Gary Gygax's "Up on a Soapbox" Archive

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In January 2000, Gary Gygax began to publish a regular series of articles in Dragon Magazine issue 267, as part of the "Up on a Soapbox" column.  The series started out somewhat generally about D&D, gamers' geekiness, Gygax's survey about What is a Roleplaying Game, etc.  However, in issue 287, Gygax shifted the column to focus on the development of the early days of D&D, with a particular emphasis on the growth of the concept of the dungeon crawl using Castle Greyhawk as the exemplar model.

In issue 287, Gygax also added the subtitle "All That I Need To Know I Learned From D&D" to the column (which actually makes each article's subject-oriented title and sub-titles into sub-sub-titles and sub-sub-sub-titles, I suppose [sub-titles, demi-titles, and quasi-titles???]....). 

In issue 308, Rob Kuntz contributed the first of two articles to the series (others were written but not published).  The series concluded with issue 320's recounting of the demise of Erac's Cousin's twin vorpal blades.  Gygax and Kuntz plan to publish the columns in book form, perhaps as part of the Castle Zagyg series from Troll Lord Games. 

Article Index in Chronological Order

All articles are written by Gary Gygax unless noted in the Article Sub-Subtitles field.

Dragon  Issue Number Article Sub-Subtitles Useful Castle Greyhawk Lore
287 (September 2001) So This Lousy Dwarf with Boots of Speed... - Enter Obmi
  • Gygax created Castle Greyhawk dungeon levels at the rate of one per week in 1972 and 1973
  • a magical laboratory that's difficult to find exists near the center of dungeon level 3
  • Obmi first encountered here, with gnoll archer servitors; Obmi had boots of speed and dwarven thrower; gnolls and Obmi had a repulsion projector ray (10'-wide beam, 90' range), later destroyed as part of PC action
  • Obmi was a recurring villain after his initial encounter, wreaking havoc on PCs until resurfacing in G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King
288 (October 2001) Thus Spake the Great Stone Face of Greyhawk Dungeons - The Enigma Conquered
  • Gary illustrated the Great Stone Face in OD&D's Supplement I - Greyhawk
  • a "towering block of carved stone ... located in a large open area of one of the mid-levels of the dungeon complex"
  • "a circle of strange runes and pictograms" were carved around its base, and impervious to read magic and comprehend languages
  • radiates "several sorts of magic"
  • attracts wandering monsters = in a heavily trafficked area
  • includes a recounting of Jim Ward's PC's conning of other PCs, but no mention of Fraz'Urb-luu....
289 (November 2001) Lesson #3:  How to Train a Black Pudding - If You Can't Stand the Heat...
  • Mordenkainen first encountered Bigby (3rd level MU) in one of Rob Kuntz's dungeons (no mention of charming Bigby)
  • Mordy had a wand of fireballs
  • Mordy was generally accompanied by Vram and Vin, both elven 4/3 Fighter/MUs armed with bows, swords, and minor spells, wand of paralyzation and -fear respectively
  • Unable to plumb deeper than a 6th level central chamber (of El Raja Key??) with the sole stairwell down to level 7, due to a black pudding
  • taming of the black pudding recounted
290 (December 2001) Lesson #4:  The One That Got Away - The Jeweled Man
  • No PC has ever caught the Jeweled Man, "a figure made entirely of gold" and "encrusted with faceted gems of all sizes and shapes"--"thousands of carats of diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies"
  • first encountered by Terik, Robilar, and Tenser  in a large chamber on dungeon level 8 (the "mid-levels" and "down to a moderate depth")
  • too fast for PCs to catch even with boots of speed, magic to hold it had no effect
  • "it seemed impossible to take the creature by surprise"
  • "several groups launched failed attempts to prove it unreal" (an illusion)
291 (January 2002)

Lesson #5:  Sooner or Later, Luck Favors the DM - Looting the Labyrinth

  • Dungeon Level 6 is The Labyrinth:  "at the northern end ... were a series of large chambers, while to the south lay a number of mazes populated by monsters such as wereboars and, of course, minotaurs"
  • "the large chambers had four exits in the cardinal directions"
  • "separating these were large areas of seemingly solid stone" and each blank zone "held a secret door leading to a repository of magical goodies" that contained "only one type of treasure---potions; scrolls; magic armor, shields, and weapons; and gems, money, and non-magic items"
  • in addition to the treasure troves, two black dragons were held in stasis in similar caches
  • Robilar had boots of flying upon entering this level, but they were dissolved by a "black pudding that made its lair in a hollow passageway"
  • purple worm may be "allied" to the mated dragon pair
292 (February 2002) Lesson #6:  Dungeon Hospitality - Falling for the Obvious
  • "The main challenge in Rob's dungeon was simply finding one's way through the labyrinth of passages and rooms and locating the secret doors and hidden chambers.  There were plenty of dangerous, hidden encounters like pits, poisonous animals, traps firing spears and arrows, and various monsters."
  • illusory feast protected by concealed pits; viands poisoned
  • alcove behind the table also trapped
  • after smashing the table, chairs, etc., Yrag found the gem powering the illusion
  • probably set in El Raja Key??
293 (March 2002) Lesson #7:  Direction Senese - A Stairway to Nowhere
  • "About a third of one level was given over to a special complex, and most of the other passageways through the level accessed theis portion so as to invite entry.  Inside it, long passages sloped gradually down to a central area where a flight of stairs conveyed the wayfarer back up to the elevation of the surrounding area.  However, once inside, the number of direction choices was seemingly far greater, although all eventually led back to the central declivity, the stairway back up." 
  • The PCs "altered their route so as to explore" and were surprised to find monsters that "aren't very tough for so deep a level" :D
  • interesting anecdote about using sloping passages to access the same stairwells multiple times, which deluded Terik and other PCs into thinking that they had descended into the bowels of the Castle when in fact they were going in circles (since they didn't map!)
  • note, this has no relation to the Stairway to Nowhere at the Winchester Mansion :D
294 (April 2002) Lesson #8:  Ain't it the Pits? - A Trap for all Occasions
  • "A couple [pit traps] were places on the first dungeon level below the ruins of Castle Greyhawk."  They were open pits.
  • useful in combination with doors---entering from the non-pit side PCs may fall in, while the pit makes the door difficult to use from the pit side
  • covered pits appear on dungeon level 2, and "could be placed in rooms and chambers"
  • more dangerous pits began to appear once PCs reached 3rd level and beyond:
    • spiked pits
    • pits 20' or 30' deep
    • trapdoors that close upon the pit victim
    • poison on the spikes
    • black pudding, yellow mold, etc. at the bottom
  • once PCs grew savvy to avoiding pits, Gygax began to place secret doors to areas they wanted to explore in the pits (for several good example of this, see S1 Tomb of Horrors)
  • then some pits had secret doors leading to additional traps :D
295 (May 2002) Lesson #9:  Sherlock Holmes or Sheer Luck - Unbelievable, But True
  • "Following my plan, I created long, downward-sloping passages in strategic locations in the lower levels of the dungeon, so that there was a slight chance that an adventurer might get on such a path and find himself all the way at the bottom of the dungeons without realizing what had happened."
  • Robilar followed the first and subsequent sloping passages to the deeps of the dungeons, and "was promptly rewarded and then sent off to the other side ofh the Oerth" (he found Zagig, as recounted by Gygax in Dragon Annual #2); Terik and then Tenser followed
296 (June 2002) Lesson #10:  Place It, and They Will Come - Defying the Odds
  • Gygax places a band of gnolls on the 4th dungeon level "in an out-of-the-way corner" and hides a portable hole a dead-end corridor behind the gnolls' lair---the 'hole is open, so it looks like a "jagged hole in the floor" (it is 10 feet deep and four feet wide)
  • Acquired by Tenser, along with "the only vorpal blade I ever placed in the dungeons"
297 (July 2002) Lesson #11 (mislabelled as #10):   The Rewards of Roleplaying - Virtue Brings More Than Its Own Reward
  • Gygax relates the finding of the first ring of contrariness (created by Rob Kuntz), by his PC Yrag
  • other PCs knock Yrag out, and find a cleric to cast remove curse on him
298 (August 2002) no column None
Lesson # is dropped from the title/sub-title/whatever going forward
299 (September 2002) Robbing from the Really Rich
  • recounts Mordenkainen's ploy to target bandits for their rich treasure and wealth
  • Mordy, Bigby, "along with a few other potent characters" have a small red dragon in tow (perhaps subdued?)
300 (October 2002) The Incomplete Villain
  • describes the origins of the Greyhawk demigod Wastri
  • Wastri's ultimate motives are the "extinction of humans as they exist in favor of the model based on his form, that of the hybrid of toad and man"
  • some of Wastri's activities include:
    • "In one city ... a group of new residents, all of whom have a strange gait ... are close to incidint a riot against the city's wealthy dwarves" (Irongate??)
    • "Elsewhere, a powerful new guild has sprung up, and its membership and influence is growing"
    • causing the accidental recent deaths of "many renowned mages" where were "researching and developing powerful new magics"
301 (November 2002) Fly Me to the Moon
  • Robilar employs Herb the sage to get to one of Oerth's moons, but Herb wastes Robilar's treasure creating Oerth's largest catapult
  • Gygax intended PCs to adventure on the moons, but after Robilar's fiasco, none ventured there
302 (December 2002) Penny for Your Thoughts
  • Elise and Ernie Gygax defeat kobolds on level 1 of the dungeons, find a "great iron chest ... filled with thousands of copper coins"
  • Unfortunately they can't carry it all off, and it's gone when they return---other monsters waited in the wings to recover treasures left behind, some floating from encounter to encounter ;-)
  • PCs recruited orcs as mercenaries
  • Gygax liked the idea of providing a ton of treasure that wasn't easy to carry off---i.e., he used encumbrance rules! :D
303 (January 2003) no column None
304 (February 2003) Remember the Mission!
  • Yrag wishes to learn the location of a horn of blasting as "at this juncture of play, the principal focus of Yrag's ambition was carving out a demesne of his own to rule over and direct"
  • Yrag is granted a treasure map, hacked his way to the horn's location, but missed the obvious clue to its location, so he never got the item
All That I Need To Know I Learned From D&D is dropped from the title/sub-title/whatever going forward
305 (March 2003) Getting Even Puts the Other Guy Ahead
  • Terry Kuntz had his beholder creation turned against his PC, Terik, by Gygax, and he hated that ;-)
  • Terry played the first monk PC---the Monk with No Name---and was defeated by the NPC 9th level monk in trial by comabt when he tried to advance to 9th level, so he turned to the Mage of Tower in Greyhawk City for assistance
  • After being rubuffed by the bribe-hungry, prankster apprentice to the Tower Mage, Terry's monk painted the mage's tower like a barber-shop pole
  • The mage loved the new look, and called himself "The Striped Mage of Greyhawk" henceforth, to Terry's chagrin ;-)
306 (April 2003) Best Shots:  The Folly of Predictability
  • While adventuring in Rob Kuntz's dungeon, Mordenkainen, Bigby, and cohorts "discovered a large hexagonal chamber in the center of which was a stone plinth, with a huge, faceted diamond resting atop it"
  • the gem was worth 500,000 gp, and each of the six gates in the walls released monsters that all fell to the PCs' tactics
  • Mordenkainen was at least 9th level by now, since he cast cloudkill
307 (May 2003) The Devious DM:  The Other Side of the Screen
  • Gygax recounts the story from the introduction of WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, in which Mordy and Bigby are slain by the terrible iron golem
  • Mordenkainen's extended crew have a crystal ball that they sometimes use to observe their leader and Bigby while they adventure
  • The rest of the henchmen save the day, and restore Mordy and Bigby to life using wishes
308 (June 2003) The Bored PC:  Antics from the Early Days (by Rob Kuntz)
  • Describes the extortion Terry Kuntz's PC, The Monk with No Name, inflicted upon Mark Ratner's PC, Ayelerach the fighter =)
309 (July 2003) no column None
310 (August 2003) no column None
311 (September 2003) no column None
312 (October 2003) no column None
313 (November 2003) A Pressing Situation:  The Obvious is Often Overlooked
  • Convention going-players encounter a "large and relatively unexplored sublevel" with "plenty of monsters and problem-solving areas"
  • PCs enter a trap room - "Before you is a circular chamber about 40 feet in diameter.  It is metal-walled, and the low ceiling appears to be made of iron.  You see no doors in the room, but there is a small object lying on the floor in the center of it.  You notice no other features from where you observe this place."
  • After a big wobble, the walls shift, hiding the exit doorway, and the ceiling starts to lower; the object is a triangular dagger that is a key that fits a triangular keyhole in the ceiling, which reverses the lowering
  • PCs failed to figure it out, and they were all squashed
314 (December 2003) Self-Destructing PCs:  Unearned Levels are the PC's Worst Enemy
  • Gygax recounts another convention anecdote, about an inept player with a 13th level ranger (his lowest-level PC...)
  • The PCs find "a large chamber with many pillars and several doors" and the ranger is energy-drained to 9th by four wights
  • PCs later discover a staircase down, "and beside it lay an alcove wherein a great clay pot rested, radiating heat and billowing smoke"
  • The ranger PC shatters the pot, releases its bound fire elemental, which kills his PC
315 (January 2004) no column None
316 (February 2004) The Spell Gone Awry:  The Exploits of Robilar (by Rob Kuntz)
  • Robilar had a "penchant" for "subduing dragons and sacking their lairs"
  • After beating a white dragon, Robilar attempts to sell it to the Mage of the Tower, and demands that the apprentice wizard get his master for Robilar will deal only with him
  • Robilar always wore a ring of spell turning; the apprentice casts charm person upon Robilar, and both targets miss their saves; their prices drop (Robilar) and rise (apprentice) in an attempt to assist their newfound best friend....
  • The affect wears off on Robilar first, and he agrees to 60,000 gp for the dragon, but the Mage of the Tower intervenes and haggles Robilar down to 5000 gp less than his original asking price
317 (March 2004) Barrage Balloon? The End of Murlynd's Mayhem
  • Over his MU's carrer, Don Kaye's Murlynd acquired a wand of fireballs and boots of levitation
  • Murlynd bests a group of orcs and NPCs, to Gygax's chagrin...
  • when Murlynd, Terik, Tenser, and Robilar encounter the main force of orcs sans leaders, who target the levitating MU en masse!  Murlynd retreated groundward to complete the combat ;-)
318 (April 2004) What's in a Name? Call it Whatever, But it Still Smells Sweet
  • Gygax describes his various PCs, in order of creation:
    • Yrag, the fighter
    • Mordenkainen, the MU
    • Felnorith, the fighter sidekick to Yrag
    • Elven twins, Vram and Vin, fighter/MUs to accompany Mordenkainen
    • Mordy charms Bigby when Bigby is a 3rd level MU, which starts Rob's -igby naming trend for Gary's henchmen ;-)
      • Zigby the dwarf
      • Rigby the cleric
      • Sigby Griggbyson, a fighter
      • Bigby's apprentice, Nigby
      • Digby, Mordenkainen's new apprentice
    • Gygax broke Kuntz's spell by hiring Hughie, Dewey, and Louie as three new low-level MU apprentices =)
319 (May 2004) Dual to the Death: The First Dual-Classes Character
  • Gygax describes how Ernie Gygax's PC MU named Erac's Cousin was whisked away via a cursed scroll to Mars
  • Mars wouldn't allow Erac's Cousin to use magic, so he learned to fight (and well, in the lesser gravity of Barsoom)
  • "... when Erac's Cousin ventured forth he would announce which of the two classes he operated in, and have Erac's Cousin with the accouterments for that class only" (this differs from AD&D's standard dual-classing rules)
320 (June 2004) Cut to the Quick:  Two is Too Many
  • Gygax states that "Erac's Cousin gained the only vorpal blade that I placed in the Greyhawk Campaign..." (this contradicts the same statement about Tenser in June 2002, article #10 in the series)
  • "... but he subsequently acuired, by random roll, the only other vorpal sword that came into play in that heavily played game"
  • Erac's Cousin was ambidextrous, too
  • Gygax spells Mark Ratner's PC paladin as Eylerach in this column (Eylerach had a +5 two-handed holy avenger)
  • The PCs find the Great Stone Face, which Gygax reveals here as Fraz-urb-luu
  • Fraz' power was sufficient to block the paladin's detect evil ability, and Fraz' cons the the two PCs into freeing him
  • Following Fraz' directions, the two PCs go to an 8th level dungeon maze "at the center of which a werebear guarded a special scroll that would free the demonlord from his confinement"
  • Eylerach read the scroll to free Fraz'... who promptly carted them off to the Abyss as his favored henchmen
  • The Abyss ruined both PCs' magical swords


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