Thursday, September 10, 2020

OD&D as a "Non-Game" (Again)

Gary Gygax famously declared, in issue #26 of Dragon (June 1979), that original Dungeons & Dragons was "a non-game." By "non-game," he meant that OD&D's rules were vague and admitted so many interpretations that any two campaigns ostensibly using the rules would not bear much resemblance to one another. Two years later, in the first part of an interview that appeared in Polyhedron #1, he was still beating that drum, albeit in a slightly different form.

For the benefit of aged eyes like mine, here's what Gygax says:
I am not overly fond of the way Dungeons & Dragons games have mutated and changed into very strange exercises. But who can say "nay" to someone who's having a good time with the game? One of the reasons that I was able to throw myself into the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons project with such vigor, and put in so many hours, and turn it out as quickly as I could, is that I felt a game was needed that would have more control over its audience, and one that was not so open-ended and one that was going to have more uniformity of play, and yet retain the sense of wonder and imagination and that the Dungeons & Dragons system, as a game form had produced.

There's a lot to unpack here. First, it's important to point the note of conciliation Gygax strikes – "But who can say "nay" to someone who's having a good time with the game?" Nevertheless, he quickly touts the superiority of AD&D over its predecessor, as well as congratulating himself for having toiled so hard to have produce it. That said, I think there's more going on here than mere self-aggrandizement. Gygax, I believe, is trying very hard to suggest that not only is he the sole author of AD&D but also that AD&D is a different game than OD&D. These suggestions probably reflect the atmosphere at TSR in the aftermath of the recently concluded lawsuits Dave Arneson had launched over Dungeons & Dragons

More interesting than those comments are those where Gygax talks about AD&D as providing "more control over its audience." What exactly does that mean? He elaborates somewhat later in the interview, saying:

I believe that the RPGA influence is going to help raise the level of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons play by enforcing a little more conformity. I don't mind creativity, I don't mind mutation, if it brings out better game play, and superior gaming in general. But from everything that I can see, all the changes that I can see are usually foolish and meant to either baby players along or kill them off, one way or another. They're destructive rather than creative.

From this, it's difficult for me not to see these additional comments as of a piece with his earlier ones. It's true, of course, that Gygax had long been concerned with the quality of play – and sincerely so – but what I detect here is a desire to ensure that TSR and TSR alone would be the sole arbiter of what D&D was and would be. His stance is about protecting trademarks and copyrights and, let's not forget, profits. In 1981, D&D's sales were on an upward trajectory and there was no end in sight. Having dealt with Dave Arneson's legal claims, it was vital to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. AD&D was the cornerstone of a plan to do just that. 

The sad irony is that, in time, some of the very things Gygax did to secure TSR's hold over Dungeons & Dragons would later be used against him. Within five years, he would be gone from the company he founded and have nothing more to do with the game he co-created and that, quite literally, changed the world. 


  1. This is one example of a trend that started to turn people off of Gary

  2. "...all the changes that I can see are usually foolish and meant to either baby players along or kill them off, one way or another. They're destructive rather than creative."

    That may sound familiar to grognards speaking about later iterations of the game, but I'd like to hear examples of these extremes of homebrew rules and game play from back in the day that Gary points directly at.

  3. Probably Arduin Grimoire, Chivalry & Sorcery, and the original Warlock, all of which started as expansions or revisions of D&D. I doubt Uncle Gary was as concerned about the actual rules being used i home campaigns as much as he was combating the the idea that D&D was growing out of TSR's control, since these variant games were getting published, and could have conceivably eaten in the market share that D&D controlled.

  4. Great to read this and your blog.
    Of particular interest is how the natural 20 as a critical hit doing double damage became embedded in later editions. EGG also mentions barbarian and knights as OP characters, and laments weapon specialisation yet 4 years later would author (or at least edit) Unearthed Arcana.