The Dungeon Master: An Interview with Gary Gygax

If he isn’t the most influential person in the world of RPGs, Gary Gygax certainly belongs in the pantheon of the giants of the genre. He started out by writing his own pen-and-paper games during the late 1960s and early 1970s and went on to revolutionize gaming with his involvement in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, Gary Gygax is looking to bridge the gap between gap between pen and keyboard by throwing his Lejendary Adventure pen-and-paper RPG into the MMOG ring (currently being produced by Dreams Interactive). Ion Storm project director Harvey Smith, being an RPG fan of both electronic and paper varieties, seemed like a natural — and very willing — volunteer to talk to Gary about RPGs, MMOGs, and the transition from pen-and-paper to mouse and monitor.

Harvey: First off, this is a surreal experience. RPG’s have been a huge part of my life. I started playing on the night of my 11th birthday (in 1977), during a weeklong winter camp. I had heard a lot about D&D, and at that first game I was immediately hooked on the creativity, camaraderie and fun. I still play in a weekly group. Over the years, I’ve played just about all the major paper RPG’s. At the same time, video gaming has been a tremendous part of my life. So it brings me a certain amount of pleasure to conduct this interview.

The screenshots and concept art for The Lejendary Adventures Online RPG look good. The time seems right to launch your MMPOG. The commercial success of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring cannot be denied, not to mention the success of EverQuest. Are you happy with the game so far?

Gary: As we spent several months discussing the shape of the Lejendary Adventure RPG online before concluding a deal with Dreams-Interactive, I must say that we share the same vision, so I am indeed pleased. Of course right now there is not much game to look at. However, we have the systems and mechanics pretty well set for alpha testing, so soon the shape will be changing, a lot of course, as all the usual glitches and kinks in a design and graphic presentation are discovered and ironed out.

Harvey: How involved are you with the LA online RPG on a daily basis?

Gary: That varies. Early on in discussions with D-I, I was very involved, then came a period where I was feeding them information, getting material back. Just now they are working on a new and larger demo, so I am standing by. When that demo is completed, I’ll be busy again. Meantime I have plenty of pen-and-paper game work to take care of.

Harvey: Chris Crawford (who is either a grandmaster designer of the computer game or the industry’s village idiot, depending on who you talk to) once said something brilliantly ahead of its time about the mistakes inherently involved with translating a game from one medium to another (specifically electronic) medium. His example was Poker, but obviously this is relevant to discussions about translating RPG’s into computer form. Any thoughts?

Gary: From the above, I’d say Chris is a grandmaster designer. Ignore the fact that I am sometimes referred to as the village idiot too:) The analogy to poker is apt, for what happens when that game is translated to the electronic media is similar to the transition of the game-mastered pen-and-paper RPG to the online format. I have spent a fair bit of time discussing this subject with D-I, and there is no doubt that there will be changes in the LA game when it comes up as a MMPORPG. What is exciting to me is that even as certain rules and systems change thus, there will be new and very interesting ones replacing them. The basics of the pen-and-paper game won’t change, and the “soul” will be the same, but the new medium and format will have innovations and new aspects that I am sure will be most appealing…and prevent common abuses too.

Harvey: What do you think a traditional game designer game guy brings to the computer/console game development process? Are there skills that transfer (and skills that don’t)? Has there been a lot for you to learn or would you say there’s more unlearning to do?

Gary: Well, there’s a tough question. First, many a programmer has told me my original designs were great in that they were presented very much the same way that they outlined their material for an electronic game. After that’s said, though, there are considerable differences in the scope of what can be done in the two media, and how to deal with the problems peculiar to each.

I must add that the basis for the LA RPG was a system I designed for a computer game that almost went into production. That’s why the LA game is as it is, rules-light and with only a few stats.

Anyway, there has been some learning for me in regards the problems of the MMP game, but they are not of the “unlearning” sort, rather how to think in regards to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. It goes without saying that the expertise of the D-I team has made the study a pretty easy one so far. Likely my experience in working on a few CRPG’s, and before that working with the Marvel team on the D&D Cartoon Show, where I had creative control of the scripts, has helped me a lot in being flexible and assisting with problem solutions.

Harvey: RPG’s often split people into several camps, sometimes polarized between those players more interested in interactive storytelling and those players more interested in killing monsters and collecting treasure. There’re also people who play for the interesting tactical challenges, seeing the game as an extended board game. Then, of course, there are those of us who enjoy all three. Have you had the chance to play the LA Online RPG yet? (Is it stable enough yet?) How do you see the game environment shaping up? How heavily does it cater to each of the player types described above?

Gary: Insightful, that question, and allow me comment on it a bit before answering.

I do not, and I stress NOT, believe that the RPG is “storytelling” in the way that is usually presented. If there is a story to be told, it comes from the interaction of all participants, not merely the Game Master–who should not a “Storyteller” but a narrator and co-player! The players are not acting out roles designed for them by the GM, they are acting in character to create the story, and that tale is told as the game unfolds, and as directed by their actions, with random factors that even the GM can’t predict possibly altering the course of things. Storytelling is what novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights do. It has little or no connection to the RPG, which differs in all aspects from the entertainment forms such authors create for.

As false to the game form as the pre-scripted “story,” is play that has little more in it than seek and destroy missions, vacuous effort where the participants fight and kill some monster so as to gain more power and thus be able to look for yet more potent opponents in a spiral that leads nowhere save eventual boredom. So pure hack and slash play is anathema to me too.

Tactical, and strategic, play is a fine addition to the RPG, and if it is in-character, something I see as desirable, In this category fall such things as exploration, economics, politics, and even intrigue.

The LA RPG was designed to accommodate any and all styles and play approaches, and hopefully so presented as to encourage an amalgam of all the elements of the game form. That encourages varied adventures, different challenges from time to time, and well-rounded characters (and players) that find the game has long-term interest for them. In short, I agree with you in that all aspects of the RPG should be presented and played.

Now, as to the LA MMPO game, I have not yet had the opportunity to really get into anything like what actual online play will be. We have discussed that a good bit, naturally, and soon I expect to be adventuring about with an Avatar in more than just a general environment, as has been the case up until now. What is particularly exciting to me about that is the new facets of play that will be presented thus, things not now contained in the LA pen-and-paper game.

Harvey: How would you sum up the unique vibe of LA? What makes it special, when compared to other FRPG’s?

Gary: The LA game system is rules-light, uses a skill-bundle basis and offers players the opportunity to create virtually any sort of Avatar they desire. There are “Orders” reflecting archetypes, or the player can select Abilities (skill bundles) as desired to get a very unique character. Mechanics are easy and straightforward. In all the game allows play of any sort desired, with emphasis on the role-play involved, not the rules. That makes it fun to GM and to play. Because it is adaptable to any style other than rules-lawyering, advancement is made on the basis of active participation in the adventure, not what one kills or loots. Overall, I think it fair to say that no other game plays like the LA one does.

Harvey: As a game designer, what do you think of the WotC D20 mechanics? I’ve played 3rd Edition D&D since it came out, and I’ve picked up the new D20 Call of Cthulhu and the espionage game Spycraft, as well. (I was a fan of the original CoC and the TSR espionage game Top Secret years ago…) Personally, I consider D20 an amazing accomplishment. What’s your opinion?

Gary: No question that the D20 system is well written and very tight considering all of the mass of detail contained therein. That makes it a bear to design for, nearly impossible to vary from the massive framework of the system. The D20 OGL is a very clever move too, as it provides support for the core system, brings in more players to it, and expands the fantasy base into other fantasy environments as well as into whole new genres.

After 30 years of role-playing gaming, however, I find that the system is too rules oriented for my personal taste, too centered on combat as well, so I will play it, but I do not enjoy DM’ing it–although I still love to DM for original D&D or AD&D.

What I sincerely hope is that 3E brings in many new players!

Harvey: Something we talk about here a lot at Ion Storm is how to get the best creative and technical work out of a team of 20-30 people. Computer games (especially RPG’s) are huge today, with tremendous budgets. I feel that a small group of people-working toward a common creative goal and putting aside as many issues related to ego as possible-can achieve synergistically better work than a single mind is capable of producing. As someone who is seen as a lone wolf writer/designer, do you have any thoughts on the collaborative creative effort?

Gary: Didn’t some wag once state that a camel was a horse designed by a committee?

In creating a new game I believe firmly that there must be one controlling force, one mind, as it were, even of that refers to two or three persons with a shared vision. (After all, I have frequently collaborated in this regard:) Now, when the base is built, the unique design completed and that being played, there is much room for new vision so that the design can grow, offer new aspects, and remain compelling. Given that, however, I do believe that there must be a controlling vision overseeing the new material.

Harvey: Why do you think sword-and-sorcery fantasy has maintained popular dominance in the RPG world? It’s always more popular than genres like spy fiction, mystery, horror or SF. Fictional trends (like cyberpunk) come and go, yet medieval or renaissance European patterns remain dominant. Can you shed some light on this?

Gary: Other than to point to human history, I can’t offer much. Campbell in treating the mythic hero seems to have pretty well nailed down the answer. There is something in the human subconscious that thrives on such fiction. The FRPG is merely an extension of that deep-seated part of our minds that hears and answers the call to adventure by picking up a game…

Harvey: Since the thought crystallized in my head, I’ve always said that there are two approaches to RPG character creation: One where people try on completely alien personas as a way of experimenting, and one where people play some facet of themselves (perhaps taken to an extreme). I fall into the latter camp; every character I’ve ever played is some reflection of me. Your opinions?

Gary: Oh-oh. I am a bad person to ask such a question. I envision the character I create only in the game at hand, and pretty well stay within those bounds. Thus, any character is “alien” to me. On the other hand, I can only assume the role according to what I know and think, so at the same time that persona is an Avatar of the actual “me.”

Harvey: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but, wow, you’ve had a huge, unsung impact on our culture. Role-playing games have filtered their way into the world in a number of ways. RPG’s brought with them authorial ownership over play experiences. RPG’s brought persistence to play experiences. The impact on computer gaming has been indescribably huge. Many people have been affected on a personal level, as well. (When I moved from Texas to California, one of my long-term gaming friends and Deus Ex co-designer, Steve Powers, sent distressing word of the new gamers he had started playing with after my departure, sarcastically describing one player nursing her child at the gaming table while her character was firing acid arrows at wererats. This is one of the ways I mark a personally milestone in my own history.) How do you feel about having played such an interesting role in so many lives?

Gary: It is a vastly stimulating thing, that impact you mention, and also quite humbling. I am always greatly heartened when I hear from fellow gamers who pass along how much enjoyment my work has brought to them, usually coupled with the camaraderie and friendships made, how much the game aided them in dealing with life and helped in attaining their potential. Had I initially realized how great the impact was to become, I would certainly have reflected on how I should present the initial work, and that might well have stifled the creativity. Still, as the positive is something well over 90 percent–more like 99.9 percent from direct communications I receive–from my current perspective I don’t think I’d change a thing in regards the concept.

Harvey: I know you’re a fan of the Elric books and of The Hobbit. Ever read the Chronicles of Amber? Were you a Roger Zelazny fan? Do you have any personal experiences to relate?

Gary: Well, a little on Zelazny. I really liked the first couple of “Amber” yarns. Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows is in the recommended reading list in the AD&D DMG appendices, as are his Lord of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness, if I recall correctly. In fact, one of the latter two books was licensed for a major theatrical film, and when I was out on the West Coast the man who held those rights took me to see Roger to discuss the project. We had a most interesting meeting, he being great company. Sadly, as with the film project for the D&D game I was working on at the time, both came to naught.

Harvey: I was playing Warcraft 3 recently, which features a race called the Night Elves. For your games, you created the Drow, didn’t you? What a great concept…dark faeries. From literature we have similar Norse myths about dark elves and the Unseelie Court from Ireland. Certain concepts come up over and over, with some deeper power over us. The Drow concept rocked some of us, when we were kids. It was as if you gave a voice to those of us who did not identify with golden knight-heroes. The Underdark was powerful stuff somehow. Tell us about how this came about and about how people reacted. Also, do you have any thoughts on writers playing with age-old archetypes? Is that something you do deliberately when design games or writing?

Gary: Two parts here, eh?

In regards to the drow, I found the name in an unexpurgated dictionary. At that time I was writing the “giants” series of modules for AD&D, and planning the sequel. That became the D series, for Drow, of course.

Conceiving of the vast lightless underground labyrinth–much inspired by Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure books, specifically The Pnume and Margaret St. Claire’s Sign of the Labyris–was fairly easy. As it developed it became clear to me that I needed a ruling race for this “Underdark,” a fey people if you will. The Norse dockalfar with crow’s feet wouldn’t do at all, so I devised the drow as appearing in the D series modules. The kuo-toans were clearly a minor factor, and even the illithid (mind flayers) could not be placed into this lightless realm as the great masters of it. To emphasize the difference of this race of dark elves I made the females more powerful than the males. (Incidentally, I had meant to do the same in a new race of potent, good elfin sort, but never got to it before I left TSR.) Anyway, the drow were devised to be the antithesis of the usual elves, and the concept worked very well, I must say. There is a good deal of satisfaction in seeing others take my unique creation and develop it into a very major part of the universe of D&D as has been done.

Now, as to the archetypes, yes. I did that unconsciously when I first wrote the D&D game, later on with forethought in other design. As I noted above, I have not neglected the archetypical figures in the design of the LA RPG. As a matter of fact, I believe it is a very important component of creating a game that has longevity.

Harvey: The sky is slate gray and purple. The clouds overhead seem to form impossibly-large faces wearing ominous expressions. Backed by this gloomy sky, a pale young sorcerer regards you warily from atop the ivy-covered remains of a shattered tower. What do you do?

Gary: I waste him with my crossbow, quickly loot his body, then complete the destruction of the tower, of course!

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