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Industry Insights: The RPGnet Interviews

Interview with Gary Gygax, part 1 of 3

by Scott Lynch
May 1, 2001

Editor's Introduction I selected Mr. Gygax as my first interview subject for four major reasons:

1. Name recognition, baby;

2. I knew that mentioning his name in my intro piece would generate a flurry of comments, and I really wanted to see what the reaction of readers would be;

3. Gygax is now 62, and speaking frankly, he's not going to be around forever; and

4. While surfing various interviews and web commentaries on gygax and his work, I became alarmed at the general acceptance of rumor and hearsay governing his reputation. "Gygax-trashing" was a widespread pastime. It was taken for granted that he was a "dinosaur," that he was no longer "relevant."

I pondered what it meant to be "relevant" as I composed my solicitation letter to Mr. Gygax in November of last year. Several associates warned me that he was a crotchety old throwback to the Paleolithic era who would bite my head off as soon as throw a sharp glance in my direction. To my surprise, he agreed to a pretty rigorous interrogation and even wound up inviting me to stop by if I ever pass through Lake Geneva.

I completed a 39-question interview with him and whittled a few dull and superfluous questions out. The final draft was just a little under 10,000 words, divided into three sections. Although the early portion of the interview clearly reveals that this is my first time doing any such thing, I believe that the affair became much more lively as it evolved and I gained a little confidence in my job.


Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Birth: July 27, 1938
Current Residence: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Immediate Family: Wife Gail, son Alex at home, six other children grown and on their own: Ernie, Elise, Heidi, Cindy, and Luke
Pet: One cat, Nema.
Favorite Book(s): Too many to possibly list here! Jack Vance is my favorite author in general, though.
Favorite Films: Lots of these- ranging from The Third Manand The Deep, Enter the Dragon,and The Seven Samurai,and including The Longest Day, Alien,and Zardoz.I know I've missed at least two, but...
Favorite Musicians: I listen mostly to classical, Spanish guitar, jazz, and some blues too. Of composers, I am drawn to Mozart and Beethoven. Segovia surely was master of the guitar, and the "modern" jazz musicians are my favorites--Parker, Davis, Gillespie, Hinton, Rich, Anita O'Day, Billie Holliday, Stan Kenton--all that lot. As to blues, well all the 1940s and 50s performers are fine by me, from Joe Turner and BB King to Leadbelly and Big Momma Thornton.
Favorite Beverages: Coffee in the AM, iced tea, a Gibson before dinner, a good Bordeaux with that meal, Armagnac after. A cool glass of ale (Samuel Adams is fine) just about anytime in between.
Favorite Foods: Most any from the top cuisines- (Northern) Italian topping the list, then Chinese, French, and Hungarian. I like to be a gastronome when I'm somewhere that there are better restaurants. Not much in that vein hereabouts...
Other Interests: You mean besides gaming and my family? Football, history, and fishing when I can get away from work likely top the list. Seems there's so much to be interested in it's hard to pin down.
photo of Gary Gygax

RPGNet: You've been active in the gaming industry for three decades now. Why should anyone still care what Gary Gygax has to say about anything?

Gary: If I were a sports figure, I would agree that age might affect performance.

While I might say that seeing that Beethoven wrote eight symphonies over many years of time, and why be interested in a ninth one, I'll refrain. As it is, I believe that after more than 30 years as a game hobbyist, fan, and author, the experience gained over those many years enables me to bring something new and different to the table with each successive design.

In short, no "Johnny One-Note" me!

As an aside, there is also a certain repute that is attached to the "Gary Gygax" whatever. Now, a few think it less than sterling. From where I sit, recalling a standing ovation from a packed audience at GenCon 32 (even though that made me quite uncomfortable, it really impressed me), the press I get, the thousands of communications I receive thanking me for my work, the answer to the last part of your query is pretty easy to answer. If someone doesn't care what I have to say about something, I'll sic my fans on 'em!

RPGNet: So, just how long and hard are you working at 62, in contrast with yourself at 50 or at 40?

Gary: There is no difference in the time I put into game-related work now, in my 60s, than that of my 50s or even 40s. Of course, now I am spending more time with e-mail than I did back then managing business matters. In fact, I have to fight to get time to do research these days, something that in past times was not so much a problem.

RPGNet: What are the contents of one of your typical workdays?

Gary: My usual workday here begins sometime around 6 AM, maybe 7 AM or so if there's something particularly interesting on C-Span. Then I work on through until around 6 PM or so, usually a bit later if I start later than 6 AM. The exception is on Thursday, RPG campaign day! Then I close down at 5, eat an early dinner, and am ready to play by 6:30 in the evening.

By the way, I keep that schedule at least six days a week, sometimes seven, but not during football season.

RPGNet: And where does all that effort go? What projects are in the oven for you in the next twelve months or so?

GARY: Whew! That's a tall order, and I'll have to guess at it a bit, because the release schedule is a bit fluid. Here goes in regards to majorwork only:

Awaiting release, in likely order of publication:

Lejendary Adventure, Lejendary Earth World Setting;
Key of Sand,Lejendary Earth sourcebook;
Lejendary Pantheonssourcebook;
Maledicted,Lejendary Earth sourcebook;
Well of Shadows,Maledicted adventure;
The Hermit,adventure;

For a yet untitled generic line of GM-aid books, possibly "Gygaxian Fantasy:"

The Weyland Smith Catalogue("Joke" magic items);

In final stages of polish before being turned over for editing:

LA Game Lejendary AsteroguesRules, genre expansion;
ditto Lejend Master's books, 2 volumes;

For a that as-yet untitled generic line of GM-aid books:

The Canting Crew;

In process of design, near completion:

Lejendary AsteroguesKowloon Wharf sourcebook and adventure;

Working projects:

For that as-yet untitled generic line of GM-aid books:

Everyday Life in a Fantasy World;
Fantastic Facts & Things Lists(with Daniel H. Cross);
Lejendary Adventure: Lost Island Sourcebookand adventure (with co-designers);
dittoThe Emerald Domeadventure.

That's it.

RPGNet: Ack.

Gary: Of course this ignores various short projects such as the monthly essay for the Dragon,Magazine column, an adventure that will be coming soon inGame Tradermagazine from Alliance Distributors, an introduction to a great D20 fantasy product that Swords & Sorcery Studios will release this year, etc. The same with a few other things such as my editorial and development work on the freelance submissions that come in to Hekaforge, and my work on the line of special adventure modules we are in process of creating and publishing for LA game fans who will use them in giving in-store demos- a line of special, short adventures not commercially available.

RPGNet: Do you have any high-tech pipe dreams for the next few years? Is there an emerging technology or an unreleased technology that you're hungry to put to use in some never-before-seen format? Or are you a meat and potatoes man to the last?

Gary: This is a difficult question to answer. I am more a dreamer than a technical guy. Of course I am eagerly awaiting computers that have audio and video capacity so as to make online RPG activity more like a group of RPGers actually meeting in person to play. To me that doesn't seem high-tech at all, just a matter of time.

Currently, I manage to resist getting caught up in computer game play. Knowing I have a great deal of work do do in a relatively short time, to start playing an electronic game is to kiss that responsibility goodbye. I really do lovegames of this sort, and if I begin, I won't stop playing until I have exhausted the potential of the offering. I have no games at all on my computer, even Solitaire has been trashed from memory. All that would just have to go by the boards if a game such as I described above were available. That would be just too much to resist. In fact, the very thought is what keeps me working so hard now- get the creative stuff out, and then I can "retire" and play games instead of designing and developing them.

"I converted a plastic stegosaurus into a pretty fair dragon, as there were no models of them around in those days."

RPGNet: Let's chat a bit about that little fantasy RPG you were involved with. Dungeons & Dragonsis said to have evolved from a set of medieval miniature rules called Chainmail.What, exactly, was Chainmail?Was it a commercial project that enjoyed a fair print run, or was it a hobby project that evolved around a local audience?

Gary: Back in around 1968, Jeff Perren became a member of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. He brought his 1:20 (one figure on the table equals 20 men) medieval military miniatures rules to us, rules he had written mainly for use with his Hauser Elastolin 40 mm figurines. As I happened to be a fan of the period and the figures, what a boon that was! It didn't hurt that I really liked Jeff's rules too. With his permission, I expanded his two pages to a longer treatment, and those were published around 1969 in the IFW's monthly magazine as the "LGTSA Medieval Military Miniatures Rules."

That was just the beginning of things, of course. Because I was, and am still, a great medieval history and gaming buff, I added more to the original base. First I did a little "Jousting" rules set, next added a "Man-for-Man" section to the work, that being a new rules treatment for when one figure on the table represented one man in combat, not 20. The LGTSA then played a lot of such games on the weekend-long game sessions held in my basement where the big sand table stood.

Not long after that, as the members began to get tired of medieval games, and I wasn't, I decided to add fantasy elements to the mix, such as a dragon that had a fire-breath weapon, a "hero" that was worth four normal warriors, a wizard who could cast fireballs (the range and hit diameter of a large catapult) and lightning bolts (the range and hit area of a cannon), and so forth. I converted a plastic stegosaurus into a pretty fair dragon, as there were no models of them around in those days. A 70 mm Elastolin Viking figure, with doll's hair glued to its head, and a club made from a kitchen match and auto body putty, and painted in shades of blue for skin color made a fearsome giant figure. I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc. The players lovedthe new game, and soon we had twenty or more players showing up for every session.

Guidon Games hired me as its Editor-in-Chief for a new game rules and games line it was about to publish. I put all of the rules mentioned above together into a single book, named it Chainmail,and it was published by Guidon in 1971. As far as I know, Chainmailwas the best-selling product that Guidon had. Guidon went out of business in 1974, and at that time TSR acquired the rights to Chainmail.TSR published it for several years, from around 1975 through 1978 or so.

"When my youngest daughter, Cindy, added her eager approval to the combination of "Dungeon" and "Dragon," that confirmed my choice..."

RPGNet: You and Dave Arneson are both generally lauded as the "creators of Dungeons & Dragons"yet clear reference to the role you each played in its genesis is hard to come by. Arneson's website, www.castleblackmoor.com, states that Arneson conceived of a proto-roleplaying campaign set in a place called Castle Blackmoor, using a modified form of your Chainmailrules, and was invited to Lake Geneva in 1972 to demonstrate it for you and some friends.

Gary: That's essentially correct. Dave was running a campaign using the Chainmailrules, a variant that sounded fascinating. So he and Dave Megary came down from the Twin Cities to my place in Lake Geneva to do some gaming. Dave Megary brought his game, Dungeon! for me to have a look at.

RPGNet: Arneson further says that a correspondence grew between the two of you in the wake of that visit, and you reworked Arneson's reworking of your own rules into what would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons. If your account and Dave's account are merged, it seems that you evolved the heroic fantasy battle game from Chainmail, he evolved the small-party exploration game from the same rules, and the two flavors bled together with a heavy re-write of existing rules to become Dungeons & Dragons.Is this an accurate chronology of events as you remember them?

Gary: Well sorta...

Dave Arneson and I had already been working on various miniatures rules, such as the Don't Give Up the Shiprules (Arneson, Gygax, and Carr) that were eventually published by Tactical Studies Rules. We made contact by mail, then personally at a GenCon before his visit to Lake Geneva. Between Dave Arneson's modifications of the ChainmailFantasy Supplement figures, giving "Heroes" four hit dice rather than requiring four simultaneous hits to kill them, and "Superheroes" eight hit dice, and Dave Megary's boardgame based on a dungeon adventure with Chainmail"Wizard", "Superhero", "Hero", and "Elf" competing, exploring, slaying monsters, and gaining treasure by so doing, the special nature of what could be done with the rules bases became evident to me.

Dave Arneson never did furnish any solid rules for me to use in devising a new game, although he (and collaterally Dave Megary) certainly did provide solid ideas though. So, as Dave Arneson has said in an interview that was published in Different Worldsmagazine (#3), I devised and wrote the whole of the work that became the Dungeons & Dragonsgame.

The initial draft was only 50 pages long, written and mailed out to about two dozen fellow members of the International Federation of Wargaming in the late winter of 1972. Thereafter, as play-testing in Lake Geneva proceeded (at a happily furious pace), and responses from the first draft recipients came pouring in, I revised and expanded the manuscript to 150 pages in length. That's essentially what was published in 1974 as the three D&D game booklets.

As an aside, I must laugh at some comment I saw about the name for the game being "The Fantasy Game" until someone "wised me up". Having been employed as an Editor-in-Chief, selecting what game rules and games would be published by Guidon Games since the beginning of 1971, I was well aware of the need to use a working title, the need for some caution in regards using the actual name for a a projected game release. So that's the reason for that bland one on the draft works.

By the time the second draft was circulating amongst the testers, I had decided upon the actual title to be used, D&D. This was done by making a list of likely words. I then asked the members of my gaming group, and my family, to choose that one, or that combination of words, that they found best suited the game, and appealed most. When my youngest daughter, Cindy, added her eager approval to the combination of "Dungeon" and "Dragon," that confirmed my choice, and that of most of the others too. So the Dungeons & Dragonstitle was born. (As the creator of the IFW's Castle & Crusade Society, I was pleased.

"As for competition for D&D, there was never any serious competitor. For a fact, there still isn't a real competitor for the new D&D, including my own new fantasy RPG..."

RPGNet: Can you tell us anything about developments in roleplaying after 1973-74 that branched out from the magical fantasy roots you and your contemporaries put down? When did your own associates start to experiment with, say, science fiction or western settings? And when did such efforts start to reach commercial publication at TSR and other companies?

Gary: Whew! Another multi-part question. Think I'd better break it up into manageable chunks:

The D&D game was released in January of 1974. By then Don Kaye and I were "noodling" about a Western RPG, for he was a big fan of that genre. Sadly, Don died in January of 1976. Brian Blume took over for Don, and so the Boot Hillgame was authored thus, Blume and Gygax. So, to the root of the question, that began development early in 1974.

Around 1975 M.A.R, Barker sent us the manuscript for his Empire of the Petal ThroneRPG, the rules inspired by those for D&D, of course. It was a most compelling environment, and we soon published it. Around this same time Brian Blume and I began working on Warriors of Mars,a sort of "Barsoomian" fantasy-science RPG. It too was published by TSR, but then because of pressure from the Burroughs' Estate the product was not reprinted.

I believe that it was 1975 when the Game Designer's Workshop RP game, En Garde,was published. That, to my knowledge, was the first of competing RPGs. Most of us at TSR purchased and played it, too. Then, as time passed, Star Frontiers, Metamorphosis Alpha(one of my very favorite RPGs, later revised and released as Gamma World),Gangbusters,and Top Secret(in that order I think) were released by TSR. I assisted in development and/or play-testing with all of those titles.

As for competition for D&D, there was never any serious competitor. For a fact, there still isn't a real competitor for the new D&D, including my own new fantasy RPG... but maybe in time that will change.

When GDW released Traveller,we were all pretty enthused, for we saw it as broadening the interest for the RPG by covering science fiction. On the release dates of other companies' RPG, I am not a reliable source- I'm barely that for most of the TSR line other than D&D. What copies of the old products I have, and that's astonishingly few, are sealed away for posterity, so I can't check the copyright dates. Sorry.

Next: The memory of Donald Kaye, fantasy archetypes, and game design philosophy. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Industry Insights

  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews China Mieville, April 24, 2002
  • lizard's Condensation of All Game Fiction, April 18, 2002
  • Sandy's "God or Whore?" GTS'02, March 26, 2002
  • Allan Sugarbaker with GAMA Trade Show '02: An Inside Report, March 22, 2002
  • Aldo of Impressions on the GamePlay CD, January 3, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Ken Hite, February 8, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Tim Powers, January 18, 2002
  • Aldo Ghoizzi on Inside the Making of GamePlay, January 3, 2002
  • The RPGnet Awards Cabal presents the RPGnet 2001 Awards Results!, December 5, 2001
  • Ken Whitman teaches us with A Note About Creating a Good Promotional Campaign, October 12, 2001
  • Sean Jaffe on The Fallout, September 27, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • Sean Jaffe on Interesting Times, September 21, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • GodLike: Dennis Detwiler and Greg Stolze, September 14, 2001
  • Jared Nielsen on Tribe Gamer, August 31, 2001
  • Mark Bruno teaches about Copy Editing, August 16, 2001
  • Ratings not just kid's stuff for RPG industry, reported by Matt Snyder, August 9, 2001
  • GenCon '01 News, reported by Matt Snyder, August 3, 2001
  • Origins Report: Would you send your mother to buy from them?, part 4 of 4
  • Origins Report: Booth Babes, part 3 of 4
  • Origins Report: Overview, part 2 of 4
  • The Origins Awards, part 1 of 4, reported by Jason Paul McCartan
  • Gary Gygax Interview, part 1 of 3, by Scott Lynch
  • Why I Write Gaming Materials by Greg Stolze, November 16, 1999
  • Blowing out the Nostalgia Candle by John Wick, October 19, 1999
  • Interview with Sean Pat Fannon, Shards October 5, 1999
  • Portuguese is not Spanish! by Thad Blanchette, September 14, 1999
  • Intuition and Surprise by M. J. Young, July 27, 1999
  • Fear and Loathing in the Wizards of the Coast Game Center by John Tynes, January 26, 1999
  • Breaking In,, on how to break into writing for RPGs, by Steve Kenson, December 22, 1998
  • ALT.RPG, first of a series looking deeply at what gaming is all about, by Matt Miller, September 1, 1998
  • The Night They Tore Old Mecca Down, GenCon report by Randy Porter, August 20, 1998
  • GenCon Fun: con, city, and even housing tips from Randy Porter, June 30, 1998
  • GenCon Lore Vol 3: Program Books, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 23, 1998
  • The Missing and the Dead, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 2, 1998
  • The Definitive Count on who is and isn't attending GenCon 98, by Randy Porter, April 28, 1998
  • How to Scam Games Part II by Steve Johnson, March 24, 1998
  • The Perils of Penniless Publishing by Aaron Rosenberg, February 3, 1998
  • Polyhedral Dice & Mirror Shades, by Greg Costikyan (or, the death of paper).
  • Ken Whitman: A Love Hate Relationship by (of course) Ken Whitman
  • Interview with Sean Punch, GURPS line editor, by Bob Portnell, October 1997
  • YOU DID WHAT? Perspectives On Becoming A Full-Time Writer In The RPG Industry, by Steven Long, September 1997
  • A Resurgence of Role Playing, by Gary Gygax, August 1997

    Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg