Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax designed Dungeons & Dragons, they aimed for fun. In 1978 Gary wrote, “Enjoyment is the real reason for D&D being created, written, and published.” To Gary, when players fell in love with the game and spread their enthusiasm to new fans, D&D proved fun. Forty-some years later, the community of D&D fans continues to grow and thrive.

If players’ enthusiasm reveals the fun in D&D, then not every part of the original game passes the test—at least for most players. Over five editions, the game has lost some things that few players enjoyed. Only players seeking a deliberately old school style embrace things like mapping, strict encumbrance, spell blowback, and damage to treasure.

In the original D&D game, the party’s mapper served an essential role. Mappers translated the dungeon master’s descriptions of dimensions and distances onto graph paper. In Mapping—or Not-Fun Things That Dungeons & Dragons Players Learned to Skip, Part 1, I wondered why the game emphasized mapping, even though few players enjoyed it. I titled the post “Part 1” because I planned a series of posts making light of equally un-fun activities in the early game.

Dave and Gary created rules designed to create “a game which is fun to play and set so as to provide maximum enjoyment for as long a period of time as possible.” They showed a talent for finding the fun in dragons and in dungeons. Why did some parts of the game miss the target?

Perhaps the new game proved so thrilling that players overlooked its rough parts. Then, over time, gamers noticed rules they did not enjoy.

Mainly though, Dave and Gary actually enjoyed some aspects of the game that many players failed to appreciate.

Despite inventing the original non-competitive role-playing game, Dave and Gary loved competition and tests of skill in games. After all, both men held a lifelong passion for competitive games. “Games are usually for diversion or amusement, although sometimes they are played for a stake (gambling) or prizes,” Gary wrote. “They are typically contests.”

This love for competition shows in the way Gary and TSR always brought Dungeons & Dragons to conventions as a tournament. Early on, Dragon magazine and TSR sponsored competitions for dungeon masters, dungeon design, and “D&D masters.”

D&D rewarded ingenuity and resource management. Players took care to avoid fights they couldn’t win, to claim treasure without a fight, and to retreat from the dungeon when they ran low on spells and hit points.

Mapping tested skill. Gary relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to thwart mapping. The tricks did more than waste graph paper—they threatened character’s lives. Heroes lured to a lower level of the dungeon faced more dangerous monsters. Lost heroes could run out of resources before they escaped the dungeon. Originally, Find the Path found an escape path.

Resource management tested skill. In a multi-level dungeon with uncertain maps, players always needed to consider whether to press ahead or to retreat from the dungeon. Pressing ahead offered more treasure but cost spells and hit points. Retreat imposed a cost too. Wandering monsters might still attack and they carried minimal treasure. Under these circumstances, spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut offered a safe rest and a vital advantage.

Encumbrance tested skill. Gold is heavy, so early adventurers brought mules and porters to help empty the dungeon. Encumbrance forced players to make hard choices about the gold worth hauling, and the silver they might leave behind. Gary created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of his son Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

Spells that ruined treasure tested skill. Even in D&D’s original rules, Fireball delivered more damage than other third-level spells. But Fireball destroyed treasure, and players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed. Gary enjoyed this test of skill. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’” See
Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve. Cone of Cold deals the damage of a fireball without destroying anything, but as a 5th-level spell.

Vancian casting tested skill. In the wake of D&D’s release, every aspiring, RPG designer replaced spell memorization with spell points. But spell points never brought the added strategy of choosing which spells to memorize. In D&D, casters needed to decide whether to memorize an attack spell or a utility spell like Find the Path, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, or Tenser’s Floating Disk. As for rituals that characters can cast without choosing to forego another spell, Gary would not approve.

Tomb of Horrors became Gary’s earliest dungeon design to reach print. By today’s standards of storytelling, saying yes to players, and letting characters shine, the dungeon rates as nearly unplayable. But no other dungeon reveals Gary’s love of competition so well. The tomb served as a tournament at the Origins convention in 1975. In his notes to the dungeon master, Gary promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.” The tomb works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells. Locating Acererak’s hoard demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Midway through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. If the tomb aimed to present a story of players thwarting evil, it failed. But as a test of skill for players who keep score in gold, the tomb offered fun.

For Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, that’s what games were for.

6 thoughts on “Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

  1. Llywelyn

    I’m a pagan, and we can be divided into two groups, people who worship together and solitaries. I’m a solitary. I am also realizing I am a solitary D&D player!

    While I’ve been playing since 78, I have never played as much as I would like. And even though I worked at WotC for a couple of years, I have probably only gamed with a total of 15-20 people in my life. Almost always as the DM.

    This is a round about way of saying that Mapping is my FAVORITE part of the game. I had no idea people didn’t like it! And I do use encumbrance and light and food and water and such. No wonder some of my players in the last 20 years have looked confounded and really struggled with my homebrewed mega dungeon. (Not that mega, 8 floors, wait, is THAT considered Mega now?) How do you strip a dungeon clean if you don’t map? Heck, if I was playing I’d be one of those people splintering the bedposts to see if there was a hidden cavity with a 12cp pouch inside.

    I have been totally out of the loop as far as the D&D zeitgeist goes. Thanks for keeping me somewhat in the loop.

    I still love to map.

  2. Tardigrade

    You seem to be flirting with the idea of what “fun” is – as I asked in the comments of your prior post – but not quite getting there. You say, “they aimed for fun,” and then suggest at least three things that aren’t fun (to you at least) and ponder how that could have happened.

    First of all, I think “fun” is the wrong word. In fact, fun is almost meaningless. I think “satisfaction” is a better one. It comes from overcoming a challenge or obstacle. The bigger the obstacle, the greater the satisfaction. You could take a helicopter to the top of Kilimanjaro, but it would be much less satisfying than climbing it.

    Secondly, I believe the “not fun” items you mentioned are all great and to an extent, necessary, obstacles to impose on players. The issue with at least two of them is implementation. To a large degree d&d is a resource management game. Limiting what equipment players can bring (encumbrance) is part of that and adds to the challenge. Not assuming they just know their way out of a mega dungeon adds to the challenge.

    But keeping track of equipment and weight is an accounting pain in the neck that exceeds the payoff. And the fact that the outcome of those calculations often goes against players’ own interests compounds the problem. I had a hard time even getting my players to track how many arrows they had, so I understand the difficulty.

    If only there was a fast easy way to track and compute. Like an automatic spreadsheet to do the computing for you… oh well. I guess we’ll never solve that one.

    Similarly, mapping can be a pain because the dm usually gives verbal descriptions which players have to translate into a map. The communication here is often difficult, inaccurate and time consuming. So again, the payoff for the obstacle is minimal. To improve the satisfaction here, there needs to be a better way to communicate.

    As for spell blow back and damaged treasure, well, I could rant about the generation gap, every kid getting a participation trophy and never having to endure disappointment. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it is just the human tendency to want to skip over the difficult stuff, avoid the hard work and just get to the reward. Let’s have dessert first and see if there is room for vegetables later, okay?

    I see this as a dm issue. Let’s face it, being a dm is difficult just in game terms. But then add the social aspects of it. You usually dm your friends. And as a dm it requires you control the situation and say no to players frequently. There is a lot of pressure there to give in to their wants, please, demands. They want the dm to give them their dessert first. But as dm you cannot. For kids – we usually learn the game as kids – to do that requires uncommon strength of character. I think the d&d designers fell into the same trap, making the game less challenging and more of a give away to player laziness while at the same time doing nothing to help point to better skills for dms.

    Anyway, that’s my take.

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  4. crossems

    Great recap of old-school, and a good explanation as to why more of my players are returning to the challenges of AD&D1st. Even my kids (all 13 and under) are loving the old school adventure and rules, with my 8 year old exclaiming that “This combat is even more advanced!”.

    We’ve replaced ‘roll for initiative’ with ‘roll for surprise!’ as our rallying cry for when the action starts, and my players are enjoying a lot more fun, where THEY get to tell the story, rather than just listen to one being narrated to them.

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