Referee’s Bookshelf: Gygax On Mastery

Gary Gygax’s Role-Playing Mastery and Master of the Game are odd birds. Emerging in the late 1980s, following his controversial departure from TSR, they represent suggestions about how to most fruitfully engage with RPGs, but root this advice in Gygax’s very specific vision of how he would have liked to see the RPG scene develop, rather than in the realities of how it was at the time.

Role-Playing Mastery suffers when it comes to working out exactly was talking about by a certain uncharacteristic sloppiness and imprecision. Most notably, Gygax likes to contrast the terms “role-playing” and “role assumption”, but isn’t consistent about how he applies them. Early on, he defines “role assumption” as playing a role you could conceivably take on in real life, in contrast to “role-playing” that has no such constraint. Later, however, he defines a “role assumption game” as one in which you are assigned a predetermined role (as with many gamebooks) rather than coming up with your own character.

Despite this fuzziness, certain themes do come through. Gygax notes the distinction between casual and hardcore participants in RPGs (and notes that being casual is no barriers to being good at it), and asserts that tabletop RPGs are by their nature a “sought-after” activity. By this, he means that they tend to be the sort of “hobbylike” activity you deliberately set aside time for and arrange to do, rather than the sort of thing where you idly and spontaneously pick them up and fiddle around with and put down again in order to kill some time. (Though this was broadly true in the 1980s, I think it is less true today thanks to the existence of storygames like Fiasco, which you’d actually have to re-engineer into an unrecognisable state if  you wanted to use it for something other than occasional spontaneous one-shots.) This being the case, Gygax argues that RPGs are the sort of activity where you get more out of them if you engage with an eye towards excelling at them, or at least being the best participant you can.

From there the book examines mastery of RPGs in progressively broader scope, beginning with optimising your performance as a player or referee, continuing with discussing group dynamics and improving your performance as a group, and concluding with pointers on how to make the best contributions to the community surrounding a particular game, or the RPG community in general.

Along the way, Gygax betrays a string of assumptions which are by no means universal truths about how people engage with RPGs, especially today. He assumes that groups will primarily dedicate themselves to one particular game and players and referees will mostly apply themselves to mastering that, which isn’t true of my Monday night group. He assumes that mastery of a game inherently entails detailed study of it, to the point where he suggests that you can’t be considered a master Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player until you have played every class and race in the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana (a feat more viable in campaigns where one player can have multiple PCs on the go, but that is far from the norm). He assumes that players whose characters are not involved in the present action offering advice, or groups who let the conversation drift into tangents that have little to do with the game at hand, are letting the side down, but this strikes me as being more to do with the social mores of a particular group than some universal standard.

Most particularly, though, Gygax seems keen to promote the idea of Master and Grand Master players and GMs. (This leads to awkward constructions like Master GM and Grand Master GM.) This sounds even more like some sort of weird gamer Freemasonry than the RPG hobby usually does, but Gygax seems to lift the terms from chess instead. Gygax here seems to want to promote a hierarchical structure in the hobby community, presenting a series of ever-broader concentric circles of mastery from optimising your own participation in games to making solid contributions to the wider RPG community, with the apparent goals of establishing Grand Masters as tentpoles supporting and growing the hobby.

For better or worse, that isn’t really how it’s shaken out. Although the Internet age (and the end of the era where RPGs had sales in the millions of copies) has meant that the hobby is significantly more fan-led than publisher-led these days, equally there’s no expectation that you need to have your shit in order to be a community leader. James Maliszewski was, despite his protestations otherwise, an opinion former in the OSR community, even though as the Dwimmermount and Petty Gods debacles have shown his track record in finishing what he starts leaves a lot to be desired. Gygax couldn’t really have predicted this – in 1987 the Internet and BBSs were even more of a niche hobby than RPGs – but we aren’t in a hobby anymore where only a few voices can speak loudly enough to be heard, though arguably many of those voices aren’t really worth listening to.

Though the book feels like a quixotic attempt to steer the evolution of the hobby community in a direction it didn’t want to go in, there’s still some nice ideas buried in here. Perhaps the most significant one is the idea that as a gaming group plays a long-term campaign, bit by bit they end up playing a unique version of the game, hybridising the rules as written with their own tastes and priorities to arrive at a game experience unique to them. But a few interesting insights isn’t enough to salvage the book as a whole. Experienced gamers reading this are likely to disagree with as much as they agree with, and have probably formed opinions on most of this stuff anyway; inexperienced gamers will come away with a picture of the way the hobby is structured and the expectations on participants which has little connection with present reality and only glancing relevance to how the hobby was outside of Gygax’s immediate circle.

Master of the Game focuses on the task of the GM, though actually it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the actual process of running a game or campaign. Oh, there’s chapters on just those topics, but there’s also a lot of discussion concerning broader matters, for Gygax asserts that “the main attention of the Master GM is not fixed on this one function” – said function being sitting down with human beings and running a game for them. Again, that’s very much up for debate. Many GMs would have no interest in running game conventions, and yet a chapter is dedicated to just that subject, as well as a chapter on doing public relations on behalf of the hobby and your gaming group (which many groups feel no need to do), and a chapter on publishing your own RPG products (which is a cottage industry only a small niche of RPG participants actually want to get involved in enough to make concrete efforts towards doing so), and so on. Once more, this seems to be Gygax trying to hector GMs into being more community-minded, an aim which whilst laudable has little to do with whether or not you happen to be your group’s GM – why can’t a player be just as capable of writing games, running cons, or doing PR?

As with its predecessor, there’s some interesting stuff in here, like an appendix in which Gygax discusses accusations of D&D promoting Suicide & Satanism and provides sound advice on how to tackle them (namely, realise that conspiracy theorists are coming from a position of irrationality and therefore are deeply unlikely to be persuaded to abandon their position, so the best that you can do is appear like the more reasonable party to neutral observers). On the other hand, such gems are mixed in with some utter tosh, like an appendix on Joseph Campbell’s risible Hero’s Journey balderdash.

Once upon a time, these volumes might have had some value in providing mild gems of wisdom and pointing people in the right direction to connect to the wider hobby. However, the books don’t do a radically better job than a moderately useful RPG forum thread; modern readers, even newbies, can access advice that is far more tailored to their specific situation so easily that these volumes are rendered entirely redundant. (Hell, search around for “col_playdoh” and you can find Gary’s own older and wiser take on many of these subjects.)


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