Gary Gygax Versus the False Deity (of Realism)

Dungeons & Dragons started with a laser focus on dungeon expeditions. Specifically, the game assumed multi-level dungeons with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die following orders.

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax crafted the original role-playing game, they focused on making dungeon crawls fun. Even when the rules strayed from the dungeon, they only served to build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.)

Although D&D’s rules kept a narrow scope, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured players’ imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. They could roam fantastic worlds. This potential invited players to stop seeing D&D as game about raiding dungeons. Players saw a system for simulating a fantasy world.

D&D made a poor simulation, so players decided to improve it. Instead of making the game more fun, most tinkerers aimed to make the simulation more realistic.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Folks considered how magic should work, and then fancied that spell points offered more realistic, imaginary magic.

All the criticism of D&D’s lack of realism rankled Gary Gygax. He and Dave had designed a game. “As a game must first and foremost be fun, it needs no claim to ‘realism’ to justify its existence,” Gary wrote. “D&D exists as a game because thousands of people enjoy playing it. As its rules were specifically designed to make it fun and enjoyable.” A game needed to be fun before it made offerings to the “false deity” of realism.

Gary made his defense in a 3,800-word article that appear in Dragon issue 16, from 1978. He took a justified stand. D&D continues to thrive because the game’s design values fun before realism. Still, his defense failed to win anyone, partly because Gary diluted his point by railing against unauthorized supplements to D&D and against APAs, which were a sort of stamps-and-mimeograph version of Internet forums.

Mainly, the defense flopped because Gary offered the wrong examples. Instead of choosing unrealistic rules that added fun, he cited rules that added no fun and that D&D works fine without. No one worries about wizards and swords anymore, because mages have better ways to contribute. Although fighters can use magic wands, the classes haven’t merged into a flavorless super class. Elves and dwarves no longer face level limits and the game works better for it. Critical hits never ruined the game; they add fun. (Although, to be fair, the maimings and sudden deaths featured in critical tables from 1978 never took off.)

Meanwhile, Gary’s defense fails to mention the brilliantly unrealistic rules that made D&D work.

Original D&D includes mechanics aimed at making dungeon crawling as fun as possible. In The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points, I explained how the game’s totally unrealistic system for tracking injuries supported dungeon delves and added fun. In The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold, I explained how the game built in a goal that rewarded successful dungeoneers with stronger characters. In When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons, I revealed how absurdly unnatural multi-level dungeons let players choose a difficulty level and encouraged them to delve deeper without pausing to rest.

Why didn’t Gary choose better examples to defend? Partly because he took pride in D&D, so he leapt to the defense of the rules that drew the most criticism. But I wonder how well Gary understood the advantages of the unrealistic rules that he never defended. In his article, he describes D&D as a carefully designed and developed system of cohesive parts. No one describes the original game as cohesive. But Gary and Dave lacked our perspective. When they created the original role-playing game, they lacked the current hobby’s decades of shared design experience. They could only rely on the shared experience of a small circle of lifelong gamers. Lucky for us, that proved enough.

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

5 thoughts on “Gary Gygax Versus the False Deity (of Realism)

  1. Marty

    I only disagree with one phrase: “fancied that spell points offered more realistic, imaginary magic.”

    Many people pose alternative magic system not due to realism, but to make magic feel more like it does in fantasy novels… so perhaps “realistic” isn’t the term… Literary-ism? 🙂

  2. Tardigrade

    I think we have to have a more clear understanding of “fun”, since it was used 13 times in this post. Until we understand what “fun” means, we cannot evaluate whether “realism”, or which elements of it, enhance the game or not.

    Also, Gygax was a boob who didn’t understand his own creation. It’s not surprising his defense was… unpersuasive.

  3. Don

    It surprises me that yet again you misunderstand what people meant when they said “realism” back in the 70’s. They weren’t talking about simulation complexity, but the philosophy of the game. There are (at least) two different styles of playing an RPG. One in which your characters are super heroes or one where you characters are more normal people (the biggest aspect here is that your character can easily die.) Neither system has any real advantage in terms of story and character development, but the super hero version of the game can lead to more violent party solutions to a situation. (Marvel and DC comic movies make my point here.) It doesn’t have to, but there is no penalty if it does. D&D was successful because between the bashers, the evening of escapism people (probably the biggest group by far), and the group story creators/tellers, D&D had a much larger group to draw from, and therefore gain the most support. (Finding 4-6 story developers, who like each other and willing to commit to 2-3 hours a week or 4 hours every two weeks is nearly impossible.) It was more a question of least common denominator, than any real advantage of the D&D.

  4. Dean Severance

    Um. No. Chainmail carne first.. Mayyyybe learn to do some basic research instead of talking out your waste disposal unit?

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