I was handling my six month old daughter this morning, reading some e-mail when I stumbled across this article, linked from MSN's website:
This is a column written by Erik Sofge regarding the passing and the legacy of Gary Gygax. After reading this article's contents, I felt it necessary to respond. Here is the thesis statement to the article:
"But it has to be said: 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."
Mr. Sofge's justification for claiming Gygax was an "unrepentant hack" lies completely on his qualification of himself and "his homies" as "real geeks". Perhaps I missed the segment where he qualifies himself as a "real geek" or what this even means but there is nothing in this article that lends me to that conclusion. To the contrary, his statements and position in this article lead me to believe the opposite. Here are some examples:
"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. This is not Tolkien's Middle-Earth, with its anti-fascist political commentary and yearning for an end to glory and the triumph of peace. This is violence without pretense, an endless hobgoblin holocaust."
Something I commented on in a previous article was the death of creativity. It is thinking such as the above that persistently qualifies that line of thinking. Let's start with the fact that D&D is a game. This means that whatever the group of people playing the game enjoy should be its focus. This might be a hack and slash fest or it could be five hours of roleplaying with not a single combat sequence, or a mix of both. The game was what the players made it. A good Dungeon Master would recognize this and tailor the game play session to the group. In many instances, I can recall numerous game play sessions where we had massive plot twists and developed characters. It may not have been to the depth of Tolkien, but I personally would not want to play a D&D campaign tailored to that degree of detail (I'd just read Tolkien, instead). To claim that since the game has structure and an advancement system means that the progression through the game must be as linear as the above is ridiculous. D&D provided a frame work and it was the creativity of the players within that frame work that lends itself to Gygax's vision.
"Here's the narrative arithmetic that Gygax came up with: You come across a family of sleeping orcs, huddled around their overflowing chest of gold coins and magical weapons. Why do orcs and other monsters horde gold when they can't buy anything from the local "shoppes," or share a jug of mead in the tavern, or do anything but gnash their teeth in the darkness and wait for someone to show up and fight them? Who knows, but there they are, and you now have a choice. You can let sleeping orcs lie and get on with the task at hand—saving a damsel, recovering some ancient scepter, whatever. Or you can start slitting throats—after all, mercy doesn't have an experience point value in D&D. It's the kind of atrocity that commits itself."
This is where Mr. Sofge qualifies that he simply doesn't get it. The DM should come up with a reason the players are in this situation. Perhaps the orcs are under the control of an evil wizard or are stealing gold to build their own city or have evolved and wish to take over the current human settlement. No matter what the reason, the players are responsible for the continuity of their game. Each group is different and each group should have fun with their decisions. At least he get something right; the players should play how their character would react to the scenario. It's the quintessential example of the freedom and game play decisions characters have throughout the D&D experience. This is what made the game so different.
"For decades, gamers have argued that since D&D came first, its lame, morally repulsive experience system can be forgiven. But the damage is still being done: New generations of players are introduced to RPGs as little more than a collective fantasy of massacre and greed. If the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft is the direct descendant of D&D, then what, exactly, has Gygax bequeathed to us unwashed, nerdy masses? The notion that emotionally complex story lines are window dressing for an endless series of hack-and-slash encounters? There's a reason so many players are turned off after a brush with D&D. It promises something great—a lively (if dorky) bit of performance art—but delivers a small-minded and ignorant fantasy of rage, distilled to a bunch of arcane charts and die rolls. Dungeons & Dragons strips the "role-playing" out of RPGs; it's a videogame without the graphics, and a pretty boring one, at that."
At this point, I truly question if this individual is qualified to write this article. First, let's get something straight; WoW was not the direct descendant of D&D, Wow was the direct descendant of Everquest. Without the success of Everquest, Blizzard may never go forward with WoW as it is more a product of marketing success than gaming experience. And Everquest, DAoC and Ultima were the descendants of countless MUDs and perhaps the MUDs were indirect descendants of D&D as they are different mediums. So at best, WoW is a fourth or maybe fifth generation descendant to D&D. Regardless, comparing WoW to D&D in this example is out of context. Players do not control anything in WoW other then their character with Blizzard supplying the content (or in D&D terms, playing the role of Dungeon Master). The closest online experience to D&D is D&D Online or Neverwinter Nights 3 while having one player create an adventure for the others. WoW is what it is; a simplified, polished version of Everquest with various game play options designed to appeal to a mass market. D&D is a pen and paper roleplaying game that started the process. In essence, this is apples and oranges.
"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. Jackson's goal was to provide the rules to play games in any genre. More importantly, characters in this new system could be fleshed out down to the smallest detail, from a crippling phobia of snakes to a severe food allergy. And when it came to experience points, characters got whatever the "gamemaster" decided. They might earn points for succeeding at a given task or simply for playing their character in a compelling way. Of course, players could still take out their real-life bitterness in a fictional killing spree, and the game master might end up with a bumbling and incoherent story line. But GURPS created the potential for so much more."
I regret to inform the masses but this is what Julie Whitefeather from Virginworlds would classify has Hutzpa. How can one justify that since a game published in the mid 1980's has better structured gameplay then a game published in the mid 1970's then that means the creator of the older game was a "hack"? That's like saying, "Wow, Dell sucks because the graphics card in my laptop in 2008 has more ram then my entire laptop did in 1998." Are you joking me? According to this article, Mr Sofge is a "contributing editor to Popular Mechanics" so under that pretense one would believe he is familiar with the progression of technological advancement. The same applies in virtually every aspect of life. Cars have 40 gig hard drives, Cell phones have GPS trackers and Internet access, and roleplaying games have evolved into online games. It's not so much that Gygax's game didn't have flaws, of course it did. It's the fact that his game was creative, innovative and is largely responsible for the success of tabletop and online gaming. To classify Mr Gygax as a hack using this feeble of a supporting argument is highly questionable.
"There are other complex, challenging games out there, and GURPS is still in print. But the bloodthirsty Dungeons & Dragons franchise remains a bestseller. If it seems overly harsh to fault Gygax for his seminal work, keep in mind that in 1987 he helped create the gaming equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. In the now-infamous Cyborg Commando, you play a man-bot battling an invasion of alien insects. Unfortunately, you seem to have been built for comedic effect, with lasers that shoot out of your knuckles and your brain inexplicably transferred to your torso. That frees up cranial space so you can suck liquids through your nose for further analysis. Not that there are any rules for said chemical analysis, or for much of anything, really. Gygax wasn't much for the details. In the end, his games are a lot like his legacy: goofy, malformed, and fodder for a self-deprecating joke or two—before being shoved in the closet for good."
Why do we need complex rules for chemical analysis if we are playing a game? People play games to relax and to escape, not chart the chemical breakdown of polysaccharides. The bottom line is that if the players are enjoying the game then who cares about a specific set of rules to deal with such trivial situations? Most players of D&D will tell you countless rules lawyering ruins the D&D experience. And to mock the creative nature of any game is misguided. The fact that there is a game that lets people shoot lasers out of their fingers and analyze chemicals lends itself to creativity, which in my mind is a good thing. In the end, this author appears to be attempting to play devil's advocate on a subject he isn't qualified to write about in a situation where such a position is neither necessary or plausible. I for one will place Mr. Sofge's article where it belongs; in the closet for good.