RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was, without doubt, one of the most influential game designers in history. He invented the role-playing game (with rules), as opposed to the role-playing game without rules, which has existed since before recorded history (heck, you can see kittens and puppies playing their version of “cowboys and indians”).

As with many absolutely groundbreaking pioneers Gygax’s work was so overwhelmingly influential that its many flaws have been treated, more-or-less, as fundamental pillars, so that the latest RPGs (paper or computer) usually contain many or even most of them, including “classes”, “alignments”, “levels”, “to hit tables”, “saving throws”, and so on. When viewed in large, his ideas are brilliant, but when viewed close up, every detail is terrible, whether it’s the historical research, the basic assumptions, the rules mechanics, or the quality of the writing.

Even so, not only has D&D spawned an entire class of imitative game designs, it has spawned comics, books, tv series, movies, computer games, scientific research, therapy, and training. More than an entire generation of geeks have grown up with D&D influencing their thinking and vocabulary. John Stewart makes D&D references on the Daily Show (as did Dave Foley in News Radio). The most successful computer game in the world right now is, unabashedly, a D&D derivative. Most of the key people at Microsoft, Apple, and Google have probably played D&D.

As a young gamer, I viewed TSR — Gygax’s game company — in much the same light as many of us today view Microsoft — a huge, unrelenting, capitalist monstrosity, destroying quality and diversity in its rapacious hunt for market share and profit. It was quite a revelation to me to discover, years later, that TSR was, more-or-less, a complete and utter boondoggle. So it’s particularly depressing to consider that such a hopelessly mismanaged enterprise managed to wreak so much havoc in the gaming industry. Just how badly must SPI have been managed to have fared so poorly against such hopeless competition?

Anyway, I was sad to read Gygax’s obituary on cnn.com (in fact I read his Wikipedia entry first, and it had already been updated). I don’t think he can be blamed for not being terribly good at the technical aspects of game design (historical research, logic, usability, writing) since his main contribution was really the idea of a formal role-playing game. It’s just a shame that his admirers have been so uncritical in their acceptance of his mistakes. (Indeed, just recently there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the efforts of the designers of D&D 4th Edition to fix just a few of the problems in D&D.)

Oh well, another 1000xp.