Gary Gygax Taught Me To Be A Better GM
Today is Gary Gygax Day! The day we celebrate the birth of the father of RPGs. It is a day that should be revered and celebrated, like Christmas, Halloween, or Free RPG day. But why are we celebrating one man? Surely there are others. Over the years, so many people have touched the world of role-playing games and made an impact, like Frank Mentzer, Chris Perkins, Ed Greenwood, and Tracy and Laura Hickman, to name a very few (this list could have gone on for miles).
Yes, the history of the RPG is a long and storied one with a plethora of contributors that made role-playing it what it is today. However, if you want to see the seed from which this mighty redwood grew, then gaze upon the majesty that is Gary "The Man" Gygax.
"Sarcasm aside, I applaud that man's taste in Hawaiian Shirt."
Now I know there are those out there that roll their eyes at the very mention of Gary's name. They try to discredit him, diminish his achievements, and ignore his contributions to the role-playing community as little more than an elitist who desired to watch the PCs at his table die in a host of hilarious ways.
To those people, I say "For shame!"
I hear this argument a lot when it comes to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Jack created most of the beloved characters from the Marvel Universe that we know and love, but Stan always seems to be the guy that gets the credit. Well, kids, that was because Stan was a showman. He was the face of the team. And as any rogue or bard with a 16 Charisma and up can tell you, the face gets all the glory.
Gary was a lot like Stan. Both were friendly, very creative, and defined their industries. Stan taught me a lot about comic books, but Gary... Gary taught me how to be a better Game Master.
Now I should state, right off the bat, that I have never had the pleasure of meeting Gary Gygax in person. It is something on my bucket list that shall forever go unfulfilled, or at least until we all join him at that big gaming table in the sky. When I say that Gary taught me how to be a better GM, I am saying that through his enduring works, I have picked up what he put down, dug what he buried, and smelled what he was cooking.
Yes, I can prattle on all day about my man-crush for Gary Gygax and all the things he's done. But if you really step back and look at it, my GODS that guy could run a game! He didn't just run it either. He knew it, front to back. One need look no further than the Village of Hommlet to get a proper understanding oh just how well he knew his games.
"The village of Hommlet-Hommlet as it is commonly called-is situated in the central part of Flanaess, that portion of the eastern Oerik Continent which is known and "civilized"/ The village (actually hamlet-sized, though local parlance distinguishes it with the term "village") is located some 10 or so leagues (35 miles) southeast of the town of Verbobonc, on the fringe of the territory controlled by its noble Lord, the Viscount of Verbobonc. It is at a crossroads. To the north is the mighty Velverdyva River, along whose south bank runs the Lowroad. Mandy Days travel to the east, on the shores of the Lake of Unknown Depths (Nyr Dyv) is the great walled city of Dyvers, the village of Sobanwych about halfway along the route. Below that to the southeast and east are miles and miles of forest, the Gnarley, beyond which is the Wild Coast, Woolly Bar, and the Sea of Heamat. The road south forks a league (3.5 miles) or so beyond the little community, one meandering off towards the Wild Coast, the other rolling through the lower Kron Hills, to the village Ostverk and then eventually turning southwards again into the elven Kingdom of Celene. The western route leads into the very heart of the gnomish highlands, passing through Greenway Valley about a day's travel distant and going onwards to the Lortmil Mountains far beyond."
Sure, he could have just said "Homlet is here", but he detailed everything from the nearby geography to the settlements. He didn't just paint you a picture, he painted locations for you to visit. He wanted his players to explore and experience the expansive and highly detailed world he had created. Let's face, a few of you just wanna say "Screw Hommlet, let's hit up the Wild Coast".
The man had a mind for mazes, monsters, and puzzles. He seemed to like making his players use as much of their brain as humanly possible. He didn't just want good players, he wanted the best players, and that was what his dungeons dragged out of people, kicking and screaming. You were either clever and wise, or you crawled into that GODDAMNED MOUTH!
Death was a big part of Gary's dungeons. A lot of folks complain about this, which I never understood. Adventuring life isn't easy. It's hard, brutal, and often short. Death is the only real common companion of most adventurers. Gary reminded people of this. Were his traps cruel? Hells yes they were cruel. But have you ever seen a trap that wasn't supposed to be? If the place was built by a friggin demi-lich, there is a good chance that he's not messing around. He doesn't want to give you hugs and let you talk about your feelings. He wants to hurt you. To expect your Game Master to hold back because you can't handle it isn't just doing them a disservice, it is doing you one as well. Pull yourself up and do it better!
A lot of what is now Game Master philosophy is due in no small part to the art that was pioneered by Gary. To be at the forefront of this strange new game, this offshoot from wargaming, where people would act out the lives of single characters, had to be absolutely maddening.
Even so, Gary knew that the rules could become restraining. They could restrict creativity and free thinking from the players as well as the Game Master. Despite concocting the rules many of us would come to live by, he never wanted us to become slaves to them.
If the name Gary Gygax is just a name to you, if you are not familiar with his work or who he really was, do yourself a favor. Find one of his adventures. Pick up a copy of Village of Hommlet, Expedition to The Barrier Peaks, Keep on the Borderlands, or even the dreaded Tomb of Horrors. Read them like you would any novel, absorb them, update them if you must, and run them. Run them for your friends. Something magical happens somewhere in the Caves of Chaos with the goblins and kobolds, or when you see someone entering Moathouse for the very first time.
This is the legend of Gary Gygax. Millions of people, perfect strangers, playing his games and having fun. Could anyone really ask for more than that?
Gary may not be with us any longer, but in his own way he has achieved a measure of immortality, for as long as role-playing games in any of their forms continue to exist, his legacy will endure. Never in the entire span of human history has the term "Rolling in his grave" held such positive connotations.
Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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