Monday, April 16, 2018

In Praise of Carl Sargent

I'm a big fan of Carl Sargent's work for D&D. In the mid-1980's to 1990's he worked for both Games Workshop and TSR. At GW he worked on the Fighting Fantasy books (under the pseudonym Keith Martin). At TSR, he worked on numerous setting/adventure books for Greyhawk, such as the From the Ashes boxed set (something of an attempt to resurrect Greyhawk after it was razed in Greyhawk Wars), Iuz the Evil, The City of Skulls, and the Night Below boxed mega-adventure. He also wrote PC2, Top Ballista, and co-wrote GAZ 13 The Shadow Elves, for the BECMI D&D line.

I find that Sargent's work is, without fail, incredibly careful, thoughtful, detailed, and with near encyclopedic awareness of the prior game literature (e.g., whether working in the campaign world of Greyhawk or the Known World or whatever). He also has a real streak of imagination. For example, I recently read PC2 Top Ballista, which is a fanciful and attractive product (I would not want to write it off as a total joke, as one might from the title and cover). I honestly enjoyed the rocket-powered flying city, skygnomes with a biplane aerial academy, and the great library with its centuries-old undead floating-head librarian (get it?) armed with silence and death spells. At the same time, he presents alternative rules for falling clearly based on real-world speed/times, some obvious research into early biplane fighters, etc.

I might guess that Sargent's legacy for D&D is unfortunately constrained by having worked in a very conservative era for TSR: in the shadow of Gygax's departure, in an artistic contraction from the culture wars of the 80's, with very restrictive design dictates that ultimately wanted all the products to be PG-rated at best. His 165-page source book for the Great Kingdom, Ivid the Undying, was cancelled by TSR circa 1993 and never published (although later released as a free download online).

My general instinct is that Carl Sargent is a writer very much after my own heart. I would have liked to see what he'd create for D&D in a less restrictive context.

However, here's the surprising thing that I just learned: Sargent also held a PhD in parapsychology, and was quite a major figure in experiments claiming to show evidence for psi-powers, remote sensing, ESP, etc. He appears in the Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. His experiments claimed among the highest effect sizes for remote-sensing, until scientist Susan Blackmore visited his lab in the 90's and pointed out numerous violations of protocol (actually terminating her own prior belief in the paranormal). Sargent left the field after that, and at the moment I can't find any information on what he's done since then.

The one additional kick is that I can't help but note that Top Ballista (1989) is riddled with lots of ESP-type powers and counter-powers. Perhaps even better, he features a new equipment item for the tinker/mechanic skygnomes, the Skyhook Set, "essential for best use of the Machine Building skill... an old gnome saying is 'a good gnome needs naught but skyhooks'". Then in Susan Blackmore's essay on his work (2001), she cites the philosopher Daniel Dennett as asserting of the parapsychologists: "they are looking for 'skyhooks' rather than 'cranes.'". Weird echoes in a crazy world. Maybe some actual belief in the supernatural is of benefit to a fantasy game writer.

Carl Sargent, we miss you!



  1. I couldn't wrap my head around this "skyhook" thing but this quote below gives the gnome world view a much cooler take on their religion, that Machines ARE their gods:

    "The big question is how we got here. Was our existence foreordained, drawn up as by a skyhook from the dreary world of matter into the realm of angels? Or are we the unforeseen accumulation of blind, chance mutations selected by interaction with the environment, matter lifting itself into ever greater domains of complexity, eventually into consciousness, as if by those cranes used by builders of skyscrapers that ratchet upward as the buildings rise?"

    I think we can hear that old Gnome saying as "a good Gnome needs naught but [his gods]" and Gnome gods happen to be ... machines ... like cranes for example ... which Carl is naming a Skyhook??? I think Carl was having a hell of a time playing with words here I'm still spinning!!!