Saturday, October 24, 2009

A portrait of the game designer as a young man

Although I occasionally identify myself as a grognard, it's always a bit tongue in cheek.

Although I am without a doubt a Gygaxian, the weird, invisible boxes many grognards want to stuff old games into is at times frustrating, amusing and downright puzzling to me.

You can especially see this in the progression of Gygax from hip, indie designer, slowly morphing into corporate powerhouse and then magically, back to hip indie designer.

ODD is definitely the hip, indie golden age for Gygax. Somehow, he maintains this luster for most of his AD&D period, despite overseeing some definite cold, calculating business decisions.

But when Unearthed Arcana is released, coincidentally the last AD&D book on which Gygax was a major designer, many nerds draw a line in the sand and refuse to accept it.

I think, maybe, because you can SMELL the "business" on that book. Unearthed Arcana was unabashedly released for one reason: TSR needed money.

Oriental Adventures was rushed out for the same reason.

And it worked. TSR survived, at least long enough to show Gygax the door and usher in 2nd edition as another source of capital.

So for gamers who regard themselves as Gygaxian to reject Unearthed Arcana is one of those places where the old school movement gets weird for me. They try to get as far back to the beginning as possible, find an exegesis of the "pure Gygax", then use that as a justification for their rejection of a book he most certainly was the prime architect of, while simultaneously holding him up as the standard by which all other game designers should be judged.

I think, trying to separate Gygax the hip indie designer from the cold businessman is a big mistake. Unearthed Arcana was most definitely NOT the first book he greenlit for monetary reasons.

That would be AD&D itself, as well as the Red Box games (aka Basic D&D). AD&D was largely in place within the framework of ODD, through the various supplements that had been released.

The re-release, in hardback form, of various supplements and Dragon articles, putting the official stamp on them, is exactly what Unearthed Arcana was.

In short, the "late Gygax" and the "early Gygax" are most decidedly the same guy.

He was the greatest game designer who ever lived.

But he wasn't Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King or the Easter Bunny. He was just a guy who happened to have a great gift for writing awesome games.

Trying to turn him into anything else requires serious mental gymnastics.


Ragnorakk said...

And what's the outcome of those mental contortions? hard to say - not worth it. Certainly a better game designer than I and certainly had a lot more ideas of interest than I have - I doubt I would have helped in the large-scale 'invention' of RPG's if I had been around then! But, yeah - we're all human 'n' stuff.

Chuck said...

Well, I wasn't trying to draw any sort of definitive conclusions.

This post, like almost all my posts, is me thinking out loud more than anything :)

Certainly, I think Gygax is the greatest game designer of all time.

Ed said...

I'm with ya Chuck. I loved everything Gygax, including Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures!

Of course my favorite all time has to be Tomb of Horrors. Fun, Fun, Fun!


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