March 13, 2002

Mordenkainen's Fantastic Interview

Gary Gygax - if you're a game geek, you know the name. Even if you're not a game geek, you've probably heard of Dungeons & Dragons - you know, the game with the funny-shaped dice, literally thousands of pages of rules, the reason you hear friends saying things like, "save versus death magic" and "did you hit that bone devil last round?" Gygax created the game in the early 1970s, ushering in a completely new kind of entertainment - the role-playing game (RPG).

Gygax spent the first years of his life in Chicago, where he fell in love with card games and chess at an early age. He later moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where an abandoned insane asylum on the hill overlooking town provided the scene for many early "adventures" and influenced the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game that would later make him famous. A love affair with science fiction and fantasy literature blossomed as his interest in games became more varied and intense - it was a natural development that the two interests would coincide.

The original D&D evolved from Gygax's interest in miniature war-gaming - every weekend, his basement would be full of game geeks conducting medieval-era warfare with hundreds of metal miniatures on a huge sand table. When things eventually got a little boring for the participants, Gygax threw in some new twists - a dragon…a wizard…a giant. The additions proved so popular that he soon ran out of room in his basement. Gygax published the innovations as the game Chainmail, the war-gaming forerunner of D&D. Eventually his experiments with war gaming lead to a focus on individual characters, as opposed to armies, and the exploration of ruins and wilderness areas as opposed to mass combat. With Dave Arneson, Gygax developed the basis for what would become Dungeons & Dragons. (he experimented with several names - it was his daughter's enthusiasm for the "D&D" moniker that made it stick). Gygax shopped the game to various game companies, who were not interested, citing the game's complexity and open-ended quality. Undaunted, he raised $1000 with his long-time friend and fellow gamer, the late Don Kaye, and formed TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) in 1973. Together, they hand-assembled 1000 copies of the rules, which quickly sold out - the rest is very well documented history.

The game proved immensely popular - Gygax estimates that in the first year or so, photocopied game books outnumbered legitimate editions 2 to 1 - and many of his fans were rabid supporters of the new company (self-appointed gangs of "rude boys" used to scour gaming conventions, destroying pirated copies so TSR would be sure to turn a profit). TSR published numerous other RPGs - Star Frontiers, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Metamorphasis Alpha (still one of Gygax's favorites) which later became Gamma World - and branched out into the traditional entertainment industry as well, with books, magazines, video & computer games and the famous (if somewhat silly) Saturday morning D&D cartoon. The foundation of the TSR empire, however, remained the D&D game.

Gygax parted ways with the company in the early 1980s. To make a long story short, he eventually lost a controlling share of TSR stock and consequently, control over products for the very game he created. After several internal power struggles he resigned from TSR, which, after woeful mismanagement by Gygax' successors, later sold out to Magic publisher Wizards of the Coast (which in turn sold out to Hasbro). A game that started out as a dream - 50 pages of rough notes in a game geek's basement - is now a multi-million dollar entertainment phenomenon, with so many fan and pseudo-professional sites on the internet it's impossible to see them all.

Gygax's latest game is Lejendary Adventures, published by Hekaforge Productions - and this time he has complete creative control. A devoted gaming community has grown up around LA, a game which Gygax says reflects the way he views RPGs today. But his name will always be inextricably linked to Dungeons & Dragons, a game with immense name recognition that after almost 30 years has no major competitor. There are hundreds of RPGs on the market today, covering every conceivable genre, but D&D - currently in its third edition (the game has changed significantly since Gygax was at the helm, the new system is incredibly popular, but Gygax himself feels to be too focused on "power gaming" and player aggrandizement at the expense of game balance) - continues to outsell them all, commanding well over a quarter of the RPG market.

While Gygax generally isn't recognized on the street and usually isn't stopped in grocery stores by eager D&D fans (although his wife once caught him chatting with a young female deadhead who thought he was Jerry Garcia) his name is by and large the most recognized in the RPG world. Outside of the RPG community, he is the most high-profile RPG luminary (in 2000 Gygax played himself, alongside Al Gore and Stephen Hawking, in an episode of the Fox TV show Futurama. His list of published works is impressive and today he is more prolific than ever (see Gygax's bibliography below). As the founder of the RPG hobby, the Gygax name holds a special significance for gamers - and despite, or perhaps because of this, he is reviled as some sort of pariah or dinosaur by many younger fans, while others make him the object of blind hero-worship. It's not hard to talk to the man and find out for yourself - despite his busy schedule (six or seven 10-12 hour days a week) Gygax is known for his hospitality and approachability. He is a regular poster on several forums and attempts to keep up with a huge volume of email. Gygax recently took the time to answer questions from Lev, blather and I...

Q: You basically gambled everything to follow your dream of becoming a game designer and writer. What was your profession in the pre-Dungeons & Dragons days, and what factors contributed to your decision to follow your heart full time?

I was an insurance underwriter. I took the job rather than going on with schooling at the University of Chicago to become an anthropologist. I did fairly well in insurance, was a supervising underwriter for individual, group, and association group, health, life, long term disability, and unusual risk policies.

I was offered positions with several major agencies, and a junior partnership in one. I turned down all those offers because I was determined to get out of that field and become a writer and game designer. When the company was moving the office I worked for to San Francisco, that decided things.



Q. What are your system stats?

We have here an iMac G3, a PwerMac 7600/120, three old and still working Mac + machines, and my Dell Dimension 8100 with the biggest monitor I could get. It has a Pentium IV giving a 1.4 GHz processing speed, with 20 gigs of ROM and 256 megs of RAM (Yes, I need more. I have a new graphics card, and I'll double RAM, have both installed soon). My modem is 56k. I have an HP Scanjet 4300C scanner, and an HP Deskjet 932C printer hooked up. The sound system is by Harmon/Kardon.

Now leave me alone! I am a writer, not a computer mechanic! (^_^)



Q. What online forums do you frequent regularly?

I hit EN World as Col_Pladoh. I also post a lot on the www.lejendary.com boards, and on the MSN Lejendary Adventure Community, and www.dragonsfoot.org ones about once a week. I post as Gary or sometimes GaryGygax.



Q. Many gamers use the computer as an audio-visual and die-rolling aid for traditional RPGs. Do you feel this contributes to or detracts something from the "spirit" of the game?

Gee, I don't know why I should comment on what someone finds useful in their RPG. I don't usually use the computer, but if I could quickly call up pics of monsters and the like, I sure would. As for rolling dice, I want to do that for myself - as Game Master or as a player. But at least one of my players uses his laptop to do that sometimes.

Whatever makes the gaming better for the group involved has to be okay, no?



Q. You have said CRPGs aren't "real" roleplaying - as online multiplayer games become fuller featured, do you foresee this changing? What kinds of technological advances are necessary to make "real" roleplaying via machine possible?

First question is: To whom does one ROLEPLAY when gaming? Obviously, CRPGs are not really RPGs at all, are they? Unless there is direct communication between the Game Master and the players, that communication affecting the GM's decisions on the results of actions other than random number results, there is no roleplay of any meaningful sort involved, although some role assumption and playing within the bounds of the character set forth is possible.

I foresee online gaming changing when there are good audio-visual links connecting the participants, thus approximating play in a face-to-face group.

When AI approximates Machine Intelligence, then many online and computer-run RPGs will move towards actual RPG activity. Nonetheless, that will not replace the experience of "being there," any more than seeing a theatrical motion picture can replace the stage play.



Q. You've been quoted as saying you don't play computer games because you know once you start, you'll never have time for anything else. What games have tempted you?

Groan! I see my son Alex playing Diablo and am tempted. I see my son Luke playing Panzer General and am tempted. I see my son Ernie playing Civilization and am tempted. Heh! I am a GAME GEEK. When Alex was playing Lemonade Stand I watched and nearly got hooked. I like most any game.

The one that got me long back was Martin Campion's Rails West (SSI). I played it all the time, to the detriment of my work. One night after faking going to sleep, my wife caught me at the computer at 3 a.m., laid down the law, and pointed out that I was not producing any work in the process of that motivational speech. I have "fallen off the wagon" only a couple of times since. I can't wait until I can "retire," or get involved in the production of a computer/online game, so as to able to play more :).



Q. You called yourself a "game geek." What does the word "geek" mean to you?

The term "geek" is most often used as a pejorative. It at least infers lack of popularity, social graces, and general appeal. It can also mean someone with an obsessive interest in something, as is demonstrated by the cable TV station, Comedy Central. When I use the term, it is in the latter context, so as a "game geek" I am prone to spend an inordinate amount of my time gaming or doing things related thereto. It helps my geekishness that I make a living at it...

I just read about one D&D geek who is a Navy Seal, btw. He wrote to WotC about it, and someone there shared his comments.



Q. While many people have accused Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying games in general) of being "inspired by the devil," don't you feel that there is some correlation between ritual magic (adoption of roles, costumes, gathering in circles) and the standard AD&D game playing session?

LOL. No.

Frankly, I don't believe in magic.

We all play roles - do you speak to a cop, your parents, your friends, your teacher, your boss, someone who works for you, etc., the same way? Of course not. People dress in costumes to go to parties and discos - to point out just a few such instances - and most people do not don costumes to play RPGs (as they do in live action RPGs). Playing any game, or having a meeting of a small number of people means "gathering in a circle."



Q. Do you feel that roleplaying encourages or teaches its participants to "pretend" in everyday social situations?

Not at all. It does facilitate social interaction, proper behavior of accepted sort for the persons involved in a particular situation, if the game is properly directed by a GM of able sort.

Of course as children, we all, in all cultures and societies, learn behavior from observation, imitation, and encouragement of various kinds. So by the suggestion made, we all "pretend" most of the time.



Q. Do you feel that oftentimes that RPG systems are too complicated for any but the most dedicated and intelligent players to truly utilize? What is the most "intelligent" game system you've ever played, and why?

Yes! I was partially guilty of that very thing when I did the Dangerous Journeys/Mythus game system, although the Mythus Prime was simple and easy, meant to be published before the great, honking main portion of the system was.

I don't like comparisons, so I'll say that original D&D was the most intuitive system I've played, and thus is had and still has immense appeal.



Q. Many of us grew up with the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. What was your involvement in that?

I was co-producer, had total creative control of the scripts, and I developed about a half-dozen springboards from which scripts were written.



Q. The recent Dungeons & Dragons film was almost universally maligned by gamers. What was your take on it?

As a grade B production it was mildly entertaining.

As a D&D film it is akin to something that feel out of the back end of a horse. From the smurf-eater to the little wooden empress, from the Boris Karloff imitator to the giant dwarf mugging for the cameras, the acting was terrible. The story was bad, the writing was awful, the costumes were pathetic, the direction was off, the sets were fair in places, the camera work passable, and the special effects okay. Was there music in the show? Hmmm. Guess is was pretty unremarkable, so. Some of the special effects were good, though.

I loved the "Harry Potter" movie, and the first LotR was great too!



Q. As far as you know, what was the basic evolution of polyhedral dice? If they existed prior to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, what were they used for?

To the best of my knowledge I introduced them to gaming, en masse, with D&D in 1974. I found sets of the five platonic solids for sale in a school supply catalog back in 1972, and of course ordered them, used them in creating the D&D game.



Q. If you could change one thing about the modern RPG landscape, what would it be?

More people would play the Lejendary Adventure RPG!

If I had a second choice, I'd have more people made aware of what the RPG is in actuality, so then there would be a larger audience for them.

Otherwise the "modern" (I really dislike the connotations of that word, and "contemporary" is likely more apropos) RPG landscape is not much changed from what it was c. 1985, computers excepted.



Q. Of the characters you have played, which is your favorite? May we see his or her stats?

I really must admit Mordenkainen is my favorite. I enjoy playing fighters, rangers, thieves, clerics, and multi-classed sorts in OAD&D, but the magic-user is usually most fun for me.

Can you see Mordie's stats? No! I won't even show you those for my most recent PC, Louhi Sharpnose, a gnome illusionist and treasure finder who I created only about four years back.



Q. Can you briefly encapsulate the background of the campaign you're running right now? When and how often do you play?

I've been running a Lejendary Adventure system campaign for over six years now. It is currently suspended due to my workload, but I plan to resume it in a few weeks. It is set on the Lejendary Earth world. The Avatars (characters) adventuring there have experienced sea travel, action in the desert, the strange environment of a mysterious and massive plateau, city and dungeon adventures, as well as those of overland travel. We play for a few hours on Thursday nights, beginning around 6:30 p.m. If you pick up The Canting Crew (d20/LA/generic book on the criminal underclass) coming out from Troll Lord Games in March or so, you'll have a good idea of part of my campaign, as my group got to play-test the City of Ludnum, learn Thieves' Cant, etc. :)



Q. About a dozen of us in the kcgeek community run a campaign using your first edition rules, mainly because we don't want to purchase the new books and learn a new system. In retrospect, what problems do you see with first edition AD&D? Was Unearthed Arcana your attempt at an early form of a second edition?

Great to hear that the kcgeek campaign uses the original system. Are you all aware of the OAD&D website, www.dragonsfoot.org? Actually, I see very few problems with OAD&D. I ignore the weapon speed factor, the effects of weapons vs. armor, generally don't pay attention to anything but gross violations of encumbrance, and NEVER use psionics.

Yes, Unearthed Arcana was an exploration of some of the ideas I had for a new edition of OAD&D. I wanted to have the HD ranges changes, the mechanics altered so as to allow the system to play in other genres, and to work in skills that matched classes in a complimentary way.

The Lejendary Adventure system is how I view things now - skill-bundles to make archetypes as well as unique Avatars, rules-lite, and in all the Lejend Master in charge of things, to the absolute horror of rules lawyers everywhere ;-}>.



Q. Thanks for taking the time for the interview, not to mention for creating Dungeons & Dragons.

Welcome, and my pleasure to oblige.

Creative Works by E(rnest) Gary Gygax Posted by JohnnyPharaoh at March 13, 2002 02:45 AM

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