Friday, May 12, 2017

Cecilia D'Anastasio's Silly Theories About the Tyranny of Gygax and Early D&D

Power to the people

I was pointed to this by a blog post at Castalia House.

In the guise of reviewing the graphic novel Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D by David Kushner and Karen Shadmi, Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio celebrates contemporary D&D as a good thing. However, for D'Anastasio, D&D started out as a bad thing, or at least a sort of bad thing. Gary Gygax created it (with a little help from Dave Arneson and others) but the game only really came into its own when it grew away from him or beyond him.

I wouldn't waste my time writing about a silly Kotaku post except that I've heard this sort of argument before. It's especially popular among the crowd that loves bringing politics into D&D. I want to consider the argument and then hopefully put a stake through its heart, not because it offends my politics, but because it doesn't even work on its own terms. In seeking to make a subjective claim - old D&D = bad, new D&D = good - it gets most of the objective facts wrong. And it ends up sort of slandering a few people in the process - Gygax, not least among them.

D'Anastasio's "review" begins like this:
Storytelling was never the same after Dungeons & Dragons. When players, guided by a dungeon master, knit a dense narrative whose many threads are each supported by their neighbors, it makes the case that many voices are greater than one.
As it happens, I think storytelling, at least in some form, is certainly a part of D&D; there is nothing wrong with dense narratives per se; and sometimes many voices are in fact greater than one. But if someone puts all those together in the lead paragraph to an essay on Dungeons & Dragons, I guarantee you they have some silly agenda up their sleeve.

Even now, we can perhaps implicitly see the outlines of the argument. Consider: when you started playing D&D, you didn't think of the game as storytelling, had no idea what a narrative, let alone a dense narrative, was, and would have puked had anyone suggested that playing D&D was just like holding hands and singing, or whatever. That's because, in some sense, it was a different game then. See, old D&D = bad, new D&D = good.

D'Anastasio calls Rise of the Dungeon Master "enchanting," but then states, "perhaps Gygax has enjoyed enough time on D&D's altar of hero worship." Even this is, in and of itself, unobjectionable. No mortal man should spend too much time (any time?) being worshipped on an altar. And the criticism of Gygax here is pretty restrained - perhaps he shouldn't be worshipped on an altar? Perhaps? But one senses there's something more going on. Sure enough, in the comments section of the post, D'Anastasio flies her true colors:
I am a diehard D&D fan who seriously dislikes Gygax and his legacy.
Okay. This is strong stuff - not dislikes but seriously dislikes. And it does seem a bit contradictory and odd. After all, since D&D is clearly a big part of Gygax's legacy, how can she be a diehard fan and hate it at the same time? And if she strongly dislikes the man so much, why would she find a picture book about his life enchanting?

But I think the most relevant question is why does she seriously dislike him?

She tries to tell us:
If you compare Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures to today’s, it will strike you how much control—and veneration—he allocates to the dungeon master...
It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy...
Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies. On top of their race, class, alignment and stats, today’s character sheets want to know why the player adventures, and what they ultimately hope to gain. Today’s Dungeon Master’s Guild, an official D&D website that publishes anyone’s adventures and additions to the game, tells us who really owns its legacy. It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.
Today is the age of the player...
We might summarize the above, this way: Gygax and early D&D were a necessary social stage (sort of like capitalism). But we've past out of that and are now above it (true socialism has come). In past ages we were puppets, being manipulated by a tyrant in his own dungeon. But today, we're in the open air and free. It's our time, now. Yay!

Do not misunderstand, I like good Marxist analysis just as much as the next man. The problem is, her analysis isn't very good. Pretty much everything stated in her above four paragraphs is either extremely misleading, false or (and this applies to the majority of it) the reverse of the truth.

How does D'Anastasio justify her claims?

Well, here she is on Gygax almost insulting his players with his blatant ableism:
[In] his famous “Tomb of Horrors” module, he warns that players who are not clever will not enjoy the module.
Wow. How tyrannical and mean of him.

But what did Gygax actually say? I have Tomb of Horrors right here:
So here's D'Anastasio at her most dishonest, twisting an admonition against violence and in favor of thinking, into a rude right-wing (or whatever) attack on non-clever people.

Would "kill everything!" have been more progressive?

She makes a second attempt with a direct quote:
In his Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Gygax again assigns great narrative power to the DM: “Here are the bones of the adventure. You must breathe life into this framework after you flesh it out.”
Well, that's certainly right-wing, almost Hitlerian, even Trumpist, in fact. The DM "must breathe life into this framework." I can just hear the jackboots coming towards me along the dungeon corridor.

I'm joking, of course. Anyone who would object to that statement from Gygax, for any reason whatsoever is clearly insane, or at least as easily triggered as, say, one of those Tomb of Horrors traps.

So I'm going to help D'Anastasio out and give her some juicier Gygax quotes that will serve her purpose better. These are from the Dungeon Master's Guide (1979), written (or approved) by Gary Gygax:
The Dungeon Master (DM) is the creative force behind a D&D game. The DM creates a world for the other players to explore, and also creates and runs adventures that drive the story.
...You're the DM, and you are in charge of the game.
Every DM is the creator of his or her own campaign make that world your own over the course of a campaign...
The world is yours to change as you see fit and yours to modify as you explore the consequences of the players' actions.
So, the players do take actions, but if you (the DM) don't like them or their consequences (or for any other reason), you can modify the world. And it is your world, not the players' world. You created it. You get to run it (and thus drive the story). You get to change it, as you see fit. You are the master. It is your own.

Well, if that's not a tyranny, I don't know what. Personally, I prefer collaborative storytelling. Down with masters! (Yay.)

Actually, I lied.

The above passages weren't written by Gygax. They were written by the Wizards of the Coast team that authored the D&D 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide (2014), and they placed those words in its Introduction.

And obviously, neither the Gygax quote nor the 5th edition passages have anything to do with anything other than making perfectly reasonable statements about what it is that dungeon masters do and should do (though, Gygax was a much better writer than Team Wizard).

Here's the thing: It's true that D&D certainly can be played in such a way that the players are to some extent puppets, participating in a story, yes, but a story that has already been or is currently being largely determined for them by outside forces.

But this is precisely what Gygax, Dave Arneson and early D&D for the most part did not do. By the same token, it is what modern "progressive" D&D, the kind favored by D'Anastasio, does in fact do, not always, perhaps, but all too often.

The early campaigns and adventures - Arneson's Blackmoor and Gygax's Greyhawk being the most famous - as well as the first published adventures by Gygax and others, were, for the most part, almost entirely "open-ended" (to use D'Anastasio's term). Yes, the DM designed the dungeon (someone had to do it). But the players were then free to, so to speak, roam at will within it, creating their own stories - to use D'Anastasio's language - however they wished. Indeed, back in the day, the concept of a scenario (implying that a scene had already been planned or set up beforehand), didn't even exist.

You are a player in Blackmoor or Greyhawk. If your group wants to skip three levels and immediately fight the vampire on level five, you can. If, as a result, you get bitten by the vampire and want to, in effect create a whole new angle on the thing by just being a vampire in the dungeon, you can. If you and your group want to set up turnstiles at the entrance to the dungeon and then charge admission, you can do it. Or you can just tramp off to the Egg of Coot or wherever and try to induce the Elves to attack the vampire for you. Or not. Or whatever, etc. There is no preset plan or storyline or scenario. The players create it themselves with their actions.

Contrast that with a contemporary 5th edition adventure, Storm King's Thunder - presumably one of the "scenarios" that D'Anastasio recommends that you buy in her How to Get Into Dungeons & Dragons:
Acquire the Materials...An adventure (a pre-made book that contains a story, NPCs and monsters)
But, but, I thought the players created the story?

According to A Guide to Storm King's Thunder by Sean McGovern, hyped by the publishers of Storm King's Thunder, Wizards of the Coast, and available on their friendly Dungeon Master's Guild page, here is the outline of the story that the players will be participating in (when the author addresses "you," he means the DM):
1. Nightstone: The group goes through chapter 1. That's very straightforward. The villagers need help.
2. Pick One of Three Locations: Chapter 2 is trickier. The group will have to pick a hook. If there is one place you like and want to use, just give the group that one hook. For example, I like Bryn Shander. So I would have the group be asked to go to Bryn Shander and tell Markham his sister is dead. I wouldn’t even mention the Goldenfields and Triboar quests.
3. Zephyros: Now we fly in the cloud castle to Bryn Shander.
4. Bryn Shander: In Bryn Shander, we go through the frost giant attack.
5. Sort Out Chapter 3: Then we get to the most complicated part of planning this thing out. Chapter 3 is wide open. Ultimately, the group is meant to meet Harshnag (page 118). How and when that happens is completely up to you! Remember, if you like another of the chapter 2 locations, there's nothing stopping you from using it now.
6A. Winging It: If you are a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of DM, then just let the group go where they want and when it feels like it is time, plop in Harshnag.
6B. Planning: If you are like me and you like to prepare, I suggest that you go through chapter 3 and find all the things that you want to use. Then look at the map on pages 74-75 and see where all these places are in relation to each other. Then just connect the dots - make a reason for the group to go from one place to the next. I have already broken down this chapter into quick little blurbs in my Guide to Storm King's Thunder.
7. The Oracle: Once the group meets Harshnag, then they are off to the Eye (page 121). The group will be asked to go to all those burial mounds in chapter 3. I don't like those, so in my version I changed it. Some people online have said they didn't like the idea of desecrating holy sites, so consider your group before you run this as written.
8. Iymrith: The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle. They learn that they need a conch. On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
9. Find the Conch: In the book, every giant lord has a conch. The heroes will need to go steal a conch from a giant lord. I liked a lot of these areas, so in my version I changed things a little so I can use Svardborg, Ironslag and the Cloud Giant castle in my campaign.
10. Use the Conch: It takes the group to Maelstrom (page 201). There, the heroes hopefully expose Iymrith and get a clue to Hekaton's whereabouts.
11. King Hekaton: The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
12. Final Battle: The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith. As written, there's a bunch of NPC giants with the group. That seems a little unwieldy, so think about if you really want to take these NPCs along.
Most contemporary adventures published by Wizards of the Coast are more or less like this. Of course, people don't have to use them or play this way. But it's pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast wants you to purchase them and D'Anastasio seems to think they're pretty spiffy. (By the way, the idea that anyone would want to purchase someone else's pre-made adventure was looked on with astonishment by the early Gygax).

The group gets the artifacts and returns to the oracle.
The group tracks down Hekaton and saves him!
On the way out, Iymrith attacks and Harshnag makes a heroic sacrifice.
The age of the player.
The adventurers team up with Hekaton to take down Iymrith.
Admittedly, the prisoners have a short exercise period:
[T]hen just let the group go where they want and when it feels like it is time, plop in Harshnag.
But even when the players are given a little bit of freedom, it's largely illusory, for the ever-watching and controlling DM is just biding his time before he "plops" someone in.

I mean, what the hell? Seriously, WHAT THE HELL!? This is what "age of the players" means? This is what players creating a story means?

Can I have my revolution back, please?

If there was a revolution, it must have been a fake one. It threw off the alleged evil tyranny of the DM (which never really existed anyway) and replaced it with the rule (in the form of writing your stories for you) of an uncredited collective of author bureaucrats, employed by a multi-million dollar corporation that wants to sell you "scenarios" for $49.95 a pop.

Or so it might seem.

How progressive. Yay, one final time.

When I say that the narrative of D'Anastasio and her friends is the reverse of the truth, I don't mean it's the precise reverse of the truth. Unlike them, I'm not a complete ideologue on the historical question (though I admit my pro-OSR rants may often make it appear so).

The early Gary Gygax was an explicit advocate of making D&D your game - with the "your" referring to both the players and the DM. But the later corporate Gary Gygax was a bit more mixed - "If you want to change the rules, you can, but in that case you just won't be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons." And, as I understand it, when he ran his own campaign, Gygax was often as much of a Svengail figure as he was a referee, with all of that mysterious rummaging behind the file cabinets, and so on. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but opinions differ.

Gygax famously said that your "backstory" was what you did to get to 6th level (or some such). Now, I personally think that that's more of a pro-story approach than anti-story. Or, more accurately, it's simply a philosophy about how stories are or should be created: It's better to make them by playing, instead of by writing them before hand. I happen to agree with that. But if you think D&D is better now because there's a bit more of a focus on backstories, that's okay with me.

And some early TSR adventures or sets of adventures, did have their "railroad" elements. After all, you were sort of expected to go from G1 to G2 to G3 of those Giant Modules (though, I would argue that you still had much more freedom within the modules, and that "railroading" in general was not present to anywhere near the extent that it is now).

As snarky as even I can sometimes be about them, the current Wizards people are not all horrible corporate meanies. The Dungeon Master's Guild, while clearly a vehicle designed to help the brand, is not a bad idea (though, I don't much like the rule system - 5th edition - it is built around).

And, of course, the OSR owes a huge amount to Wizards for the OGL. The irony is that the OGL is often used by OSR people to design products that (as I would put it) circumvent the banality of current Wizards products.

By the way, before I forget, the claim that "Dungeon dimensions are less particular (now), to leave room for players’ whimsies" is just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard - as if caves in Storm King's Thunder contracted or expanded in response to the player-characters holding hands and singing.

Or maybe they do, I haven't read the 256-page thing.

Let me end on a serious note. Cecilia D'Anastasio knows nothing about D&D. Nor is she probably even a "fan" in any meaningful sense. Back in the day, she wouldn't have played the game because it wasn't cool. Now, because the "progressive" version of it - a version existing mostly in the imaginations of a small minority - is cool, or supposedly cool, she gets together occasionally with other like-minded people in that small minority (or whomever else she can cajole) to act out a story someone else has created for her.

Or maybe she just blogs about it.

That's freedom.

Well, it is for her. To D'Anastasio, freedom means imposing her silly ideology on others.

Also, she gets her kicks lying about Gary Gygax.

She does that because she strongly dislikes him and his legacy. I'm sure the fact that he was a white male who started out playing toy soldiers with other white males has nothing to do with it.

Nothing to do with it at all.

What an ignorant and biased person.


  1. We are inclined to critique your point about "with a little help from Dave Arneson", see our latest post:

    And also, you may enjoy our this trailer.

    Smiley Face!

    1. As I read it, it was a statement full of irony. But, hey, maybe it's just me reading it wrong.

    2. I get what you're saying, Secrets of Blackmoor. I didn't put that quite right. Let me think on how to change it.

    3. It's such a complicated history, we like to go around and point people to how complicated and interesting it is. :)

  2. As a fan of both Gygax and Arneson, let me say that, Oakes' obvious bias here aside, he's on point about the issues with Cecilia's article. The Old School is about sandboxes, and big ones at that, and the true classic modules were just that sort of thing. Sure, there is often a natural progression, but there is also always a way off the railroad. The modern, "progressive" games are sort-of, kind-of trying to recapture that, but creating a scenario with a "dense narrative" is hard without laying some tracks down.

  3. holy fuck! what a bunch of nonsense!

  4. Looking at her picture, I must ask: Was she there? Is that a "no," or a "hell no?" I'm betting she wasn't even born yet. So what does she know about it?

    "When players, guided by a dungeon master, knit a dense narrative whose many threads . . ." ROFLMAO

    Listen up! I've been playing the game since 1978 and . . . guess what?


    Yep! I've been playing D&D since near the very beginning and I've been an ADULT the whole time. Having said that, let me ask each of you this: Do you have ANY idea how long its been since I met a ROLE Player? For YEARS, all my "guys" have been ROLL Players. "Knit a dense narrative?" What is this kid smoking?

    I am the DM, and in the tradition of Gygax, it is very much MY game. My Players LOVE creating characters. Where are those characters going? What do those "characters" want to do? My players couldn't care less. My players -- FOR YEARS -- have not been "part of the narrative."

    I wish they were, but they aren't.

    I started gaming in North Carolina -- 82nd Airborne Division -- then gamed in Colorado, then Texas, then Louisiana, now in Pennsylvania. I can count on two hands the number of Role Players I've had in my games. Most just want to roll the dice. Yahtzee . . . with Character Sheets.

    I know from Life Experience that this child is "lost in the fog." I've always enjoyed 2nd Edition, but I now play 3.5, because that's what my players like. None of us are interested in 4th Edition, much less 5th Edition. So . . . long live "old D&D."

    1. LOLS!!! I was in the Army and played D&D also.Along with Marrow Project, Star Fronties ect...I first played D&D in 1971 when CHAINMAIL came out!!!! Good times!

    2. Those were the days, Erich.

      My first DM laid the Darlene map of Greyhawk before us, gave us some insight into what was going on the world -- the things we would know about -- and then asked: "So, what do you want to do?"

      I didn't learn about "modules" until much later.

    3. Been playing since then as well and I had the same reaction.

      Except I wasn't an adult fact, I'm probably about as young as you can be and have been playing (on your own) since then when at the ripe old age of 11 I spent Christmas money on Holmes.

      Even as the supposed power mad pre-teen GM it was never like that (if anything my players ran rough over me).

  5. I don't care much for Gygax - not to do with the game nearly as much as reading his articles in the dragon and interviews, etc. His attitude on women was annoying.

    That said - I thought his and Dave Arneson's game was what i'd been looking for all my life - a game where no one had to lose. A game where people cooperated to make their stories, their character's stories. A game where someone told you a story, and let you take characters IN that story to affect the outcome. Brilliant. Lets Pretend with rules.

    I think her complaints about Gygax are actually ... silly. Another entitled little child thinking that players should run the game, there's no need for referees, everyone wins on their own terms... Like those elementary school baseball games where there's no outs, no scores, no nothing because feelings could get hurt.

    Gary Gygax was a product of his time, which is one of my beefs with him - and I actually don't hold that against him so much as just find it irritating. thats my problem and no one else's.

    Entitled people will always rail against people who want to keep to a certain field of operations - they do not like structure that countermands their attempts to be shiny and special.

  6. I like good Marxist analysis just as much as the next man.
    I don't like Marx. If Gygax & Arnson didn't get together... We would be playing a different game. Maybe no ogl. Osr.

  7. Getting rid of Gygax was good for TSR and the Hobby as a whole.

    1. On TSR, he ran the business badly (albeit not as badly as the scum who drove him out would run it).

      On "the Hobby as a whole", feh. By the time Gygax was on the outs, the RPG community as a whole was able to do without him.

  8. Modern "Adventure path" modules unless really brief are by nature railroady adventure -author domination of player choice and they limit the DM to narrator and rules referee. Modern adventures are often far less open than the adventures of old.

  9. Cecilia the snowflake. People should make the adventure and not some dumb ass Trump wannabe DM. I bet this poor demented millennial doesn't read books or watch films because someone else is controlling the narrative in her eyes.

    Bashing Gygax while worshipping D&D is like some poor misguided Apple twit loving overpriced fruit themed products but seriously disliking $teve Job$.

    Community college associates degree and a job writing oped pieces.. Cecilia is living the dream.

  10. She is the Hugo Chavez of D&D. Don't ever let her get close to the levers or power.

  11. Yeah, Gygax was mean! Shut up, OSR. You look fat in those jeans!!

  12. The SJWs have the same agenda with the RPG community as they do with the comics community: They don't actually read or play, but they want to dictate to the rest of us what we should read and play. For the results, see the many videos on Marvel's actual comics division going down in flames--not because comic readers hate diversity, but because the SJW narrative is ultimately too angry, too stilted, and too false to actually write good fiction around.