referred to a style of journalism written in a participatory style and represented by Hunter S. Thomson. The Oxford English Dictionary records both, more or less. It can mean Hunter S. Thomson's style of journalism, as coined by Bill Cardoso, or "bizarre, crazy; far-fetched; a crazy person, a fool." Thomson took a lot of psychedelics, so it seems that the term gonzo also implies a psychedelic edge.

(This picture by Christine McVay.)


As any reader of my musings knows, I'm late to the party (and that is the point of this). It turns out that gamers have been talking about gonzo gaming for a while. About five years ago, one self-appointed pundit of role-playing games even made himself the arbiter of "good gonzo" versus "bad gonzo." These are, it seems, very serious matters for some, and you can really "get it wrong" if you don't read the right books, take their advice, and most of all, buy amateur "gonzo" products with the OSR seal of approval on them.

Basically, though, gonzo refers to wacky, bizarro stuff that seems so weird you're not sure if it's serious. It may also have a psychedelic edge. I see that stuff and I think, "stoner D&D." Or it's inspired by Terry Gilliam films and the like.

I'm not interested in defining it. I don't care what you call it. I'm interested in the combination of a style of play with an aesthetic choice.
My take on the so-called gonzo aesthetic is that it appeals psychologically to a sense of divorce of the player from the character. Gonzo gaming entertains the players with freaky wink-wink stuff and real-world funny references. The characters surely will find these things strange, but they have to live with it in the context of the story. Gonzo is for players and emphasizes that the players are an audience. The gonzo game aesthetic reminds participants that this is all a dream, so they shouldn't worry too much about it.

I've seen some writing by OSR proponents in which they claim that OSR gaming emphasizes that the player and the character are distinctly separate. The idea is to emphasize that it's a game, not play-acting or storytelling. You know, "player skill" versus the world. Role-playing games that are highly lethal to the characters, in the vein of OSR games, are probably less fun for players who identify deeply with those characters and who spend hours developing back-stories for them. The misplaced antipathy of some OSR gamers towards "story games," which seems actually to represent disguised cultural politics, fits the syndrome.

If the so-called OSR emphasizes the player's choice, not the character role adopted by the player, then the gonzo game aesthetic fits right in. "Gonzo" settings entertain players, who are the focus of the OSR style, not characters, who are imaginary, anyway.

I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions. My point is that the style of play and the aesthetic choices fit well together. Emphasizing separation of player and character, to my mind, makes the game more about the game and less about role-playing. The gonzo game aesthetic deliberately urges players to remember that this isn't real. That's an interesting choice, and not one that I instinctively turn to when I run games.

As for the psychedelic side of the gonzo aesthetic, that speaks for itself. Everybody, be safe.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Awaken the Tarrasque! An Apocalyptic D&D Campaign

My son loves to think about the Tarrasque. (I mean the Tarrasque of D&D, not the "real" Tarasque.) The Tarrasque's monstrous invulnerability to practically everything makes it an interesting thought experiment. He keeps asking about battles between different creatures from the Monster Manual. Who would win? A Pit Fiend or a Solar? That kind of thing. The Tarrasque comes up a lot.

These questions inspired the following idea for a campaign. Feel free to use it, but please credit me.

It goes like this.

You have a regular D&D world. You know, generic fantasy, elves and druids, dwarves and orcs, halflings and wizards. Monsters threaten, heroes go into dungeons, kill monsters, take treasure. The usual.

But then...

A powerful creature organizes major monster factions in a loosely coordinated attack on the "good species." The defense collapses and THEY WIN. The monster coalition wins completely.

Kuo-Toa unite under Aboleth lords and overrun the port cities. They destroy all human boats and take over the seas. Sahuagin are with them and other sea monsters, too.

Orcs overrun the Shire (or the equivalent). A massive halfling genocide takes place. All halflings are killed systematically and turned into sausage, so any player who chooses to play a halfling is playing the very last one. There literally are no other halflings in the world but those played as the PCs. Otherwise they are all dead.

One human kingdom is conquered by undead. Zombies everywhere biting and spreading a zombie plague.

Another kingdom is destroyed by Mind Flayers and their minions.

The elf woods are burnt to the ground by marauding monsters of another kind led by a powerful Hag. Think of the future of the Terminator. Roving flying creatures execute any elf they catch.

You get the idea. The point is that all "good" civilization is destroyed by monsters. Humans and their pointy-eared and bearded friends survive only in hiding, in small scavenger bands.

The game begins after the trauma of this devastating apocalypse. Player characters are on the run, some of the last survivors. Everybody they know has been killed. They're hiding in a small dungeon, hoping to keep their existence concealed, when a monster band learns of their presence. The first session is a monster attack on the dungeon of the PCs.

So what is the adventure about after that? First of all, survival. The player characters cannot go anywhere without high risk. But there is a quest. A wise old man, maybe a dying cleric or something like that, reveals an ancient secret. Yes, the legends are true. There is such a thing as a Tarrasque. It is invincible and destroys everything in its path. It has the power to overcome any opposition, even these terrible monsters.

Your characters are given the key to awakening the Tarrasque. They have to assemble an artifact that is broken, its parts entrusted long ago to each of the good Realms now destroyed. If they can assemble that artifact, piece by piece, they can use it in a ritual at a volcano (or wherever) to awaken the Tarrasque. Then they can attempt to lead the Tarrasque into the lair of the Great Lich that has coordinated all the monstrous forces. There is no way that the Lich can withstand the Tarrasque. When the Lich is destroyed, the monster coalition will crumble without its organizer. Humans and demi-humans will then have a fighting chance.

Can you destroy the kingdoms of the monsters that destroyed the world? And what will remain afterwards, when the monstrous factions fall to fighting amongst themselves? Maybe, just maybe, the few humans and demi-humans left will have a chance to start again--even though the Tarrasque is on the loose!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Anti-D&D propaganda from 1980: "direct fom the pit of hell!!!"

"Dungeons & Dragons instead of a game is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living color direct from the pit of hell!!!"

I recently found an old anti-D&D, anti-role-playing-game leaflet stashed among my D&D books. Its text was originally written in 1980, revised in 1981 or soon afterwards. (I determine its approximate date by the update at the end about the abbreviated version of Deities and Demigods, published in 1981, whereas the original references in the text are to the longer, first edition of 1980.)

I picked up this little flyer at the church I was made to attend as a child out of social propriety, and I tucked it away as a memento of the times. (My parents were far from religious, and they were ambivalent about or even encouraged my gaming, so I was not oppressed on this front.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share it with you as a token of the culture around role-playing games at the inception of the Reagan years, and as a symptom of a period when playing role-playing games was strongly stigmatized. I give the complete text below. As you will see, this "information" is written by somebody who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, but who accuses gamers of failing to make that distinction instead.

This particular message is brought to you by the Pro Family Forum. Founded by Lottie Beth Hobbs to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment and to fight feminism, the Pro Family Forum also distributed leaflets against other aspects of American popular culture, including rock & roll and Dungeons & Dragons, and to promote conservative Christianity instead. The message at the end of the flier is that if you want to oppose D&D, you can help by sending the authors some money!

It was not just conservative church leaders stigmatizing games of imagination. Even my moderate church had this flyer on display. Parents in my area disapproved of D&D. I had friends who could not play because their parents told them it was against God. This was in a fairly well-educated town in the early 1980s. Kids at my school in the '80s often disdained role-playing gamers. We who played would not talk about it with others for fear of being stigmatized.

You younger gamers may not have experienced anything like this. Or have you? How many of you, young or old, have experienced shaming or stigmatization for playing role-playing games? How many of you had the opposite experience?

I have made images of the leaflet's pages and put the text out here for you as a snippet of history of the early reaction to role-playing games.

My favorite argument in the text is that if you fill your mind with thoughts of violence and inhumanity, you will become like that. Apparently this conservative Christian author has not read the Bible, which abounds in tales of severe violence, rape, and the like.

My favorite line is this one: “Don’t allow someone else to take control of your mind.” Indeed!

(I also think it's funny that Dave Hargrave's Arduin books are taken as representative of the hobby. I bought his trilogy of books once. I found them to be useless garbage.)


What ls D & D?
Dungeons and Dragons (commonly known as D &D) is an elaborate fantasy game which evolved from the war games popular in the late 1950's. Instead of a historical battlefield and battle, D & D games are fought in the minds of the players as the OM (dungeon master, or god) sets the stage in the fantasy world. Each player assumes the identity of the character he creates. His creature is based on chance roll of the dice. Each character will have six basic abilities: strength, intelligence, wisdom, con­stitution. dexterity, and charisma. The manual guideline will determine whether the character will be "good" or "evil.""

The object of the game is to maneuver these characters through a maze of dungeons (tunnels) filled with monsters, magic, ambushes, and adven­tures in search of treasures. To survive, each character is equipped with special aids - such as magical weapons, potions, spells, and magical trinkets (holy water, garlic, wolves-bane, etc.) They are also given more conventional weapons: daggers, hand axes. swords and battle axes. The game is for "three or more players, age 10 and upward."

Each player can stay in the game as long as his character is not killed - from hours to years. If it continues long, most players identify themselves with their character, and the line between fantasy and reality tends to grow fuzzy. One authority con­cerning this "game" said: "The stuff that makes me nervous is over-identification with characters. I've seen people have fits, yell for fifteen minutes, hurl dice at a grand piano when their character dies."

What is D & D? Dr. Gary North, author of None Dare Call It Witchcraft, says, "... after years of study of the history of occultism, after having researched a book on the subject. and after having consulted with scholars in the field of historical research, I can say with confidence: these games are the most effective, most magnificently packaged, moat pro­fitably marketed, moat thoroughly researched introduction to the occult In man's recorded history."'

What la D & D? After extensive research, the Christian Life Ministries concludes: "DUNGEONS & DRAGONS instead of a game is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, Insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan wor­ship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summon­ing, necromantics, divination and many more teachings. brought to you in living color direct from the pit of hell!!!"

This is strong language! But its truthfulness is established by a careful examination of the books. Look in almost any toy store or book store. You will probably find twenty or more books on how to play D & D. They are complicated, intricate, bizarre, expensive (many selling for $10.95 each) - and popular!

How Widely Used?

According to statistics released by the news media, over three million Americans are playing D & D. The industry grossed more than 250 million dollars in 1981, and expects a large increase in 1982.
Many schools are using D & D, especially in Gifted and Talented programs. Special "classroom ver­sions" are being produced. Some state-supported colleges offer classes, while others have cancelled them at the insistence of concerned parents and tax-payers.

Parents, teachers, ministers, youth directors, and all young people should spend time in serious research on FRP (Fantasy Role Playing) games - because their use is escalating; the issue must be faced by all of us sooner or later.

Other FRP Games
New games are being created, more sophisticated and cruel than the original D & D, such as Rune­Quest, Chivalry & Sorcery, Arduin Grimoire, Tun­nels and Trolls, etc.

In the rule book to the Arduin Grimoire game (Vol. 1. p. 60) is listed the "critical hit table." Op­tions listed are: "Dice roll: 37-38; hit location: crotch/chest; results: genitals/breast torn off, shock ... Dice roll: 95; hit location: guts ripped out; result 20% chance of tangling feet, die in 1-10 minutes ... Dice roll: 100; hit location: head; result: head pulped and splattered over a wide area."

On page 10: "The 'dread vampusa' a macho beastman with writhing snakes for hair and a skull face, bristles with Neanderthal sexual imagery, his left hand holding a long, sharp lance sticking straight out from his genitals, dripping blood, hls penis hanging limp just above it."

Arduin's creator, Dave Hargrave, defends the grisly specificity. He states: "It's deliberately gruesome. You have to blow a hole through that video shell the kids are encased in. They are little zombies. They don't know what pain is. They have never seen a friend taken out in a body bag. They've got to understand that what they do has consequences. The world is sex. It is violence. It's going to destroy most of these kids when they leave TV-land."

So Hargrave admits that the game is designed for kids! Supposedly to equip them for the "reality" of life!

Witchcraft Is a Religion

In the greater Sacramento (California) area there are some 1000 practicing witches, divided into a number of covens. Several covens are recognized by the stale of California as bonafide religions. given tax-exempt status as churches.

George Marsh, member of the Cardova Park School Board (California) stated in a letter to the editor (July, 1981) why he voted to remove D & D from the school district's summer program: "The Supreme Court has already barred religious activity from public facilities. Dungeons and Dragons is clearly religious in content.''

Although D & D is not a religion per se, it is teaching religious principles and familiarizing its three million devotees with terms and rituals of oc­cult forms of religion. What does God say about this!

When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch or a charmer. or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee. 

(Deuteronomy 18:9- 12)

Quotes from Their Own Books

(emphasis added)

 "Swords and sorcery best describes what this game is all about for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game of role-playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-­believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality" (D & D Handbook, p. 7). As you know, sorcery refers to the use of magic and witchcraft.

"Most spells have a verbal component and so must be uttered" (D & D Players Handbook, p. 40).
"Magic users draw upon arcane powers in order to exercise their profession . . . He or she must
memorize and prepare for the use of each spell, and its casting makes it necessary to reabsorb the

incantation by consulting the proper book of spells.... (D & D Players Handbook, p. 25).

"The spell caster should be required to show you what form of protective inscription he or she has used when the spell is cast." The three forms men­tioned are: "Pictures of a magic circle, pentagram, and thaumaturgic triangle" (Dungeon Masters Guide, p.42, referring to instructions for the Aerial Servant spell, 6th level). According to those knowledgeable in the occult, these symbols are commonly used in witchcraft and Satan worship.


"A study of the spells usable by clerics will convey the main purpose of the cleric. That is, the cleric serves to fortify, protect, and revitalize. The cleric also has a limited number of attack spells ... Note that all spells must be spoken or read aloud ... Clerics can employ a fair number of magic items in­cluding most potions; clerical and 'protection' scrolls; most rings; some wands, rods. and staves ."
(D&D Players Handbook, p. 20).

"Another important attribute of the cleric is the ability to turn away (or actually command into service) the undead and less powerful demons and devils" (Players Handbook, p. 20).


"This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil; high priests, fierce demons; and even the gods themselves may enter your character's life" (D & D Handbook, p. 7).

In other sections the gods are referred to as "deity."
(1) "It is well known to all experienced players ... spells bestowed upon them by their respective
a deities" (Dungeon Master Hndbook, p. 38).
(2) "Each cleric must have his or her own deity . . . " (Ibid).
(3) "The deity (you the DM 'Dungeon Master') will point out all the transgressions... (Dungeon Master Handbook, p. 39). 

"Serving a deity is a significant part of D & D. and all player characters should have a patron god. Alignment assumes its full importance when tied to the worship of a deity" (Deities & Demigods, Instruction Manual, p. 5).

"Changing Alignment: Whether or not the character actively professes some deity, he or she will have an alignment and serve one or more deities of this general alignment indirectly or unbeknownst to the character" (Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 25). (In other words, in this game you serve a deity or deities whether you want to or not. Read the quote again.)


"Clerical spells ... are bestowed by the gods, so that the cleric need but pray for a few hours .. .'' (D & D Players Handbook, p. 40).

"Cleric desires third through fifth level spells, the minions (angels, demigods, or whatever) will be likely to require the cleric to spend 2 to 8 days in prayer, fasting, and contemplation of his or her transgressions, making whatever sacrifice and atonement are necessary . . . Spell recovery . . requires about the same period of time. In order to pray and meditate .. .'' (Dungeon Master, p. 38,39).


'"The character faces death in many forms. The most common death due to combat, is no greater matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell or an alter reality or wish" (Dungeon Master, p. 15).

"Resurrection" is referred to as "the revival of a character after its death, by magical means" (Dungeon Master, p. 229).

So death - with its sting and ultimate consequences - is trivialized; it can be overcome without much difficulty, "by magical means."


In four pages (16 - 19) of the Monster Manual the word demon appears 106 times! And the player has been told to trust four of these demons as (lesser gods). (Ref: Deities and Demigods, page 105, paragraph 5).

In four pages (20 - 23) the word devil appears 94 times and the word hell appears 25 times.


"Kali (black earth mother): Her worship requires sacrifices of blood, and even an occasional human sacrifice. Her cult includes many assassins. Those sworn to defend her cult will often do so in a sort of berserk, suicidal manner, staying all who oppose them until they themselves are slain" (Deities and Demigods, p. 71 ).

"Tlaloc (Rain God): At each full moon, a priest of Tlaloc sacrifices a child or baby to Tlaloc. Once a year, there is a great festival held in his honor. Numerous babies brought or taken from the populace. These babies are sacrificed to Tlaloc. after which the priests cook and eat them. If the babies cry during the sacrifices this is taken as a good sign that rain will be abundant during the coming year" (Deities and Demigods, p. 35,36).

"Tyaa (winged goddess of evil birds): Only women are permitted in the high priesthood and Tyaa demands the sacrifice of body parts from her more attractive worshippers" (Deities and Demigods, p. 88).

"Orcs - Gruumsh - Greater god: To become a shaman of Gruumsh, an orc must pluck out his own left eye. The proper worship of Gruumsh requires blood in large quantities" (Players Handbook, p. 112).

"If the Assassination is being attempted by or in behalf of a player character, a complete plan of how the deed is to be done should be prepared by the player involved, and the precautions, if
any, of the target character should be compared against the plan. Weapon damage always occurs and may kill the victim even though 'assassination' failed." (Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 75). Would you call this ONLY A GAME? Or would you call it train­ing in murder?

"Important. popular, and or noble victims will be considered as being above their actual level with respect to fee. For example, an elder of a town who is generous and just (thus popular) might be only 4th level. but for purposes of payment or assassination the character would be considered at three times actual level" (Players Handbook, p. 29).

"Non-human soldiers: The less intelligent non­human will serve for from 10% to 60% less cost, but these evil creatures will certainly expect to loot, pillage. and rape freely at every chance, and klll (and probably eat) captives" (Players Handbook, p. 31)

'"The sahuagin are cruel and brutal, the strongest always bullying the weaker. Any injured, disabled, or infirm specimen will be slain and eaten by these cannibalistic monsters. Even imperfect hatch­lings are dealt with in this fashion. This strict law has developed a strong race, however," (Deities and Demigods, p. 84)

"Defilement of Fonts: If any non-believer blesses/curses an unholy/holy font, or uses less refined means such as excreting wastes into a font or basin, the whole is absolutely desecrated, defiled, and unfit ... Note that either method of defile­ment requires actual contact with the font and its vessel. Any blessing or cursing from a distance will be absolutely ineffectual and wasted." (Players Handbook, p. 115). Note the equal use of bless/curse, unholy/holy.

Other quotes that indicate a need for serious con­cern about the game:

"Release of word/sound-stored energy is not particularly debilitating to the spell caster, as he or she has gathered this energy over a course of time prior to the loosing of the power. It comes from
 outside the spell caster, not from his or her own vital essence. The power to activate even a first level spell would leave a spell caster weak and shaking If it were drawn from his or her personal energy, and a third level spell would most certainly totally drain the caster's body of life" (Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 40,1979 edition).


If D & D is ONLY A GAME, why do the writers use Christian terms: atonement. clergy, deity, divine ascension. divine being, faith, gods, healing. heaven, prayer, fasting, resurrection, soul, spirit, worship, spreading the gospel, etc.? And in a blasphemous way!

Every character must have a character class assigned to him or her. In the D & D Players Hand­book, p. 20-33, the five character classes are ex­plained: the Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, and Monk. There are also five sub-classes: the Druid, the Paladin, the Ranger, the Illusionist, and the Assassin. All five of the character classes involve either magic and spells, or violence, or both. It seems that it would be impossible to play this game as it is designed without involvement in either magic or violence.

What Is Wrong with Role-Playing or Fantasizing?

Some mistakenly believe hat role-playing is merely acting out a character. Much more is involv­ed. Psycho-drama techniques (the root of role­-playing) were introduced in the early 1900's by Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, contemporary of Freud. He said his objective was to develop a "positive religion." His idea was that if you can "play a role" - for in­stance, the role of God - and develop that role and stop its playing at will, you will begin to learn how not to be possessed of that role. He said: "The only way to get rid of the God syndrome is to act it out."

What is the "positive religion" that Moreno en­visioned? The religion that man is all-powerful, capable of answering all questions and solving all problems apart from any Supernatural Being - more popularly known as Humanism. Read his state­ment again. Then consider its application to D & D and other FRP "games."

A principle laid down long ago by God is: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he·· (Proverbs 23:7).

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23). We are what we think. It is ridiculous to believe that people, young or old, can absorb their minds with violence, murder, human sacrifice, suicide, demonology, rape, desecration, defecation, sadism, cannibalism, sex perversion, insanity, prostitution, necromantics, Satan worship, witchcraft, and every other form of perverted and violent conduct without being in· tensely - and perhaps permanently - affected adversely. We ARE what we THINK!

Young person, if you want to be successful, pro­ductive, well-adjusted, and happy, then refuse to fill your wonderful mind with such garbage! Don't allow someone else to take control of your mind. Think too much of yourself to become a tool in the hands of those whose interest is to get your money and destroy your faith in God.

Testimony of Negative Effects

John Torell, with Christian Life Ministries in California, received a phone call from a medical doctor in Seattle, Washington.,The doctor is treating a policeman for severe depression caused by the suicide of his sixteen-year-old son. The son, who had been heavily involved in D & D for two years, shot himself with his father's service revolver.

Some have argued that D & D is a healthy release of suppressed hostilities. But seeing the power that can be seized in games, psychiatrist Laurance Johnson cautions, "If I had a child who tended toward schizophrenia, I'd never let him near D & D. There's a danger that it would reinforce feelings of grandiosity. of omnipotence. Reality and fantasy are hard enough for schizophrenics to differentiate."

This reality distortion is frightening. A city police department in central Washington asks, "Are you a participant in Fantasy Role Games?" as a standard question ... two people convicted of firing over three rounds into passing motor vehicles admitted that they "constantly fantasized killing someone." Other police departments have confirmed "some correlation" between Fantasy Role Playing Games and incidents showing up on their police blotter.

Many people have been innocently drawn into FRP Games. However, enough information is now available to reveal their true nature and real danger -so there's no need for wise and alert people to be further duped.

Even some Christians try to defend D & D and other FRP "games." In this futile attempt, one said: "But the game is helpful because it shows the dif­ference between good and evil characters." To this a brilliant young player replied: "Not so. Nearly everybody would rather play evil characters because they are much more powerful."

In light of the quotes from their own literature, it would be wise to consider:

Does this "game" promote respect for the sanctity of life? Or does it rather serve as basic training in brutality and disregard for life (such as exemplified in the incredible massacres of recent years)?

Does it increase, or decrease, a player's faith in God and His Word?

Does it trivialize, and even blaspheme, Christianity?

In summary: Does its over-all influence tend to build up, or tear down, character?

What Can You Do? 

1.    Distribute this leaflet to young people, youth directors, ministers, teachers, school administrators, school board members. Place them in tract racks, waiting rooms, etc.

2.    If you lack time to do this, send a donation of $10.00 or more to the address below, to help distribute the leaflet to the above-mentioned groups.

(REVISED PRINTING. Note: If page references differ from your book. remember there are different editions of D & D books - for instance, at least two versions of Deities & Demigods, the original with 144 pages and a newer version with 128 pages).

100/$10.00 50/$5.50

On mail orders, please add for postage and handling $1.50 on orders of $10.00 or less. On larger orders, add 10% of the total. 3 copies postpaid $1.00.
TEXANS, add 5% of total for sales tax.

Pro Family Forum
P.O. Box 8907, Fort Worth, Texas 76124
(817) 531-3605

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Player Skill versus Skillfully Playing Your Character

I wrote a few days ago about how to get rid of experience points in your role-playing games. Because experience points are a reward for meeting goals in play, one of the topics this touched on was “player skill.” That’s what I’m thinking about here.

The new, OSR emphasis on “player skill” seems to have had its diffusion from Matt Finch’s essay of 2008, “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.” The idea that he expresses there is that it’s more fun if characters don’t have skill traits and perception checks to stand in for player thinking and problem-solving. “Old-school” gaming, he argues, is about players’ thinking about the problems their characters face rather than die-rolls against skills representing character thinking. The player’s brain should do the problem-solving, not a die roll against an abstract intellectual skill. For example, the player should describe how his character searches the room rather than making a perception roll.

And that’s how the original game was, supposedly: no skill traits. As an aside, I want to point out that it’s not true that original D&D had no skills. Every character class had its own skill traits that we just did not call skills. But, in normal RPG game terms, class abilities were, in fact, all skills and proficiencies, all of them, from fighters’ ability to use all weapons, to magic-users’ spells, to clerics’ turning undead, to the elf’s sensitive hearing as they pressed pointy ears against dungeon doors, to thieves’ scuttling up cave walls. These original characters skills differ from the later ones in that they were restricted to individual classes and they each had their own mechanics. The evolution of “skills” in D&D is just the proliferation of stats for an ever-wider range of abilities and adventurous activities, increasingly including generic abilities open to all character classes, and the simultaneous reduction of such abilities to a single mechanic, something achieved immediately in many of the first role-playing games, long ago, and now nearly achieved in the Fifth Edition of D&D.

Anyway, Finch’s method has great appeal. I prefer it. Minimize stats, maximize live engagement. It can be boring to use dice when you can play stuff out with words (even though dice are best used for the opposite, to add suspense and unpredictability). Finch’s idea of “player skill” entails that a skillful player knows how to describe effective ways of finding traps in a dungeon, for example, so the player should explain how his character searches for them. (Never mind that most GMs can’t reciprocate by convincingly describing the triggers and mechanisms of traps. Just look any published adventure.)

I leave aside that Finch’s essay did not propose axing INT and WIS scores from the game, to make room for player brain-work. INT and WIS are “original,” so they remain in retro-clones. Is that to ensure Gygaxian “game balance” for magic-users and clerics? (My home-brew game has no scores for intelligence or wisdom, only a few traits representing education for characters who have it.)

The renewed emphasis on player skill was an entry into a much older debate in role-playing game design, but it was an exciting proposal that has fueled a gaming subculture unleashed by the Open Game License, even if its ramifications have not been pursued to their logical end (in Story Game mechanics). Finch’s proposal is about using players’ brains and words in place of game mechanics. This makes a lighter character sheet and, we hope, a more imaginative game with more engaged players whose choices matter.

Master Players and Master Dungeon Masters

This way of talking about “player skill” does use language revived from the earliest days of role-playing games. It’s “old-school” in that way.

Gary Gygax, who delighted in playing the part of founder-pundit, saw himself as the official proponent of the idea of player skill. Unlike Finch’s player skill, Gygax’s was competitive. He wrote in the Players Handbook (1978, p. 8), that “Skilled players always make a point of knowing what they are doing… They co-operate… in order to gain their ends. Superior players will not fight everything they meet… When faced with a difficult situation, skilled players will not attempt endless variations on the same theme [in solving problems].” He goes on like this in several publications. Superior playing, for him, was clever problem-solving. Can you outwit the Dungeon Master’s tricks? That is the idea in “classic” Gygax modules like The Tomb of Horrors (published in 1978, first run in 1975, see below).

He held on tight to this role of pundit after he lost the helm of TSR and left the company angrily in 1985. Take Gygax’s books Role-Playing Mastery (1987) and Master of the Game: Tips and Techniques for Becoming an Expert Role-Playing Game Master (1989). I bought the latter when it came out and found it to be a complete waste. Tips for players include banal exhortations to cooperate and defer to the GM. Tips for game masters include the advice that the GM must “master the rules.” Be fair. That kind of stuff. His idea that Master Game Masters follow the advice of the Grand Master is self-serving and it missed a decade of evolution in the hobby he co-founded.

But the idea that you can master playing role-playing games, with an emphasis on the word games, is a hold-over from the earliest days of the hobby, when there were D&D tournaments at conventions. Individual player participants were awarded points for achieving solutions to traps and overcoming monsters and going farther than others. The Tomb of Horrors was developed specifically for this kid of role-playing, run at Origins 1 in Baltimore in 1975, just one year after the publication of the original D&D, a half step from competitive miniatures wargaming. You could win D&D in those days by being the most successful player in a group.

My first issue of Dragon Magazine, #54 (October 1981), included a solo adventure called “Cavern Quest” by Bill Fawcett. It is introduced as a solo “competition module for AD&D.” It challenges you to “Test your skill as a dungeoneer and your knowledge of [AD&D] rules.” At the end, you tally up points to figure out how well you played. I found it incredibly exciting as a boy, but when I ran games, I never had the goal “to accurately record the performance of each player” in this way.

So, here’s another part of the “original” hobby that no OSR players have revived, as far as I can tell. Is being a skillful player knowing the rules better than anybody else and being able to outwit oppositional Dungeon Masters? That is not how the overwhelming majority of role-playing games have been played. I’m sure that most players have not played tournament games. I never have.

Playing Your Character

The competitive style of D&D is, happily for many of us, long gone. It was not picked up in other role-playing games, as far as I can tell, until it was revived in some role-playing Story Games, which feature more “PC-PC conflict.” Here again the Story Games are more old-school than OSR games.

Mostly, though, the competitive style of play quickly gave way to an overwhelming emphasis on role-playing. It’s in the name, as you may have noticed. I remarked in my musing on experience points that plenty of role-playing games since the days of yore explicitly prescribed that Referees should give out rewards for good role-playing.

In my experience of the old days, GMs gave experience points for playing your character at least as much as achievements in the story. It was partly an aesthetic and qualitative assessment by GMs and their player groups. It also meant, among other things, that you stuck to your character concept in making choices even when it was not to your character’s benefit. Playing your character was the goal, not winning. That was skillful playing for us. The gamers I knew looked down on players who played as if they could win the game. We once had a player who said that he played to win, and everybody in the room started laughing. No, silly! We play to bring characters to life and to tell a story collaboratively! You don’t win the game; you have fun role-playing. We knew this already as kids. The rule books said so.

Old-School Acting versus Acting Old-School

In fact, playing your character was always a part of the hobby. It just wasn’t considered a part of player skill because it was something you were supposed to do anyway!

Go back to December 3, 1980. Tom Moldvay is writing the Foreword to the red book of Basic D&D, the first role-playing game book I ever had, the book that probably did more to launch the hobby than any other.

“I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up,” Moldvay wrote. He framed his explanation of D&D as an imaginary narrative. Then he went on: “Sometimes I forget that D&D Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I’m reading or a movie I’m watching.”

“Each adventure is like writing a novel,” says the back cover.

Mike Carr wrote in the Foreword of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (1978), that players “are the primary actors and actresses in the fascinating drama which unfolds before them.”

Carr exhorts the players to “use your persona to play with a special personality all its own.”

Gygax wrote in his Players Handbook (p. 7), “You act out the game as this character… You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic!”

Novels. Actors. Drama. Playing personas. Acting out parts with each other in fellowship. This is how D&D developed spontaneously and was actually played in the very first years of its existence. Some of the OSR people pretend that it’s only a game, and not that sissy acting stuff. That is false. If you are playing a role, you are acting, in some degree. It was always that way.

Playing a character and player rewards

If you liked my earlier proposal to ditch experience points, then you won’t be giving experience points for playing your character (the way I used to do it) any more than you will for gold pieces captured. Just as the gamers who want to give XP for GP may wonder how to motivate players without that mechanic, the friends I used to play with years ago might ask me how I would motivate good role-playing without experience points, too.

There are different ways to answer this. One is that the reward is built in. As I said before, having fun is its own reward. If you don’t find role-playing fun, the chances are that you are not going to stick it out just to get the treasure, either. You will find different games to play. So, let’s assume that all players find something fun in role-playing games. They get fun from playing. Isn’t that reward enough?

Another way to reward good role-playing is with short-term benefits in game mechanics. The Fifth Edition allows for “inspiration dice” to reward good play. An inspiration die is a one-time benefit, allowing you to roll an extra die and take the best result on one occasion. In my home-brew game rules, Referees can reward inspired playing and faithful adherence to character concept with the restoration of a Luck point (which works quite like the similar mechanic in Fighting Fantasy, a game system much more inspiring for me than D&D).

There is also the esteem that players tend to show towards their fellows who are especially good at bringing a character to life. That’s a social reward among friends.

Probably there are other rewards. In the end, these issues are all a matter of preferences. People should play how they want to play. My point is that skillfully playing your character is a fundamental player skill, different from the current concept of players skill, and it always has been in the hobby.

From player skill to player skills

Player skill can mean a lot of different things, as it turns out. It can mean, with Gygax, that your character succeeds at defeating the Dungeon Master’s challenges more than other player characters in the fiction of the game, proving that you are the Master Player. It can mean, with Finch, that you rely on your thinking and words, rather than dice, to simulate and direct a character’s actions. (I would rather call this an emphasis on player direction.) It can mean that you faithfully keep your character’s actions in line with the character concept. (My young daughter treasures the inspiration die she earned for this in her first 5e session with me.) It can mean that you are good at bringing your character to life as you interact with other participants in the game. It can mean the ability to create and maintain a story motive for your character to participate in fictional adventures designed by a GM, instead of relying on others to motivate your participation.

These are each different. Each kind of player skill brings its own benefit. Different gamers have different personal needs that they fulfill when they play. The various kinds of player skills interact with those needs. Your preference will play a role, but there are lots of ways to be good at role-playing games, each valid if it is fun.