James Wallis levels with you

My guy, Gax

Some years ago, someone—it could have been Andrew Rilstone but I’m honestly not sure—commented that he wished Gary Gygax would hurry up and die, so people would stop talking about what he was doing now (which at the time was Dangerous Journeys, a tedious rules-heavy fantasy RPG at a time when the market was making it clear it wasn’t interested in such things, and dreadful fantasy novels) and remember him for the good stuff he did.

Gary Gygax created modern gaming. You cannot move these days for games with class-and-level systems: even modern FPS games like Call Of Duty 4 are grabbing RPG elements and building them in as an integral gameplay. The class-and-level system dates explicitly to Gygax’s work, and specifically to the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974.

(Yes, I know Dave Arneson deserves co-credit for the creation of D&D. But Dave Arneson didn’t write Chainmail, which D&D‘s rules drew on heavily, and he also didn’t die today.)

By today’s standards, after thirty-five years of refinement and polish, the original edition of D&D looks incredibly clunky. But if you look beyond its unclear rules, its incompleteness and its tendency to assume existing knowledge on the part of the reader, what’s astonishing is how much of the game is right. It wasn’t the concept of roleplay in D&D that birthed the genre, it was the way the rules encapsulated the core ideas behind it—not, to the chagrin of many of us who considered ourselves on the cutting edge, ways to encourage players to inhabit their fictional avatars more fully, but ways to keep players playing and interested in progressing in the game.

And that same energy went on to power Mines of Moria, and Ultima, and the Final Fantasy series, and countless other tabletop and CRPGs, and is making Blizzard a billion dollars a year through World of Warcraft. It taps into something very primal at the heart of the gaming impulse and wraps it in a covering that has been nicked, borrowed and retrod so many times since that it pretty much defines what we think of as ‘fantasy’ today. Not that Gygax didn’t nick most of that himself, but at least he acknowledged his sources. Pretty much everything in World of Warcraft that isn’t straight out of Warhammer is straight out of D&D.

Now, at last, we can forget all the crap he did later. Even if he only had one moment of genius, it’s such a moment of such genius that it instantly elevates him into the very highest echelons of game-design greatness. His work built not one but two industries—how quickly would computer games have moved out of the arcade without the likes of Colossal Cave?—a genre, and a language of shared experience in fantastic worlds shared by hundreds of millions of people.

And if anyone disagrees, I will fight them. Roll for initiative.

Categorised as: game design


  1. Jess Nevins says:

    “Even if he only had one moment of genius”–that’s one more moment that most people have, and he deserves celebration for that, as you rightly point out.

  2. MatGB says:

    Thanks for writing this, it pretty much sums up my feelings and saves me the effort. Horribly dated though the system is, without it most of us wouldn’t have ever had the chance.

  3. […] James Wallis adds an Obit John C Welch adds an obit. I didn’t even know he was a gamer. Cool. Filed under: Commentary Posted By: matt […]

  4. […] influence reverberates through the culture. James Wallis said it best, when he […]

  5. Jane Winter says:

    Thanks James, this sums up a lot of how I feel in about a third of the words I would have thrown at it.

    The news made me sadder than I really expected, then triggered a horde (heh) of memories.

    And being directed here triggered another wave, largely involving ‘Dying of the Light’, the Hogshead attic and gummi bears (which are still better than jelly babies!).

  6. […] COPE: James Wallis levels with you » My guy, Gax “It wasn’t the concept of roleplay in D&D that birthed the genre, it was the way the rules encapsulated the core ideas behind it” Wonderful post from James (following the death of Gary Gygax) on the significance of D&D for gaming as we know it. (tags: rpg d&d roleplaying games play garygygax) […]

  7. […] COPE: James Wallis levels with you » My guy, Gax (tags: games history rpg gygax) […]

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