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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gary Gygax's 17 Steps to Role Playing Mastery: Step Three (Discover the Spirit)

Note: Italics are quotes by Gygax, contained in the book, Role Playing Mastery.
3. Discover the spirit of the game, and make it your credo in play.

The concept of “spirit” is defined in the foregoing text. Although the goal of a game may be contained within its spirit, the spirit of the game usually goes deeper. Perceive it, understand it, and have your PC live by it when you engage in play.

The Spirit isn’t something that you can easily tag with a phrase or a sentence. Gygax says that what lies between the lines (rules) is the Spirit of the Game. He elaborates:

To identify the spirit of the game, you must know what the game rules say, be able to absorb this information, and then interpret what the rules imply or state about the spirit that underlies them.

The Spirit pervades the stats, the mechanics and the descriptions of the rules. The Spirit of the Game gives the RPG a sense of tone, or flavor. Playing a board game like 221B Baker Street is a very different experience from one such as Wrath of Ashardalon. The Spirit varies greatly. Likewise with Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu.

I like Gygax’s assertion that a player who masters the rules and just uses them to play the game without getting into the Spirit is simply going through the motions. He might become an expert in the game, but I would compare it to a dry, dusty experience.

If anybody could define the spirit of Advanced Dungeons &Dragons (AD&D), it is certainly Gary Gygax. And here it is:

I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans-the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game.

Although players can take the roles of “bad guys” if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome. If they succeed in doing this, as time goes on, player characters become more experienced and more powerful - which enables them to contest successfully against increasingly stronger evil adversaries. Each character, by virtue of his or her chosen profession, has strengths and weaknesses distinctly different from those possessed by other types of characters.

No single character has all the skills and resources needed to guarantee success in all endeavors; favorable results can usually only be achieved through group effort. No single player character wins, in the sense that he or she defeats all other player characters; the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one.

You can make of that what you will. I found two points that caught my interest. The first is that AD&D, as conceived (and created…) by Gygax was human driven. As a Pathfinder Play by Poster, I certainly don’t find that to be the norm anymore. I believe that humans are in the minority of two of my three PbP parties. And I’m playing a dwarf, a half-elf and a human, respectively. Humans may rule Golarion, but demi-humans seem to be the prevalent choice of players.

Also, playing evil characters is more acceptable now. Many, if not most, PbP recruitments I see still specify no evil characters (which certainly facilitates the ‘group working together concept’ of RPGs and mentioned in the last sentence of the previous quote). But playing an evil character is not as rare as it was 20-plus years ago. Fire Mountain Games is currently publishing Way of the Wicked, an adventure path for evil characters that is being used in at least one PbP at

But in looking at the big picture, you should understand the Spirit behind your specific game and incorporate it into your play. If you don’t do so, you’ll be experiencing less than the game was intended to provide.

This topic is also a thread over at and is getting some good commentary:

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