Saturday, May 23, 2009


This is a warning. The following contains much anecdotal evidence and personal bias, and is not intended to be a journalistic retelling of events. I write this to express my perspective and emotional response to the game, thoughts which can only be of use to those with common experiences or who have come to believe similar things.

It will be no surprise to many who read this blog that I have no particular affection for Gary Gygax. This seems strange, even for me, as much of my life is wrapped up in playing this game and improving this game. I have been obsessed for 30 years now; certainly it should follow that I should have much appreciation for the game’s existence, and for Gygax and others whose conception made a fair share of my life’s work possible.

And yet ... I don’t. I have been pondering that, and the explanation for that. This is what I’ve chosen to write about it.

In 1980, about nine months after I began playing the game, I met a much older fellow, Bill. His campaign was a stylized version of the Empire of the Petal Throne, which included a great many rules not found in D&D. I did not especially like his system, but I liked him very much. He told a story to me one evening while he and I were walking in his neighbourhood, about having known Gygax in Chicago, prior to the game’s release. At the time I hardly knew Gygax’s name – I had only been playing D&D for nine months or so, and really hadn’t bothered to notice the name written on the front of the DMG. I mean, it was a game. Who could care? Do we know the name of the man who invented Monopoly?

So, ignorant and all of 15 years old, I heard Bill spin this yarn ... something I’ve never been able to confirm. That he and a great many others, including Gygax (and probably Arneson, though I don’t remember any of the names Bill used except Gygax’s), invented the game over a period of time. At some point, Gygax, whose motives were more worldly and self-serving (Bill’s story, remember), ran off with the substance of the game and had it patented in his name. Most of those who took part in the game’s creation were subsequently denied any compensation from the following success Gygax enjoyed – though several, including Bill, attempted to take Gygax to court over the matter. They lost.

Understand if you can: this was one of the first stories I heard about the maker of the game. I accepted it with a grain of salt, not certain precisely what Bill hoped to gain by telling me the story. He certainly didn’t gain more than my sympathy. I did not play long with him, as he was quite resistant to changes in his system ... but I stayed sort of in touch with him over the next decade. Like me, he was obsessed. Unlike me, he wound up losing his family and his job, eventually turning to psychiatric help to overcome his addiction to the game. I ran into him about ten years ago, when he told me he no longer played, but mutual acquaintances have told me that he has returned to the game and now plays regularly.

In 1982, I met Mike, a smart, fast-thinking and brilliantly organized player who ran in my world for twelve years. Possibly the best player I’ve ever had, certainly the most innovative. Mike was born in Evanston and had lived in Chicago, where he had met Gygax during various conventions between 1980 and 1982; having family there, Mike regularly travelled home, often choosing to coincide those trips with SciFi conventions and RPG get-togethers.

It was all Mike could do not to spit whenever Gygax’s name was mention. “Fucking asshole,” I believe was the standard response, with little desire on his part to say anything else. I don’t believe he wanted to waste the time.

These were my sole personal experiences, second-hand, with Gygax. I did not see him ‘live’ until that horrid interview by 60 Minutes. Obviously, the whole show was a pile of crap – connecting suicide or other social ills with D&D always ignores the enormous sacrifice young persons and communities suffer from the pursuit of football and other sports. How many would-be cheerleaders, I continue to ask, kill themselves after failing to make the team? How many boys and girls are crippled for life, from practices or from the games themselves? And how often is it suggested that the practice, pushed onto children at the age of 4 or 6, be suspended?

Gygax says that, naturally, calling it a “witch hunt.” Which it was. It was only natural that 60 Minutes would try to appeal to the ignorant masses rather than the paltry percentage of players in the country.

The whole show is a pile of bullshit. And I am more aware than most, being a journalist, that Gygax’s comments were edited, controlled and designed to make him look like a mealy, weak mouthpiece. That is invariably what is done with the ‘lone voice’ represented as the ‘balanced’ side of journalism. I’ve seen it done over and over.

Why did he agree to do the interview at all? He had lost control of TSR by that time, turning out to not be much of a businessman. Why did he not tell TSR to sacrifice one of their PR guys? Why did he not tell 60 Minutes to get stuffed? What did he have to gain? He wasn’t going to make any more money from the game, that was all over for him. Was it the attention? Was it the entrenched belief that he was the ‘voice of the game,’ and therefore the only possible representative for the game’s position?

The people I played with all thought so at the time.

If it seems very little to judge the man on, you’re right. It is. And I would probably have had a higher opinion of Gygax had it not been for TSR’s clear intent right from the very beginning to squeeze every dime out of my pocket, and if it had not been the very rapid decline in quality product that followed the release of the Player’s Handbook and DMG. I recognize now that many believe both books to be crap, but I will point out that both are written in 8 and 9 point font, with very little white space on the page and both handle a vast number of subjects. Not like the books that have been produced since, and certainly a great deal better than the quality of modules released in those years immediately after. I recognize that many get a real hard-on for nostalgic materials like the Keep on the Borderlands, but we’re talking very poor writing, very poor artwork and a very lightweight treatment of the setting. It has always been my opinion that if Gygax did produce the books himself, he clearly lacked the ability to produce more. Where was the brilliant conceptionist who produced table after table for the DMG? He was making cheesy lists of rumours and describing lair after lair on the formula: guard, storeroom, chief’s room and treasure.

Until the Internet, it was only a theory that Gygax stole everything and then fucked it up. Now there are thousands of stories, about this guy or that guy, from this fellow who has the inside story to that fellow who knew Gygax personally and practically had his babies.

I don’t know what is true. I’ve already said, none of what I’ve written above is verified. This is not a biography of Gygax. I don’t know anything for sure. I do know that for me personally, the possibility of hero worship for the man has pretty much set sail more than two decades ago. The same goes for the rest of the cast and crew who have been part of this game’s creation, including my old friend Bill.

Because, honestly, I don’t give them a lot of credit.

There are events in this world that are truly unique ... and there are events which only logically follow the next step. If everyone connected to D&D in 1973 happened to be on a bus that had been blown to pieces by Black Panthers, I think we would still have hundreds of role-playing games, and I would still be designing a more complex simulation to suit my personal needs. Oh, it probably wouldn’t be medieval-based, but that doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t know the difference. The concept would have been proposed by someone, and over the years it would have been embraced and followed and loved.

I know that in 30 years I’ve never read a word from anyone, or met anyone at a convention, who convinced me that they had any special claim to the game. No one has. No one should. This isn’t the sort of game that can really be conceived of or expanded by any single entity – just as the real world couldn’t have been. It’s too big.


  1. One of the early playtesters, Mike Mornard, describes the RPG situation as a "super-saturated solution." i.e. a lot of teams were working to get games out. Gygax himself said that he rushed into print because he knew competitors were out there.

    And most importantly, Gygax, Arneson, and Wesely were just doing one twist on role-playing.

    Many, many schools, therapists, and businesses were doing role-playing, plus the SCA invented LARPing years before Arneson invented tabletop.

    So, yeah, anyone from the SCA could legitimately say, "Gygax stole my idea." But ideas are not property for purposes of theft laws.

  2. "In 1979, Arneson filed the first lawsuit (of five) against Gygax and TSR Hobbies (D&D's publisher) over crediting and royalties on later adapted versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Dave left D&D/TSR and they resolved the suits out of court in 1981, but this did not end the lingering tensions between them. The court documents are confidential and he cannot talk about the issues involved. Just how much Arneson contributed to D&D remains a mystery that gamers continue to debate."
    Gygax, Arneson and Jeff Perren - though I am unaware of Perren suing Gygax.

  3. Thank you Strix,

    The addendum is much appreciated.

  4. For more on the supersatured solution bit, here's Bruce Baugh:

    09-06-2005, 09:51 PM

    Bruce Baugh

    One of the things a lot of folks don't really grasp now is what the context was for original D&D. There was at least one long-running play-by-mail wargame, Midgard, with character rules not much simpler than D&D's. Steve Perrin and Sandy Petersen were poking at ideas that would become RuneQuest before they heard of D&D. I believe the same is true of Marc Millar and Traveller. Folks in M.A.R. Barker's narrative + wargame campaigns were talking about writing up rules for that. Steve Jackson's microgames were folding in proto-RPG elements. And the original D&D rules are really, really unlike a typical rpg of today. In terms of length and detail, they're actually much more like (say) a Forge game or indie publishing like Chad Underkoffler's, without anything like the clarity or focus you'd expect from such a venture. I can't lay hands on a page count right now, but memory tells me that when I could, I worked it out as something like 20-30,000 words total. Even if I'm off by a factor of two, that makes D&D much closer to Dogs In The Vineyard and Dead Inside than the new World of Darkness core rulebook, which is something like 120,000 words.

    D&D was just ahead enough of the pack to catch on, at a time when a lot of people were trying similar things and there was a lot of interest in the general idea. It could easily have been any of half a dozen rivals, and I think any of them would have enjoyed a broadly similar arc of rise and decline, since I think the decline owes at least as much to external competition for gamer attention as to features of D&D as such.

    Note that Gygax claimed Miller was deeply in Gygax's debt in terms of game creation ideas, but as the years go by and the cult-of-Saint-Gary-Who-Did-No-Wrong builds up, expect these names to be obscured.


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