Commenter “instasetting” has this to say in response to my recent post on some particularly stupid characterizations of both Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons:
Cecelia wants to exalt the players; you want to exalt the canon of books Gygax loved; and I exalt the DM.
Or, nice to have good players; nice to have a deep understanding of important things; but it is essential to have a good gm.
Now Oakes Spalding has gone into much greater depth than I did, going far beyond the opening paragraph that I focused on. But there are a couple of things here that I want to address. First up, this phrase “books Gygax loved” is really dumb. I’ve been over this before. People from all over the political spectrum reach for this sort of thing when they comment on this, especially when they have no idea what they are talking about.
These books are important not because Gary Gygax and Tim Kask put them on a list. They are important because they defined fantasy and science fiction for pretty well everyone up through to the seventies. It wasn’t just people at TSR. You see basically the same list of books and authors referenced by other game lines, Traveller and Tunnels & Trolls not being the least among them.
In my lifetime, the fantasy and science fiction narrative has been rewritten. A lot of the books and authors I write about have been either written out of history or actively torn down. But again, if you look at those books and say, “oh yeah… that’s just a list of books Gygax loved,” you have no idea what you are talking about.
Just a few examples:
These authors form what can only be described as being the DNA of fantasy and science fiction. And yet… you can look at people that are active in the field today, and they have no idea about any of it. They talk as if things like Star Wars and superhero comics and D&D all just spontaneously sprung into existence fully formed. It’s as if these things don’t have literary antecedents that both presaged them and informed them.
Now instasetting has one more criticism:
One of the great misunderstandings you have is that the Inventor Controls his Invention. Not in the least. Inventions are frequently a rock tossed out that bounces all over the place, usually does nothing, and when it does something often does something totally different than its inventor every even thought of.
The inventor of the Gatling gun wanted to make it to make peace. The fax machine was invented in the 18th century I think.
I have to say, this really is stupid. If someone is saying things about Gary Gygax and the game he helped design and what it was like… then absolutely, the nature of what he actually created at the beginning and why it was the way it was is pertinent to the discussion. It is especially relevant when the early games were in practice far better at what the newer games are being praised for accomplishing.
The point of knowing the history of fantasy, science fiction, and game design is not so much to tell people “the right way to do things.” If you are aware of how things came together, you gain the option to consciously go back to an earlier point in the development, alter an axiom or theme that was established there, and then move forward to something new. If you don’t have this kind of insight, you will be stuck fumbling around reinventing the wheel. Or worse, you will “create” something that is merely a reflection of a contemporary cultural pulse. It might feel “creative” or revolutionary, but it will in fact be constrained by a very limited range of possible ideas.
I wrote my book specifically to go uncover things that could help with my game mastering. I was just stuck. I knew I was not able to run the classic games quite as they were intended even if I didn’t know why. As I worked my way through the books, I highlighted anything that spoke to that agonizing dearth of imagination that I did not know how to deal with. By the end, I’d found all kinds of things that I never expected to find. I had an entirely new bag of tricks that made the lion’s share of my old game mastering problems evaporate.
Then the unexpected happened.
The stuff that was causing me to “block” in my hobby…? It turned out to have some relevance to people that were writing fantasy and science fiction. A literary movement spontaneously emerged that had nothing to do with anything I had actually intended. Even better, some of the best contemporary short fantasy and science fiction started to come out of it!
My very personal game mastering problems turned out to be connected to a much larger issue: the problem of people going into the local big box book store and walking out with nothing much good to read.
Maybe this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re trying to accomplish at the table. Hey… there are plenty of good games out there and plenty of cool things going on. I can really only cover about ten or twelve games in any kind of depth. For some people, the sort of extended palette I discuss is going to be useful. Other people? Not so much.
I don’t expect that everyone will get just as excited about this stuff as I do. But I do insist that people admit that getting the history right matters.