Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gary Gygax, the Jeweled Man, and Letting Your Players Fail

I've always had a love for magazines. During my youth, one of the most exciting days of the month was when my issue of Star Wars Insider would arrive. Magazines are like proto-websites. Which perhaps explains why many magazines have made the successful transition out of print, and onto the web. Still, there's something about holding the monthly publication in your hand which feels a great deal more substantial than bookmarking a website does. It makes me sad that magazines are slowly dying off. Which might explain why I've occasionally been called a Luddite.

Of course, if we didn't have the Internet, then I'd be trying to get these blog posts into a magazine, and probably having most of them rejected. So you don't hear me complaining.

Given my love of magazines, I doubt anybody will be surprised to learn that I've gathered a decent collection of Dragon magazines over the years. (Funny Story: most of them are from the personal collection of Jeff Grub). They're all piled into a cardboard box underneath my sourcebook shelves. I haven't had the time to read even a tenth of the issues I already have, which is kinda nice, because I can always just pull a random issue from the pile and flip through the pages to find something new.

One of my favorite features of many of the issues of Dragon is a regular article called "Up on a Soapbox, All I Need to Know I Learned from D&D." These articles were written by the Gary Gygax himself, and were often retellings of his earliest campaigns. It's always fun to read about what he was thinking, and what he experienced, which shaped Dungeons and Dragons in those early years.

Today I opened up Dragon issue 290, from December 2001. In it is a story by Gygax entitled "Lesson #4: The One That Got Away. It tells the story of a golden man, encrusted with jewels and gems, which his players encountered in Castle Greyhawk. Back in those days, experience points were primarily earned through the acquisition of treasure, so a man made of gold was quite a find. Unfortunately for Gygax's players, the man always ran away, and they were never able to catch him, though many attempts were made over the years.

I have some things to say about this story, but first, I think it would be nice if people had an opportunity to actually read it. Unfortunately, I can't find it replicated anywhere online. And, unfortunately, issues of defunct magazines from over a decade ago aren't something most people can easily find. So, after some consideration, I've decided to type up the article and include it in this post. I will happily remove it on request from anyone at Hasbro, or Wizards of the Coast. Hell, if the Gygax estate wants me to take it down, I will.

The Jeweled Man

When reminiscing about the "old days," players in the original Greyhawk campaign still bring up the Jeweled Man. Although there were victories aplenty for those who adventured through the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, those veterans are still trying to discover who and what this figure was. That's because nary a PC managed to catch this incredible thing, the Jeweled Man. All such speculation is to no avail, of course. Until some player's character manages to discover the truth about him, the mystery will never be revealed. That's a secret, and mystery is part and parcel of a good campaign.

Once the teams of PCs delving into the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk had made their way down to a moderate depth, all were after greater treasures. That was the natural way of things; in the original D&D and AD&D games, experience point awards were primarily based on the value of a defeated monster's treasure hoard, not on the power of the monster. Of course, XPs were given for slaying foul creatures, successful use of spells, and other heroic acts. Even the most rigorous use of sword and spell, however, was insufficient to gain the large amounts of experience points needed to gain a level. In short order, the players learned that copper was dross, silver meaningless, and even gold a middling reward at best. Platinum? A bare cut above gold. Gems, jewelry, and magic items, those were the goal of every party's explorations, the wherewithal to become more than one's class.

It was around the dungeon's 8th level that the first bold adventurers came upon something they had theretofore only dreamed of. Tenser, Robilar, and Terik were delighted when, upon entering a large chamber, they saw a figure apparently made entirely of gold. This sight was all the more wondrous not because the man-like thing was animate, but rather because the glitteringt yellow metal of the figure's body was encrusted with faceted gems of all sizes and shapes. Even from a distance, it was plain that thousands of carats of diamonds, emerals, sapphires, and rubies--the whole spectrum of precious stones--were embedded in the thing's golden body. Surely, the strange golden automaton represented millions and millions of gold pieces worth of wealth--and enough experience points to advance a large, high-level party to the next level of power.

Even as a spell was cast to keep the Jeweled Man from acting, warriors were rushing to come to grips with this marvel. Alas for the adventurers, the spell had no effect, and before the eager fighters were near, the figure was off and away, running so quickly that even boots of speed could not keep pace. Down a passageway went the glittering form, the party in pursuit. In all too brief a time, however, the Jeweled Man was lost, vanished into the labyrinth of the surrounding passages. Swearing to return, the adventurers went away empty handed, settling eventually for far less precious items taken from likely more fearsome opponents.

The players of course, embarked on a series of expeditions comprised of both the original team and other characters--even lone PCs. Most of the groups managed to make their way to the location, and of those finding the great chamber, the majority encountered the Jeweled Man therein. Each successive encounter saw the would-be captors become more and more frustrated, more aggressive, and more mystified at their lack of success. Their reason for failing to capture the prize might well have been the close-lipped nature of the would-be plunderers.

Almost everyone knew that it seemed impossible to take the creature by surprise, but teams and individual characters kept their own counsel concerning the success of other actions. Clearly the incalculable worth of the treasure and the repute to be had from gaining it worked to diminish cooperation, the one thing that makes success in adventuring most likely.

This effect was not foreseen, but the actions of the players made it easily recognizable. To reflect the attitudes of the PCs, it was natural to use innuendo to suggest one or another character was planning to capture the Jeweled Man alone. Solo adventures among the most able players were rare thereafter, as their peers were loathe to allow one of their number a chance to catch the Jeweled man alone.

To this day the begemmed thing--and I use that term advisedly, as no one has discovered exactly what it is--haunts the great chamber in the mid-levels of the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk. it has been years since any determined effort to capture the creature has been made, but the veterans of the storied times when exploration and derring-do were meat and drink to a large company still speak of it. Suggestions that it was an illusion fall flat because several different groups launched failed attempts to prove it unreal. there are growls about "DM cheating" too, but these complaints are half-hearted. Simply put, the players concerned know deep down that they never made a truly concerted effort, and each suspects they just might one day succeed.

Perhaps they will, and then the tale of that triumph will be told and retold. As it is, however, only sad stories of the one that got away are related.

Of course, I now realize that this was a terrible idea. Juxtaposing Gary Gygax's thoughts on role playing with my own is not likely to create a favorable comparison. But what's done is done. I can only hope Wizards of the Coast demands I take the post down.

Among the number of lessons to be learned here, I think the most important and the most clear is that it's important for players to be able to fail. Gary certainly thought so, because as best as I can determine, he took the secrets of The Jeweled Man to his grave. I managed to find a forum post, apparently written by Gygax, which was written just about two years before his untimely death. In the post, he says he'll discuss the concept in general terms in some then-upcoming modules, but that he does not intend to reveal how the encounter operated in his original campaign.

That's dedication to the craft.

Personally, I don't know how he did it. When I GM, and I make something cool, I want to tell people about it. Of course I want my players to figure it out on their own, so I don't drop any undue hints. And if they fail to solve a mystery I've crafted, I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away to them right then and there. Then I have to bite my tongue again at the end of the adventure to avoid letting it slip during the post-adventure chatting. It's difficult. I think I'm missing a few pieces of tongue at this point.

The best solution I've come up with is to tell people not involved in the game in question all about my brilliant game mastering. That's not always advisable, though, because sometimes those people later want to join the games I've told them the secrets for. That has happened to me, and it's a pain in the ass. But I've meandered off topic.

I feel that the importance of player failure is undersold by most of the modern sourcebooks I've read. Many people will agree that one of the best parts of role playing games are the stories you get to tell about your adventures. And the best stories always contain an element of failure or sacrifice. Like the time you were ambushed on the way to the dungeon, and killed in a single blow. Or the time your paladin died to foil the villain. Or, in this case, the way the Jeweled Man always managed to get away.

Players can always roll new characters. And if you let your players fail, then they'll know that their successes are their own. Not just fudged dice.

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