Friday, 5 March 2021

Remembering Gary Gygax

On the fourth of March in the year of Our Lord, two thousand and eight, Ernest Gary Gygax left this plane of existence. Towards the end of his life, he was active on the ENworld boards. One of his responses could well have an epitaph:

“What do you consider the soul/spirit/heart of D&D as you wrote it?”

Wrote Quasqueton, whereupon Gygax responded:

“In as few words as possible:

  • Absolute authority of the DM, rules lawyers given the boot
  • Rule books seldom used by a competent DM
  • Action and adventure in play
  • Swords & sorcery, not comic book superhero genre material
  • Group co-operation paramount for success
  • Freedom to extemporize and innovate for all participants
  • Reliance on archetypical models for characters
  • Fellowship of those participating


I am proud to say that I have been doing all of the above from my very first time as a GM in 1978. However, “Rule books seldom used by a competent DM” is a very challenging on. Now it should be obvious, but I must state that the more complex and/or counter-intuitive a game’s rules are, the more difficult it is to master the game. And yet, it is encumbent on the referee, judge, moderator, Dungeon Master, or Game Master to master the rules. After all, how can the GM be the final arbiter of the rules if they have not mastered the rules themselves?

Likewise, it breaks the flow of the game to stop and look up a rule. There is no need to deny it or sugar-coat it, it is a fact. Any player who is in the spotlight — including the GM — that stops to look up a rule slow the game down. This stopping the game is even more egregious during a fast paced part of the adventure whether it be combat or a chase. The dramatic tension is broken and it is very difficult to bring it back.

Does this mean that we should chuck our favourite version of D&D out the window and go back to playing the original 1974 rules? After all, in Gygax’s later years that is exactly what he did. He chucked Lejendary Adventures, Dangerous Journeys, and AD&D out the window in spite of being their author.

The answer is “No, you don’t have to give up your favourite version of D&D” provided that you have mastered the rules sufficiently to seldom refer to the books.

But what if you have a hard time mastering the rule of any edition of D&D? Back in 1977 and ’78, I found the whitebox rules to be difficult to understand and there was no way I was going to master them which is why AD&D was a godsend to me. And frankly, that was the case for almost all of back then, which is why John Eric Holmes offered to edit the rules, resulting in Basic D&D (Holmes Blue Book).

When Wizards of the Coast released 3rd edition, it was physically painful for me to switch to the rules. I actually got headaches rewiring my wetware to replace almost 33 years of playing very similar versions of D&D. I succeeded but I swore never to do that again. Which is one of the reasons I refuse to bother with either of those editions. Have I mastered 3rd edition? No, not quite. At least not to the level I had with previous versions.

What version then, do I play when I do run a game? Last summer I ran hybrid game which I am refining for this summer’s campaign. Why a hybrid? Because in order to “seldom use the rulebooks,” the rules have to be intuitive for me.

A Game’s rules must be intutive

This is perhaps, one of the most important lessons I have learned over the past 43+ years. If the rules are not intuitive, then it becomes more difficult to remember during the heat of play.

In closing, do not let the rules get in the way of your game.

P.S. Yeah, I will probably make my intuitive RPG publically available.


  1. One of the words I have added to my internal lexicon is " Gygaxian" It references the days when in a dungeon of his creation you would usually not call it a success unless there was at least two " Save or DIE" rolls due to some rather nasty traps that had only two or death. That man was the reason your character walked thru the dungeon with a ten foot pole tapping the floors and tossing bags of sand at everything and anything that looked suspicious or not suspicious enough. You searched every inch of the place for secret doors or panels and any hole or odd deformity in masonry was completely investigated to the point your had to leave the dungeon to resupply for lack of food or torches. TO this day I still have those habits when moving through a dungeon adventure...RPG PTSD RIP Gary.

  2. Same here. That's what separates the Grognards from the wannabes.


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