Saturday, April 29, 2017

Reading the Rules: The Rhetoric of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

“I believe that role-playing games are no more dangerous than movies or novels. In theory, people would not commit suicide, murders, pursue illegal activities or worship a mythical Satan in the real world solely because of participating in an imaginary world as structured by a role-playing games.”

It’s hard to believe at the end of 2015 that an academic journal had to publish that statement, but in 1994 the Journal of Popular Culture did just that.  Even 22 years into its existence, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) still had to fight off its reputation as despoiler of youth, joining other such purveyors of evil as comic books, rock and roll and Euclid (ask your neighborhood Torah scholar for why about the latter).

1steditionphbReasons why a game would drive parents and preachers hysterical are many. Carolyn Caywood, a defender, wrote in her article Rescuing the Innocent: The Lure of Dungeons and Dragons for the School Library Journal in 1991, “Part of the disapproval and suspicion of fantasy role playing games may come from their apparent complexity, jargon, and cryptic notations.”  The fact that demons and devils were part of gameplay also caused concern, never mind that players were encouraged to destroy them. And certainly any activity where teenagers stayed in a darkened room for hours on end late into the night beyond direct adult supervision could make any parent batty.

And so many gallons of words have been spilled over role playing games: the “good vs. evil” debate, their use in classrooms or therapy, how they led to video games and other entertainments. But almost no attention has been paid to the books themselves. Not just why so many gamers were drawn to roll dice, but what rhetorical flourishes, what logic and argument, what vocabulary went into the game design helped hook their potential audience.

We will be examining two books in particular: the 1st edition rule books for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, The Player’s Handbook (PHB) and The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), both credited to co-creator and towering legend of RPG, E. Gary Gygax. But first, some history.

A Brief History of D&D

Gary Gygax
Gary Gygax

As is well known in the table-top gaming community, D&D evolved from wargaming, where players use miniature lead figures to fight battles, either recreations of famous fights or purely mythical scenarios. Gygax and his circle of friends were avid fans in the late 1960s. But at one point during the storming of a castle in a fantasy-based game (as recounted in the film “Uber Goober”), one of the players wanted to send a small party to break into the castle to help take it down.  When the other players asked how he would do it, they improvised single characters.

Dave Arneson
Dave Arneson

With the help of Dave Arneson, a younger member of the group, Gygax added a fifteen-page supplement to his wargame Chainmail, the ur-text for future D&D.  The initial game appeared in 1974, then was rewritten in 1977 when the famous box set featuring the red dragon was released. The “Basic Set” was revised by writer J. Eric Holmes, while Gygax wrote the advanced rules which appeared in hardback books concurrently (see Erik Mona’s excellent article on Electronic Book Review for an extremely thorough account of how the game developed through the editions).

The game’s appeal is easy to discern.  Newsweek writer N’Gai Croal in eulogizing Gygax got to the heart of this new style of play.  “You mean I don’t just roll dice and move around a board and win? I can really become the hero of my own adventure? That, I think, was the magic of it. Gary made so many of us who were outsiders, who were nerdy guys, feel special and creative.”

Gygax tried to move his design skills from paper to computer with the game Lejendary Adventure, but he himself went crawling back to dice.  He told Entertainment Weekly, “The intimate experience is still going to be the face-to-face game.”

This is key to understanding both Gygax’s appeal and his message. Gaming is a social activity, even if it is done by players with relatively few social skills.  Therefore, the inclusion and the interaction are always memorable.  How one plays will always be as important as the game itself.

From the Mouth of the Master

When addressing any form of writing, one of the first questions will be, “What is the genre?” Game design falls under the category of technical writing, a style emphasizing clear and concise prose with as little authorial voice as possible.  The audience must be able to read the manual, then easily accomplish the task. Although many manuals fail at the task (the reason why Ikea will gladly, for a price, assemble your unpronounceably-named sofa), the purpose is singular: make it as easy as possible for the reader to accomplish their goal.

Gygax doesn’t fail at this goal, as evidenced by the millions who have played the game, some at an obsessional level. The rules as written can have a player ready to crawl a dungeon in less than 15 minutes. But Gygax’s voice exceeds mere directions. He engages in what I shall name lyrical didacticism, elevating his prose style to an almost novelistic description level while still conveying the necessary information.

His voice is immediately evident when describing in the “Preface” his approach to writing the PHB (instances of all caps sic).

“This latter part of the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS project I approached with no small amount of trepidation. After all, the game’s major appeal is to those persons with unusually active imagination and superior, active intellect – a very demanding audience indeed. Furthermore, a great majority of readers master their own dungeons and are necessarily creative – the most critical audience of all!”

From the first, one knows this isn’t found inside the cardboard cover of a Milton-Bradley creation. Immediately apparent is Gygax’s considerable vocabulary. In the first few paragraphs, he uses words like trepidation, perforce, proponent and prerogative. Thus, we get his consideration of audience, the overly-intelligent and extremely demanding nerd. Perhaps he thought these writings were just for his circle of friends, but he establishes the archetype D&D player immediately.

Scene from "Freaks and Geeks"
Scene from “Freaks and Geeks”

But wasn’t D&D for kids? That may be why controversy followed the game for so many decades. Gygax implies he’s writing for adults. But in 1977, that audience was very small. As kids were more the audience for the Basic Set (whose list of monsters was smaller and without demonic forces), Gygax must have assumed it would take those kids years to get advanced. In doing so, he underestimated the teenaged nerd.

Gygax makes another interesting decision in the “Introduction” by separating player and dungeon master.

“Considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on. Under the circumstances, it is strongly urged that players do not purchase or read the DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE. Leave discovery of the information therein to actual adventuring, and you will find that the game is even more fun!”

A Separation of Concerns & The Sacredness of Secrets

Experienced marketers would laugh at a publisher suggesting a majority of his audience not buy one of his books, but Gygax is adamant in this point. He returns to this idea multiple times throughout the PHB, that players play and dungeon masters run things. Like certain sections of the music industry, which segregate performer from songwriter, Gygax believes these personality types are inherently different. He also didn’t want to be the Supreme Court of rules lawyers.

“Rules not understood should have appropriate questions directed to the publisher; disputes with the Dungeon Master are another matter entirely. THE REFEREE IS THE FINAL ARBITER OF ALL AFFAIRS OF HIS OR HER CAMPAIGN.”

He doubles down on the sacredness of secret keeping in the DMG:

“As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that otherwise arises from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players.”

A harsh admonition, for sure, but Gygax tries to make it reasonable. “Limitations, checks, balances, and all the rest are placed into the system in order to assure that what is based thereon will be a superior campaign, a campaign which offers the most interesting play possibilities to the greatest number of participants for the longest period of time possible.”

He sees the DM as a leader, a creator, the esoteric wizard whose knowledge must be parsed out slowly to be the most effective. Throughout the DMG, he remains adamant that the DM is in charge, but with that power comes the inevitable responsibility.

“As an active Dungeon Master I kept a careful watch for things which would tend to complicate matters without improving them, systems devised seemingly to make the game drag for players, rules which lessened the fantastic and unexpected in favor of the mundane and ordinary.”

For the many players who have faced the scariest monster of all—the egomaniacal game master—Gygax shows them up.  They are there to make the game fun for the group.  But he still favors the one in charge.

“Welcome to the exalted ranks of the overworked and harassed, whose cleverness and imagination are all too often unappreciated by cloddish characters whose only thought in life is to loot, pillage, slay, and who fail to appreciate the hours of preparation which went into the creation of what they aim to destroy as cheaply and quickly as possible.”

Of course, his admonition to not explore the DMG is one of the least followed commands of gaming history. He again underestimated his audience’s curiosity and completism, that most defining of nerd traits.

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain

As he gets into the rules, Gygax gives his reader a glimpse behind the curtain when it comes to the word level.

“It was initially contemplated to term character power as rank, spell complexity was to be termed power, and monster strength was to be termed as order. Thus, instead of a 9th level character encountering a 7th level monster on the 8th dungeon level and attacking it with a 4th level spell, the terminology would have been: A 9th rank character encountered a 7th order monster on the 8th (dungeon) level and attacked it with a 4th power spell.”

Astonishing to be sure, because “level” has permeated the entirety of the gaming world and D&D is the primary source. The whole concept of levelling up, the gaining of skills so as to become a greater being, has moved from paper and dice to joystick and controller and now to the way gamers see real life. To be consistent and keep one term for across the board was genius, on a level (pun intended) that even Gygax couldn’t imagine.

Speaking of levels, one of my favorite things about the 1st edition PHB was that which got dropped immediately upon revision: level names. As the characters progressed, they gained new titles until reaching “name level” (usually 9th) where they stopped.  The flights of fancy in finding unusual names is fun.  Highlights include:

Fighter: Swashbuckler, Superhero, Myrmidon

Cleric: Acolyte, Curate (both 5th and 6th level), Lama

Thief: Cutpurse, Filcher, Magsman

The druid gets to be initiated into 9 whole circles and the monk can look forward to being the master of winds and seasons. Where the logic folds is in magic users, where levels include thaumaturgist and necromancer, which are now tropes for schools of magic as segregated as courses of study are at the university.

(As an aside, in my feature film “Angels Die Slowly” (a work highly influenced by D&D), my lead character, a serial killer who believes she and her boyfriend are necromancers, says to her victim who states he doesn’t want to be in their cult, “We don’t need any acolytes.” I was directly quoting the PHB there.)

On the Matter of Races

If there’s a few troubling sections, it comes in the discussion of race.  Since much of D&D is lifted from J.R.R. Tolkien, the more cringeworthy quotes come when describing half-orcs. As “The Lord of the Rings” writer didn’t set his mythology in stone, he vacillated between orcs being corrupted elves and corrupted humans. As some political interpretations of his work point out, the racism is casual, not forthrightly presented without drawing distinct parallels between fantastic races and European countries. Some could contend it isn’t even there.

Sketch of fantasy races by
David C. Sutherland III from PHB 1st Edition

But in this more delicate time, where equality is more treasured, the denigration of a species feels incredibly harsh.  From the DMG:

Half-Orcs (sic) are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger. This does not mean that all half-orcs are horrid, only most of them. It neither means that they are necessarily stupid nor incapable. They will always seek to gain the upper hand and dominate those around them so as to be able to exercise their natural tendencies; half-orcs are greedy too.

In the PHB, he explains why the race is so common. “Orcs are fecund and create many cross-breeds, most of the offspring of such being typically orcish. However, some one-tenth of orc-human mongrels are sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human.”  Using the word “pass,” a term forever connected with African Americans attempting to bypass the ever-present racism of American life, is shocking.  I am not asserting Gygax himself was racist.  There’s multiple proofs to the opposite.  But use of such terms in a book where each word feels carefully crafted rings warning bells.

In fact, Gygax does assert that the game should have as many human characters as possible. “ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably ‘humanocentric’, with demi-humans, semi-humans, and humanoids in various orbits around the sun of humanity.” But he doesn’t say this with any maudlin feeling. “Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users – whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies.”

In the end, he wants the players to closely relate to their characters for, as he continues to stress, the joy of the game. As he says to the DM to discourage players from creating a monster character, “To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!”

A Question of Everything

When examining these two books side by side, the PHB is the more elegant work.  Each subject flows logically through character creation, so that progression through the book ends with a fully-formed entity ready to participate.

Because the DMG was created “to cram everything vital to the game into this book, so that you will be as completely equipped as possible to face the ravenous packs of players lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon the unwary referee and devour him or her at the first opportunity,” there’s not the same focus.

Gary Gygax
Gary Gygax

At the beginning, there’s the explanation of dice probability (which as a non-mathematical type I found impenetrable), followed quickly with how assassins get and make poison, then how to attract minions, etc. This book becomes more of an encyclopedia, a place to quickly reference whatever rules apply, then move on.

But throughout the books, the voice of their creator remains strong.  Gygax would later write novels in the D&D world, so arguing that these two were his initial ones would be easy.  But they are not.

Throughout the guides, the readers know they are holding a framework, a skeleton to help assert their own creativity. What Gygax does is give his technicalities voice, spirit and energy by elevating the form, creating the plateau that all game designers hence strived to achieve. He was not content with play, demanding a player’s life blood for his toil. And his unquestionable legacy shows he got just that.