The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked

The second edition of Dungeons & Dragons that reached gamers probably stayed close to the edition co-creator Gary Gygax might have designed. But later, Gary would say, “In my estimation second-edition AD&D began to lose the spirit of the original.”

What spirit did it lose?

Partly, Gary probably missed his own quirky touch. But I suspect that most of the changes he disliked arrived as the edition matured. As second edition grew, it began adding character options from new classes and kits. The design staff seemed intent on luring players to each new set of character options by making them a bit more powerful than the last. To Gary, this escalation defied the spirit of the game.

After Gary left TSR, two design trends that he resisted shaped D&D’s evolution from second through fourth edition.

Current D&D lead, Mike Mearls wrote about these directions in a series of tweets. The first trend came from “an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance. They aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.

“The downside to this approach is that the rules became comprehensive to a fault. The game’s rules bloated, as they sought to resolve many if not all questions that arise in play with the game text.”

Gary saw this trend begin with third edition. He said the version’s “mass of detail” made the game “too rules-oriented for my personal taste.” Gary saw D&D leaning less on a DM’s judgement and more on comprehensive rules that made the game procedural. His play favored minimal reliance on the rules. “Generally, I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rule book except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

He advised DMs to do the same. “Do not let the rules get in the way of play. Be the arbiter of the game so that the adventure continues without unnecessary interruptions, and the immersion of the player in the milieu remains complete.”

Mike Mearls thread goes on. “At the same time, 3.5 and 4 were driven by the idea that D&D players wanted as many character options as possible, presented in a modular framework meant to encourage the search for combinations that yielded characters who broke the power curve.”

Character options never raised objections from Gary. After all, he planned skills and several new sub-classes for the game. But Gary saw D&D turn into a game centered on building characters that matched the power of comic book superheroes. This direction made him fume. He wanted an “emphasis on group cooperation, not individual PC aggrandizement.”

D&D started as a game that challenged players and threatened their characters. To Gary, later editions just offered players a chance to show off their characters with minimal risk. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.”

In many ways, fifth-edition D&D represents a return to Gary’s tastes. He would have liked the lighter rules. Mike explained the direction, “With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

“In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what.”

Gary would have approved of these changes, but would he have liked fifth edition?

To an extent, I doubt any edition that Gary didn’t design could have earned his favor. Gary saw AD&D as his baby and kept tight control on its content. No other version, no matter how many improvements it featured, could earn the same paternal love.

Also, Gary might fault fifth edition for one thing: The edition emphasizes storytelling over challenging players and endangering their characters. Sure, you can still run a killer game. Tomb of Annihilation and its meat-grinder variant set a blueprint for that. But beyond level 4, fifth-edition characters become as durable as comic book characters. According to Mike Mearls, the edition “focuses on socializing and storytelling.” No storyteller wants to see their tale’s planned resolution spoiled when a hero dies to a fluke critical. Gary and his original co-designer Dave Arneson came from wargaming and a passion for competition. To Gary, D&D needed to test player skill to feel compelling. A storytelling exercise that glorified precious characters failed to interest him.

Still, fifth edition captures the soul and spirit of original D&D better than any other version. I’ll bet Gary would have liked it enough to write adventures for it. Except his adventures would not have let characters skate through with minimal risk. So don’t get too attached to your hero, keep another character sheet on hand, and keep playing D&D.

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18 Responses to The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked

  1. CT says:

    you cant be a hero
    without risk and suffering

  2. Brian says:

    Great topic!

  3. Thomas Mallia says:

    I think one of 5e’s greatest failings is the invincibility of characters. When my characters have died it has not only moved the story, but me.

    • Nathaniel Kreiman says:

      5e character are hardy, harder to kill than I’d probably like (without adjusting monsters). 4e characters were nigh impossible to kill. We once doubled monster damage and halved HP and they still wouldn’t go down.

    • crossems says:

      Agreed. I’ve always had more pitty for characters that perished too early for their story to play out…but as was once said in a great movie “Everyone dies, not everybody truly lives”. Character advancement without risk, isn’t much exiting at all.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed this recent series of posts about Gary and the changes across editions. Thank you for them.

  5. Trampas Whiteman says:

    Years ago, Grognardia posted an article about “what went wrong with D&D” which can be summed up as the author not liking the storytelling aspect of gaming that Tracy Hickman ushered in. I won’t link it here since it is, IMO, not worth the read.

    While I respect Gary for his role in co-creating D&D, I think that the brand outgrew him. I think that’s for the better, because now we have a game that caters to a variety of play styles.

  6. crossems says:

    I think Gary, would have felt the same way about 5E as he did other versions of the game that are written for weak DM’s and players who enjoy a game that’s a cakewalk under the guise of ‘story telling’.

    At least that’s my thoughts, as both a 5E and a AD&D 1st edition current DM. The two system are dynamically opposed to each other.

    To conclude that Gary would have seen 5E as a return to 1st edition i think is rather dis-ingenuous. Thought provoking, but dis-ingenuous.

    • wafflebob says:

      I don’t think the author was suggesting it was a return to 1st edition, but rather a step in the back in the direction of 1st. Rather than continuing to walk away it’s at least turned to look back at it’s roots.

    • I think you mean diametrically opposed. Dynamically opposed doesn’t make a lot of sense for rulebooks.
      But I don’t see it. 5e is pretty flat on customization, rolls are much more straightforward, there are saves that just feel kinda eh, ability scores are (somewhat) less useful (though still vital as the rare source of bonuses).
      Yes, 5e does a lot more jabbering about non-mechanical, but they’re not directly opposed.
      They are, however, opposed in how ‘gamey’ they are. The concept of Backgrounds would’ve probably ticked Gary the wrong way, he seems like the kinda guy who either feels “your class is your background” or “that doesn’t matter now anymore”. ADND was a lot more setup as a block of rules.
      Heck, even the more lore-heavy Clerics, Druids, Bards… even their backstory is mostly implied through mechanics instead of vomited into the player’s (and DM’s) lap as being key elements.

    • Ian Murphy says:

      Said the weakest dm of the bunch.

  7. timothypark says:

    There has been a shift in spirit what came with the environment. I think you speak to some of that very well.

    2nd Edition was a watershed in other respects. As much as I (as student of literature and composition, editor, reporter and writer) disliked the hodge podge and amatuer nature of the previous editions to 2nd, what I came to appreciate was the freedom that gave us. A freedom that was part of “wargaming”. The rules and their presentation left us wanting.

    And that was a good thing. Expected. And good.

    The games we wanted didn’t exist so we made them. The great thing for me at the time of the early editions was that spirit. A shoe company has stolen the most pithy way to say it so I won’t.

    My first several years of D&D were very “rules light”. Partly because we just didn’t have the funds, partly because it was clear you didn’t have to have the books and that was not very odd. A lot of folks in the midwest were making up games or reworking others. (Referencing using Wilderness Survival in very early D&D didn’t surprise us at all. We did stuff like that all the time. Got a sea battle? Haul out Wooden Ships and Iron Men for the counters and board, etc.)

    The other reason was the profound culture of “oral tradition” that was part of D&D as I experienced it. Much of that was through the good fortune of living 50 miles east of Lake Geneva. I don’t claim association with Gary. I think he was lurking behind the counter down the way when I opted to not buy D&D and spent about the same money on my first lead miniatures.

    I was playing D&D (usually as “dessert” from “serious” wargames) with the college kids and adults who would run over to Lake Geneva or up to Minneapolis, or staffed GenCon when it was at UW Parkside (the years before Milwaukee).

    “Yes, the book is different. This is what we hashed out a couple months ago.” Frequently heard and applied to a lot of games from Angriff (micro-armor) to Sauve Que Puit (Napoleonics) to D&D. And that phrase was usually only heard over pizza outside of the game when talking more theoretically among those of us who were interested enough and curious to maybe, someday, referee ourselves.

    I’m talking like an old man again.

    I’m not saying it was better necessarily. But it wasn’t a slick product. Rules were “materials and plans” with “much assembly required”.

    And I’m very gratified to see that coming back with 5E.

    By accident in one of my first sessions DM’ing I managed a very rare thing: a bad save in an “Average” encounter actually killed a character outright. I didn’t mean to. (I was still figuring out encounters with these mechanics.) It was the first time in two years that a character had died at any table I’d been at. I’m glad it happened. Suddenly everyone knew it could. And that I wouldn’t pull a “hand wave” and bring the character back “just to save time”. The player didn’t want to. It wasn’t an argument.

    That was a couple years ago. Since then I’ve started saying two things before every game.

    “Rule of cool is the main rule.” and

    “Don’t fret the rules. This is ‘let’s pretend’ on the playground. All you have to do is tell me what your character would do for the next six seconds when it comes around the table to you. Leave *how* to do it to me. That’s my job. You just keep pretending.”

    And sometimes “The rules are there so that when you go ‘Bang! You’re dead!’ and the other guy goes ‘Nope! Just winged me!’ we have a civil means to manage that difference of opinions.”

    I’ve been gratified to hear variations on the above from other, younger players. To see that spirit in action.

  8. Mike Nichols says:

    Personally, I loved 3rd/3.5. There was a lot less arguing. There were still plenty of decisions a DM had to make (there is nothing about how much damage a fully armored cloud Giant does when it falls dead onto a PC from a 50ft cliff and the PC critically fails a check to get out of the way).

    However, my heart will always be in 2nd edition. This is where some of the Best D&D I’ve been part of was played, even with the periodic argument about what “would/hsould happen” given the circumstance.

  9. Sam C says:

    Nice article. I don’t know a lot about Gygax and his original intent, but this means me like him a little bit more. The real threat of death, teamwork and not the individual and fewer rules, that all feeds into what I want to do with my students.

  10. Steveg says:

    I dont think he would approved of 5e, far too cakewalk.

  11. Russell says:

    Well said. The other problem with D&D at the moment is the new generations desire for a VIDEO game feel. And to many players try their best to break the game.

  12. Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?

    It’s pretty much Ad&D with more modern mechanics, IIRC.

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