Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gary Gygax and House Rules

I just read a disturbing editorial in The Dragon #16 (what would eventually become Dragon Magazine). Gary Gygax, starting on page 15 in the July '78 issue, blasts Amateur Press magazines and house rules that people have made for D&D. A few choice selections:

"D&D encourages inventiveness and originality within the framework of its rules. Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

"Why can’t magic-users employ swords...On the surface this seems a small concession, but in actuality it would spoil the game!"

"Each character role has been designed with care in order to provide varied and unique approaches to solving the problems which confront the players...This same reasoning precludes many of the proposed character classes which enthusiasts wish to add to D&D. Usually such classes are either an unnecessary variation on an existing class, are to obtuse to be interesting, or are endowed with sufficient prowess to assure that they would rule the campaign..."

"The “critical hit” or “double damage” on a “to hit” die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D as well."

"Any fighting man worth the name made it a point to practice daily with all forms of arms....The truth of the matter with respect to weapon expertise is, I believe, another attempt to move players closer to the “instant death” ability.

"...[Amateur Press Associations] are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticise those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious...they are unprofessional, unethical and seemingly ignorant of the laws concerning libel...When I first got into this business, I felt that the APA-zines might be good for the hobby...Now I know the error of my thinking. They serve no useful purpose."

"Additions to and augmentations of certain parts of the D&D rules are fine. Variants which change the rules so as to imbalance the game or change it are most certainly not. These sorts of tinkering fall into the realm of creation of a new game, not development of the existing system."

"Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game."

"Many seek to trade on D&D’s popularity by offering “new” or “variant” systems which fit only with D&D, even though the game is not actually named. Buy them if you have money to throw away, but at peril of your campaign; do not use material which alters the basic precepts of the game."

He uses "framework" and "precepts" as if they are unalterable, or sacrosanct. But what are the precepts of D&D? Roll a d20 and interpret the results the way the rules tell you? Randomly generated ability scores? Experience, level, and class systems? Spell memorization? Some combination of the above, or none of these?

I can understand why a designer might think his design choices are best, but to publicly lambast someone else's design choices is purely unprofess-ional. I may not like AD&D nor the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th editions. I can tell you at length why I do not like them, but I'm not going say that their design choices are bad. I can tell you without a doubt that they are not for me.

What's funny is that, as time progressed, D&D changed:

  • Everyone used the "natural 20" rule, and it made it into 2E as an optional rule, and into 3E as an official "critical threat" roll.
  • Weapon expertise found its way into all editions as "Weapon Mastery" (in BECM), "Weapon Proficiencies" in 1 and 2E, and through various Feats in 3E.
  • Character classes were added, first in the form of "Kits" in 2E, then 180+ "base classes," and over 700 Prestige Classes in 3E (this is according to the Wizards official site).
  • Bulletin Board Services sprang up, host to a number of house-rules, and then this ballooned to blogs and retro-clones, each touting his or her own "variant system which fit only with D&D."
  • Spell Points made it into the Wheel of Time game published by WotC.

I've played with mages who used spell points and found it refreshing and new. It brought a flavor to the game that somehow the spell slot system lacked. I know the way Vance describes it is fantastic, but in D&D it was cut, dried, clinical, and limiting. I've since found variants to make it less limiting and more flavorful, but still use basically the same system.

It's pretty interesting to see Gygax violently defend a game that later on, even under his watch, changed immensely. True, even before 2E, he was ousted and even hunted by TSR's legal team. But it's also strange to see such venom being spewed at people who simply were trying to add rules to a game they loved. It is even more interesting if you consider he had a hand in Castles & Crusades decades later, itself a variant of D&D.

Regardless of the "angry young man" showcased here, we owe Mr. Gygax a debt we cannot repay, and I'm glad that he was able to continue to ignite our imaginations and inflame our passions about the hobby up until the end.


  1. Interesting look at the development of the game! Gary's statements from back then are pretty strange looking at them now, but maybe it was because the hobby was still so young?

  2. Very good point! I still find it funny, as there are many different ideas as to how the designers wanted the game to be played. I remember this quite beautiful girl who worked behind the counter of my (at one time) FLGS. She told me she didn't like 2nd Edition because it violated one of Gygax's supposed prime rules: "Nothing is set in stone." Yet, from many of the old school materials authored by him, it does say "don't mess with it." I wish now I'd asked her where she got that idea, as the quote stuck with me for these many years...

  3. Actually, his involvement with C&C and with other games later flow quite well with these statements he created. 3.X was NOT D&D, at least the D&D Gygax or anyone else created in the early 70's to mid 80s. Even 2e core was refined 1e (THACO and most other concepts were actually in the 1e DMG from over 10 years prior). The fact that the Rolemaster and ICE contributors (and a host of others who originally were part of the APA ideas that expanded into their own RPG's later on) were the one's designing D&D in the mid to late 90's and introducing these new ideas that eventually became 3.X give even greater merit to what Gygax stated.

    These ideas DID change the basic ideas of the game, and the core themes changed as well until the same thought patterns that destroyed the old AD&D adages to create 3.X, threw in their own evolution of the game to supplant the original makers of D20 to create 4e.

    In that light, Gygax's comments in some ways were prophetic on what would happen if these people ever had the power to get their ideas to get a foothold. It would destroy the game.

    It did...and along came the D20's and then D20 revised (or 4e).

  4. I too think this blog greatly misunderstands the points Gygax was making. There is very little venom there I can see.
    He designed the game; he was a self-made professional game designer and co-creator of the genre-defining D&D. Although he encouraged house rulings for many things, as designer he was well within his rights to define those parameters.
    Actually there is far more venom and personal attack in the blog than the quotes. Gygax was not ousted; he had his baby wrenched away from him. And then he was legally attacked for trying to write other games.
    Anyway, if you look at the comments not as personal attacks but as a designer defending his system, and simply saying "if you want to fundamentally change it, call it something else!" You also have to understand his wargame background. Giving the Wizard good offensive weapons does dilute that archetype from a design point of view, Gandalf notwithstanding.
    Limitations can spawn creativity. How about an illusionist who makes himself *appear* as if he's a half-orc wielding a great axe?
    I enjoyed enormously critical hit systems, spell points, and homebrewed classes. I'd lie if I said they didn't hugely effect power levels in the game. But Gygax was one of the originators. He had the right, dammit. As did Arneson, and perhaps that's where the karma comes in, not that it's our business to know. Just give Gygax his due, not just some grudging respect.
    I still have a hard time justifying demi-human level limits, and I don't think at very high levels their handful of special abilities make that much a difference. I'm more inclined to just slow their advancement by 25% until name level.
    But if Gygax appeared in a dream and said, "That's not a malleable rule in D&D!", well, ok then. I can not take that personally, consider how he might be right, and then decide whether to agree or not.

  5. I didn't mean to make it sound like an attack, or even take it personally. I just was taken aback by these statements. I'm not arguing whether he even had the right or not. Everyone's got an opinion, and that's primarily what the editorial was, and what this blog is.

    And whether Gygax was "ousted" or had his "baby wrenched from him" is simply a matter of semantics. I don't like the way he was forced out, and I certainly think it's lame to continue persecuting him like some immature vendetta. Personally, when they were bought out, I was initially grateful. I just wish they hadn't kept him and Arneson at arm's length afterward, having them sign agreements relinquishing all claims to D&D.

    I'm genuinely sorry for the misunderstandings this generated. I was merely struggling with the fact that Gygax was trying to argue balance about a game that changed with each new book and/or edition. I'm not attacking Gygax at all, just a little weirded out by the wording. And it was just one issue, after all. Maybe he was having a bad day when he sat down at the typewriter.

  6. Don't be surprised. Numerous persons felt the wrath of Gary back in the day. Fortunetly, he mellowed with age. Check out a few of his editorials in Strat review for similar examples of caustic commentary. Thing is this editorial is total bullshit. Gygax wrote what he wrote here not because he believed it - there is a ton of evidence to the contrary - but because - thinking like a wargamer - he was trying to gain absolute mastery of the field - and AD&D and dragon mag were the vehicle hes intended to do it. He knew perfectly well the charcters, rules and so forth of D&D were largely organic creations not "crafted" with precision for a blanced game.

  7. Just stumbled upon this. I remember this like it was yesterday. It's largely Gary responding to criticism that had been appearing in game fanzines and other publications of the time. It was in effect another volley in the hobby's very first and slowest flame war.

    Great stuff.

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