Why Gary Gygax Mattered

I found out yesterday, of course, when the news hit. At the time I was busy with school-related stuff, so I decided to put off writing about it until today.

Now you may not have been reading all the other tributes that various nerds and geeks throughout the internet have written, so let’s start with an explanation of who Gary Gygax is and what he did:

Gary Gygax, Dave Arnesson and some other guys had a wargaming group back in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s how it all started originally: Tactical Studies Rules was what TSR stood for because it was founded by wargame geeks. But this is actually before TSR. Anyway, GG and his pals liked to play and publish wargames.

Chainmail was a medieval skirmish-level wargame played with lead miniatures. Being fans of fantasy novels including the works of Tolkein, Leiber and Jack Vance, GG and his pals decided to make a fantasy supplement to Chainmail. Legend has it that GG’s niece came up with the name Dungeons & Dragons.

Among other interesting esoteric trivia is the fact that D&D was originally meant to be played competitively and didn’t even start out as a role-playing game. Like video arcade games, experience points were originally a way to figure out who won a particular round of D&D. The invention of role-playing games actually happened by accident when after D&D-the-CM-supplement was published, someone decided to try a D&D campaign with characters that went on continuing adventures. This wasn’t a completely new or foreign idea, since wargame campaigns had been around for a while. What was new was keeping the same characters from session to session and improving those characters as time went on, assuming they survive. What was new was not so much combining heroic characters from fiction with a game that simulated what those characters (and their opponents) did, but doing so in a way that made the players care about those characters as characters and not just as a means of winning a game.

When D&D was published as it’s own game, it was what most gamers now think of as a role-playing game. The conceptual quantum leap between wargames and role-playing games had been taken, and it spread like wildfire when the first D&D modules (adventures) and campaign supplements were published*. The success of D&D and other games (TSR was never just about D&D when GG was around) led to GG creating Dragon Magazine to support the new kinds of games that were suddenly popping up like crazy**.

Then D&D became AD&D in the late 70s early 80s. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was GG’s masterpiece. Regardless of how much Dave Arnesson and others contributed to the early prototypes of D&D, GG wrote most of the essential AD&D books himself, and AD&D became the defining version of D&D for a generation. AD&D was the best organized and clearest-presented version of the rules ever. AD&D was hardback. AD&D had campaign worlds specifically designed as campaign worlds. AD&D had crazy stuff like Oriental Adventures and Manual of The Planes to stretch the concepts of “fantasy roleplaying” beyond anything that had been previously thought of. Regardless of how much others contributed, GG was the driving force behind AD&D.

Meanwhile, a lot of nerds who had played D&D started learning to use personal computers and decided to create games based loosely on D&D. Richard Garriott created the Ultima series. Various fantasy-themed games appeared on Atari and Intellivision. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy appeared on Nintendo’s Famicom in Japan. Official D&D computer games were also produced set in Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms. All of these games were the direct conceptual ancestors of more recent games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XII.

Over in Britain, the Fighting Fantasy books were created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Games Workshop was started, and the Warhammer miniatures wargame based on a very D&D-like world would become legendary in it’s own right. D&D was even starting to inspire and influence games that were completely unlike it in terms of rules, but obviously very much inspired by the settings.

Eventually GG left (or was forced out of, depending on who you ask) TSR due to a long and complex fight***. AD&D2 was produced without GG and it sucked and that’s all you really need to know about AD&D2 in the 1990s. Eventually TSR collapsed and was bought by Wizards of the Coast and D&D was revived as “Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition”. D&D3 was wildly successful, in part because it revived nearly everything from AD&D1 that was eliminated (or made much more difficult) in AD&D2, as well as making it relatively easy to add new things to the system. GG wrote for Dragon Magazine once more, and had a very good column for years.

While he never had the kind of massive success that D&D and AD&D brought him, he did continue to produce things for quite a long time afterwards. While none of those later projects individually had the same kind of influence (usually because many of his later projects were highly reminiscent of D&D, and D&D was already D&D), his overall influence on popular entertainment cannot be overstated. I could make some LONG lists here, but all you have to do is just look around and pay attention and it’s easy to draw the connections****.

And now he’s dead.

I knew GG through AD&D and his Dragon Magazine articles. I never met him in person, but the enthusiasm in his writings was tangible. He made D&D what it was when it was the most influential. The games that D&D inspired are now huge franchises. Regardless of how much else anyone else has done on D&D and related games, Gary Gygax is more responsible for inspiring it all than any other one person.

And that is why nerds all over the internet are in mourning.

Best tributes I’ve seen: Order of The Stick (which is how I first found out)
Penny Arcade
Websnark (VERY LONG)

*Interesting bit of ridiculously-nerdy trivia: The very first RPG campaign setting to be published as an RPG campaign setting was not Blackmoor or Castle Greyhawk, it was Empire of the Petal Throne, produced with an official license from whoever had the rights to it at the time. Dave Arnesson and Gary Gygax published Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk (based on their respective D&D campaigns) after they saw the success of Petal Throne.

**Early Dragon Magazine issues were awesome. While it later devolved into a D&D-only magazine, early on it was all about all kinds of hobby-games, TSR-published and otherwise. They even had a lot of video game reviews in the mag for quite a while.

***Essentially, the fight was instigated by those GG left in charge of TSR while he went out and tried to produce D&D spin-off products for TSR for a few years.

****Well let me give you one seemingly-obscure example: Team Fortress 2. If you know TF2, you wouldn’t immediately think that it has anything to do with D&D. But let’s look at it’s lineage: TF2 is based on Team Fortress Classic which was created using the Quake engine. Quake is directly descended from Wolfenstein 3D. Wolfenstein 3D was directly influenced by the technology behind the Ultima Underworld games (and when Wolf3D first came out, I thought it sucked because they didn’t bother to include an inventory system). The Ultima Underworld games were a spin-off of the Ultima series, which was essentially a recreation of Richard Garriot’s D&D campaign.

But it goes deeper than that. What is Team Fortress 2 after all? It’s a game where you control a single character who is primarily determined by his class who teams up with other characters of a variety of classes. The Classes have a wide variety of distinct abilities and weapons. You are expected to raid enemy fortresses, bring back loot (intelligence/capture the flag missions) and support your teammates. The Medic even has a magical healing gun. The fact that teams are pitted against each other is reminiscent of early non-roleplaying D&D. TF2 isn’t an RPG: there’s no inventory, there are no ongoing campaigns, and you don’t interact with friendly non-player characters. Nevertheless, it’s not completely unlike what GG was playing back in the early 70s using miniatures and dice.

EDIT: Actually, TF2 now has an inventory and random loot drops. There you have it…

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