Friday, April 13, 2012

Gygax's letter from AlarumsandExcursions #2

Here is the text of a letter by Gary Gygax published in the fanzine Alarums and Excursions issue #2 from July 1975. There are a few comments regarding the original Greyhawk campaign, but it is mostly about the philosophy, at that time, about the D&D game system.

NOTE: As I read through A&E#1 I keep finding comments which Gygax responded to in his letter in issue #2. I wish I'd noted them all at once, but I actually read issue #2 and jumped the gun at transcribing the letter and posting it before going through issue #1. I will keep updating this post the issue #1 to provide context. On reading later issues of the Strategic Review I have found that issue #1 of A&E seemed to have a profound influence on how Gygax developed the game, especially the magic system. I plan on reprinting those articles since they seem to be part of the same conversation and an important part of the history of D&D.

Dear Lee;

Hello! and our thanks for the two copies of A&E. Brian Blume takes care of SR, and he immediately made off with one copy of your zine, so you can rest assured of the trade arrangement.

It certainly is a good feeling to have so many persons enjoying something one had a hand in creating. I have been a sf and fantasy fan since age 12, a wargame enthusiast since age 10 and began designing and writing about 1965. The games and rules are fairly successful these days, but I have yet to sell a sf or fantasy story, and that will be my next real project -- in a year or so when I have time to rewrite my favorite fantasy novel in hopes of something more than the usual rejection slips.

In case you don't know the history of D&D, it all began with the fantasy rules in CHAINMAIL. Dave A. took those rules and changed them into a prototype of what is now D&D. When I played in his "Blackmoor" campaign I fell in love with the new concept and expanded and changed his 20 or so pages of hand-written "rules" into about 100 ms. pages. Dave's group and ours here in Lake Geneva then began eager and enthusiastic play-testing, and the result was the D&D game in January of 1974. It is an ongoing game, as the GREYHAWK booklet shows, and when Dave hands me the ms. for BLACKMOOR I am sure that there will be more alternatives yet. I have personally worked out enough material lately to do still another supplement, and the heaps of material sent in by fans would certainly fill another -- besides providing a good bit of material for publication in SR. So as long as players desire, TSR will continue to provide more D&D goodies (although my partners bemoan the fact that this tends to deprive the historical end of out operation.)

If you have seen WAR OF THE WIZARDS, you are aware of how imaginative and creative a man Professor M.A.R. Barker is. We have arranged, finally, to publish his masterwork, EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE. Professor Barker has been at work on his fantasy world creation for something like 40 years! It shows in his work. I hardly know where to begin in describing EPT. First, I must liken the whole of the Professor's work to JRRT's (and I understand that Professor Barker has a novel which he hopes to complete soon!). The whole of the game EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE is perfectly thought-out and logically structured. Its form was influenced by D&D (and I am greatly flattered about that) although its author had been testing various other forms prior to the publication of D&D.

I will not describe the world of 'PETAL THRONE, for Professor Barker does that himself, far better than I could hope to, in his game. Suffice it to say that we have spared no expense to do it justice when TSR publishes it. The box will be about 9" x 12" with a full-color illustration of the city of BeySy on the cover. The Professor is also one heck of an illustrator, and he did that map in a medieval style with building erections, larger-than-life figures of men, and so forth. In addition to a rules book (about the same number of words as D&D, possibly quite a few more) done in two-column, 3 1/2 x 11 size with a plastic ring binding so it will open flat to any section, there will be three full-color, plasticized mapboards (similar to the one found in STAR PROBE). Two are the map of the world, and the other is the city of Jakala. The first two are done with permission, on SPI hex maps, while the latter is done on a slightly smaller hex grid. The unfortunate part is what the whole will cost -- the $20 price range -- but we plan to make the separate parts available so that much cash won't have to be laid out all at once. We expect the work to be available by 15 July.

We also have a wonderful "parlor" version of D&D dungeon adventures coming up fairly soon -- great for when there are only non-addicts to play games with, for the family, or when there is only an hour or two for play. The game is well done, and its components are top-quality, and we expect it to be popular for many reasons -- not the least of which is it will help D&D enthusiasts demonstrate to the uninitiated why they love fantasy games.

I sang through both of the tunes in "Music to Loot Dungeons By". Good show!

There seems to be considerable confusion amongst your contributors -- particularly those who tend to be in a flap about incomplete or unpalatable solutions (to them) of D&D rules/questions/problems. The game is complex and complicated. When it was released, it was by no means in a final (or even polished) form, but were we to sit on it for another few years in order to get it that way? Can a broad fantasy game ever be finished? Of course we could not hold off publication, for it was too much fun to keep from others.

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark. Let us consider the magic-user question.

We allow magic-users to employ the number of spells shown on the table, so a 1st level m-u gets exactly one 1st level spell to use once before he must go back to his books and prepare to use the spell once again -- or a spell once again. To allow unlimited use of the spell is to make the m-u's too powerful. There is a better solution, of course; one I have been aware of since the first. That is to utilize a point system based on the m-u's basic abilities and his or her level. Spell cost is then taken as a function of the spell and the circumstances in which it is cast and possibly how much force is put into the spell. All that would have required a great deal of space and been far more complex to handle, so I opted for the simple solution.

Again, as a case in point, Ted Johnstone says I have trouble telling which rules are so completely obvious that he doesn't need to explain them. That, dear friends, is a statement which could only be made by someone who has never authored a set of rules or a game! Many of the rules which are completely obvious to me are totally obscure to others. I can say in complete truthfulness that I have had to explain each and every section of the rules to some players, either in person or by letter.

I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a "variant", and there is no "official interpretation" from me or anyone else. If a game of "Dungeons and Beavers" suits a group, all I say is more power to them, for every fine referee runs his own variant of D&D anyway.

I recall that I told Bob Sacks that in Greyhawk we do not have existing religions included, for this is a touchy area. We have such groups as "The Church of the Latter Day Great Old Ones," Church of Crom, Scientist", "Brethren of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgle", and so on. Gods sometimes intervene. There are some artifacts and the like which aid clerics. In general, however, clerics are powerful enough without much aid, for they have quite a few advantages and work up very quickly. Fighters are really the ones whom everyone should be irate about, for they have the hardest time of it, if not backed up by other classes or by lots of other fighters or blessed with the most powerful of magic gear.

How does one use gunpowder weapons in the confined spaces of the dungeon? What happens to ears? Blackmoor has some gunpowder usage but the filthy stuff won't work in Greyhawk's world.

By the way, a score of 18 is only the usual top limit for humans in Greyhawk. We have monsters with intelligence scores well over 18, and one player is about to work out a deal which will jump his to not less than 19.

Please inform Ted that I too subscribe to the slogan "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." Gosh and golly! Whoever said anything else. However, pal, best remember that it is far too good to leave to you or any other individual or little group either! It now belongs to the thousands of players enjoying it worldwide, most of whom will probably never hear of you or your opinions unless you get them into THE STRATEGIC REVIEW. As soon as we can manage it, we intend to have expand SR, publish bimonthly and include a letter column.

Thanks again for sending A&E. It was most enjoyable. Watch out though, that it doesn't start D&D down the road of DIPLOMACY fandom with its constant feuds, bickering, invective, etc. Now tell the fellows to pick on Dave Arneson awhile -- after all he had as much to do with the whole mess as I did!

Regards, E. Gary Gygax

NOTE: To provide some context for part of Gygax's reply I am adding this comment by Ted Johnstone from Alarums&Excursions #1 (Addendum - I believe I have misattributed this comment, as Gygax perhaps did as well, and it is by Mark Swanson in reply to Ted Johnstone instead of a comment by Ted Johnstone himself).

TED JOHNSTONE - My comment on the non-existence of a "Charm Monster" spell was a symptom of my usual disease of firstdraftitis. I've read the rules but haven't memorized them. Two points. // Howver, on a larger subject, I am a supporter of the slogan "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." Gary has produced other games in the past. The problem has been that they are not interesting in their full form. They tend to be flawed by simple, bad solutions to complex problems. Thus, in Gary Gygax's game, A MAGIC USER GETS TO USE EACH SPELL ONCE A DAY.

If a first-level magic user gets to charm one person a day with no other magical acts permitted, Gary's version of the spell is entirely appropriate. As is the "No saving throw against sleep," the lack of restrictions on how often a character can be healed, etc. (The rule can be found, vaguely, in book three, and explicitly in Gary's magazine, #3.) As I said, Gary has trouble telling which rules are so completely obvious that he doesn't need to explain them. Welcome, brother heretic, or were you planning to do it that way? This problem, how to limit the magic users, is second only to the question of what are the characters doing as defining the games. Gary Gygax says that a Medium has one spell a day, a seeress gets to cast to a day, etc -- and they are all out on a treasure hunt. It's a simple solution, but I don't like it.

NOTE: Further context reference for Gygax's reply concerning player attributes above 18. Comment is from Alarums & Excursions #1

TOM DIGBY: Somebody mentioned talking about things in D&D jargon and mentioned that "Kimball Kinnison has about a 16 intelligence." These attributes are obtained for a character by rolling three six-sided dice, with a possible range of 3-18, a mean of 10.5, and a standard deviation of about 2.96... The Mensa cutoff is the 98th percentile and comes out to 16.5 intelligence. The normal curve has one person in a thousand about 19.5 though, somethingyou can never get with three dice. This may mean that there are a number of people in fandom whose intelligence is greater than can exist in a D&D world.

NOTE: Even further context. I believe Gygax's mention of Dave Arneson's role in creating D&D stems from this comment by Barry Gold in Alarums & Excursions #1.

From Alarums & Excursions #1 by Barry Gold

Lee and I, as publishers of Alarums and Excursions, recommend that you buy the rules to Dungeons and Dragons if you don't already have them. Xeroxing somebody else's copy is unethical and illegal too. If you are going to get involved enough in the game to build your dungeon, you should at least spring for $10 for the rule books. If you aren't making your own dungeons, you don't really need the books - some other player can tell you how to make and play a character. So there is no excuse for making a bootleg copy and depriving Gary Gygax, the game's inventor, of his fair share.


  1. Thanks for posting this Jason. An excellent insight into the early years of the hobby and interesting to see how "official" attitudes changed over the years that followed.

  2. I need to track down some of Gygax's comments in Dragon magazine to compare the changing attitudes about the game and to see how long it took for what seems to me a complete reversel in the philosophy behind the game to occur.

  3. Wow, that was rare and new in an old fashioned way. Thanks!

  4. Jason, it wasn't only the reversal of attitude toward the game, but also in the credit he gave Arneson. One thing I've learned from all I've read is that it pays to take what the old guys say with a grain of salt, as memories grow dim and events are rewritten or misremembered as the decades pass. It's one of the reasons I think it's a real shame that so much of the evidence of the early history of our hobby is locked up and jealously guarded in private collections.

  5. That is quite illuminating. Compare the above statements to the sort of one-true-wayism that spews from the 4E adherants.

  6. Time passes so quickly in retrospect. This letter was from 37 years ago and was just a little bit before my own introduction to D&D. By the time I started playing there had been, as I remember it, a radical shift in Gygax's expressed opinions. I plan on tracking down the relevant comments from Dragon magazine and adding them.

    Alarums & Excursions is one of the better known zines having been mentioned in The Strategic Review and in Dragon magazine on more than one occassion, but the print run on these issues was something like 100 copies. There were reprints (and the issue I'm using is a reprint) but still they are as rate as Hen's teeth.

    Recently some bloggers were collecting Gygax's more obscure articles and letters from fanzines and early, rare gaming magazines, but those blogs seem to have disappeared. While I can understand the desire of collectors, having a streak of that Dragonish impulse myself, I too find it a sad and terrible thing that text and artwork is caged and locked away.

    I've always felt that TSR was too successful too quickly. That it was a great loss to have Gygax move from his work at creating material to managing a company. If they had just been successful enough so that he and his old guard could have had the freedom to create and enjoy the game but not enough to become so distracted by the business itself that the creativity was put on a back burner. The attitude expressed in this letter is from someone who sees and enjoys the endless possiblities of what they are creating and sadly as time passes I think we can see in the comments later expressed in Dragon magazine and in other sources that enjoyment and vision slowly go out. I remember the absolute shock in reading Gygax's last column in Dragon magazine explaining that he was no longer part of TSR or involved with AD&D. At the time didn't realize what an end of an era it was or what sad things would happen to a game that so greatly inspired my imagination.

  7. Great read! Thanks for sharing it!

  8. Just found this Jason. So much gold in there I don't know where to start. Thanks!

  9. The letter he wrote to Alarums&Excursions #15 is also filled with gold, but the one to A&E#8 is all business.

  10. The Intelligence 19+ Mensa argument is hilarious. It ignores so many things! The least of which is that the differences among people who are above the 98th percentile can be summed up in the differences between people of 16 to 18 INT and there's no reason to continue the curve on dice. Or that it's a game and not reality. Show me a MENSA member who can cast 9th level spells and I'll slap an 18 INT on her permanent file.


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