The continuing deification of Gygax

This article was posted up on Neuroglyph, Mordenkainen Speaks: What would the Great Gygax think about 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next?

There’s always been a tendency to treat the published words of Gary Gygax as if they were words handed down from the master. I have nothing but respect for the founders of this great hobby, but I don’t think it’s respectful to treat his memory in this way. When he was alive he was always being asked his opinion on modern RPGs. For the most part, he kept such queries at arms length, remaining a professional. It’s certainly the case that he found such questions a little baffling at times, why not simply play the games the way YOU want to?

Edition warring isn’t new, but it’s never been good for the hobby. I think this article is edition warring, but stealthed, under the cover of another mans statements. You might as well ask Tim Berners-Lee whether he prefers Chrome or Firefox. If he did have an opinion on that at least he could expand or clarify his position. (for all I know he has been asked exactly that. Yet, his opinion on the matter doesn’t mean anyone should fall in line with it)

Now that Gary (and Dave Arneson, unfortunately named Dale is this piece) has passed, he can’t engage with any further debate even if he wanted to. To use his statements to back up ones own opinions seems a bit distasteful.

Wizards of the Coast developed 3rd Edition, 3.5/d20, and finally D&D 4E, which has recently been abandoned along with its fans, in favor of a new version of the game which they hope will have a broader gamer appeal.

Abandoned is a strong word, very emotive, and why is it only applied to 4e?

And Paizo’s Pathfinder continues to be a strong force in the D&D gaming community, despite it being quite different from older versions, and has no access to original setting material.

Original setting material? Like what, Greyhawk? Pathfinders default world is full of references to old settings, it’s almost a tribute. And does this even matter? Pathfinder has its own setting material, as does every other game ever released, and happily this hobby still stands by DMs and players inventing their own.

So while I can’t claim to personally know the mind of the late great Mr. Gygax, I think it’s interesting to consider some quotes from the man himself, and how they might pertain to the current D&D edition, its biggest rival, and the edition that is yet to come!

Well, they don’t pertain to the newer editions do they? They pertain to the matters they address at the time. By all means tell me YOUR opinion, I’d love to hear it.

Quote #1: “The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience. There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.”
With respect to this quote, which appeared in the New York Times article Gary Gygax, Game Pioneer, Dies at 69 (5 March 2008), I think all three games – D&D 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next – lives up to his litmus test of what a role-playing game is all about. While the three versions of D&D approach game mechanics like character design and combat quite differently, they still allow the players to envision a unique and detailed alter ego in a fantasy world environment.

The definition of RPGs? And it turns out the newer games qualify? Good to know.

Quote #2: “The adventure is the thing, not ‘a story.’ If you want stories, go read a book, if you want derring-do, play a real RPG and then tell the story of the adventure you barely survived afterwards. The tale is one determined by the players’ characters’ actions, surely!”

Like in the previous quote, I think that D&D 4E, Pathfinder, and D&D Next all can fulfill Mr. Gygax’s game philosophy. But of the three games, I must admit that 4E’s encounter driven adventure design makes the storytelling aspects a bit stilted. As much as I like D&D 4E, adventures require more planning under the current edition, and aren’t as easy to run “off the cuff” as adventures I used to run in previous editions. Some of my older players who have been gaming with me since college days night be surprised that some of their best loved adventures from bygone campaigns were invented at the table on the fly – and that’s something that 4E doesn’t lend itself to, at least as far as my experience has been as a DM since 2008.

I don’t think the author understands the story point. In original D&D, the game was set up to play it first, and tell the story after. The story was generated through play, the story didn’t come first. Dragonlance is commonly held to be the originator of the story first module. Interestingly, Paizos Adventure Paths cleave closely to that idea. 4e modules, on the other hand, present the mechanics pretty baldly. They can be uninspiring reads, but they produce game sessions, and they produce stories.

And that’s just looking at modules. The home game will be whatever the group wants it to be, no matter the nuances of the system. I’ve run hundreds of sessions, both fully scripted and on the fly. The system hasn’t held me back, or steered me in either direction.

Quote #3: “The worthy GM never purposely kills players’ PCs, he presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own. Those players who have their characters act rashly or do plainly foolish things can speak of their part in the tale posthumously ” (from Dragonsfoot Forums)

I’ve always taken this DM philosophy to heart. I hate character death and TPKs, but I acknowledge the fact that they happen sometime. However, I never seek to kill characters, but I do create hard encounters where the heroes have to work hard to survive, and if they showboat or get sloppy, then the grim specter of death will definitely be stalking around the gaming table. D&D 4E has some of the hardiest characters around and it’s pretty hard to stomp them out with a “reasonable” encounter. Pathfinder characters tend to be pretty tough as well, but so far D&D Next characters tend to be downright fragile. Having tried several different iterations of Next, including the first “super secret” version which came out before the public playtest. Character death was far too easy to cause, and the early monster designs were brutal. The version I playtested at GenCon a few months ago was moving in the right direction, there still needs to be work done to make characters feel like heroes, and not peons.

Don’t disagree! The deadliness of a game is entirely in the hands of a DM, again, no matter what the system. Rocks fall, everyone dies. The DM always has the bigger elephant.

Quote #4: “The new D&D is too rules intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG…” GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)

This quote came right in the middle of the 3rd Edition and 3.5/d20 era of Dungeons & Dragons, and clearly Mr. Gygax didn’t have much in the way of warm fuzzies for this edition. By inference, I would also assume that he would have even less liking for Pathfinder and D&D 4E which are also quite rules intensive, and have fairly powerful character classes and might be considered non-archetypal. On the other hand, the playtest rules I’ve seen for D&D Next so far have embraced this gaming philosophy, and is less rules intensive, although some character classes still are moving away from OD&D and AD&D archetypes.

This is oft quoted, and actually shows GG in an uncharitable mood unfortunately. If it does mean he has no truck with modern iterations, then really what can he add to this debate at all?

Gary had opinions, as do we all. His got written down, and due to his enormous influence on the hobby, his words have been picked clean over the decades. The quotes in this article range from 1979 to 2004. How many of us hold the same opinions we had thirty years ago? Again, I have nothing but respect for the man and his works, and I know that is a feeling shared by the current crop of designers whether employed by WotC or Paizo.

Gary played D&D his way. I play D&D my way. You play D&D your way. The newest editions want to enable those groups to get gaming. None of us are served by trying to make new games that only Gary would approve of.



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3 responses to “The continuing deification of Gygax

  1. Arbanax

    Baz insightful and great comment. I read Neuroglyph from time to time, but find his whole stand re 4e a little tiresome. I love the way you point out the logical non squinter of using Gary’s words to lambast D&D Next in subtle favour of…well what? It seems to suggest that by use of these quotes that everything Gary didn’t have a hand in isn’t worth playing! But quoting Gary to get your point across, without the guy being here to defend himself seems pointless. I could probably pull half a dozen other quotes to counter this. Besides Gary continued to design games and write modules right till the end, so clearly he wasn’t against innovation, as I understood it.

  2. Scrivener of Doom

    Great blog, BTW.

    I’ve also never understood Gary’s deification or even that he is somehow an authority on RPGs. Sure, he played a major role in creating and commercialising D&D – and thus the RPG hobby – but his own works were often horribly lacking and really badly designed.

    If you only had his work in front of you – say, Cyborg Commando, Dangerous Journeys, Lejendary Adventures and the unintelligible parts of early D&D/AD&D – and no knowledge of who wrote them you might even write him off as a rather lacklustre designer who should never have been published.

    So, yes, mad props to him for getting things started but, after that, his work wasn’t good.

    (As for his uncharitable moods, I still vividly remember his “one true way” pontifications in Dragon editorials. When I subsequently encountered and interacted with him on the ENWorld forums, I was surprised that he was so pleasant and reasonable compared with some of his comments from the 80s. I’m glad he mellowed with age.)

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