Gary Gygax: The Father of Games Design

On the 74th anniversary of Gary Gygax' birthday, Tomas Rawlings looks at the legacy left by the designer of Dungeons and Dragons

"So how do I become a games designer?" is a question I often get asked as I engage with students and gamers in my work. The reply I often give is simple, "Shutdown your PC, switch off your tablet, turn your phone to silent then get hold of a copy of Dungeons & Dragons". Of course I don't mean the various video game versions (great as many of them are) and I don't mean the recent Facebook game (which is also fun). I mean the original rule book plus some pens, paper and loads of dice (don't forget those d20s!). Then, Level 1 Magic User, you will be ready to begin your journey...

Playing Dungeons & Dragons is one of the best ways to learn the foundations of game design. It is how I (and lots of others in the industry) learned about making games. By running Dungeons & Dragons games we had to master a number of key skills including narrative, drama, gameplay balancing and crucially, the all important stats systems. These diverse areas make Dungeons & Dragons a bit of a paradox; at once a geeky stats-fest and yet also the ultimate social game that only works with a group of friends. What makes it a great way to learn about game design also points to why all games developers owe its co-creator and gaming legend, Gary Gygax, a full horn of ale and a lot of thanks.

"I often feel that all we are doing with digital technology is trying to emulate the purity of gameplay that D&D achieved"

Sadly Gary is not with us today. He died back in 2008, aged 69. Gary was a gaming legend. As well as creating Dungeons & Dragons (along with Dave Arneson) then developing the concept into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he also founded the company TSR (now owned by Wizard of the Coast) and the Gen Con gaming convention as well as creating/assisting in a number of other game systems such as Chainmail (the forerunner of Dungeons & Dragons) and Lejendary Adventure.

But for me, his most important legacy is Dungeons & Dragons (aka D&D). If you've not played it, its a Role Playing Game (RPG), played by a bunch of friends sat around a table. One person runs the game (the Dungeon Master or DM for short) while the rest take the role of players within the DM's world. The game is moderated by the DM to a framework set by the D&D rule books and rendered in the player's imaginations. D&D is pure social gaming - it is all about the people playing. And D&D is pure multiplayer gaming - it is all about the player's joint interactions. I often feel that all we are doing with digital technology is trying to emulate the purity of gameplay that D&D achieved.

It is also the great-grandfather of much of video gaming. Why? D&D, the product of Gary's rich imagination was based on a key insight to merge character, narrative and stats into a 'game engine'. D&D envisioned a fictional world simulator designed to be played within (and with). This core idea is still the basic framework for so much of today's video games industry. For example D&D has Hit Points and Damage Modifiers, Hit Rolls and Armour Classes - how many other video games, even non-RPGs, have borrowed this combat framework? D&D has progression with character levels, equipment, skills, spells and more. How many games use the various incarnations of levelling up to keep players interested? Tens of thousands. D&D gave roles to the participants via character classes such as Fighter, Magic User, Cleric, Thief and more. How many games use this approach of allowing the player to map their identity into the game? The answer is legion.

When I first learned to code about aged 12 (BASIC on the BBC), the first program I wrote was a character generator for D&D that rolled up the basic stats for a new character; the two were a natural fit. The first collaborative game I worked on (aged around 13) was an attempt at a D&D type RPG with a fellow pupil who could code much better than me. D&D worked as a video game like dwarves work with beards and gold.


AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, revised edition, 1979.

D&D was also the seed for much more. The basic world-building structure of D&D was a rich source of inspiration for other games and many other games followed from Gary's template; RuneQuest, Boot Hill, Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu to name a few. They were always defined in relation to D&D; Call of Cthulhu was like D&D but with less emphasis on the combat and no levelling up. RuneQuest was like it but had a more expansive combat system, and so on.

I have a fairly sizeable collection of RPG games (I know, I know, it's a wonder that I'm not single, much less married. The secret is a Level 3 Charm Spell.) At home, on my book shelf with pride of place is the TSR 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. For all the reasons I've outlined and the hundreds of hours I spent playing the game, I'd like to raise a mug of mead to Gary Gygax; innovator, game designer, geek, star of Futurama and somebody who brought gaming to the millions. Short of eradicating malaria or something like that, it is hard to imagine a better legacy to leave to the world; that being the bringer of such a volume of fun.

Tomas Rawlings is the designer of the geeky RPG game, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. He is also a games consultant and is producing the Gamify Your PhD project for The Wellcome Trust (where there is still time for developers to sign up).

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Latest comments (17)

Claire Blackshaw Senior Online Consultant, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe9 years ago
Brilliant read! Speaking as a games designer who came from an RPG background from the Basic Box set to running and writing modules for conventions to a professional game designer who still GM's a weekly game I have one concern.

If we bring up the next generation up on the same influences we had will we not stagnant the industry and stifle the new by our adoration of the old. For example the scaling damage and levelling system of DnD is a concept we are only now comfortable with discarding and is responsible for much of the grind in the RPG genre.

Just a thought.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 9 years ago
I think that the point is we who know and grew up with games like D&D generally have much better trained imaginations than those brought up without ever really having to visualise a Orc in a forest from just a someone describing it to you or imagining how your beat up adventurer, on his last legs, has to fight for his life.

Even the fighting fantasy books I used to read fueled my imagination like lighting a torch in a dark cave. So when I came to write and design computer games. My games had not been confined to such genres as FPS or platform games or movie tie ins. Instead I created rich tales and stories conjured straight from my own mind.

If you read someone like Lovecraft or Eddings their tales transport you to amazing places. The mind can create things a thousand times more original and creative than anything shown on a tv screen.

Watch a child with a cardboard box. To them it can be a fort, a space ship or anything. Give them a console then come back a year later and observe how much of that creativity they have lost.
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Tomas Rawlings Director, auroch digital9 years ago
Hi Claire, I think it is a valid point you raise. I was more trying to say that paper RPGs are good ways to see 'under the bonnet' of a game system. I think by playing them and DMing them, you see more of the processes at play of what makes a good game.
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Show all comments (17)
Thaadd Powell Sales Rep, ACD Game Distribution9 years ago

Also wanted to give a shout out for the Memorial Fund in his home city. They also reprinted the 1st Edition, in original unedited format (warts and all!) of the Dungeons and Dragons RPG books this month. They're Hobby channel, bricks and mortar only, North America (sorry brits) distribution, but very pretty.

I was a pen and paper geek before I was a video game geek, and I've enjoyed watching younger geeks discover RPGing. I do think that the 'kids these days' tend to enjoy canned adventures a bit more than older gamers, evidenced by how well the Pathfinder story arcs book style sells. Now days, I use IRC (ok, I guess I am still old) to chat with friends about rpging campaigns, and periodically do 'Play by post' forum games. I tend to be too busy/hard to corner for regular times to do a traditional face to face game.
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Thiago Vignoli Creative Director, Fan Studios9 years ago
D&d and your big influence. A genious creation.
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Lewis Pulsipher Game Designer, Author, Teacher 9 years ago
"All I needed to know about games I learned from Dungeons and Dragons" 18 Aug 09
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James Berg Games User Researcher 9 years ago
@Thaadd "I do think that the 'kids these days' tend to enjoy canned adventures a bit more than older gamers, evidenced by how well the Pathfinder story arcs book style sells"

I'd disagree there. How many of us have gotten killed by an ogre in the Caves of Chaos? :) TSR produced a -lot- of modules, and the demand was high enough that entire companies sprung up to do the same (Judge's Guild, etc). Dungeon Magazine was a phenomenal resource for DM's either as a full-adventure, or as ideas for your own.

Pathfinder Adventure Paths sell really well because they're high-quality adventures, imo. I've never run one, but a friend has, and I've certainly cribbed ideas from them here and there.

For those looking to get new RPG players into D&D, I'd recommend the Pathfinder Basic Set. It's the 'Red Box' of the current game generation. I couldn't agree more with the article - D&D was the foundation for learning about games and their designs for me.
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Thaadd Powell Sales Rep, ACD Game Distribution9 years ago
@James - you're likely right. I jumped on board with 2nd Ed, and we mostly stuck with the basic books, but there was certainly lots of other product out there.

Pathfinder does sell really well too - I'm in distribution, and often when stores who don't know much about RPGing open up, they know the name Dungeons and Dragons, but I always try to push them to carry a variety. Roleplaying has taken a fairly big increase in the last 5 years, after the glut of terrible D20 stuff. There is both good licensed stuff (Games Workshop branded games) and classic games (Pathfinder, Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu still going strong) and a ton of small house things coming down the line from Kickstarter, now too. New distribution methods like DrivethruRPG with PDF Sales also work so that having a physical printed product and warehousing isn't needed. *(although this makes me sad as a physical product distributor!)

I would seriously suggest for anyone who hasn't tried 'pen and paper' rpging to give it a crack though.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
Nice article. :)

I'll give a shout-out to the less stats-heavy RPGs, and for a good reason.

Pen-and-paper games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Mountain Witch are more stripped-down, stats-light experiences, focussing on narrative and freedom for the player. Whether a developer is aiming for a sandbox RPG (like Fallout 3/New Vegas) or a linear experience (like Mass Effect), I would say that they should at least read-up on (if not run in and play) both games, to see how diverse the gaming world can be when drawn by a GM, and how much freedom for players lends to the gaming experience.

I think it would help video-game RPGs immensely, if developers could see how their target demographic interacts with the imagined world, and other PC/NPCs.

(Also, <3 PFRPG! :D )

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 27th July 2012 8:41pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago

Charles S. Roberts.

Gary Gygax is 20 years behind him. Gygax was nowhere without Avalon Hill and the early wargame designers. D&D evolved from wargames. TSR stands for Tactical Studies Rules.

James Dunnigan designed Jutland in the early 1960s.

H.G. Wells even. Designed his toy soldiers game around 1900.

The Prussians who designed Kriegspiel.

Sorry. You have to do your homework.

But one thing you have absolutely right...

You are a cripple - as a gamer or a game designer - if you have no experience of tabletop games in the style of D&D and Avalon Hill.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 28th July 2012 2:27am

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ Tim

Gygax might not have been the first, but he was certainly the one who popularised it.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ9 years ago
Would love to see a full on in depth doco about Gygax. Seriously pioneering designer, in terms of computer game systems, even thought he was working on paper!
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Robert Oelenschlager Independent Game Developer 9 years ago
Your ego robs your commentary of any real impact. You come off as argumentative on what is essentially an opinion piece. Gary Gygax didn't invent miniatures games, but Dungeons and Dragons is by far the most influential tabletop roleplaying game in modern memory, and it is he they attribute that game to. It isn't about "who did it first," especially in such an iterative industry, so listing people that beat him to it is a little reductive and insulting.

You're essentially saying Gygax is overrated in some sort of hipster "too mainstream" way. Please look for the number of Game Designers that claim Charles S. Roberts as influence to their work, as the subject was Gygax's influence and not doing it first. Influential people are allowed to have influences, it doesn't cheapen their contribution.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ9 years ago
I bought the red box D&D beginner ruleset in about 1994, when I was about 15, but never found anyone to play.
Some guys at my highschool had already had a deep engagement with the game in prior years, and claimed to have a great DM named Adrian. But they were over it, they didn't play anymore.

I sat around at home and made character sheets. That's as far as I ever got.

I'm a game designer now, working on my own games (after spending 10 years working in the industry around Melbourne), and now at age 34, I feel it's a shame I've still never played a game of D&D around a table.

I grew up playing computer games, and I think I'm engrained with the ideologies of computer games, and not so much with the freeform imaginings of a human-driven table top experience. Oh well.

I enjoyed the Dungeons and Dragons episode of "Community" recently (S2E14). Very funny, and kind of represents the actual game well, the story of the episode plays out using the basic conventions of a game session that lasts the whole episode. Ridiculous. :)

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Murray Lorden sad history, really. We play in the office on the lauch time over 40 minutes, dungeons and dragons 4th and of course call of cthulhu. I have a warhammers armys and tabletop games, for my is very sad look game designer who never played pen and paper games.
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James Berg Games User Researcher 9 years ago
@Tim - If we were talking about Chainmail, I'd agree with you. But it wasn't Chainmail that changed the face of gaming, it was D&D, which bears very little resemblance to the old Avalon Hill wargames. It was definitely an evolution, but the step from boardgame with 398582 chits to an imagination-based story was a big one, and that's what Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, et al, brought us.

I didn't even -like- Gygax, for a variety of reasons, but denying his influence was key in our industry doesn't make sense.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ Murray

As noted above, the Pathfinder Adventure paths are a good place to start, if you (or any possible GMs) don't think creating a world/adventure of your own is possible. Even those pre-written games are a good way to familiarise yourself with how players interact with the game world, and what they expect to be able to do. In fact, they're actually better, since if you play them "as written" a lot of them come across as linear games in the computer-RPG style, like Mass Effect, for instance.
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