Industry Insights: The RPGnet Interviews
Interview with Gary Gygax, part 2 of 3by Scott Lynch
May 17, 2001
Industry Insights: The RPGnet Interviews
Interview with Gary Gygax, part 2 of 3by Scott Lynch
May 17, 2001
(continued from part 1)
"We were firing ladyfinger firecrackers with the Britons artillery pieces I had, and the real casualties among the figures was too high..."
RPGNet: As you mentioned, Donald Kaye passed away not long after Dungeons & Dragons burst out of the cradle and started making a name for itself. Not many younger gamers have had a chance to hear of him or the contribution he made to the game's publication. What can you tell us in his memory?
Gary: This is an opportunity for which I thank you most gratefully. Don and I were childhood friends from about age 6 onwards. From that time on we played many a game, did all the things schoolmate friends to together too. We had a club that used to meet at my house in Lake Geneva, and on a large open space in the attic we would attempt miniatures games with a mix of military miniatures, 65 mm and 64 mm scales. We never did get it right until after high school, I blush to admit. We were firing ladyfinger firecrackers with the Britons artillery pieces I had, and the real casualties among the figures was too high...
Anyway, after I moved to Chicago (1956) I saw Don only on weekends I returned to Lake Geneva, but when I came back for a Christmas Holiday in 1958 I brought Avalon Hill's Gettysburg game with me, and introduced Don to board wargaming thus. After I moved back to Lake Geneva again in 1963, he was one of the regular members of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Rules Association, mainly playing WW II miniatures. But when I came up with fantasy medievals, Don knew I had something special going. In late November of 1972 I wrote the first draft of the D&D game, and Don was one of the small group of initial players: son Ernie, daughter Elsie, and two teenage boys, Rob and Terry Kuntz, forming that whole.
We talked a lot about getting our own company going then, and Don borrowed against a life insurance policy in 1973, so that we could form the Tactical Studies Rules company as a partnership in October of that year. Cavaliers & Roundheads (Perren & Gygax) rules for English Civil War military miniatures wargames was published in October 1973. Next came Dungeons & Dragons in January of1974. All of the warehousing and shipping was done at Don's house a few blocks away from where I lived then. As D&D was "blowing out the door" at the rate of over 100 a month by summer, Don began to look forward eagerly to doing a Wild West RPG. He planned to draft rules as soon as he could quit his job to work for TSR. We projected that would be possible in about a year or so. Don was very happy.
Then, in January of 1975, he had a massive and fatal heart attack. He was only 36 years old when that happened. How ironic, I thought, as I became the first paid employee of the company in June of 1976, Don's birthday month, he being exactly one month older than I. Don was then and still is sorely missed by me.
Brian Blume and I went on to create the Boot Hill RPG in Don's memory. He would likely have done it better.
RPGNet: Let's talk about author's privilege. Just how many characters that slipped into Dungeons & Dragons mythology, like Mordenkainen, were originally your own player-characters or those of close friends? Are there any other in-jokes hidden in your D&D work that still elicit a chuckle?
Gary: A few, but I suspect most of them are pretty well known- I never tried to make them a secret.
The spell components in the original AD&D PHB, the ones that some sadly misguided critics of the game have pointed to as "proof" of the "sorcerous nature" of the work are foremost. Most of those are jokes, of course. The legume for "Gust of Wind," the glass rod and fur for "Shocking Grasp," and so forth. When I was unable to get in a funny, I tried to put in something that would be costly or difficult for the PC to obtain. I'm such a mean DM...
There are a lot of names in the World of Greyhawk that are drawn from the names of my family, friends, and fellow gamers. Again, these have generally been sussed out and enumerated. The same is true in many of the adventures, and in my Gord novels. Melf therein is a PC of my son Luke, and we played out one encounter- unbeknownst to him at the time, and now bitterly disputed when the topic of "being duped" is brought up.
Anyone claiming that Lorraine Williams is parodied somewhere in the Dangerous Journeys system Mythus book is mistaken. I would never refer to her as a witch.
Not a few DMs have missed the "EGG" initials on one of the maps for the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks module. Heck, it's been so long that I slipped these sorts of things into my writing that I've likely forgotten a fair number of others. I do it because I don't take myself or the work too seriously- fun, yes?
"In a universe of magical things, impossible monsters, and all the rest, it appears from my perspective that such a debate is almost laughable."
RPGNet: Where did you first encounter the fantasy archetypes that would later form the basis of Dungeons & Dragons?
Gary: This is a very difficult question to answer. Likely the initial archetypes were used by my father in the fantasy bedtime stories he told me when I was very young, and in the fairytales and similar stories my mother likewise read to me. At least the heroic warrior and wizard came from those roots. So too the dwarf and the elf, augmented by my own reading of myths and legends as I grew older.
By age 10 I had read my first fantasy yarn, a Conan tale in a pulp, and by age 12 I was an avid fan of SF, fantasy, and horror. The warrior and mage archetypes were thus reinforced, and the shaping of that for the cleric and thief characters was underway. What solidified the cleric was what was written in horror-type fiction melded with the fantasy story portraits of "pagan" priests. The thief was taken from the legends of actual and fictitious rogues, then augmented by Zelazny's Jack of Shadows and Vance's marvelous "Cugel the Clever".
Not much to speak of in regards to the gnome (myth and legend) and the halfling (mainly from Tolkien, but with Celtic and British folklore roots, of course).
RPGNet: Fantasy roleplayers have been debating the origin and nature of "heroic qualities" for more than a quarter-century. This debate lies at the core of almost every "heroic sword and sorcery" game written, and usually boils down to the question of whether heroes are born special, set apart from the common person, or whether they become uncommon through their own choices and actions (nature vs. nurture once again). Do you have an aesthetic preference for either heroic model?
Gary: It seems a rather picayune matter to me, truth told. In a universe of magical things, impossible monsters, and all the rest, it appears from my perspective that such a debate is almost laughable. Still, if it is important to some participants, it is not as I see it, but an important thing for belief in the fantasy milieu. Of course my opinion in the matter of how a mundane character becomes a hero is simply something for such individuals to consider, not to be taken as gospel.
Nature is the key ingredient in forming the heroic persona. The individual must have within him or herself the basic qualities that define such a role. Thereafter nurture and circumstances beyond the control of the nurturers and the persona likely come into play. Not all individual potential granted by nature is realized. Some individuals surpass their seeming potential through necessity. So, in short, nature is the principle factor, but it is always impacted by nurture and by the environment of the character.
RPGNet: A great deal of study has been applied in the past century to the prevailing myth cycles and heroic archetypes of human cultures. Joseph Campbell, for example, wrote one of the best-known texts on the subject of mythic synchronicity, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Have any texts or reference works of that nature had a serious influence on your work, or are you a largely self-made man?
Gary: My discovery of Joseph Campbell was ex post facto, so the short answer is that I am "largely a self-made man." In my book Master of the Game (long out of print) I discuss the correlation of Campbell's assessment of the heroic quest in his Hero With a Thousand Faces with what the D&D game contains in this regard. Having covered it there, I don't believe it is useful to treat the subject at length here. In summation, I found that the RPG covered all of his "universals" and a couple of additional ones the Learned Professor did not include in his list.
RPGNet: Have any real-world religious beliefs (yours or someone else's) had a major influence on your creative work?
Gary: As a matter of fact I have done my best to separate current actual belief systems from my RPG work. While there are some portions that might be thought of as being drawn from or influenced by such contemporary beliefs, it is not actually the case. In short, I used none, and there was no major influence at play, save in what I avoided including in the game works.
RPGNet: So, you've consciously shied away from using your creative work as a medium for the expression of your own moral or theological beliefs, or beliefs that might be interpreted as your own?
Gary: Essentially what you say is correct. However, as not a few gamers have noted, the original AD&D work from me was weighted towards the "Good" alignments in the game, and penalized, subtly I thought, the "Evil". The main portions of this were simply developed from what I have observed about the "Evil" alignment, the nature of its tenets and those who adhere to them--in fiction and in fact. Perhaps that qualifies as inclusion of something of my moral and ethical beliefs. In all I did try to provide a relatively balanced view for all "alignments", and I certainly kept out my own theological opinions.
RPGNet: Have you ever used allegory or allusion in your published work in a non-theological fashion? Offered commentary on political or cultural events that caught your ire, through the medium of gaming texts or fiction? Or do you try to avoid that as well?
Gary: Without going into this subject in detail, I do confess to using some devices, allegory included now and then to slip a little message or commentary on cultural, social, and political topics into some game work. To be clear, though, I do so only when it seems apropos to the matter at hand, adds to the game subject in some way. There is no "message" in my work that isn't part of the game topic.
"If it must be done, then in designing a new RPG, be sure not to make it huge, complex, and complicated."
RPGNet: Let's talk about game design for a bit. What came before Chainmail? When did you first start to seriously consider designing any sort of game, and why?
Gary: Having been born a gamer, I began with chess variants. I found "Double Chess" and a circular chess variant in The Boy's Own Book (1890), and began searching for other sorts, and I discovered a tantalizing mention of Shogi in the Eleventh Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1910). So around age 16 I began attempting to design new chess variants. None of those games were playable.
It was in 1959 that I became a board wargame buff. Around 1961 I wrote to Avalon Hill to order blank hexmap sheets. Tom Shaw told me I was the first one to ask for them, sold them to me at $1 each. The group we had eventually designed a multi-player wargame, with resources and building. It was a disaster! But I kept on, and sometime in the mid-1960s I did fanzine game designs- an expansion of the Avalon Hill game, Stalingrad, for the Baku area, and a whole separate little wargame, The Battle of Arsouf. A bit later I expanded a SF wargame that was played by mail, Tullio Proni was the original creator, and I developed War of Empires into a larger and more complex system. Around then I also did some Diplomacy game variants, one or two of which are still floating around on the web, I believe.
By the end of the 1960s I was an inveterate wargame and military miniatures rules designer, with a co-credit for TRACTICS and two board wargames working- Alexander the Great and Dunkirk. Thereafter I began to hit my stride...
RPGNet: What, in your opinion, should the designer of a commercial roleplaying game scrupulously avoid doing during the design process?
Gary: If you are speaking of paper RPGs, the answer is easy: Don't. Create support material for an established RPG instead. The market is small, and there are already too many game systems. Not much chance that any publisher will be interested in a new one. If the author is determined and has sufficient funds, then it is possible to start a new publishing company-to discover that distributors and shop owners are not interested in new RPGs either.
If the new design is truly superior, not just a variant of some established RPG, then there's a slight chance for success, likely limited, but success nonetheless.
If it must be done, then in designing a new RPG, be sure not to make it huge, complex, and complicated. Most RPGs are learned through play with an experienced GM. Most game masters won't look at the vast and expensive new RPGs that demand great time and effort to learn. A quick and easy game, though, one that is different in play and has an appealing setting just might attract a bit of attention.
RPGNet: So would it be safe to say that in your estimation, all other things being equal, an intriguing game setting is more important than a new and unique game system?
Gary: That is a very tough question to answer. After all, a new, unique game system is rare! If it also covered a genre that was appealing, likely I'd want to play it in preference to playing, certainly to GMing, "an intriguing game setting."
Otherwise, I agree. A great adventure module is more attractive. That's because having to learn a whole new game system is a bear. The time required is the main drawback. Finding players is another stumbling block. The cost of acquiring the game materials isn't a problem if at the same time one isn't trying to keep up with a lot of other RPG releases.
RPGNet: Have you ever known any roleplaying games whose settings were inseparable (or very nearly so) from their systems, that were lessened by re-creation in another game system?
Gary: Likely there are some other examples of this very thing, but indeed I have one that is particularly annoying to me, yes. The original Metamorphosis Alpha game by James M. Ward was inseparable from its setting, the "Starship Warden". That base setting could have been expanded in a number of directions, of course, as needed. Instead, the RPG system was altered, the setting changed, and the result was GAMMA WORLD. That game lost the "soul" that its progenitor had, and the world setting for it was inferior to that of Metamorphosis Alpha.
Harkening back to you last question, if MA were re-released with some updates and expansions, there is no question that I'd pick up the line in a flash! Of course, it would need the adventure support material that was never provided when it was published originally. In this regard, it would meet both parts of your question because its adventure material would likely be intriguing too.
"...there seems no great value in placing such undue importance on story over the many other elements that comprise the RPG."
RPGNet: Beginning around the early 1990s, the roleplaying world experienced a "movement," the nature and definition of which is still up for furious debate, characterized by "storytelling" games of the Ars Magica, and Vampire: The Masquerade persuasion. This gaming style, which is sometimes defined as "narrativist," places more emphasis on the communal crafting of a tale than on accurate simulation of real-world physics or the gambler's thrill of dice-rolling.
Has the "storytelling game" phenomenon had any effect on your personal design philosophy? Do you have any other thoughts on the subject of this gaming style that you can share with us?
Gary: A long question, so a relatively long response:
The only impact of the "storytelling game" that seems meaningful to me is that of its application in the LARP form and forum. In such, the normal RPG systems and mechanics don't function well, so the emphasis on melodrama, acting, the loss of player direction of events in favor of a "stage director" rather than a referee-like game master, makes sense.
Otherwise, there seems no great value in placing such undue importance on story over the many other elements that comprise the RPG. The "storytelling" aspect has not moved me in the least, because I believe that the GM and players are more interested in creating their own collective lejend than re-enacting one someone else has made up, expecting them to follow. This seems to be the opinion of most RPGers too. The least story-oriented game around, likely, is the new D&D one, and it is blowing away all competition. That includes my own new Lejendary Adventure system, surely, even though it provides the where-withal for the GM to emphasize whatever aspects of the RPG are desired, mix and match across the board.
RPGNet: Now, is the use of "lejend" a habitual slip of the keyboard for you, or does that coined phrase have an invested meaning for you you can tell us about?
Gary: *BLUSH!* You have it, pard. When I wrote "lejend" it was from habit, as my new game system uses the word with a "j" so as to be distinctive. In a way the "lejend" does have an invested meaning, in that it betokens the accounts of the derring-do and like events that the players of the Lejendary Adventure game create through their game Avatars:)
At this point I'd love to recount the first encounter one of said Avatars had with an enraged Cape Buffalo, but that's my inherent GM game-geek coming to the fore, so I'll desist.
RPGNet: You said you believe that "the GM and players are more interested in creating their own collective lejend than re-enacting one someone else has made up." So, how does that reconcile in your mind with the use of a prewritten scenarios, or with the GM's use of a pre-planned plot of their own invention?
Gary: First, in general prepared adventure modules sell only a fraction of the volume of a core book for the Game Master, so it is evident that the majority of GMs don't use such material. Next, and to reiterate my point: The RPG is interactive, and through play the GM and the players in combination create a story. Employing some "story" that requires the participants to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion isn't game playing at all, it is following a script.
Finally, taken from there, the restrictive material that demands even so little as that some characters can not die, players' characters can not do thus and so, will likely not be found suitable by most participants. It is the participants interaction with and effect on the environment that is so important to the RPG.
RPGNet: How does the "creation of a collective lejend" as you would ideally describe it differ in function from running a campaign via planned adventures and story notes?
Gary: Perhaps I am not communicating correctly. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with planning an adventure and making notes as to the story. Of course, the adventure must be planned in outline, and the notes for the story can not be inflexible save for that portion concerning events prior to the active participation of the characters in the tale. In short, once play begins, the plan must be mutable, the actions of the players' characters directing things, not the plan. Likewise, story notes can not remain fixed once the players' characters interact with the environment. Otherwise, as previously noted, they are acting parts, not roleplaying.
"To think of the RPG as anything more than a game for entertainment- not a pastime, but entertainment form- seems pretentious to me."
RPGNet: So where exactly would you say roleplaying games fit into the continuum of the human arts and sciences? Are they literature? Theater? Mathematical hallucinations? What do they grow out of, and what might they be growing into?
Gary: To think of the RPG as anything more than a game for entertainment- not a pastime, but entertainment form- seems pretentious to me. Writing or even playing a game might be done artfully, but it is not an art form in the strict sense of the term. A RPG isn't literature either in such terms. A game is a game, and it seems highly pretentious to assert that an RPG is anything other than that. As for "growing", as far as I can tell, the RPG can be offered for play in different media, but growth? Change maybe, but otherwise...
RPGNet: Do you believe there are any conceptual or ethical limits to the roleplaying game format, from a designer/creator's standpoint? Buttons that should not be pushed, topics that should not be addressed, techniques that should not be used when designing a game?
Gary: What I believe is proper to include in an RPG is pretty well demonstrated in the work I have done. That speaks more loudly than anything else I might say here. What I think is "correct" might well differ from another's view on the subject.
Put another way, the society we live in offers a fairly obvious guideline as to what is acceptable, what is not. Coupled with the author's own ethical and moral views, the matter is then delineated. The First Amendment gives one virtual carte blanche, but the audience-on all levels- then determines what is "proper" and what goes beyond the pale.
Not a few objected to my inclusion of demons and devils in the AD&D game. However, as it is a game, fiction, and has no basis in reality, I did not feel constrained, any more than scores and more of fantasy fiction authors over the past century have, and likely into the future will continue, to "dare" such.
Next: On wargaming, the past, and monsters with death-ray eyes.