Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gary Gygax, Game Design, and Games Without Winners

I stumbled across this book once while searching for "Gygax" in my library's keyword search catalog.

It's a kids book about game and toy innovators. And who is there, along side Milton Bradley (no intro needed), Joshua Lionel Cowen (Lionel Trains), and Ole Kirk Christiansen (inventor of LEGO)? Gary Gygax.

Gary Gygax's chapter is titled "Dungeons & Dragons: Games Without Winners." It discusses the origins of D&D from Dave Arneson's Blackmoor through the explosive growth (and epic collapse) of TSR and beyond. It's a neat little history, but stuff everyone who has played D&D long enough probably knows. The measure of Gary Gygax as a company founder is mixed.

But the legacy they attribute to him is the idea of games without winners.
"The game had no ending, unless all the players were killed off or agreed among themselves to stop the journey. Gygax explained, "The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character," who then "becomes kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire." But the real fun of the game was simply in spending some time with friends on an exciting adventure in a make-believe world."

That one quote encapulates a lot about D&D in particular and RPGs in general. It's a summary of the elusive end-game of D&D - get so good you retire and become part of the mythology of the gameworld. It's a summary of what makes RPGs unique - you "win" by playing well, not by playing better than others. You win by having fun playing.

The book traces this influence right up to computer RPGs and shared-world games like Neverwinter Nights.

In any case, it's very cool that Gary Gygax's baby got him credited with a real fundamental change in gaming. I don't play much that I did when I was 9, but I still play RPGs, because I win whenever it's a good session.

It's worth reading the rest of the chapter (and the book). I wouldn't buy it, just find it in your library. It's well worth the read.


  1. What I read from that quote is that Gygax was searching for a way of saying "this hero's story is over" by taking the character out of the sphere where the essentially wargamish rules of early D&D apply. Whether it was intended that there actually be a playable endgame phase is something I don't think we can infer just from this.

    I see this also as an admission that there's a power level beyond which the game (at least that incarnation of it) is no longer fun to play.

    1. I'm not saying it's a playable endgame. I think he's talking more broadly about D&D in general, not OD&D in specific. But yeah, I think there is a point where you just put that guy aside and only bring him out for special occasions.


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