Tuesday, October 26, 2021

White Dwarf Interviews Gary Gygax

Issue #14 of White Dwarf features a long interview with Gary Gygax by Ian Livingstone. As I mentioned in my earlier post, it's a surprisingly good interview in which Gygax says a few things I don't believe I've ever read anywhere else. For instance, when asked about "the original inspiration for D&D," Gygax responds in this way:
CHAINMAIL, then Dave Arneson's campaign and Dave Megarry's game DUNGEON! 

It's a short answer but it says a lot. The importance of Chainmail is well known and obvious. The significance of Arneson's pre-D&D Blackmoor campaign is likewise widely acknowledged (though the fact that Gygax so readily admits this in late 1979 is, I think, notable). The role of Dave Megarry's boardgame, on the other hand, is often forgotten nowadays. That's in part an accident of publishing history: Dungeon! as a game predates D&D but it didn't appear in published form until after OD&D appeared in 1974. 

Shortly afterward, Livingstone asks Gygax about how he applied "the concept of role-playing to the novel game theme of fantasy." Gygax replies that "role-playing is common in wargaming," especially at 1:1 scale, so it wasn't a huge leap. Fantasy, meanwhile, isn't really all that novel.

Most of us, after all, are raised on fairy tales, fantasy, and myth. With that background, I actually don't view fantasy gaming as a novel idea, really, and I marvel that it wasn't done before D&D!

Of course, as Gygax already admitted, it was done before D&D, by Arneson and his crew in the Twin Cities. There are also other examples of proto-FRPGs prior to 1974, such as the Lankhmar games Fritz Leiber played with Harry Fischer, but none of them, including Blackmoor, saw print until after TSR published OD&D. (As an aside, Gygax implies that Guidon Games might have published it, if it had not folded beforehand and Avalon Hill was "luke warm to suggestions about fantasy.")

Livingstone then asks Gygax about the appeal of D&D and the kinds of people who enjoy playing it. What Gygax says is quite interesting, some of it echoing things he'd said elsewhere. He starts by describing the qualities of a "good D&D player" as follows:
Imaginative retentive memory, competitive, co-operative, thorough, bold (but not rash), and quick thinking … Slightly suspicious can be added and logical and deductive reasoning powers are most useful too.

 This exchange follows (which I reproduce in its entirety):

Over the years, Gygax repeatedly made reference to the way that roleplaying games enabled ordinary people to have "adventures" in a way that was largely impossible in the contemporary world. He felt that was very important, especially for children, and, the older I get, the more I see the rightness of his belief.

The remainder of the interview talks about D&D's prominence in the world of RPGs – Gygax is dismissive of its "imitators" – the deleterious effect of most fan-made material on the game ("rubbish"), the place of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, his Greyhawk campaign, and his inability to play as often as he would like. As I said, it's a decent interview from a period when TSR was just on the cusp of the huge success that would propel it even farther ahead of its rivals. Gygax thus speaks with a certain degree of confidence, even swagger, but the gamer in him has not yet been fully subsumed within his "TSR Gary" persona. He is still very much the guy who enjoys playing all kinds of games and wants nothing more than to share that love with others, even as he evinces a certain degree of prickliness at the notion of anyone else horning in on "his" territory as the creator and purveyor of the world's first and most successful RPG. From the vantage point of history, it's clear that many of Gygax's strengths were the very things that, in other contexts, proved to be his weaknesses – but then so it is with all men.


  1. As is often the case with Gygax, I'm struck by insistence on players being both competitive and cooperative at the same time. Those two things don't mesh for me. Unless the "competition" is supposed to be players versus DM, which raises the ugly specter of killer DMs, confrontational roleplaying, and players trying to "win" at roleplaying.

    I don't call the players pressing on against the expected difficulties of the campaign world being "competitive" as such, which is the only other sense of the word I could even vaguely see applied here. That's just playing the game - with no meaningful threats there's no point in even playing.

    1. Well you have to consider that the notion of the "rival adventuring party" came from actual play, and the used to not be NPCs, but alternate groups exploring the same locales!

    2. Valid point. I've almost never been in a gaming community that had enough players to support that kind of thing (the sole exception being an early vampire the Masquerade group with close to thirty people working at some very different agendas) so it's alien territory to me. Still, isn't inter-party conflict as destructive to a campaign in the long term as competing within a party?

    3. While I have gamed in a large community, the MIT Strategic Games Society, from 1979 through the 80s, and in that community, PCs would move from campaign to campaign, I never had the competing party idea show up.

      There is some hint of it in Ben Robbins's West Marches, but there the setup drove towards overall cooperation with the competition mainly being short lived while one group of players held back so they could complete some exploration before revealing it to the whole player base.

      I've always been intrigued by the idea of competing parties, but yea, I've never really had the opportunity.

      I'd also point out that the Blackmoor campaign actually grew out of a competitive war game which probably set the stage for competition in Greyhawk.

    4. There's also the idea of competition adventures, such as those that can be found at conventions. If players want to win big there, they need to work together against other teams (who are, hopefully, just as cooperative in order to beat out the other contending parties).

    5. The “competitive & cooperative” idea makes perfect sense to me, personally. I don’t know exactly what Gygax meant, but to me it seems clear: in a D&D game (or most RPGs) you have to cooperate to survive and to be a good team player, but you’re also sorta implicitly competing to be the awesomest. It’s always fun to be the last PC standing who saves everyone! It’s always fun to get the highest ability score roll, to come up with the awesomest PC build, or to get that super cool magic item! I don’t see any contradiction.

    6. Man is both cooperative and competitive in his nature. We share our lives with others, yet have and enjoy individuality.

  2. I have no love for Gary Gygax. My first exposure to Gygax was sitting in the next booth to him and his brother in the cafeteria at Gen Con XII. He was talking about how TSR would become bigger than Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley and Hasbro put together. I, and my group listened but were not impressed by his cupidity. Later I received regular updates of Gygax’s exploits in the decades he was persecuting David Arneson, and his various attempts to publish his creative works. This interview may have been before Gygax was fully consumed by the dark side of the force. If there was a Gygax that wrote and created for the love of the game, I never met him.

  3. BTW, the full interview can be read here:


  4. I find Gygax's line about "good and evil" being "easily distinguishable" in D&D interesting, considering that in Appendix N of the DMG Gygax specifically writes, "The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt." In general, those are some pretty morally ambiguous writers. Plus, paladins aside, it's hard for me to see the typical, old-school D&D/AD&D PC as a traditional "good guy."

    1. How are the works of those authors morally ambiguous or involve morally ambiguous characters? I don't think I remember Conan going on his merry way raping, torturing, and outright murdering anyone who gets in his way (especially just for the Hell of it). It's briefly mentioned he took part in the sack of Venarium, and he might have behaved that way that one time, but I don't recall him ever doing it again.

      And, while it has happened for D&D or 1st ed AD&D players to play evil characters, I find it difficult to see how one can't see PCs as anything other than "Good Guys".

      What's your definition of "Good Guy"? You don't need to be a paladin to be a "Good Guy"; their standards are just more lofty than the average "Good Guy" eg not associating with parties containing even non-evil Neutrals for more than one adventure.

    2. Your memory is kind of flawed then. Conan changes a lot over his fictional lifetime but starts off as very gray and brutally pragmatic. He's perfectly willing to trade his release from prison to go kill a priest in Rogues In the House, with a short stopover to throw his former lover who ratted him out to the guard in a cesspool after murdering her new lover in cold bold. He thinks nothing of burglary, whether it be for himself in Tower of the Elephant or as paid commission work in the God In the Bowl. His time with Belit has him as out-and-out pirate and proud about being a red-handed reaver who's wiped out not only numerous merchant crews but whole coastal villages.

      Having a few codes of behavior (mostly keeping his word, being protective of whatever woman he's currently with) is what makes him morally ambiguous. It certainly doesn't make him (at least the younger Conan) a good man in any sense.

      As for the other you're ignoring - Vancian protagonists struggle to reach even a moderate shade of gray, and some of them (Cugel being perhaps the best-known) are just downright rotten. Leiber's dynamic duo are almost entirely in it for themselves. The closest they come to showing altruism is the same occasional nod to caring for a lover that Conan displays. Everything else they do is ultimately benefiting them in some way or another - and at times they're even working against each other.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. The original point was about Gygax's comment on easily distinguishing between Good and Evil then listing influential writers whose characters apparently can't or don't do that. With the sole exception of Cugel (and The Grey Mouser's single incident with Eesafem of the Four Silver Ornaments) and his interest in rape, not one of these writers' characters ever acts in a manner that one could call Evil, and they never, not even Cugel, IIRC, then turn around and sincerely act in a Good manner, thereby showing themselves incapable of distinguishing between the two.

      Law-breaking, sure, but that doesn't map squarely onto Evil (especially when laws are set up or at least influenced by people who could very easily be called evil). A propensity for revenge isn't evil (especially when the punishment fits the crime). Wanting money to spend and taking it from those who can easily afford the loss (especially when they likely got it by foul means) isn't evil either (for all that the political Right wants it to be seen that way). The Brandon's observation seems to be anti-heroes not acting like paladins then accusing them of not being able to tell Good from Evil because of it.

      Re. Conan and Bêlit: "wiped out . . . whole coastal villages" What proof do you offer for this? "The Tigress ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered" says nothing about The Tigress actually attacking villages (they could be terrified of this happening, but that doesn't mean it ever had) nor do Captain Tito's suspicions amount to more than hearsay, especially when a merchant like Tito would have a hate-on for anyone even suspected of piracy.

      "It certainly doesn't make him (at least the younger Conan) a good man in any sense." That's not the point, though. It's whether or not Conan can be considered a role-model for distinguishing between Good and Evil, and I think he can, for all that he's an anti-hero.

      I only picked Conan because he was the most familiar to me and easiest to deal with. I've mentioned Cugel already and why I still don't think he's a good example of what Brandon wrote about (I don't know enough about Rialto and various other Vancian protagonists to be sure about their actions). As for F & TGM, they can distinguish between Good and Evil by simply not siding with those forces that really would cause harm for the sake of having amusing playthings eg Tyaa. Like Conan, they're not paladins: they don't go looking for this kind of trouble with intent to destroy it, but they certainly don't have a problem opposing it when it threatens them.

      I should also point out that you ignored Lovecraft's heroes in your turn. A good answer (aside from ignorance) to why anyone would say that people like Professor Armitage or Randolph Carter don't know the difference between Good and Evil escapes me.

    5. Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are Neutral or Chaotic Neutral.

      As I said earlier (and below), Gygax says two things that seem to contradict each other:

      1. My game is inspired by pulp sword and sorcery.
      2. In my game, good and evil are easily distinguishable.

      They contradict because the first statement is a lie. His game is heavily inspired by Tolkien (goblins, orcs, wood-elves, high elves, half-elves, half-orcs, treants, balrogs by another name, halflings, dwarves that are intolerant of elves, magic swords that glow, giant spiders, worgs, worg-riders, (ring)wraiths, rangers, red dragons, an adventuring party of mixed race and class exploring the deep dark of Moria, and on and on.)

      And because it is, in his game, good and evil are easily distinguishable.

      Unlike pulp sword and sorcery, where many protagonists are Neutral or Chaotic Neutral.

    6. I'm sorry, Etrimyn, but I don't understand what your point has to do with mine.

      That said, I don't at all see how pulp sword-and-sorcery fiction had no influence on D&D.

    7. <"I'm sorry, Etrimyn,">

      No problem. Apology accepted.

      <"I don't understand what your point has to do with mine.">

      That's okay. It was mostly directed at Brandon's OP.

      <"I don't at all see how pulp sword-and-sorcery fiction had no influence on D&D.">

      Again, I was mostly responding to Brandon's OP, where he quotes Gygax's claim that pulp sword and sorcery was the "most immediate influence on the game."

      Clearly the primary influence was Tolkien, which is why good and evil are easily distinguishable in D&D.

      Had S&S actually been the most immediate influence on the game, good and evil would be harder to distinguish, and there would be a lot less elves, hobbits, goblins and orcs. :)

    8. "Had S&S actually been the most immediate influence on the game, good and evil would be harder to distinguish"

      I don't see how. Dark gods that could be considered as evil as Morgoth and Sauron (if not worse) and their representatives are still counted among the enemies of various anti-heroes. Opposing these very obviously malign entities instead of throwing their lot in with them (which makes plenty of sense from the PoV of someone who is considered conventionally selfish) still calls as much attention to the differences between good and evil as any action by Tolkien's less realistic and more lily-white protagonists.

    9. Looks like we can agree that both Tolkien and S&S include evil. But that's only half the equation.

      Gygax's quote was about good and evil.

      Tolkien has good and evil.

      Whereas Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are neutral or chaotic neutral. So their stories don't have good vs evil.

      Neutrals can oppose evil. Opposing evil doesn't automatically make you good.

      You mention antiheroes. Antiheroes usually aren't 'good,' otherwise they'd be heroes. They're usually neutrals who oppose evil.

      Antiheroes don't exist in Tolkien, but do in S&S. In Tolkien, the world is more binary. In S&S, much less so. Which is part of the appeal of S&S.

    10. "neutral or chaotic neutral" Why are you trying to map the artificial rules/terms of a game onto sources that didn't have that game in mind? That pastime has about as much use in this discussion as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This whole thread is partially about good and evil, which, at least, has real-world precedent. Stick with that.

      As for the quote, it was about how easy it is to distinguish between good and evil in the game, which is quite true, especially if you take into consideration how Good and Evil are defined in the game.

      It's very obvious this came at least partially from Tolkien, but S&S also sets up its characters in opposition to forces/beings/individuals that don't act very differently from the same types in Tolkien: all of these want to exercise, at base, an ability to enact arbitrary cruelty on anyone they want for whatever reason they want, not caring one whit what their victims want. The protagonists _always_ oppose this (for various reasons), no matter what is revealed about their character or background on the way. They don't pause to consider the merits of joining forces with those that are obviously evil (and, by the way, evil is never depicted as having _any_ merits whatsoever worth considering by anyone except those who are, obviously, evil to begin with); they just fight against them.

      This is what I think Gygax was talking about: he wanted players and DMs to play a game where the bad guys were _really_ easy to see because of what the Bad Guys wanted; the heroes ie the players would also be equally easy to see as heroes because they simply opposed it (making heroism really easy, in theory, in the game [which, of course, makes it easy for players to have fun with their characters and identify with them and so enjoy the game and want to keep buying stuff]). Slapping titles like "Lawful Good" or "Chaotic Neutral" onto all of these characters was just an afterthought to "code" them for the game (which various articles by Gygax on alignment and its evolution in the game's history makes very clear).

    11. Again, opposing evil doesn't automatically make you good.

      The world isn't black and white. There are shades of grey where reside what you call anti-heroes and what Gygax (whose quote we're dissecting ad nauseum) calls neutral.

      When you call Tolkien's heroes unrealistic, it's because they live in a fairy tale world where good and evil are easy to distinguish, like in D&D according to Gygax.

      When you admire the realism of S&S, it's because the fairy tale world of good and evil isn't there. Good and evil are harder to distinguish in S&S (unlike in D&D, according to Gygax). The realism you speak of are those shades of grey, or neutrality, that you ignore with your binary approach.

      Do you really believe there is only good and evil in the world? And by definition, anyone who opposes evil is good? Hannibal Lector is good because he helps bring the evil Buffalo Bill to justice? Tony Soprano is good because he's whacked an evil mobster?

    12. "opposing evil doesn't automatically make you good"

      If I knew we were talking about the real world, I'd tend to agree with you. However, what's your context for this statement? I've been trying to talk about it in the context of literature (specifically the literature that informed D&D's creation), not metaphysics or morality; I can't tell what context you're using (it doesn't look like mine).

  5. He might mean the alignment system, which makes Good or Evil something you actually write on your character sheet.

    His Appendix N quote is probably the more dubious claim, given the debt owed to Tolkien, who clearly delineates Good and Evil.

    The plethora of Orcs and Goblins in D&D (despite Gygax's claim regarding his sword and sorcery influences) sure makes Evil pretty easy to identify. :)