Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mood in the Original Campaign: An Essay Into the Mind and Imagination of E. Gary Gygax

Extracted from the upcoming book, Lord of the Green Dragons™
Copyright 2009. Robert J. Kuntz

... Far from feeling fear, I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such as I have never known. I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the world's history. But, before I could arrive at any possible explanation, something impelled me to go farther out, and I crept forward on the sand and stood upright. I felt the ground still warm under my bare feet; the wind tore at my hair and face; and the sound of the river burst upon my ears with a sudden roar. These things, I knew, were real, and proved that my senses were acting normally. Yet the figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent, majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me at length with a genuine deep emotion of worship. I felt that I must fall down and worship--absolutely worship. ...
--The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood

...In regarding HPL's influence. Without a doubt such mood pieces (one of EGG's favorites was the non-Mythos story "Rats in the Walls" and another "Pickman's Model") had substantial impact on the campaign. Compare this to his love for Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows") which he insisted I read, and EGG's many "real-life" stories he himself told me about, especially hauntings he'd experienced (and one which, me being a very impressionable and imaginative lad then, kept me from sleeping on my stomach for months while guarding my back), well it was then all too apparent later, and in my reflective moments, that this heady stuff got transferred into the campaign's structure.

Was EGG a master of mood during play? Yes, but mostly when he wanted to achieve reactions at specific moments from his players. He could certainly paint the pictures in your mind when he wanted to. Here again I found, as one of the earliest participants in the Greyhawk Campaign, an amalgmanation of fantastic moods working on different levels in play and no doubt, by relation, just as these had been inpressed upon his mind in earlier years. When these mood changes occurred (such as when Robilar was trapped at 2nd level near abandonned cells by two wights), EGG had you foxed if you were not attentive to them, as I had not been at that instant. One can also call it "fore-shadowing," and in a sense that is true, but we were participating in the story on a primary level (interaction) and not gauging the story from a distance, as readers do, so "mood" stands as a more definite descriptor.

EGG came into grand form with extracted fictional pieces that he held in high regard, and then by transference of his delight in these pastiches, so to speak, their full weight and mood was felt, such as in his transferences of Vance's Dirdir Hunting Grounds, Kong (Isle of the Ape) or of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He bacame very animated with these fictional transferences to a degree that one actually felt what he had naturally felt reading those stories. This is hardly mentioned to reinforce that the same was not true when he applied similar reactions to his own ideas and creations (and there were many that he did do this for and with equal fervor), it is just to note that his animation regarding such matter was so obviously inspired at those times; and thus his animation was immediately compelled and compelling at once.

Mood had a pace in the game. Certainly there were the highs and lows, or hills and valleys, associated with the rising and falling story line. But that is where the mood became very important, and that is where EGG got you caught up in it. It wasn't even as close to when someone looks at the cover of TOEE and then took their first step into said temple. What we have there is only a picture and an action. But when EGG emphasized where you had been (outside in "normalville") by setting that mood, that HPLish lurking oppression, with carefully chosen words spread amidst the changing scenery, then you knew you weren't in Kansas any longer. Further, that party pause due to this change, that telling time in space, was enough to inform EGG that he had achieved his purpose, that the players were thinking and perhaps, just slightly, leaning on the edge of doubt.

That is the respect the man commanded; and we must always recall that his players for the most part consisted of grown men, and that he had achieved instilling this doubt by tapping into similar real moods that they too had experienced in the past, be these real or imagined. The conditioning afforded the participants therein merged with their own straining perceptions, and thereby created that brooding expectation. There is no wonder, also, that this worked to inform the players of the inherent dangers which could lie ahead, made them prepare, as well, as EGG was no softy DM, quite the opposite. It was as much, in his way, of saying, "Yep. Get ready. And don't say later that I didn't warn you." And all this with but a few chosen words of description at the right moment...

Next: Humor in the Original Campaign


Lord Ghul of Hyperborea said...

Fascinating, Rob, very fascinating. As I've only experienced EGG as game master in the con circuit, I could only imagine his capacity as a regular DM, which I feel is a completely different species of game mastery. In fact, readers of such blogs as LotGD who are fans of EGG likely understand that what they got from the man in a 4 hour con session was not the same experience as those gamers who had the pleasure of gaming with him regularly.

I run the occasional con adventure myself, and I know the experience I provide the attending players is always different from that which I provide my regular Tuesday night group. At a con the players usually select their characters and they are presented (by me) with immediate circumstances and action to which they must respond and find their own party unity . . . or else (well, unless there are kids or newbies; then I might be more lenient). Interestingly, I find that "player types" can't help but assert themselves, and these are quickly evident to me, usually correlating with my own player group who comprise a variety of player personality types, but I digress.

I had the pleasure of working on EGG's "side of the DM's screen" as it were when I was provided the opportunity to contribute to Greyhawk Castle, or Castle Zagyg, as it had come to be known. The notes and outlines I derived my developmental material from spanned over 30 years, and it was easy to determine how Gary had changed in style from the 70's to the 00's, though never did the man's talent, irony, humor, and cleverness diminish -- even in his final days, I might add. In fact, I would venture to say he remained smart as a whip, and quite inspiring.

I have a story I would like to relate, as it dovetails nicely with RJK's fascinating blog post.

Gary was never effusive in his praise of my efforts as I developed Castle Zagyg, and this could sometimes be frustrating for me, because I simply wasn't sure if he felt I was doing the job well. I often had to hear it through others with whom he corresponded, or I would catch some kindly post he'd made, buried in his Q&A sessions at EN World.

Mostly Gary would direct my attention to what I needed to repair as we exchanged developmental documents; what I should address, modify, or wholesale delete. But as the months passed I understood him more, and his disagreements with how I developed his outlines and notes became less frequent.

There was one time where he said something very kindly about how I'd handled a situation, and I was beaming with pride that this man, this boyhood idol of mine, could actually praise me, for surely I was not worthy, eh? That was when I had to admit something to him, something of a gradual change that had seeped into my development over the weeks and months I'd burned that midnight oil.

I told him, "The truth is, Gary, when I'm developing this stuff, I'm not thinking of all your Greyhawk or other fans who will read it, and I'm not really thinking of you anymore, either. My imagination is focused on the six guys I DM for every week. How they as group might react and respond to this or that."

Gary found this amusing, and he told me, "Well, that's exactly how I do it, Jeff."

So what Rob says, I feel, is absolutely so. Gary was a master of establishing mood, tension, and even fear, yes fear, of what might happen next, what might be around the next corner. Although I never had the pleasure of being a regular player of his, there is little doubt that Gary Gygax had his player group in mind when he was creating, whether it was a scripted encounter or seat-of-the-pants DMing, and they were always first and foremost in his mind.

See, what I'm trying to say is this: At the end of the day, for Gary, it was all about creating an enjoyable experience for the players, so that they would have a great game of D&D, AD&D, DJ, LA, C&C or whatever. Gary was the ultimate gamer, and there is no debating it. --Jeff T.

Rob Kuntz said...

A very nice postscript and very fitting indeed, Jeff. Those memories are obviously treasured as were my many years of same working with EGG on many so projects. And yes, convention play was quite different, compressed time wise, noisy more often than not, too much of a spot light on us. I remember DMing the final round at DRAGONCON 1 with EGG in 1987 (Grodog will remember this,as he was at another table near the group EGG and I were DMing, and gladly so, from what I understand). Well, in between signing autographs, between questions, and many disbelieving stares, we got on with the destruction (unfortunately) of that party, and as I recall the particular distractions were minimal due to the constant supply of blood-mary drinks both he and I were downing (yes, we were quite the pair in that adventure, like old times). And there marks another point:
playing under Gary _and_ DMing with him tied the eventual knot of total understanding for me. Being his student, gaming "antagonist" and his DM in my own game further dissolved my ignorance real fast, to be replaced by the hard-earned award of knowledge. As a player he made the DM work hard; and as a DM he did the same to his players; and when you faced him across a gaming table in miniature battles, board games, chess, card games, whatever, you had to be prepared, so your last statement is so very true.

Guy Fullerton said...

This is fantastic stuff, and it goes a long way toward helping me understand some of the finer in-play points of the old-school experience. Certainly it makes me one to read more of the book!

I'd love to see some concrete/specific examples of the words and other techniques EGG used to set the mood. Perhaps the book will contain these?

Rob Kuntz said...

These are extracts only, Guy, and I do appreciate the enthusiasm, for the book itself will detail much, including additional essays, stories and remembrances of Don Kaye, my brother, Ernie Gygax, and more, such as the IFW period, Fritz Leiber at GENCON, etc.

In all it will be sectionalized stories and essays and memories of those days, with an emphasis on D&D in the formative years, but that can hardly be explained in full without examining its roots, which were many.

So, take what I offer here, please, for there will be more, just not all, of course. RJK