Lord Gygax’s Writing Technique #ADnD #DnD #RPG 

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A while back, I observed that, despite Lord Gygax’s writing being rightly criticized at times, he sometimes made some funny observations that I loved, and you really can’t have one without the other. Rather than accept the compliment for our beloved leader, some of you took me for task, stating there is no way (Seriously? No way?) Lord Gygax’s writing could be rightfully criticized. I have some questions for those people.

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1/day, an ogre mage can cast “a ray of cold the same dimensions as that of a cold wand.” Putting aside the missing preposition, what’s a “cold wand”? A wand of cold? No, because that’s not a thing either.

Okay, that one’s not so bad. It’s probably a wand of frost. I don’t like having to go to another book to figure out what the book I’m reading is saying, especially without a page cite, but it didn’t take much work to deduce, so let’s keep going. Locathahs are “very intelligent” (intelligence of 11-12), yet they don’t speak a language. If that doesn’t seem right, it’s because it isn’t. They have their own language. How do I know this? I read the write up on the merman. Half of mermen speak locathah. That’s where I had to go to learn about the locathahs. You could also go to the triton stat block to learn that, which is my suggestion because the triton stat block is also where you have to go to learn that aquatic elves have their own language. Well, it actually says “sea elves,” which we’re all assuming are aquatic elves. Worgs may also have a language because winter wolves (that do) can converse with them, but it’s unclear whether that’s because Worgs can speak the language of winter wolves. If troglodytes speak a language, I haven’t found it yet.

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Okay, that was a lecture. Back to questions. How many hit points does an ogre chieftain have? How much damage does a punch from Orcus do? Well, you better have an 11-sided die so that you can determine that (unless you like rerolling high numbers 8.3333% of the time). While you’re at it, make sure to bring your 7-sided die to the game. You may need to calculate how many hit points a goblin has. Fortunately, you need either a d5 or a d9, not both, to determine how many hit points of damage an umber hulk’s mandibles do.

Why doesn’t a giant pike have a swim speed? They seem to run pretty fast on land (36″). Eel? Eye of the deep? Giant gar? Hippocampus? Ixitxachitl? Lamprey (normal or giant)? Locathah? Masher? Morkoth? Portuguese Man-o-War? (From Portugal? Why not? Rakshasa are from India.) Rays of all sorts? Sea hag? Giant sea horse? Sea lion? Shark and megalodon? Sea snake? Triton? Water weird? Whale? That’s every single aquatic monster in the 1e Monster Manual that has only one speed, and it isn’t for swimming.

What spells do a rakshasas cast? What language(s) do they speak? I could ask the same questions for a number of creatures. I already did once (see above). How many rounds or turns does a slithering tracker’s paralysis last? If its siphoning of plasma is interrupted by an attack, will it have time to resume that process if the attacker breaks off the attack? How much damage does a giant slug’s acid do? It’s its preferred attack. Shouldn’t we be told without having to find it in the DMG (on page 64, by the way)? On a d6 roll of 2, what psionic attack will a Su-Monster use? Okay, that last one is just a typo. 🙂

Then there are the spells being referenced with variant names throughout the Monster Manual and even within the Players Handbook itself. One psionic attack is apparently misnamed. What does a mind flayer’s “mind blast” do? I’m not even going to address this disaster. I’ll leave that to this site, which isn’t just an indictment of incompleteness but also general disorganization.

Maybe I’m sensitive, but this is poor writing. My social media posts sometimes generate over 100 responses, and those responses often make opposite claims as to what the text clearly means. For example, no one could agree on the effect of a Iron Golem’s breath weapon or whether paladins and rangers cast at their class level or their class level minus 7 or 8 respectively. A whale at the surface of water is one of many examples of a monster that strikes a target for half the target’s hps. Is that half the target’s undamaged hp total or half the target’s current hp total? I think that last question applies to the effect a Haste spell has on a Wind Walker, but I’m just not sure. The only thing these people could agree on is that their own opinion was unambiguously supported by the text. I’m no logician, but I’m pretty sure that means that one of them is incorrect. I’m still waiting for those apologists to come to a consensus as to what that text clearly says. Instead, they claim that the others are ignoring what’s obvious, missing the irony completely.

At other times, the conversation devolves into, “Well, you’re the DM. Do what you want.” I assure you I will, but I shouldn’t have to design my own game system in the process. The rules should provide a clear baseline, and from there I can tweak it knowing I won’t likely break the game with my preferences. Saying “do what you want” in these contexts concedes, intentionally or not, that the rules are horribly vague. Sometimes when they are clear, they’re disorganized or require mathematically impossible “fair” dice.

This doesn’t mean you must hate the game. There are always clunky workarounds, and I can’t wait to play it again despite my concerns. Besides, these failures are certainly understandable. Lord Gygax was a pioneer. It’s impossible to get something right the first time, especially organization. As far as ambiguity is concerned, modern writers go to great pains to formulate unambiguous language. It’s an impossible goal, but you one can’t even come close if you don’t know to try. Lord Gygax was suffering from a variation of the false consensus effect, assuming that everyone would interpret his words exactly as he intended, in no small part because he was doing this before anyone else. He didn’t have the experience of dealing with min/maxers that squeeze any ambiguity they can find from the text. There’s also plenty to love about his writing, which I’ll discuss next week. However justified his approach, it’s foolish to deny the one and only thing that is clear: Lord Gygax’s writing is often rightly criticized. Denying that denies just how much he difficulty he faced as a pioneer. Getting angry at this notion is doubling down on that foolishness.

But let’s end on something happy.

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These guys probably have only a burrowing speed.

Okay, I ruined the “happy” on that one.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)

6 thoughts on “Lord Gygax’s Writing Technique #ADnD #DnD #RPG 

  1. Wait, there are gamers that don’t have D7’s and D11’s? Next you are going to say they don’t have D50’s, either. Newbies!

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    • I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack rolls for fire with a d7 bouncing off the shoulder of the hunter Orion. I watched cold-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those d7 and d11 die rolls will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die, mind flayer.

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