Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Rambling Remarks at Gygax’s Passing…

The whole Gygax thing is surprisingly depressing to me. Mostly because I’m surrounded by people that wouldn’t understand. I imagine that I would have shrugged it off if I’d gotten just a little bit of sympathy the next day… but somehow… feeling misunderstood is draining and tiresome.

ThievesMy first exposure to Dungeons and Dragons came while I was in elementary school. I was in a YMCA type summer camp and a Dungeon Master guy was there. He was a few years older than me and had the hard cover AD&D books by Gygax. I thought it was really cool and got a chance to play with one other kid. We were both really little and this guy was a few years older than us. We had official type character sheets on the neato parchement paper. All those numbers on it were just intoxicating. We were walking through some sore of dungeon and we came to a hideous statue built into the wall. It was a hideous face. The kid that was with me decided to crawl into the mouth of the statue. The DM said the the stone teeth began to chew his character to pieces.

I remember the DM being very angry that one of his characters had gotten killed.

Not too long later, I bought (at a Teacher’s supply store no less) the purple boxed set with the Green Dragon on the cover that came with the Keep on the Borderlands module. Later on, I found a real gaming store and discovered a whole realm of weird games like Toon and Burrows and Bunnies. I bought a Car Wars pocket box with expansion sets four and five and I also picked up the offbeat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rpg from Palladium. (This was back when TMNT was a trendy black and white comic book and before the market saturation had set in.)

It was a really awkward time to grow up. The computers we had were about to obsoleted by 16-bit Macs/Amigas/STs just as we were getting the hang of programming them. There were no clicky-base games, collectible card games, or shops holding Warhammer competitions every week. The RPG’s we had often spent very little space explaining how to actually run a game and often could not be played exactly as written anyway.

Rainbow DragonWe were so young, we didn’t really understand the stuff we were buying. We just thought they were cool. We got a lot of play value out of computer games like Zork, Ultima, and the Bard’s Tale. Choose-your-own-Adventure books like Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons were more our speed, though. The Middle Earth Quest game books were much more interesting from a game mechanics standpoint, though I’d later learn that licensing issues had nearly destroyed the company that produced them. And Dungeons and Dragons… it wasn’t really something we played. We thought those hard backed AD&D books were the height of cool (and we loved playing with the dice), but we really did not know how to get a game together. Other role playing games would be designed to capitalize on this phenomenon: unplayable games with loads of supplements for people to use to spend time “not playing” the game! This is the hobby’s strangest secret.

But let’s face it. These people going on about how much Dungeons and Dragons meant to them and how it “saved” their childhood…. Maybe we just grew up in different places or something. What I remember is feeling effectively locked out of society. I couldn’t understand how regular people could be so taken up with the whole football player – cheerleader – prom thing. People were mostly mean and petty in middle school, but there was all of this time spent waiting: homeroom, on the bus…. And tinkering with these too-often broken and not-so-playable games was something to do while were being sorted and shuffled from one box to the next.

The Keep on the BorderlandsBut the people that really got into it? I remember this little kid in my scout troop. He got hooked on D&D in a scary way. Bought literally everything for the game and had it in some sort of little shrine. He’d do completely random frightening stuff on camping trips… and as he got older, he got into drugs. I remember seeing him shuffling around down town, completely toasted out of his brain and with some doped up hippy-looking chick hanging off his arm. D&D was the thing he’d latched onto just as he’d begun his downward spiral into self destruction.

Then there was the dregs that still played it in when we got to college: the scary geeks, like the overweight dude that got addicted to MUDS and flunked out of college. I remember this other guy with a closet full of martial arts weapons drinking tea and babbling about his character. He always played a girl and the other characters would “hit on” his female elf girl thing. And he was so into it. Years later (and with the help of an operation) he would actually realize this deep fantasy of his.

Ultima III guess that after a lifetime of being influenced by Gary Gygax, I just have to look back and laugh at myself a little. We spent so little time playing D&D and spent so much time tinkering with it. We got a real kick out of criticizing the rules, breaking the balance of the game, and making fun of the premise. We thought the whole class/level thing was stupid, and spent immense efforts searching for the “right” way to model character development. And then, when we finally got around to actually playing these sorts of games as young adults, we soon realized that the simple rules and cliché driven themes were actually a big part of what made “real” gaming work. I don’t know. Being a gamer… even if you don’t actually play Dungeons and Dragons… a lot of what you do is to “fix”, refine, or extend what Gary Gygax helped create. And even if you’re not involved with role playing in general, a lot of game design is about taking some aspect of the D&D phenomenon and making it accessible to a new or different cross section of people.

I don’t know what to think. I’ve got mixed feelings, I guess. Thinking about Gary Gygax… this game… this entire oddball hobby. This is the point where I’m supposed to come up with some sort of pithy resolution to these ramblings, but nothing quite captures the melancholy I feel right now. But I do know that most of the stuff I see being written about Gygax misses it.

Middle Earth QuestI guess I feel out of sync with regular people because they have absolutely concept of this gaming subculture I spend so much time getting wrapped up in. I feel out of sync with the people praising Gygax because the reality of it was that things didn’t quite play out the way they should have… and those hard back books mostly stayed on the shelf instead of on the gaming table. (I think we were about six years too late to unselfconsciously enjoy the phenomenon.) And I feel out of sync with Massively Multiplayer Online crowd because even though what they do looks really similar to D&D on the surface, I still feel they’re missing the most critical aspects of the game. (They’re missing out on, among other things, the ability of the players to define and redefine rules… and they’re missing the collaborative and improvisatory aspects.)

But thanks, Gary. We were young and goofy and the hobby itself was as adolescent as we were. It meant something, though. And it still does.

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3 responses to “Rambling Remarks at Gygax’s Passing…

  1. cheepicus March 8, 2008 at 12:05 am

    I never really went through the stage where for example I might rant endlessly about why armor class, levels, alignment, etc., are so stupid and why flavor-of-the-month game X does things so much better than dumb old D&D. Though I’ve always been able to understand those arguments.

    I think old D&D was never truly a game of mechanisms anyway, unlike perhaps the wargaming that spawned it and so many of the games that have followed it (including third edition D&D, most certainly). You know you’re playing it right when the DM asks you “what do you do?” and you don’t count hexes, reach for your turning key or tape measure, or consult your SSD, or shrug and look at the list of skills you’ve painstakingly calculated that dictate the only things you CAN do in a game whose creative spark has been sucked out by whatever clever, elegant, comprehensive skill system or other gimmick has taken center stage. The DM asks you “what do you do?” and you realize holy crap, you can do anything, and anything can happen and maybe you look up into space and not down at the table for answers. But even D&D was overtaken, too, by the mechanism players, the dual-wielding rangers, the splatbook wielders.

    However I completely understand the beauty of mechanism games. I love Car Wars, that is how I found your blog, I admired but never played SFB. Even some modern games still have the spark, like Dwarf Fortress, where much of what you do is intense, detailed micromanagment, and at the end you take a breath and realize what a cool story has developed without you or anyone intending it. And this is a better type of game for many groups. No one can walk into a game of OGRE with a creepy ten-page history of their Mark III typed up and a demand that it be worked into the storyline of the game. (“My missiles actually have range TEN!”)

    Luckily I knew that somehow D&D was never meant for that, and at a few points in my life I was able to play it in fun, imaginative campaigns that used the system as it was intended to be used, so that it could disappear into the woodwork and we players could imagine some worlds together (not that we didn’t tinker and refine too…). As opposed what I’d call “gutter” D&D as an only social game, typified by Knights of the Dinner Table, with idiotic scenarios, empty characters, stupid names, and where the only story created or remembered is about player A getting mad at player B, or player C’s good/bad die rolling luck, and long bouts of Monty Python recitations. That’s D&D played as a failed system game, and games like 3E easily trend to that. Might as well be playing Parcheesi.

    Anyway, I hope you do have or gain some good memories with the world of structured “let’s pretend” no matter what game system it was. (Gygax’s death has reminded me that I want more of them myself.) Maybe the irony is that the mechanism gamers so entrenched in echoes of D&D actually owe little to Gygax, while the sneering D&D-rejecting imagination-filled Vampire players owe most of all.

    Cheers, and keep the faith!

  2. jeffro March 10, 2008 at 11:20 am

    @cheepicus– Insightful, +5

    I haven’t taken the time to go back and play the AD&D 1st edition game that I never got around to as a teenager; thanks for clarifying the spirit with which all those rules were meant to be taken. (And while I’m about as “mechanisticky” as they come, when I referee rpgs, I play fast and loose in order to preserve player freedom and narritivistic cohesion.)

  3. Laminator_X October 22, 2008 at 7:34 am

    I joined in on the Castle Gygax trap & saving-throw meatgrinder wake for Gary at Gencon this year. The old-school character-destruction-derby was fun, at least in a 1-hour revolving reperatory format, and it was neat to reflect on how far things have come since then.

    My thoughts on Gary lean less towards hagiography and more towards gratitude. For as much as Arneson’s innovations may have been more significant in terms of differentiating role-playing games from wargames, it was definitely Gary’s relentless efforts that catalyzed the wider industry and phenomenon it all became (with all the good and bad that entailed). It was a big leap of faith to go from insurance underwriter (consult this table to figure the odds of something bad happening, hmmm…) to selling abstract games to niche markets.

    Ultimately, I’m glad he blazed the trail for the rest of us to follow.

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