Transcript of our podcast from 15 March 2008

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Gary The Great

by Moritz Eggert

Hi, my friends. I want to use this segment to not talk about a single game but about a person who has left a gigantic mark on the gaming industry. As you might have heard by now, Gary Gygax, who is credited as one of the 2 inventors of Dungeons and Dragons together with Dave Arneson, has passed away recently.

When I proposed to do a special feature about Gygax to Tom Vasel from the Dice Tower I was a bit shocked to get a reply that went like: "I would do a feature about him if I knew more about the guy - but he never meant a lot to me". This was shocking to me because I think that the influence of Gary Gygax on the industry cannot be overrated, not knowing him is like not knowing Charles Roberts, or H.G. Wells. Without him the whole industry would be very, very different. The games we would play today would be very different without him as well.

I know that it has been kind of quiet around Gygax in the last years - he lead a relatively withdrawn life, even though he was involved in various game projects, mostly role playing, up to his death. This meant that many people had forgotten about him - But come on, you have to give the guy a break, he was already in his 60's, had been a sick man most of his life, and he was not exactly lazy, leaving 6 kids and wife along with a huge legacy of games and game related products. He was even said to have been continuing his personal roleplaying campaign as a Games Master directly up to his death.

Many of you might now say - "Hey, why are you talking about this boring roleplaying games guy, we are wargamers!". And nothing could be more ignorant, because in a way Gary Gygax was the most famous wargamer there ever was. In fact he was never the theatrical or live roleplaying guy - he preferred a boardgame type style of roleplaying, with a heavy emphasis on combat and miniatures. And he usually preferred boardgames to freestyle roleplaying games.

And he was a wargamer.

Gygax started as a miniature wargame enthusiast. For a long time he did nothing but recreate historical, mostly Napoleonic battles. Then came "Chainmail", a special set of miniatures rules that made it possible to do fantasy type battles modeled after for example "Lord of the Rings". Many people credit Gygax with "Chainmail", but actually this rules set was created by Jeff Perren, with Gygax doing the development and the revisions. Whomever you believe, Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax, "Chainmail" was or was not the starting point of roleplaying. What it definitely had was the use of a polyhedral die, in this case a 20 sided die, which later became the most important die in Dungeons and Dragons.

We can only guess what happened, but it is clear that during one of these miniature campaigns the idea came up to concentrate on individuals rather than armies. Miniature games already knew the concept of special "leader" figures, and as heroic fantasy was full of larger-than-life individuals it seemed logical to create rules for Barbarians, Magicians and other special characters. Because of this idea certain concepts were born, that didn't exist before. For example the concept of hit points, levels, experience points, armor classes and to-hit-tables, all this to make single man combat more interesting and varied. Because Fantasy battles also needed magic, Gygax borrowed the magic system from Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" novels, which had the very gamey concept that magicians learned spells like arming a gun, committing them to their memory one by one, and then firing them off, immediately forgetting them.

This was a simple and very easily explained idea, and took off immediately.

Soon he discovered that one needed a special setting to have these characters fight against each other, and so the dungeon adventure was born, a setting that was especially dear to the heart of Gygax, who later wrote some of the greatest dungeon adventures ever created, like "Tomb of Horrors". He also took the concept of the moderator, which already existed in miniature wargaming to create a fog of war, and turned him into the all-powerful gamemaster, who prepared adventures beforehand.

This in turn made it necessary to invent foes that the heroes could battle, and the first fantasy monster manual was born.

After having some success in their gaming circles with these concepts, the first rules set of "Dungeons and Dragons" was created, and became a cult hit at conventions. Still not knowing what hit they had created, Gygax and his friends created a small game company, Tactical Studies Rules (you can see the wargamer's mind at work in this title) and began printing copies in their basement, to an ever increasing demand.

What happened next is known to everybody - "Dungeons and Dragons" became a runaway success and is probably now one of the best known games in the world, with a huge influence on also films, video games and later computer games. The very first computer games for computers like IBM or ZX Sinclair were all attempts, to create dungeon or fantasy adventures heavily influenced by D&D. Later computer roleplaying games morphed into MMORPG's like "Everquest" and the whole concept of creating an artificial world with its own rules of advancement and adventure are so commonplace now that everybody immediately understands the concept. But I remember having a hard time explaining these concepts to my friends when I was a kid. In Germany D&D was a rare import item for years, and only accessible to people with some knowledge of English. Hey, I actually learned English through "Dungeons and Dragons"!

But what is easily forgotten is how these radically new concepts also influenced the genres where they stemmed from, namely boardgaming and wargaming. Let's take the concept of "taking on different roles". What would Eurogames be without this concept? There would be no games like "Puerto Rico" or "Citadels", where one basically chooses a different role with special abilities each turn, a concept clearly taken from role playing games.

But also wargames were influenced. Suddenly designers became interested in concepts like battle experience or the concentration on single units. Without D&D there would for example be no Squad Leader or ASL, where there are even rules for leveling up commanders when they roll heroic dice combos, and where the whole game experience is centered about really feeling in the role of a squad commander, sometimes also with exploration elements and hidden units and surprises.

Suddenly there were many games with changing special abilities and asymmetric player powers, like "Cosmic Encounter" (which at its heart is also negotiation type wargame). These in turn made games like "Magic the Gathering" possible, where each card has a special ability, that sometimes can only be triggered in combos. And without games like "Magic" and the sudden success of card games there would be no card driven games like "Napoleonic Wars". And if this game wouldn't exist, there would be no Point-to-Point podcast, as Jason and Scott wouldn't know what to talk about anymore. So you see, even we Point-to-Pointers have to thank Gary Gygax for his invention.

I could talk for ages about the cultural influence of Gary Gygax through his roleplaying games, but we should not forget that the man designed real boardgames, even wargames. Boardgamegeek lists many of them, you might have heard of "Alexander the Great" or "Dunkirk - The Battle of France", traditional hex and counter wargames. These games aren't classics, but they show were Gygax took his inspiration from. Hadn't D&D been such a runaway success he would probably have continued to create board- and wargames, but as he suddenly had a new invention in his hands he was mostly busy writing roleplaying rules and modules from then on. But of course the infamous weapon tables of "Advanced Dungeons und Dragons First Edition", which listed even extremely rare and unknown medieval weapons and their special abilities like only a real wargame buff can show that Gygax was always foremost a wargamer.

So let's remember the man, and thank him for the immense influence he had on a whole industry and especially on the way games and concepts developed in the last 30 years. We should not forget that also Dave Arneson should be contributed, but Gygax was one of the two driving forces behind a world-wide phenomenon, and we have to give him our respect.

Let's remember him fondly and let's keep his memory alive in the games we play. That's all he could have ever wished for, it would make him proud.

Until next time, may all your hits be crits!

Moritz over and out.

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2008, Westpark Gamers