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Industry Insights: The RPGnet Interviews

Interview with Gary Gygax, part 3 of 3

by Scott Lynch
May 25, 2001  
(continued from part 2)

"...Blume's mishandling of the matter was what likely did dissolve the core audience for board wargames. I know it wasted a lot of TSR's money."


RPGNet: So, are you still "noodling around" with wargames? Playing them, or possibly even designing new ones for private use?

Gary: As much as I love to play wargames, I seldom get an opportunity. Once every so often I'll sucker someone into having at a game, though, usually the old GDW classic Operation Overlord.I'll happily play either side, although I usually end up with the Allies- and win pretty regularly too:)

I have done several wargames, and premises too, for the computer. So far no takers. WWII, the ACW, and some medieval simulation-builder strategy and tactical designs. For miniatures, I get into Easy Eight's Battleground WW IIwhenever the opportunity arises. Also very worthwhile is the Avalon Hill Battlegroundoffering. Of course I've written up some more "historical" house rules to make the game more interesting for veteran players (me mainly).

RPGNet: As you see it, what happened to the tabletop wargaming hobby as it was known around 1977-80? What moved wargaming away from its previous commercial viability?

Gary: I believe there were two factors at work. The first was the cost of getting into military miniatures, this discouraging young new players. The second was the exclusivity of the groups playing. Most didn't seek to recruit youngsters, let alone welcome those interested in learning. So the audience aged, and natural attrition served to reduce it to insignificance.

At the same time rules were becoming more complex and complicated, discouraging new players even more. Then along came fantasy miniatures, and there went all the young players. This proved that young persons could afford to acquire miniature figurines in large numbers. It also showed that if they were motivated they could play with complex rules.

The military miniatures folks should be going after that audience now, but it seems it is beneath their dignity, being "historians" and all.

From my standpoint, though, I still love to play with toy soldiers.

RPGNet: In 1982, TSR acquired Simulations Publications, Inc., better known as SPI, which was then in serious trouble from financial mismanagement. SPI published Strategy & Tactics,a magazine with roughly 30,000 subscribers. In his essay "A Farewell to Hexes," Greg Costikyan alleges that it was TSR's subsequent refusal to honor those 30,000 subscriptions that planted a poison seed at the heart of the wargaming hobby, and began the dissolution of its hardcore commercial base. Do you have any thoughts on the situation he describes?

Gary: There was financial trouble at SPI, Jim Dunnigan had lost control of the company. Management of SPI contacted TSR to see if they could be bailed out. Kevin Blume, then CEO of TSR, loaned SPI a considerable sum of money, securing the loan against SPI's assets. When SPI was unable to meet the agreed-to terms of the loan, TSR simply secured the assets it had been promised. Liabilities, such as the subscription list, were not TSR's concern, they being owed by SPI.

Frankly, fulfilling the subscriptions would likely have brought TSR into debt. The hardcore base was clearly quite insufficient to support the operation as it was set up.

The major error in the whole deal, I believe, was Kevin Blume's failure to convince the creative staff of SPI to come to work for TSR. In so failing, the assets acquired in lieu of loan repayment were not worth much at all. The object was supposed to be to acquire the marks and titles, then the creative staff, to enable TSR to create a wargame line that could operate profitably.

What I am convinced of is Blume's mishandling of the matter was what likely did dissolve the core audience for board wargames. I know it wasted a lot of TSR's money. With a viable wargames production department, the S&T name, TSR could have offered something desirable to the subscribers, a deal where they paid some fraction of the cost of a new subscription to the magazine, so as to retain a base. Thereafter, using its advertising and promotion capacity, TSR could have likely rebuilt the magazine and game line, and made it profitable in a year or so.

This is what I urged before the creative staff of SPI turned down en masseKevin Blume's offer of employment. Once that happened, the game was over.

RPGNet: Does hex-and-paper wargaming have a cultural or commercial future, Gary? Can it flourish again as it did in the '70s? Person to person, dice and charts?

Gary: The board wargame was never "popular", never commanded a large audience. If I recall correctly, The Avalon Hill Company's largest selling wargame was around 50,000 copies. I suspect the total audience for such games in the US and Canada was around 100,000 or so persons.

That size audience is not what is considered as commercially viable when products sold to it run in $30 range, with perhaps four to six titles being the most that can be sold to the hardcore purchasers. Will that support a small publisher with a modest return? Likely.

As to to the culture of such games, and I am a product of that, sure! However, they are now being far more widely played, by a much larger audience, on the computer. For paper wargames, where it is difficult to find an opponent, harder still to find time where two people can spend a day or more playing, the future is not bright. For the computer wargame there's a great prospect.

For my part, though, whenever I can find an opponent, I makethe time. I surely do love to place the unit counters, move them, consult the charts, roll the dice, play for 10 or more hours to a conclusion of one or another battle.

RPGNet: Will the pencil-and-paper RPG go the way of the wargame in the next quarter-century?

Gary: No, the pencil-and-paper or tabletop RPG game will never be replaced by electronic forms of play. Granted, the relative proportion of those so playing will grow smaller. That's because I believe that the internet will be like the television of RPG activity, and most people will play there. In all, I see the computer as building the audience for RPGs, and the internet and CRPGs will not cause those able to play in a face-to-face group to drop such in favor of an electronic version. Heck, even on STAR TREK where holodecks are available, there was some military miniatures play, right?

As I have mentioned in several interviews over the past year or so, the analgy of TV applies to the web-based play of the RPG, the CRPG will become the motion picture of the game form, while PnP/TT play becomes the stage play of RPGing-- the smallest in audience, the greatest in capturing the audience in the drama.

This is not to say that I believe the RPG is storytelling and theater, merely that those entertainment forms used happen to relate to the game form well in terms of audience size and the conveying of the environment to those participating.


" When I began this exercise it was for love of the subject, and that love has remained constant."


RPGNet: So, you've been at this for more than three decades now. You had a running battle for the fate of TSR, a legal battle over Dangerous Journeys,and you even survived Cyborg Commando.Now you're writing about a dozen simultaneous gaming supplements, six or seven days a week. When you haul yourself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, do you ever experience... "cognitive dissonance?" Ever had the, "Man, am I crazy or what?" conversation with yourself?

Gary: Now hold on! Let's take that snide reference to Cyborg Commando, back a step. First, do note that there were three authors involved. Fact is that I was intensely busy writing Gord the Rogue novels to generate income for the publisher at the same time as the CC game was designed, so I had far less creative input into the game that I would have wished. Second, the work was supposed to be only the introductory game in a trilogy, the final part having all needed to make a fun, ongoing, and pretty exciting SF RPG. Of course the two main portions of the game system never got beyond the outline stage. Yes, I do have those parts in my files somewhere, and I believe firmly that had they been done the overall game would have been generally well received... so there!

RPGNet: Ah, touche.

Gary: Okay, that said, let me get to the question :)

I began to write gaming material, design games too, back around 1963. Since then I have been at it pretty constantly, over all the time since. So, knowing that I love games, why should it ever be wearisome for me to continue? When I began this exercise it was for love of the subject, and that love has remained constant.

Admittedly, I do get migraine headaches when I have too many top-priority projects that I work on too many hours a day. When a migraine hits, I dump coffee and aspirins and keep going. If the headache develops into a "killer", I simply quit work for a few hours time, assuming it's my body's way of telling me to take a break.

Of course I believe I am a bit eccentric, never crazy... Gaming is in my blood, so what else is there to say? As a close to this question, a note to all aspiring writer-designers of games and game materials. If you don't love it, don't do it, because odds are that you'll never be wealthy...unless you get into the electronic end of this business.

RPGNet: I know we've covered this in chronology, but for as long as Dungeons & Dragonsis played, its origins will be linked with the names of Arneson and Gygax, and the belief will persist that Dave Arneson's credit for its genesis was marginalized. Gamers who weren't even born when D&D was conceived are still arguing about it now. Are you at peace with Mr. Arneson, and with yourself, over whatever happened all those years ago?

Gary: Have to be a bit vague with this one, as the truth should be obvious to all who compare the creative records of the parties concerned...

Well, when Dave Megary and Dave Arneson came to Lake Geneva to visit me in the late autumn of 1972, each had something to show me. Megary had developed a boardgame based on the Chainmail medieval miniatures rules "Man-to-Man" and "Fantasy Supplement" portions of that work. The game was called Dungeon!,I developed and edited it, and eventually TSR published it.

Along with that, Dave Arneson demonstrated his Chainmailgame campaign spinoff, a man-to-man game where one took the role of a Hero" or "Wizard" from the "Fantasy Supplement" of Chainmail.Each player had a principal figure, and troops were hired with gold discovered in exploration of a dungeon or outdoor adventure. These two concepts were to me obviously great ideas, and I determined then and there to design a special game system to manage something new. As Dave Arneson said in an interview in Different Worlds, he wrote none of the material, but he did contribute valuable ideas.

As far as I know, Dave Arneson and I are on friendly terms.

I am not at all sure as to what you mean by "at peace" in regards to the matter. I have never felt anything other than considerable satisfaction at the job I did putting together the first RPG, D&D. Of course nowadays I'd have done a much better job of writing the material, so if you mean am I happy with the initial design, no. I could do it so much better today. Am I happy that I purposefully wrote it in a very broad manner, even though it was nowhere deep, so as to make it very difficult for any would-be competitor to attempt emulation? Of course!

RPGNet: All right. Now, do you remember the Catoblepas from the original Monster Manual? The weak-necked creature with the death-gaze eyes that stood a pretty decent chance of smoking a good portion of an adventuring party before they even knew it was there? Was that thing yourfault, Gary?

Gary: Now hold on! don't get your undies all bunched up about the good old catoblepas. As it happens, I came across that sweet little critter in a medieval bestiary, and all I did was adapt the material for the AD&D game, right? So go blame some liar from the Middle Ages, and leave me alone.

RPGNet: Honestly... death-gaze eyes! You jerk! Sheldukher the elf was a great mage until thatlittle encounter!

Gary: Heh-heh, and how I like that sort of monster. Your whining reminds me of my son Luke when his PC Melf failed a save versus the fire breath of a chimera's head. It is good to hear the lamentations of the gamers...

RPGNet: As an aside, I'm not still bitter about that. No, not one little bit.

Gary: Just roll up a new character and get on with it, loser (^_^).

RPGNet: Any hard-gained nuggets of wisdom you can share with us as a parting measure? What's best in life, and what do we have to do to get there?

Gary: Here is some of the wisdom I have garnered over the years:

If you love the work you do it is much like play, not work, so you can enjoy so much more of your life that way.

Gaming is likely the second best thing in life. If you don't know what the first is, I ain't a'gonna tell you.

Don't play with bumble bees.

A deal isn't done until the check has cleared the bank.

The bit of writing you like best in a work you are doing is likely the part that should be tossed out.

Cash is always better than credit, save when it comes to creative credit. In that case get both!

Be careful if asked for advice, as it's likely the one asking won't want to hear what you have to say. Besides, likely your advice isn't all that good anyway. So, that fits this picture, no?


Selected Bibliography: Works by E. Gary Gygax


Wargames and Simulation Games

Hyborian Age Diplomacy (North American Variant Bank number fh01/05)
Napoleonic Diplomacy (North American Variant Bank number hn03/06)
Crusadomacy (North American Variant Bank number mc04/07)
The Battle of Arsouf (Publisher Unknown)
Chainmail (Guidon Games, 1971)
Dunkirk (Avalon Hill, 1971)
Alexander the Great (Avalon Hill #708, 1974)
War of Empires (Publisher Unknown)
Cavaliers & Roundheads (TSR, 1973, with Jeff Perren)

Roleplaying Games

Boot Hill (TSR, 1975, with Brian Blume)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (TSR, 1978)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook (TSR, 1978)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide (TSR, 1979)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II (TSR, 1983)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures (TSR, 1985)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Unearthed Arcana (TSR, 1985)
Lejendary Rules for All Players (Hekaforge, 1999)
Lejend Master's Lore (Hekaforge, 2000)
Beasts of Lejend (Hekaforge, 2000)

Dungeons & Dragons/Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Modules

D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth (TSR, 1978)
D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa (TSR, 1978)
G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (TSR, 1978)
G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (TSR, 1978)
S1: Tomb of Horrors (TSR, 1978)
G1-2-3: Against the Giants (TSR, 1980, collection)
S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (TSR, 1980)
B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (TSR, 1980)
D3: Vault of the Drow (TSR, 1980)
T1: The Village of Hommlet (TSR, 1981)
S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (TSR, 1982)
EX1: Dungeonland (TSR, 1983)
EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (TSR, 1983)
AC4: The Book of Marvelous Magic (TSR, 1984, with Frank Mentzer)
T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil (TSR, 1985, with Frank Mentzer)
CDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders (TSR, 1986)
S1-4: Realms of Horror (TSR, 1987, with Lawrence Schick)

Fiction

Saga of Old City (Random House/TSR, 1985)
Greyhawk Adventures Book II: Artifact of Evil (Random House/TSR, 1986)
City of Hawks (Berkley Publishing Group, 1987)
Night Arrant (Berkley Publishing Group, 1987)
Sea of Death (Berkley Publishing Group, 1987)
Come Endless Darkness (Berkley Publishing Group, 1988)
Dance of Demons (Berkley Publishing Group, 1988)
Dangerous Journeys: The Anubis Murders (Penguin/Roc, 1992)
Dangerous Journeys: Death in Delhi (Penguin/Roc, 1993)
Dangerous Journeys: The Samarkhand Solution (Penguin/Roc, 1993)
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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

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