Monday, December 16, 2019

What is Gygaxian Gaming: A Distillation

So, in last week's post we looked at hundreds of words from comments across the internet, fora, blogs, interviews and the like to get an idea of what the popular conception of Gygaxian really means. As I mentioned, there is some truth in all of these statements, and none can be said to be truly "wrong" as the truth is often in the mind of the beholder, but to come to some kind of consensus we can try and distill the comments into broad categories and do a simple frequency count.

Now, please understand I am no expert in such endeavors. Trying to distill so many ideas into broad categories is complicated enough. trying ti discern whether an apparently disjointed comment deserves its own category or belongs in some category already established can be insanity provoking. That being said here is what I came up with. I am sure another person could come up with different results, but I am fairly confident the truly high frequency ones would still rise to the top. Without further ado, here are the categories, my description of them and the count of how many times something like them was mentioned in the previous data set.
Tomb of Horrors: Mentioned dozens of times in last week's data
as the archetypal Gygaxian Dungeon for a good reason.
33 High Gygaxian: Antiquated "purple" prose, colorful detailed descriptions, archaic terms, invented vocabulary and naming conventions.

31 Extremely lethal traps & puzzles. Puzzles was mentioned more than lethal puzzles, but without a doubt puzzles, traps and paradoxical conundra with extremely high stakes; includes instant Death / Dismemberment / Save vs death; and TPKs

27 Surrealism / Gygaxian Unnaturalism / Weird magic items, monsters and a bizarre underworld

22 Dangerous. The idea of simply being dangerous in whatever context.

19 Gonzo / Silliness / Illogical Dungeons / Humor / Whimsy

15 Drawing inspiration primarily from pulp fantasy, particularly swords and sorcery, planetary romance, etc. Expressing the idea of heroism not high fantasy superheroism. Action and adventure, lots of combat.

14 Magic is dangerous and often doesn't make sense. Trope of the evil insane wizard or sorcerer

14 Lethal adventures and killer dungeons

13 Adversarial gaming, DM vs Players

13 Characters don't start with detailed backstory but develop as you adventure. You become a hero, you don;t start as one. When you gain something you feel like you earned it.

12 Player problem solving vs character skills

12 GM Fiat/GM is all powerful, as a "god" / Players don't look at DMs Guide or MM

12 History/Mythology/background knowledge/hoplology/medievalist/classicism

11 Lack of linear plot in module/series of disconnected modules/no "epic" campaigns

10 Rules Light/flexible/improvisation; Improvisational gaming

Others, below 10:
Gamist/anti-political-psychological roleplay 9; Random 9; Paranoid caution 8; Naturalism / Simulationism 8; Baroque 7; Kill monsters take stuff/esp. gold 7; Dungeon Crawl 7; ; Tournament module "style" 5; Rules Heavy, lots of tables 4; Warriors are the pinnacle of heroism 4; Alignment 3; Low power/low magic 3; Let the dice fall where they may 2; Menagerie of Classic Monsters 2; Dungeon mapping on graph paper 2; 3-18 ability scores 1; Time keeping 1; Chintzy and irritating NPCs 1; Lack of concern with game/mechanical balance 1; 10' poles 1; Trapspringers 1; Wandering Monsters 1; Big Boss at the end/deeper levels are harder 1; Humanocentric/demihuman limited 1
Gygax' Literary Roots
To combine these factors into a few topics I would say High Gygaxian, Pulp Inspiration, History / Mythology, Surrealism, Gonzo and Magic is dangerous could be combined into one we will call The Gygaxian Aesthetic for a total score of 123. Danger can clearly be combined with Extremely lethal traps and killer dungeons into Gygaxian Danger with a score of 67. Gygaxian play style could be combined out of Adversarial gaming, Don't start as a hero, player skills vs character skill, GM Fiat, Rules light gaming and non-linear plotlines for a score of 71. This leaves out some small indicators below, which could be squeezed into the above three categories as follows:

Gygaxian Aesthetic could include Dungeon Crawl, Random, Naturalism/Simulationism, Baroque
Gygaxian Danger could include Paranoid Caution, let the dice fall where they may
Gygaxian Playstyle could include Gamist play, Kill Monsters take their stuff, Tournament modules, Rule Heavy, Warriors are the pinnacle, Etc., etc.

However, the fact is, most of the contradictory mentions are much less indicated. And thus one has to ask if it is so poorly represented should it be included as a component of the definition? I say no. Certainly these things might be experienced, and to one degree or another described as Gygaxian by our constructed definition. However, we will just consider items mentioned more than ten times in the data set we compiled.
The Cloaker: A Classic D&D monster
that is exactly in the spirit of "Gygaxian"
That being said our definition of Gygaxian would be: An approach to tabletop roleplaying games that includes, in order of diminishing importance, a unique aesthetic, play-style, and level of danger. The Gygaxian Aesthetic can be described as a presentation and writing style characterized by archaisms, a preference for British literary formalisms, erudite vocabulary and a playful nature; an emotive milieu drawing inspiration primarily from the pulp weird fiction of the 1920s to the early 1970s; but also drinking deeply from the wells of academic medievalism, classicism, and mythology with a distinct fondness for the surreal and what has been called "gonzo" design. A Gygaxian Playstyle that, regardless of the amount of rules, retains an ethos that supports GM fiat, flexibility in rules interpretation to a point, creative improvisation in DMing and a focus on short complete adventures instead of overarching story lines. A friendly competition between a DM creating a challenging, honest experience for the players and the players ability to out-think and creatively solve the challenges placed before them. Finally Gygaxian Danger implies that characters do not start as heroes but as vulnerable beginners in a hostile and deadly world, filled with vicious monsters, capricious and usually evil sorcerers weaving strange and deadly magics and constructing mind bending puzzles, and deadly traps set in a bizarre and living world to challenge and overcome the small and insignificant. Gold, glory and heroism are only won by dint of hard fought play and overcoming the risk concordant with the reward.