A Sin in the Past

It's time to deal with one of my mistakes.

I receive an e-mail about that mistake once every few years. Here are the questions typically asked.

Are you the one who wrote the article "Gandalf Was Only a Fifth-Level Magic-User"?

Yes, I am. I wrote the article in 1977, when I was 17 years old, for The Dragon magazine.

That's 33 years ago as I write this; where does the time go?

(For anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about and is curious, you can click on the link above. I don't recommend that you do so, but it's there. You find all you need to know about it in the rest of this post.)

Was that article meant to be serious?

I'm ashamed to say that it was.

What do you think about the article now?

I think the argument I tried to make is ridiculous.

My point was that since Gandalf wasn't all that powerful in Lord of the Rings, spell-casters don't have to be that powerful in Dungeons & Dragons. Now I feel foolish even suggesting the idea.

On the surface level, the idea is silly: It's like saying that since apples aren't oranges, they should be a different color, more orange-y perhaps.

On a lower level, I'd fallen too deeply in love with "mash-ups," although they weren't called that in the 1970s. I didn't invent mash-ups; they existed in fandom for decades before me, and are still a popular fannish activity today.

Mash-ups are a harmless activity, but they can be a waste of creative energy and bring about pointless activities like that article I wrote. If you googled for my article and read some of the forum comments, you'll find that many interpreted the article as a satire of fallacious mash-up reasoning. If only it were!

For me, Lord of the Rings is the best epic fantasy of the 20th century, one that left its imprint on all fantasy works published since. Dungeons and Dragons took some of the concepts found in LotR and other sources, and turned them into the first commercial role-playing game. Both have had important influences on the development of computer software, all forms of media, and cultural evolution; if I ask "Did Aragorn ever touch the Ring?" and you pause for a moment to consider the question, I am your geek brother, even if the connection is small.

That doesn't mean you can take the two of them, stir them together like paint, and come up with something that makes any sense. That's what I tried to do in 1977. A novel is not a game, a game is not a novel; any reasoning that links the two is automatically suspect.

I just re-read the article. It's painful to read. At 17, I thought those arguments made sense! I even thought I was clever, and my writing style was readable.

Do you regret writing the article?

No. It was kiddie thing to do, but I was a kid at the time.

I wrote a lot of stupid stuff back then; the "Gandalf" article was the tip of the iceberg. Most of it was published in three  APAs: Alarums & Excursions, The Wild Hunt, and Pandemonium. The vast majority of what I wrote I now think was utter garbage: mash-up fiction, pseudo-intellectual articles on the philosophy of role-playing games, and irritating responses to other people doing the same.

Sounds like things you can find on the internet now, doesn't it? It was similar, except that the internet offers one more element to catalyze the flames: anonymity.

The chief benefit of my childish writing is that it helps me be tolerant today, when I see others with similar childishness on the internet. Instead of flaming, I can smile. Been there, done that, learned the lesson… and I don't have to be the one to teach the lesson to others.

Some of the ideas I developed in those APA articles remain with me still, mainly in how to tell a story in a shared context; in other words, how to run an on-going table-top role-playing campaign. Nowadays, that's about as useful a skill as knowing how to use a slide rule.

The rest of what I wrote in the 70s and 80s? It's gone, except for a trunk in my closet and perhaps in a few other closets out there. Good riddance. I hope no one ever seeks it out.

That leads to my true regret about the article: I don't regret that I wrote it. What I regret is that it was published.

In 1977, the editor of The Dragon was Timothy Kask. I have a vague memory of getting a letter from him asking for articles; if that happened, it was because he was writing to all the contributors to Alarums & Excursions asking for material.

Either way, I wrote that article for The Dragon and Kask published it. I think he recognized it for the drivel that it was, but (as he told me in a letter he wrote) he wanted to see what discussion it generated. There was some response, but not the amount that I think he expected; I took more heat from that article in the pages of the APAs than I did in The Dragon.

After a couple of months, people forgot about the article; there were other things to discuss, other feuds to fight, other stupid mash-ups for me to write, other issues of The Dragon to read.

Fast-forward the clock to about 25 years later. All the articles ever published in The Dragon become available on CD. My article has a title that's still provocative, so someone posts it on the internet. There it remains to this day, occasionally copied and posted in some role-playing forum by someone who wants to fan some flames.

That silly article is going to follow me around for the rest of my life. Well, we all to accept the consequences of our past actions, even after we've learned better.

At least the presence of the article on the internet gives me an excuse for a blog post. I think that's the best that can be said about it.

I'm glad it didn't happen to another really stupid article I'd written around two years prior to that one: "The Value of Building FStp(nc)." Unless you play Diplomacy, you won't get the meaning of the title. I just searched; although the article is referenced in a couple of obscure places, it's not on the internet. Thank the Goddess!

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  1. wgseligman

    For the record, the original article was published in The Dragon Magazine #5, March 1977.

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