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Destroy All Monsters: A Journey into the Caverns of Dungeons and Dragons (2006) (believermag.com)
147 points by smacktoward on Aug 26, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

I played D&D with the Gygax family almost every weekend as a teenager. They were fundamental to shaping my teenage years and beyond.

I will never forget randomly stumbling into The Game Guild in Lake Geneva on a school trip, meeting the group of people playing D&D in the back room filled with soda and pizza boxes, and then finding out that the DM and another player were actually Gary's sons, Ernie and Luke. I drove up every weekend to play for 2 years from that point, and every weekend when back from college.

It helped me come out of my shell and become more social, and caused me to start my own local D&D group. This eventually turned into me growing my own group of friends after having moved and not knowing anyone. I created another group in college with the same result. I also of course jumped at the chance to join one at work when a colleague started one up which has brought me closer to my co-workers.

It also taught me physics and math, because our entire party almost got incinerated due to a miscalculation of fireball volume. I'll also never forget casually mentioning a Mordenkainen spell, only to have one of the players make some joke indicating that he had created the spell. Turns out the original Mordenkainen was one of his characters. And someone else there was Bigby, and Tenser.

No real point to this point other than to thank the Gygax family for making my teenage years more memorable.

I hope you mentioned to Mordenkainen his swords were invaluable!

Anyway, that's the advantage of both DnD and CS. They're do new you can still often meet and talk with the founders of the entire discipline, or at least one step removed.

In all honesty, I just got home from my (rather large) gaming group. At one end of the room they were playing Nobilis; I was teaching FATE Core to a group of new players. The worlds in the games are different, the rules are different... and yet I can't help but agree completely that there's a grand culture of cooperation, friendship, and acceptance among hardcore gamers.

If that's some kind of "fantasy world", where everyone works together, believes in each other, and where the arguments are resolved with a roll of the dice? Then I'm more than content to live in that fantasy; and work every day to make it closer to reality.

The author got in before I did (I started with the computer games based on 2E and moved up and down from there), but I can relate to everything he said. I can even relate to Gygax himself as the author says it:

"From which you could conclude, I guess, that games are everything for Gygax, or that everything is a game; but I don’t think that would be quite right. I think that he has found a way to live."

I want to keep fighting to find that way to live. Where someday, I might have a home with an open-door policy, where we can sit down and for those few hours reclaim something essential about the human existence, regardless of that world outside.

Take a look at Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. It's very different than other RPGs but very cool. It was made by the same author as Nobilis and she has a PhD in Computer Science and it kind of shows :)

It's an ok article, but it heavily conflates D&D with all tabletop role playing. For example in one of the very few mentions of other RPGs it says this about Vampire:

"some of them switched over to D&D, with the result that there are more women gamers now, "

As though if they hadn't switched to D&D they wouldn't really be gamers. Also this article predates Pathfinder eating D&D for lunch. The latest edition of D&D has made a strong comeback, but there's huge diversity in the RPG market now with lots of high quality games catering to every taste in terms of complex or lightweight game mechanics, tactical or narrative focus, and every conceivable genre. I hooked my daughters on the hobby using a great little RPG called Mermaid Adventures. It's a great time to be a gamer.

It also conflates V:tM with Mind's Eye Theater. The author is basically a classic AD&D grognard, and looks down on things like White Wolf and storytelling games.

I love the oWoD. But it doesn't take a grognard to argue it had huge problems in terms of rules. Anyone who wants to play Mage needs to first find a new magic system, because the one in the book straight up does not work properly if you think about it for five seconds.

They also injected a ton of New age-y politics into everything, which annoyed many people. The player base of Mage basically revolted at one point and decided the ostensible villains of the setting - the Technocracy - while far from perfect, where a damn sight more sympathetic than the insane hippie anarchist weirdos (aka Mages) who are pissy humanity no longer lives in mud huts and who can't accept science and technology did more good for the average person than they ever could.

Oh, I totally agree with you there. In all honesty, "my game" is TSR's MSH FASERIP. But I wasn't talking about the system, the mechanics, etc - I commenting on the fact that in the article linked, the author calls V:tM a LARP, and while he wants to make it sound hopeful, my grognard alarms were going off about the way he said it.

Will he always look down on games that are not D&D? Does he now, a decade later? I honestly don't know. But I do feel that his research here is lacking; and the question I'm forced to ask is, if he couldn't research what the WW games actually were (or if he did, couldn't represent that in black-and-white), what else did he miss?

> Anyone who wants to play Mage needs to first find a new magic system, because the one in the book straight up does not work properly if you think about it for five seconds.

The premise of Mage is that an awakened can bend reality to their will[1]. There's no need for a system... Just a Good GM :)

[1] À la The Matrix and the graphic novel The Books of Magic by Gaiman.

I was going to say something to this effect since the MtA had a very free and easy magic system that was more about manipulating reality in subtle and not so subtle ways than "I cast fireball". It was a really creative and fun idea for magic without mages outclassing everyone like with DnD (3.x).

What about it doesn't work cause I've spent quite a bit more than 5 seconds thinking on it and I find it works quite well.

Tell me, in concrete, non-ambiguous terms, what will or will not generate paradox and if so how severely for performing the following feats in front of 10 sleepers. Directly cite the rule book for each example:

Using magic to levitate a feather.

Using magic to levitate a plane in the sky.

Using magic to levitate a person.

Using magic to levitate a person wearing a jetpack.

Using magic to levitate a person wearing a jetpack not turned on.

Doing each of the above, but while wearing a stage magician's outfit and explicitly calling each one an "illusion".

Vulgar, coincidental, perceiver w/ consensus, perceiver w/o consensus - blah, it is so needlessly complicated and has too many self-contradictory answers. You're left spinning your wheels trying to run the game according to the rules white wolf created, ignoring the rules entirely and playing purely narratively, or finding alternative rules that are actually decent.

As for your concrete question, I feel your missing (but touching on) the most central aspect of magic in Mage; the paradigm. The jetpack can straddle the gap between magic and shift in paradigm just as, in the world of Mage, airplanes did when they first allowed humans to take to the skies en masse - as opposed to being reserved for a medival arch mage wearing an "icarus outfit", or riding a broomstick...

As with all rpg rules if the gm and/or group haven't internalised the rules - make it up as you go along! Create house rules, and make tweaks if the game leans too heavily in any given direction.

Ed: which is why: > Tell me, in concrete, non-ambiguous terms,

Doesn't make sense; I can't know what your game world is like, and what feel your campaign has.

If you do want a more regular rule system that might work in a similar setting I advice having a look at Ars Magica - which appears to have been a major source of inspiration for Mage.

>Doesn't make sense; I can't know what your game world is like, and what feel your campaign has.

I'm not asking you for fluff, I'm asking you to tell me - under the game's own rule system - what the result should be to very common situations in Ascension. These are basic mechanics here, stuff that comes up literally every time I cast a spell and which the book goes into laborious detail to describe. This is not a subjective or frivolous question, if I want to play the game as written I need to know the answers.

Anyway, my point was the game is mechanically an utter mess and I think these replies pretty much proven it. Not a single one of you can answer my question, and you all tacitly admit the ST needs to invent his own magic system and explain that to the players rather than actually attempt to use Ascension's real rules.

>If you do want a more regular rule system that might work in a similar setting I advice having a look at Ars Magica - which appears to have been a major source of inspiration for Mage.

Or just use the Mage the Awakening magic system, because White Wolf themselves recognized Ascension's system was garbage and prioritized fixing it in the nWoD. They even wrote a supplement whose sole purpose was to facilitate players backporting Awakening's magic to the setting of Ascension, called "Mage Translation Guide" - letting you have Awakening's gameplay with Ascension's setting.

Why would you want to play any role-playing game "as written"? Make it your own.

Even in Tsr's ad2nd ed - the book starts by saying all rules are optional and up to the dm and players discretion.

Mage can be played like a straitjacket rules heavy game - but it really lends itself more to storytelling and meta-philosophical gaming IMNHO.

This goes for all the storyteller settings; they're bad "world simulators" but great "story facilitators".

If you want the former, you'll be disappointed.

Concrete, non-ambiguous terms:

Anything your Storyteller says will generate Paradox does, anything that person says will not generate Paradox does not.

I'm not near a rulebook, but for the CoD version of the rules, all of those will generate paradox, though you get a bonus to managing it if you have the illusion roll.

You're criticizing a stylistic choice to have the rules here be "whatever the GM thinks is reasonable" which is a valid, if fuzzy and imprecise rules choice.

Yep. I think Vampire was fine in this regard, but there was a lot of anti-intelectualism in both Mage and Werewolf. I guess it was the esoteric nineties, nowadays 'science is evil' runs with a different and pretty specific crowd.

Which one is that, because I know at least as many anti-science hippies as I do religious nuts.

> I know at least as many anti-science hippies as I do religious nuts

are those distinct groups? seems like there could be significant overlap.

That disparaging attitude got to me as well. Honestly I made the switch to WoD back when it had the 6 point system, and never looked back ever since. Although I haven't played it in many years, I loved how it didn't have levels, had a more identifiable setting, a more standard background for the whole universe, and how even a couple low ranking characters had a shot at taking down strong characters.

Quite possibly the most creative setting WoD had was Wraith: the oblivion, yet it was the most unsuccessful financially, due to its complexity and heavy burden on the Story Teller compared to the other installments. We used to play it with two Story Tellers, one whispering into ears and one speaking out loud for a better experience.

A fun story of an old D&D player who meets and interviews Gary Gygax.

1. It's funny that he's so dismissive of the roleplaying aspect of D&D. Some groups I've played with got tons of laughs from roleplaying, the more competitive players less so.

2. What a mess copyright seems to have made! Avatars and Ilfs? Let the guys play!

My initial takeaways as a 10 year off and on player and dungeon master. RIP Gygax!

Dave Arneson was the other creator of D&D and in retrospect, I think he was the one who really drove the RPG and world creating aspect of it. Gygax was more interested in designing the rules, but Arneson created the first campaign (Blackmoor).

There's a book called "Playing at the World" that goes into the details of all this, but my takeaway was that Gygax was more of a rules guy, and Arneson was the story teller.

Also a great read if you want to know a lot about the corporate side of the whole situation...

"Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons" is good as well.

D&D is one of the most fundamental drivers of my life from childhood and into adulthood. It really sits at the core of my being where few other things exist. The first time I ever played, I ran the game, and I run the game almost ever since. I ran a series of campaigns in a handful of warzones when I was in the infantry. What an image that is: A group of grown men in uniform with machine guns gathered around a table shouting like children about which spells to cast and who's carrying the treasure. One of my life goals when I get older is to write and publish my own system. Kinda absorb things I like (and "clean up" the things I don't like) about Pathfinder and various D&D systems.

A question for D&D players and dungeon masters: How can a dungeon master possibly do their job?

They have to write every character (besides the the players' own characters), including personality, knowledge, skills, intellect, emotional state, motivations, relationships, etc. They have to understand what a medieval blacksmith, farmer, soldier, barmaid, princess, etc. all understand. They are supposed to create whole towns, which requires some knowledge of politics, economics and a host of other issues. It's an effort worthy of a major novel or movie, and in fact it seems far more: Because it's non-linear, you never know which person your players will run into or which building they will walk into, so you would need to prepare, it seems, far more people and settings than are used.

On top of that, the dungeon master has to act all these characters, a one-person show that would overwhelm the greatest professional actors (and win every acting award if they pulled it off). Even more, because of the non-linear story and the chaos player decisions introduce, the dungeon master must improvise constantly and in a way that is consistent with the ongoing story and all the other characters they have portrayed and will portray.

Who has the time? It sounds like years of work. And even more incredibly, who has the skill (nobody who ever lived)? Yet it's done, and done well enough that millions enjoy it. How is this all done in reality?

Your expectations are way too high. Players are already primed to play along with whatever characters/story you impose; they aren't actively looking for flaws, so you can fudge a lot of it. It just needs to be acceptibly believable, not correct. And since you're the DM, you can usually coerce things to go towards the areas that are fleshed out, or the subjects you know/interested in. And when players go off rails, they tend to put a lot more effort into solving the logical inconsistencies, and relieve that burden from you. In fact, you usually have to start poking holes in their idea so you can punish them to a certain degree for gaming (so they don't get too arrogant about it)

Most npcs don't need to be fleshed out at all, since they're only there to drive setting/plot. If players interact with non-important npcs too much, you just think of a character from some other story/movie and steal their behavior/attitude. And in fact original dnd would have basically omitted them altogether (and roleplaying in general) since it was focused on the gameplay and dungeon crawling aspects themselves.

You need to tune things to the various player's tastes to a degree, but for the most part the players do half the work for you, and many components of the world no one cares about, and doesn't require expansion. You're just tying everything together, and maintaining sanity in the world.

Yeah i think there is too much focus on getting a coherent story and being in the directors chair with current crop of "games".

The story will as much form after the session as during, as the players look back and the events that unfolded and the actions taken.

Usually GMs put in a lot of time. In some cases, one or two hours of prep per hour of game time. In some cases, 20 or 100 hours of prep per hour of game time.

And then they usually do a very bad job of most or all of the things you mentioned, and it doesn't matter because playing Let's Pretend is just inherently fun.

Remember, of course, that they only have to have all that world knowledge to a degree that permits suspension of disbelief. Often the GM is more committed to learning how society works than most of the players, so the bar may be pretty low.

And with respect to the acting skill, remember that one or two crazy set-piece speeches are usually desired, but aside from that, most people are more interested in telling the story about their character that they want to tell, so in many play groups, the savvy GM just puts most of the acting burden back onto the players, who like it better that way anyway (though groups vary widely in this regard).

And with respect to improvising constantly... some GMs are good at this, but most are not, and so most play-groups have spoken or unspoken rules that they'll be good and behave in moderately predictable ways, to narrow down the chaos that is created.

Again, the main thing that makes it work is that sitting around the campfi^H^H^H^H^H^Hgaming table, telling brag stories, is inherently fun, and it's even more fun if there's suspense, and outcomes you've chosen to care about, riding on the roll of a die.

I highly recommend "The Lazy DM" by "Sly Flourish" (Michael Shea) [0] to give you a better idea of how this can be done with almost no effort. I used to be the kind of DM that quantified everything about my world. And indeed, before the internet, it was an excellent time-killer, and seeds many of my modern-day adventures. But I ain't got time for that, now. And so I follow a pattern much like that suggested in The Lazy DM, using index cards. It actually works out really well, since I've discovered that I am pretty creative on-the-fly.

[0] http://slyflourish.com/lazydm/

> A question for D&D players and dungeon masters: How can a dungeon master possibly do their job?

Smoke and mirrors. Improvisation. You define a lot less than you describe, both in terms of entities and details for each entity. And while consistency is an issue, TTRPGs are an ephemeral enough medium that people aren't going to analyze it the way they will a book or film. And there are lots of ways to rationalize apparent inconsistencies; working the rationalization into the background of later adventures so it is revealed as if it were a campaign secret that was foreshadowed by the seeming contradiction is a thin that happens.

The hardest part is often recognizing how much you don't need.

> people aren't going to analyze it the way they will a book or film

Maybe that's too bad; maybe we're missing a lot of potential there. I'm sure there are some essays out there looking at them as works of art - the games are old enough that I can't be the first who thought of it.

The published games, sure, and it's influenced modern game design. Actual campaigns as run by a particular GM, not so much.

This is the kind of comment that makes me wonder if you've ever seen a theatrical play, let alone non-professional improv.

Once you realise that pedantry isn't part of the gameplay it gets a lot easier. It merely has to be good enough for those sitting at the table - who themselves are also invested in their suspension of disbelief.

> effort worthy of a major novel or movie

That's the thing, RPGs do not exist in a vaccum, nor are they trying to portray a particular historical era realistically - they are based on fantasy novels. That means you don't have to ..

> understand what a medieval blacksmith understands

... you merely have to make up what the minor character of a blacksmith in a Jack Vance novel might say. If you want to do some common tasks there is probably a table for armour repair or weaponsmithing costs in AD&D 2nd edition somewhere.

There's usually a bit of tension between railroading the players into set-pieces versus dropping hints and relying on them to cooperate, but that can be all part of the fun.

> consistent

Consistency issues can usually be fixed with wizards.

(edit: the whole issue is addressed by Shakespeare at the start of Henry V, "can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France" etc)

> makes me wonder if you've ever seen a theatrical play

Interesting - after reading the comments I realized my love of the arts (as a reader/viewer, not as a practitioner), including theater, was the source of many unconscious assumption behind my question. I was (am) thinking that role-playing could be art by different means. I saw a couple of old modules by Gygax, and the stories and characters were really good, better than many movies I've seen. A good dungeon master could make quite a story - but perhaps the demands are just too high.

How would my question imply that I wasn't familiar with theater?

"Consistency issues can usually be fixed with wizards."

Yes, the old "well...a wizard did it" DeusExMagic-User. Sooo useful for the DM, especially if you are the sort who keeps tweaking the map, and have players puzzled by the appearance of new landforms not present on their earlier version of the document....

To see how a game works out I recommend checking out itemJP's YouTube channel (he posts a ton of roleplaying games played amongst twitch personalities).

To see a masterclass of it check out Critical Roll on geek and sundry (D&D played by a bunch of professional voice a actors).

A classic example of specialization, a genre of authors has sprung up who write adventure paths and modules of various sizes and complexity. You could think of it like using a modern framework to write a web app vs rolling the entire thing yourself from machine language.

The largest "best prepared" path I'm aware of is the Dark Obelisk Berrincorte system, which is about one linear foot on the bookshelf, seriously many thousands of pages. Something more normal size would be the Pathfinder adventure paths where you get dozens of pages of prep for GM and players, and a couple pages per hour of path.

You have to realize that historically DnD came from lord of the rings fans sitting around debating how many dwarven archers it would take to kill a balrog or what are the odds if a wizard had to fight it out with forest elves? These are not people intimidated by mere thousands of pages of fantasy fiction. I admit I've occasionally bought paths to read because I like the creativity.

That's the super high level answer. The super low level answer is RPG fan sites and subreddits and usenet are full of epic battles between the GM and the players when the players insist on running a campaign off the rails. To be a good player there has to be at least some surrender to the GM to play along. An annoyed GM can, at the cost of ridiculousness, push the players along the correct path, so if they insist on goofing off in town instead of exploring the scary cave, "a sinkhole opens up in the floor of the pub, underneath your feet, and you fall into the cave the sheriff had assigned to you to explore ..."

Well written, well prepared paths have a lot of problem solving, and the players big job is discerning when the purpose of a problem is to be creative vs it was imposed by the GM to keep on the path. For example, if there's a cliff are we supposed to risk our necks freeclimbing, or are we supposed to look around for rope or hidden steps, or use our limited magic resources to fly up there, or does the cliff exist because the GM "knows" we can't get up there and its just part of the scenery to keep us on the prepared path?

As a compare and contrast generally most players are used to computer RPGs which have zero character development and consider "bring me 9 wolf pelts" to be superior character development and writing style, at least for the genre. Thanks to computer RPGs, the bar is extraordinarily low, so its not hard to impress your players. There's more than a little meta similarity between real life human GMs and role playing class of "bard", so much as a bard wouldn't back down in-game, a GM is unlikely to back down and will put in a best effort.

> As a compare and contrast generally most players are used to computer RPGs which have zero character development

I tried Baldur's Gate, having read that it was among the best in that regard (I didn't care how old it was). It was pretty disappointing. Then I saw an old D&D module by Gygax, and was impressed - the module and the whole concept seemed to have incredible potential, but I couldn't see how the demands on the dungeon master could be met.

Watch the Swan Song play sessions or anything by Rollplay to see how really good DM's do it.

setr already outlined it but allow me to simplify; Suspension of disbelief, aka fake it til you make it.

Obligatory mention that D&D essentially spawned one of the greatest and oldest lineages of computer games: the roguelike. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roguelike

Dungeon crawlers, [jwc]rpgs, text adventures, adventure games in general, and probably many more I'm not immediately thinking of all have some significant linkages to tabletop rpgs.

More generally, most early video games, and thus the elder genres, were based on board games and sports (y'know, existing games).

DnD -> roguelike isn't particularly notable in that sense; though the fact that the influence was from DnD v1, v1.5, and not the later editions (like [cw]rpgs) is somewhat interesting, as it depicts a significant shift in the aspect of rpgs people were interested in (shifting from exploration and combat to actually roleplaying)

D&D blazed the trail for gaming systems like GURPS. No matter his personal shortfalls Gygax was a legend that influenced culture for decades.

Check out Nerdarchy on YT if you want to level up your DM skills, just let them chat in the background while you flesh out the campaign. Try not to squirrel too hard; if they give you an awesome idea, just make a note for next week and then carry on with what you meant to work on, if you can.

https://www.youtube.com/user/Nerdarchy, goes well with beer and colored mechanical pencils.

If you are interested in the history of role-playing games, I recommend Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures, From Chess to Role-Playing Games". It is a monster 720 page tome. Very comprehensive and well-researched.


For the busy, play by post is a great option.


I never played D&D.


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