Gary Gygax and the Misunderstanding and Bastardization of Role-Playing Games

The Root of Dungeon’s & Dragons

Gary Gygax passed away on March 4, 2008. For those who don’t know of him, Gygax was one of the founders of Dungeons & Dragons back in the 70’s. At its creation, D&D was a role-playing game that pioneered the genre. If you’ve never played one, the best way to describe a role-playing game or RPG is “interactive storytelling.” Imagine someone telling you a story, but you have control over what one of the characters can do in the story. That character essentially represents you.

What made D&D cool were the rules. Your character had attributes like strength, dexterity and intelligence, which were represented by a number. In order to see if your character succeeded in a particular action in the story, like, say, picking up a heavy boulder, you rolled dice against the particular attribute that was being tested. There were other stats as well, like Saving Throws, Proficiencies and Armor Class. All of these numbers were important in fleshing you out as a living, breathing character in the game world. More importantly, they allowed the Dungeon Master to assess how the game world would affect and react to you.

The Dungeon Master (or Game Master, for more contemporary games) was essentially god of the game world. He or she told you what happened and how. The DM was also the only way you saw the world, so if you had a crappy DM, your game world was kind of bland. But when you had a smart, savvy DM, you were part of some of the best adventures known to man.

A few weeks ago, I read an article on Slate, by Erik Sofge. He writes:

But it has to be said: Gary Gygax wasn’t a visionary to all of us. The real geeks out there—my homies—know the awkward truth: When you cut through the nostalgia, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a good role-playing game; in fact, it’s one of the worst on the market. Sadly, Gygax’s creation defines our strange corner of the entertainment world and drowns out all the more innovative and sophisticated games that have made D&D obsolete for decades. (As a game designer, Gygax is far outclassed by contemporaries such as Steve Jackson and Greg Stafford.) It’s the reason that tabletop gaming is not only stuck in the pop culture gutter but considered pathetic even by the standards of mouth-breathing Star Trek conventioneers. And with the entire industry continuing to collapse in the face of online gaming, this might be the last chance to see Gygax for what he was—an unrepentant hack, more Michael Bay than Ingmar Bergman.

I was bothered by the article on many levels. First, it was printed on March 10, just six days after Gygax’s passing. To criticize his life’s work and then call him a hack is simply in bad taste. The article goes on talk about how D&D promotes the slaughter of countless hapless orcs just for a bit gold. I don’t know if that’s meant to somehow have real life ties and merits, but I think the writer needs to keep in mind that this is a game, after all. Lastly, he claims to be one of the gaming nerds, but effaces them and their ilk – like the mouth-breathing Star Trek conventioneers – which has me thinking that he’s not really what he claims to be. Or, more likely, he’s one of those nerd traitors who’s crossed over to the party life sometime in college and therefore has the right to thumb his nose at everyone who’s still hanging on to their nerdiness.

He reminds me of the dentist on Seinfeld who joined every religion so that he could crack jokes about them. It’s that “hey, I’m one of you, so I can make fun of you” free pass mentality.

I don’t think Dungeons & Dragons is any worse of a role-playing game than anything else out on the market. Each has their own rules and game mechanics. At the end of the day, it really boils down to how good the storyteller is.

Role-Playing Games Diluted for Video Games

I’ve played D&D in probably every incarnation of itself. I remember when the Armor Class worked with lower numbers being better and struggling with the math when negative numbers came into play. I do remember when Elf was a class in the basic version. Heck, I even had the D&D board game.

Over time, I’ve watched the evolution of the D&D franchise wind its way through the video game media. I played the Gold Box series, which is still highly regarded by old-time gamers. I’ve played the more obscure Dark Sun series, the Xbox Dark Alliance games, as well as the two arcade games (not sure if there’s more). And of course, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Baldur’s Gate games, Neverwinter Nights games and the offshoot Planescape Torment game.

I realize that not all of those games are really role-playing games. Unfortunately, today’s gamers don’t have the ability to tell the difference. Role-playing games have typically been considered harder to play, because they are more often text heavy and less action oriented. Imagine your average twitch-player who’s honed his reflexes for first-person shooter games like Halo slowing down to read the ponderous tomes of dialog in Torment. It seemed role-players and twitchers were destined to play separate games forever.

Then the game developers began making hybrids, like first-person shooter games that had role-playing elements, like stat building and dialog choices. A prime example of this is Deus Ex. This seemed to satisfy both groups because Twitchers didn’t feel excluded from more cerebral games and Role-players found a little more complexity added to simplistic games. Unfortunately, developers found that they could appeal to a broader audience with hybrid RPGs rather than straight ones. So now the majority of gamers think that games like the Final Fantasy series – which has no dialog choices and only the barest character building – are real RPGs.

I remember the frustration I felt, trying to explain to people why Bethesda’s Oblivion was not an RPG. The entire game relied on the player’s physical ability to play the game, ranging from attacking to jumping. You weren’t playing a role, you were playing yourself within the game. Gamers were trying to tell me how if you play a role in a game, then it’s a role-playing game. Therefore, Super Mario Brothers was a role-playing game because you played the role of Mario.


Sometimes – in this case, in particular – segregation through complexity is a good thing.