Gary Gygax wasn't a visionary to all of us. The real geeks out there--my homies--know the awkward truth: When you cut through the nostalgia, Dungeons & Dragons isn't a good role-playing game; in fact, it's one of the worst on the market. Sadly, Gygax's creation defines our strange corner of the entertainment world and drowns out all the more innovative and sophisticated games that have made D&D obsolete for decades. (As a game designer, Gygax is far outclassed by contemporaries such as Steve Jackson and Greg Stafford.) It's the reason that tabletop gaming is not only stuck in the pop culture gutter but considered pathetic even by the standards of mouth-breathing Star Trek conventioneers. And with the entire industry continuing to collapse in the face of online gaming, this might be the last chance to see Gygax for what he was--an unrepentant hack, more Michael Bay than Ingmar Bergman.
What's wrong with Dungeons & Dragons? It plays like a video game. A good role-playing game provides the framework for a unique kind of narrative, a collaborative thought experiment crossed with improvisational theater. But D&D, particularly the first edition that Gygax co-wrote in 1975, makes this sort of creative play an afterthought. The problem is most apparent in one of Gygax's central (and celebrated) innovations: "experience points." To become a more powerful wizard, a sneakier thief, or an elfier elf (being an elf was its own profession in early editions, which is kind of like saying being Chinese is a full-time job), you need to gain "levels," which requires experience points. And the best way to get experience points is to kill stuff. Every monster, from an ankle-biting goblin to a massive fire-spewing dragon, has a specific number of points associated with it--your reward for hacking it to pieces. So while it's one player's job--the so-called Dungeon Master--to come up with the plot for each gaming session and play the parts of the various enemies and supporting characters, in practice that putative storyteller merely referees one imagined slaughter after another.
There is a way to wring real creativity, and possibly even artistic merit, from this bizarre medium--and it has nothing to do with Gygax and his tradition of sociopathic storytelling. In the mid-1980s, right around the time that Gygax was selling off his company, Steve Jackson began publishing the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, or GURPS.
I have a hard time taking the word of anyone who uses the term "my homies" in such a context. His sneering contempt for Star Trek convention attendees coupled with the claim that he is a "real" geek (presumably unlike D&D lovers and Gygax fans) doesn't sit well with me either.
Having never played a GURPS, i can't comment on the accuracy of his claims. I do know that when we play D&D, we get awarded based on how well we play our character and killing monsters is only 1 aspect of the game. Every character has a backstory. Otherwise how the hell do you explain all of them getting together? And there have been several times where we've almost died because we were too stupid to figure out the puzzle and tried to win the fight by killing everything (monster-generating skull, anyone?)
So, did this guy just have really crappy DMs all his life or is fnord just that good*?
*This does not in anyway mean our DM is not a jerk.
i noticed that "my homies" comment too. what qualifies as an elfier elf. i would like to emulate these qualities please.
March 12, 2008 1:31 PM
A question from a complete D&D novice: Do you have to make up your own character's back story before participating?
August 27, 2014 12:06 PM
You work with the Dungeon Master to make sure it fits the campaign, and if you prefer the DM can just give you a background, but yeah, it's normal to have some kind of backstory. Stuff can always be retconned in later, just like comics!
The person who wrote this article has some weird problem with D&D, but really for any role playing game the characters are going to need a basic history, even if it's something as simple as "You grew up on a small farm but always longed for adventure, so one day you went to the tavern at the crossroads hoping to meet likeminded individuals." And usually they are much more involved than that.
August 27, 2014 2:46 PM
not to mention the parts of your backstory that you (and the DM) keep secret from the other players which can dictate how you act in certain situations.
August 27, 2014 2:50 PM
Interesting. I think since I began reading Conan - and I'm not saying D&D is anything like Conan - I've become a bit more interested in Sword & Sorcery.I like the idea of coming up with you're own character as it make the experience more personal.
August 27, 2014 4:37 PM
D&D can be very much like a series of Conan choose your own adventure stories except you get to define your character's background, personality, abilities, etc.. And if you play in a group then you have to contend with dealing with all the other players' idiosyncratic characters. It's fun!
August 27, 2014 6:27 PM
Must admit, I never thought I'd think D&D would sound fun but it does!