Thursday, May 22, 2014

It was ALL weird!

In Michael Mornard's discussion thread over on the OD&D forum, I asked this question:
OD&D lists a bunch of increasingly weird options at the end of the monster types - dinosaurs, living statues, robots, androids, etc. Do you remember any encounters with that kind of creature?
Michael's response, which I am enthusiastic enough about to get on a t-shirt:
Greyhawk was FULL of weird sh*t. Once you got below the fifth or sixth level the odds of encountering anything "usual" except as a wandering monster was virtually nil. Go look at Rob Kuntz' "Bottle City" for an example. It was ALL weird!
Somehow, the idea that Greyhawk was vanilla crept down into the gaming world, and it has sort of lodged there as one of the great falsehoods of our hobby. It leads to the perception of the megadungeon as nothing more than a reverse mountain of stock fantasy, and of the Greyhawk setting as a big boring realm, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In The Dragon #17, Jim Ward wrote the following in an article called "Boredom and the Average D&D Dungeon":
The Future or Machine Age: While some steady readers might think that I harp on this topic too much, the first time I came in contact with a level of this type was in the “mighty” castle of Greyhawk; run by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz. Imagine conveyor belts that force players to travel in one direction or another, a cellophane machine that wraps you up no matter how big or small you are and puts you in a holding area for as long as it takes to rip yourself out, how about a die press that shapes anything in its path into a bottle top (Boy, can that hurt!), or a row of blades that cut in a pattern on the belt with a 25% chance that any given blade will cut you? Try a slot machine that takes only large sums of gold and with the flip of the handle takes a random magic item from the party, and how about a lever that turns on something way off in another part of the level (like a robot or level clean up machine) that you can’t know about until you travel to that part of the level? The treasures of this level could easily be more fun than the level: imagine bottle tops made out of mithril on wine bottles; how about guns and pistols that work; a set of chain mail made out of a super hard and light alloy that acts like plus 5 armor and shows no magical traits; how about a huge pile of gold dust in a large plastic bubble that isn’t small enough to get out the door and can’t be cut by anything less than a plus 5 sword?
Archivists of the magazine will recall that this was the very same issue in which Gygax writes up a foray from Greyhawk Castle inhabitants onto the Starship Warden of Metamorphosis Alpha fame. A story, which is too long for me to quote here, by Gygax talks about the Black Reservoir, a massive body of water in Castle Greyhawk. (Allan Grohe, who created that Greyhawk site, ran a group I was in through some of that Reservoir using the AD&D rules.) And of course several oddities from Greyhawk have seen print: Gygax's EX1 Dungeonland, EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, WG6 Isle of the Ape; and Kuntz's The Original Bottle City, The Original Living Room, and Garden of the Plantmaster.

What this adds up to is the opposite of a big vanilla madhouse. The point of this classic megadungeon was to get down, survive the weirdness, get the treasure, and get the hell out. Perhaps most impressive is that Gygax and Kuntz were so good at making these environments into really challenging game areas, as we see in Ward's summary: the things that are trying to kill the PCs are themselves objects of intense curiosity.

Forays into science fantasy are expected; there is a way to get to Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure and face the birdlike Dirdir (documented in the DMG) as well as to Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom. One of the remarkable things about Greyhawk is how literary it was; everyone talks about Appendix N as inspiration, but Gygax was using various novels straight-up as material for his dungeon. This of course allowed Gygax to use puzzles, riddles and puns that relied on real-world references and wouldn't make sense in a totally fleshed out fantasy-land like, say, Tolkien's. Compared to this, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks seems almost par for the course of what you'd expect in a Gygax dungeon.

Gygax advocated using the weirdness as a contrast to the "standard" grind:
That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titantic struggle and relieve participants at the same time.
In the ponderous high fantasy seriousness of the '80s, the railroady plots of the '90s, the over-the-top '00s and the grimdark teens, it's way too easy to lose sight of this simple advice. Gygax was on the ball, but more importantly he managed to shift tone without losing playability. That's really the most important takeaway from all this: everything described above was seamlessly part of the game. It didn't stop to look at something cool, there was something interesting just around the next corner and an encounter in Wonderland was just as threatening as anything in the grim "area of evil."

Arneson had a reputation for being the weird one, but in the most productive era that he had, Gygax really laid this on thick. It's not a coincidence that large chunks of Appendix N are either planetary romance, post-apocalyptic or straight-up science fiction. So the next time you're wondering how to make your dungeon a bit of a stranger place, try to make it a little more like Greyhawk. You won't go wrong.


  1. I recall... And this was after the red box came out, although we were still very much influenced by prior incarnations... We didn't really divide up the world into "fantasy" and "scifi." You could fight a Frankenstein, Darth Vader, the Thundercats, dinosaurs... We just threw everything we thought was cool all together.

    It wasn't until we started thinking about Star Wars as A Thing Unto itself, and Dragonlance and Indiana Jones... All these little universes... That we separated out the "proper" fantasy from the rest of it.

  2. D&D's reputation for cliche begins to be earned once Tournament play takes off and modules become mindless grinds with railroad plots. But the old stuff is definitely weird.

  3. Thanks for pulling all of this together into a single post. I've run across all of this before but not collected quite so concisely. Thanks.

  4. One of the main differences between 1974 and now is that nowadays everybody instantly blogs about their games and ideas for gaming. This makes everyone, weather they like to or not, a self-conscious gamer. Then the worry about appearing 'goofy' to 'players' you will never meet comes into the gameplay space. Just pointing this out...

    1. I have a stack of Alarums & Excursions from 1975-1976 that disagrees with this a bit. People were typing on mimeo stencils and sending them to an APA, which limited their output and reach a good deal, but they wrote voluminously about their games and their ideas on gaming.

  5. But I am also a Jodorowsky fan and love bizzaro fiction (which is a real 'thing' you can look it up). I love trippy films like Dogtooth. So I gotta say that just to represent alittle there folks. :)

  6. I really liked this post so I linked to it in my Best Reads of the Week series. I hope you don't mind.


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