Thursday, November 1, 2012

Explaining the Unexplained: Carl Sargent

Carl Sargent is best known in gaming circles for being the lead developer of Greyhawk during much of 2nd edition from 1991 to 1997. The timeline advancing From the Ashes and the unpublished Ivid the Undying are among his most ambitious works during that period. Few remember however, that before Sargent worked as a freelancer on RPGs, he had a PHD in experimental parapsychology and taught at Cambridge, where he became a published author on the subject of the paranormal. These impressive credentials must surely contributed to Sargent's quick ascension to TSR and into the fore of Greyhawk.

Recently a friend of mine obtained one of his books, Explaining the Unexplained, Mysteries of the Paranormal (co-written by Hans J. Eysenck) and I must say it sheds a new light on Sargent's vision of Greyhawk. Eysenck I must add is a psychologist with over 70 books under his belt, so I assume he did a greater share of the writing. With that in mind, a large part of Sargent's contribution, being the parapsychologist was likely on the methods of testing the phenomenon of psychic abilities. The book is quite interesting, covering subjects like psychics, ESP, dreams, mind over matter, life after death and so on.

Not surprisingly then, the Explaining the Unexplained has a section (in mind over matter) about testing PK (psychokinetic ability) with cards, dice and even RPGs:

"...certain environments create strong desires and wishes through incentive motivation of much subtler kinds than bribery. Human beings are extremely curious and many psychology experiments show that the simple prospect of learning how well one has done in some test or other is a powerful motivator. If the test is presented in an appealing and attention-grabbing way, curiosity becomes a powerful motivator. External factors very definitely affect how internal motivations are strengthened and expressed."

"There are obvious ways in which this line of testing might be carried forward....Very relevant here are 'fantasy roleplaying' computer games, such as those based on the world best selling Dungeons and Dragons game..."

"In these games youngsters play the roles of...warriors, wizards, witches, and rogues. Confronted with deadly puzzles, riddles, and traps, and mighty enemies and monsters..."

"The games are addictive and are constructed to help...develop problem solving skills of many kinds. The powerful intrinsic motivation is that of solving riddles and puzzles."

"And because the game commands intense concentration, the player would soon forget that he was being tested at all. Further, these games take place in 'worlds' (not unlike Tolkien's famour Middle Earth) in which magic exists and is real...Why should PK effects not exist too? If belief is an important factor, these games certainly aid in suspension of disbelief."

That leads us back to Greyhawk and the psychology of Sargent himself. Given his body of work, the way some elements found their way into "Sargenthawk" make more sense. Several notable examples out of From the Ashes:

Spinning Helix of the Archmages (a paranormal phenomenon that aids in divinatory powers)
Lyzandred's Tomb (a lich who favors testing heroes not with monsters but puzzles, traps and games)
Doomgrinder (another divinatory mystery)
Zendreldra's Tower (crazy psychic crone who predicts a great flood)
Philidor (mysterious blue skinned wizard who curiously has among other topics, sagely knowledge in astrology, metaphysics and sociology)

I could go on, but it's evident Sargent was a good fit for developing a fantasy world. I wonder if he got tired of testing the paranormal in favor of writing RPGs (or was he combining both?). We'll never know for sure. All I know is Greyhawk was lucky to have drawn such a talented mind to the setting.


Jason Zavoda said...

I always liked Carl's Greyhawk campaign as an observer of a dark and grim version of Greyhawk. It was one of the influence that lead me back to the campaign released during Gygax's years at TSR.

Any definitive word on what ever happened to Sargent?

Mike Bridges said...

Well no, but he'd be 60 by now so I hope he's retired or something. I imagine not having Ivid published and the rocky end of TSR contributed to his 'disappearance' from RPG writing.

grodog said...

I was under the impression that the Carl Sargent from the parapsychology works wasn't the same Carl Sargent of TSR/Greyhawk fame. Not sure why, but that's what I remember from some years ago.

As to why/how he disappeared, I heard from folks at Hogshead (for whom Sargent was writing Warhammer FRP materials) that he dropped out of sight en route to the USA to go to work full time for FASA (IIRC), and hasn't been seen since.


Mike Bridges said...

Grodog: Since the guy's bio on the dust jacket says he currently works on RPGs (the edition I have was reprinted in the 90's) I went with the odds it's the same Sargent, wikipedia notwithstanding.

Now the FASA bit is news to me, but yeah something else must've cropped up. That's life.

Valkaun_Dain said...

Damn... From "best friend" to "friend of mine" in just 10 days. That hurts, Mike.


Mike Bridges said...

Somehow I knew you would chime in about that. Since you're a regular commentator here I guess it's only fair that I should start referring to you by name from now on.

Otherwise what do you think of your find?

Valkaun_Dain said...

I'm impressed that you got all of that info since I gave it to you on Monday. Otherwise, very cool that it gives some insight into his creative process. I'm glad I picked it up.

James Wallis said...

If anyone's still following this thread--I'm James Wallis, who used to run Hogshead Publishing. Carl wasn't working on material for us in the mid-90s, but I collaborated with him and Marc Gascoigne on a series of kids' books in the early 90s. I can confirm/deny the following:

1. Greyhawk-writing Carl Sargent is the same Carl Sargent who held the chair in parapsychology at Edinburgh University.

2. Around 1995/6 he accepted a job with FASA as the Shadowrun editor, in Chicago. He left Nottingham to fly to Chicago, but apparently never got on the plane. Nobody knew where he was, though many people in the games industry were trying to locate him. He wasn't answering his phone, emails, anything. Finally about a month later he was seen at his house in Nottingham by someone who knew him well.

3. I was told that FASA never heard from Carl, and eventually rescinded the job offer.

4. After the incident Carl broke off contact with old friends and colleagues, to the extent of walking past them on the street and not acknowledging them.

5. I have no idea if the car-accident story is true or not.

There's more, but you'll need to get me drunk at a con to hear it.

Mike Bridges said...

Thanks for the response James, yeah that Carl and many others from the old days just vanish from the industry. It's strange that people who loved a hobby so much would just go cold turkey.

Hal M said...

I worked with Carl in 1979 at the Cambridge Uni Parapsychology lab and participated in one of the more extraordinary sessions.
There really was nothing wrong with his work, he was genuinely getting extremely positive results.

He was never Chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh though, that was Rob Morris.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia provides a death date of 12 September 2018 (, with three references:
"Carl Lynwood Sargent". Funeral Zone. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
"Carl Sargent (1952-2018)". Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
"Carl Sargent (1952-2018)". Society for Psychical Research. Retrieved 16 November 2018.

I have no idea if they're accurate or not.