“Read a Damn Book – 115: Role-Playing Mastery”

A few months ago, I started writing a role-playing game (because I thought it would be fun to have people not just READ my stories but PLAY them!) Then, a few weeks after I started work on the system, I went to a sale at the local library and found a book by Gary Gygax, one of the folks who help create the original Dungeons & Dragons role playing system, and I figured, “If anybody is going to know a thing or two about making role-playing games, it’s this guy.” And it turns out, there’s even an entire CHAPTER on making your own RPG in this book…so, cool!

role-playing mastery (1987) - (peg)

Gary Gygax – Role-Playing Mastery (1987)

Gary Gygax, who unfortunately passed away in 2008, was a brilliant guy, a pioneer in the field of RPGs, and a very funny fellow. (He even appeared in an episode of Futurama, poking a little fun at himself, which was pretty cool to see.) Besides being a master technician and world builder, he was also a solid writer (even of non-fantasy materials.) Gygax’s voice is very personable, and this book is clear, easy to read, and jam-packed with information. I’m a fan of role-playing games—I started playing in the very early 1980s, although I haven’t played as often as I would have liked—and I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of HOW role-playing games work, so I found Gygax’s perspectives on RPGs to be both insightful and interesting. However, I would image that someone who either isn’t into role-playing games or who just likes to dabble in RPGs might find this book to be a bit tedious. Of course, I can’t really image someone who isn’t a big fan of RPGs even picking up a book called Role-Playing Mastery—(am I right?)—but still, I think it’s fair to mention that this book is more of a “behind the scenes” look at RPGs than an exciting fantasy adventure in itself.

The first chunk of the book is a justification for continued existence of role-playing games, attempting to explain that RPGs aren’t dangerous, which might only make sense for people who are aware of (or lived through) the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Gygax assures the reader that people don’t lose contact with reality when they play role-playing games, and that these adventures don’t turn nice, young kids into devil worshiping murderers. (The MonsterTalk podcast did a FANTASTIC episode on the Satanic Panic and RPGS, which I recommend HIGHLY for anyone interested in role-playing games or, I suppose, Satanic cults…) Gygax, who was not just an RPG creator but also an avid PLAYER, stresses in this book that role-playing games are a fun, cooperative, SOCIAL activity, not some dangerous, brain-washing tool used by Satanists to recruit members. This type of thing was REALLY believed at one point—listen to that MonsterTalk episode for the crazy details—but I think the Satanic stigma might finally be starting to wear off. I’m not sure if people still associate role-playing games with Satanism, but for most of the 1980s, this was a legitimate concern. (I even had an aunt who offered to pay me twenty bucks if I would burn my D&D books. I refused. Although, I did make some money burning a couple of KISS records—and I was deeply disappointed that no demons screamed as the vinyl was melting…but maybe that’s a story for another day…)

After the initial justification section is over and done with, Gygax switches his focus to analyzing the various elements of RPGs, taking apart the core elements of play: the players, the game masters, and the rules systems themselves, and explaining how players and game masters can get the most out of their role-playing adventures.

Though Gygax is principally responsible for the D&D games, he does a good job of including a variety of genres and rules systems in his section breakdowns, including everything from science-fiction to horror to superheroes to spy/espionage styled games in his examples. One of the things I think Gygax definitely gets RIGHT in his analysis is his assertion that the players who really immerse themselves in the materials around which their games are based are going to get the most out of their adventures. For example, if you’re trying to play a horror RPG, like Call of Cthulhu, you are going to get a lot more out of the adventure if you READ the H.P. Lovecraft stories about Cthulhu, as well as some of the secondary tales that other authors wrote who were inspired by Lovecraft. Similarly, if you’re playing a science-fiction game, it helps if you’ve read a bunch of science-fiction stories and seen a slew of sci-fi films. (Again, this might seem obvious, but sometimes we forget to do the simple things!) If you’re a dabbler, you will probably still have fun playing the game, as long as you’re playing with fun people, but if you really DIG IN and get deep in the worlds you are exploring, the rewards can be quite a bit greater…

One declaration that Gygax makes, which undoubtedly includes the KEY factors for what makes role-playing games enjoyable, is this bit:

“What brings role-playing gamers together is their interest in the imaginative, group-cooperative games that allow them to assume personas of adventurous sorts of make-believe individuals. Role-playing games form a community of interest that brings together a diverse audience engaged in the play of diverse games and gives them a commonality that is unique” (p. 155).

In other words, it’s the SHARED experience that is the key. You get to play make-believe with a group of other folks who are right there with you—wherever that “THERE” might happen to be. (A hazardous, monster filled dungeon; a haunted house; a city under siege by a psychotic super-villain; or whatever situation you might want to find yourself in with a group of friends!) You are actively engaged in imaging yourself in exotic situations, perhaps playing a character who is utterly unlike who you are in “real life,” and trying to figure out how you and your group can accomplish your collective goals (and, subsequently, growing your character!)

Speaking of “playing” a character and “growing” that character, this element (the “character”) is one of the things that Gygax argues makes role-playing a unique experience, separate from what he calls “role assumption” games. In role-assumption games, the players are given a static character, with specific parameters for play that can’t be broken (like in a murder mystery dinner theater game—like the one played in a very funny episode of The Office.) Players take on roles, but they aren’t given the opportunity to expand on those roles or grow the character. In a true RPG, the character is changed when the adventure is over. In addition, in a role-playing game, the players cooperate with each other to complete a common goal, as opposed to COMPETING against each other, so there isn’t really a single “winner” and a bunch of “losers” when the game is finished (unlike standard board games, like Clue, where you assume the role of a “character” who might or might not be the killer, and the “winner” is the first person to reveal who the murderer is and how and where they did it.) Instead of having a “winner,” at the end of a role-playing adventure, ALL of the players “win” if they had a good time, but they are ALSO given the opportunity to improve their character, to gain new skills or abilities, to buy new tools or weapons, essentially to make their character more powerful, so that the character can be used again in another adventure! Imagine your wheelbarrow coming back for another game of Monopoly with extra armor; or try starting your next game of Clue with Mr. Mustard knowing how to use a magic spell that can raise the dead. As the players in an RPG campaign continue to use their characters in subsequent adventures, their characters gain skills, tools, and powers, allowing them to tackle tougher and more deadly challenges that would have destroyed the characters if they tried to face them when they were first created. Role-playing games don’t have “winners” or “losers,” but they do reward players who play often by making their characters stronger with each adventure.

A final point that I want to make about this book, which made reading it quite interesting for me: Gary Gygax wrote the book in 1987—BEFORE the internet had taken control of the universe—and he talks quite a lot about making community connections with other players, either by MAIL or actually IN PERSON (gasp!) And for those of us who loved role playing games back in the early days of the sport, we had to SEARCH for materials, like by going to hobby shops and libraries and bookstores. When I first became aware of RPGs, I was living in a little town called Castle Rock, Washington, and I lived out in the hills beyond the town, so far from civilization that cable television hadn’t even been run to our neck of the woods, yet. We had to drive to a different city to find a bookstore (not just a bookstore that carried D&D, but a BOOKSTORE at all!), and if I wanted to read something like Dragon magazine, I would have had to subscribe to it and have it mailed to my house. (I WANTED to do this, but my mom didn’t have much money, and truthfully, I was just thrilled to get my D&D and Marvel Super Heroes RPG sets! No email. No massive, multiplayer online adventures. No Elderscrolls or World of Warcraft or DOTA 2. We did have a version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons on Intellivision (which came out in 1982), but it wasn’t technically an RPG because your character couldn’t grow—it was really just an adventure game (but very fun!) By 1985 or 1986, we got Bard’s Tale for the Commodore 64, and it was great, but it didn’t have the GROUP COOPERATION element, which Gygax claims is essential to true role-playing. (I wonder what he thought of MMOs, like Guild Wars or World of Warcraft, which do have the cooperative element… I should look into whether or not he approved of electronic role-playing games…)

Anyway, this book is good, particularly if you’re already interested in RPGs. (I invented my first RPG back in 6th grade (1983?), a giant robot battle game, and by high school, I’d also created a science-fiction RPG, that I played with several friends—I wish I still had those materials!) If you AREN’T already into role-playing games you’ll probably find the book a bit dull (although, as I said, I can’t image anyone NOT interested in RPGs picking this book up.) For those who are interested in improving their playing skills, their game master skills, or perhaps writing their own RPGs, the information and perspectives presented here are authoritative and detailed, and absolutely still valid. It’s pretty interesting to me that, although video games have changed significantly even in just the last few years (to the point where the companies that create them feel they need brand-new console systems just to play them,) role-playing games are still essentially the same as they’ve been since the 1970s. In fact, I JUST saw a D&D starter set at the local Target store, just a few days ago! (This is pretty exciting, as it’s been quite a few years since a standard department store has carried a straight-up D&D game in my neighborhood!) Sure, there have been “updates” to the D&D rules (I think they are on the 5th edition now,) but the editions aren’t so different that you need to buy new dice or use a different type of pencil in order to play them. You just need a few books, a few friends, some dice, chips, soda, and a few hours a week…and some imagination, of course, to have a good time, which could, potentially, turn into a “campaign” that lasts for years (as long as everyone is still having fun.) And, when the power grid goes down, my dice will still be able to boot up without any problem! If you’ve never tried any role-playing games, I highly recommend the activity (as long as you’re playing with fun people.) If you HAVE played RPGs, and you enjoy them, and you want to get the MOST out of them, do yourself a favor and try to find this book! (I just looked online, and the book is kind of expensive, unless you can spot it at a library book sale, like I did!) Still, Gygax was one of the originators and primary architects of role-playing games, and his opinions and views are well worth knowing!

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)

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About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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2 Responses to “Read a Damn Book – 115: Role-Playing Mastery”

  1. Heh, it’s fascinating to think about it. I remember when the game was associated with Satanism. Many of my friends had to deal with parents concerned about that. Seemed silly then. More silly now. Interestig to see the theme popping up in a book like this.

    • Yeah. Poor Gary Gygax, who seemed like a very nice guy, had to deal with accusations that the game he made was evil and corrupting children—when he intended it to be a positive, social experience! It’s pretty sad, but luckily most of those accusations have proven to be groundless…

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