Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gygax and the old school

In the very first issue of the APAzine Alarums & Excursions, Mark Swanson wrote that he subscribed to a simple slogan — "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." A&E started in June 1975, the very infancy of the hobby, before even The Dragon made an appearance. Swanson was describing his differences with the way spells worked in the OD&D rules as described by Gygax, but he definitely hit on one of the points I want to explore.

For the curious, Gygax responded to Swanson in a letter published in A&E #2, and quite heartily agreed. It's important to remember that Gygax was not held in the kind of regard that he has been by latter-day followers; he was a designer who had released a game, and while other hobbyists were enthusiastic about it, they were also frequently perplexed by or in outright disapproval of the rules as originally presented in the "three little booklets". On the whole, Gygax's treatment of magic seemed to garner the most controversy. Very few contributors to A&E responded positively to the quasi-Vancian system presented in OD&D, or any of its possible permutations.

In a broader sense, I think that Gygax needs to be taken with a healthy grain of salt in the old school community. Obviously we owe the man a tremendous debt of gratitude for his design, and I think his philosophy of dungeon exploration games contains a lot of things that are worth taking to heart. But there are two caveats here. First, Gygax's interpretation is just one take — whether it's in the 1974 OD&D rules set or not. Second, he was a normal person and his interpretations changed a lot over the years, like anyone's ought to. The more imperious Gygax of the 1979 DMG and the years to follow was not exactly the same as the one who had been just another gamer a few years earlier, and when he explained his philosophy and ran games for people in his twilight years (certainly too few) they reflected a different level of maturity and perspective. In the very early days, most gamers knew little about Gygax's intent beyond the sketches presented in OD&D and Supplement I: Greyhawk.

For these reasons, I think it's important to consider Gygax's approach to gaming less as the gospel truth and more as one of several valid approaches that exist for gamers interested in the old school. While there is a definite tendency in the old school community today to stress Gygax's work and approach, I think it should be taken like any other part of D&D history — the good should be used for what it is and the bad left behind, with "good" and "bad" being what's good for your game. If Gygax happened to have a few more hits and a few less misses than most designers, all the better. But nothing Gary Gygax ever said should stand in the way of you running your game the way you best see fit. And Gary would've stood behind that statement all the way.


  1. Exactly. Precisely.

    In an article I wrote about 15 years ago for Shadis, I noted that one of the reasons why OD&D worked was because it didn't - that is to say, there were enough things that needed interpretation in the original rules that referees had to come up with their own ideas of how things were supposed to be done.

    Along with all of that, Gygax was one of two designers - Dave Arneson had (and has) his own vision of how the game was to be played. And despite any lasting disputes over authorship, the original game also included the thinking of others in both their gaming groups. So from the start there were different ideas about how to play - and the game benefited from this. The value of A&E and The Wild Hunt and all the other fanzines is that by just existing, we've got fascinating ideas about what people were doing back then.

  2. Agreed 100% on the fanzine issue. I recently acquired photocopies, via Lee Gold, of the first 20 issues of A&E and they are absolutely amazing reading. A lot of what I write is going to be influenced as much by non-TSR textual artifacts of the early years as by the "official" material and the various reminiscences of TSR folks.

  3. D&D is too important to leave to anyone in my opinion.

  4. I definitely think interpretations and rulings (not rules) are at the heart of old-school gaming. More to the point, individual rulings. I miss the hell out of Gary, but if my games are left to anyone, its me and my group. And that's how it should be.

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