|A set of polyhedral dice (author’s collection)|
Among the things the prospective player of Dungeons and Dragons needs to know: STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA stand for “Strength”, “Dexterity”, “Constitution”, “Intelligence”, “Wisdom”, and “Charisma”. These are determined by rolling 3d6—a d6 is a six-sided die, and knowing the singular to be “die” is a shibboleth among gamers. A high score in CON adds to a PC’s HP: HP stands for “Hit Points”, which measure how close this PC is from dying; a PC is a “player character”, as opposed to an NPC, characters controlled and played by the referee, or DM, who is also responsible for an indeterminate number of other levels of handling things, which might include, depending on the game, anything from political context to astrophysics to the weather. DM stands for “Dungeon Master”, a term these days largely reduced to its initials, one suspects mainly from embarrassment. To return to the characteristics: a high score in DEX gives a bonus to a PC’s AC, which stands for Armor Class, and this used to mean subtracting points and now means adding them—the to-hit mechanic was switched in third ed., which was back in 2000. “Mechanic” means “any set of rules for modelling a situation”—If we were to proceed in this manner, in about ten pages’ time you’d have all the rules you needed to play a game of D&D.
In 1971, Ernest Gary Gygax, a Midwestern family man already well-regarded within the independent war-gaming scene of the early 70s, publishes Chainmail, a 62-page set of medieval combat rules with an appendix on how to include Tolkienesque supernatural creatures. Dave Arneson, a history student at the university of Minnesota, uses these rules to come up with something more free-form, an unnamed game which added exploration and character development; this Gygax codifies into something marketable, a set of three boxed pamphlets with his and Arneson’s name on it (total page count: 112) under the title Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. The first part of the title is, according to legend, chosen by Gygax’s two-year-old daughter; the latter, charitably, demonstrates the difficulty of demonstrating what this new thing is, exactly.
Gygax and childhood friend Don Kaye set up a company, TSR, to publish and distribute this game. Arneson, lacking in capital, is not invited to be a partner. He briefly becomes an employee, but contributes only minimally to the published canon of D&D material; following a disagreement with Gygax he’s forced to leave. In 1977 Gygax rebrands the thing as the three rulebooks of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons — the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Monster Manual, totalling between them just under 500 pages of rules. Arneson, learning he will receive no royalties, sues Gygax. For the next twenty years AD&D and D&D continue as separate entities, the former pitched at adult hobbyists and the latter adolescents. D&D becomes a multi-million-dollar industry whose cultural moment peaks as it becomes a target of the American 70s-80s satanic panic. A 1985 episode  of the American news magazine 60 Minutes suggests the game has three or four million players and is directly responsible for five suicides and two murders. By this point Gygax has divorced his wife, moved to Hollywood, developed a cocaine habit. He returns to the Midwest to find the other TSR partners are running his company into the ground; attempting a daring boardroom coup, he finds himself forced out instead.
He will spend twenty-five years on the sidelines of the industry as TSR becomes ever more corporate. In 1997 the company is bought out by card game developers Wizards of the Coast, who themselves are soon after purchased by Hasbro. Under these auspices D&D becomes much more streamlined. The third edition jettisons the distinction between vanilla and Advanced, and smooths out much of the game’s weirdness. In 2008, as Hasbro prepare to launch a fourth edition which will be widely lambasted for its perceived attempts to pander to online gamers, Gygax dies of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The temptation is to say: broken heart, albeit the blame more likely lies with a lifelong smoking habit.
This story, largely untouched by the mainstream press between the game’s 80s heyday and 2008, has been the focus of a clutch of books over the past few years: a phenomenon engendered by Gygax’s death, with the game’s fifth edition’s return to its Gygaxian roots perhaps an additional catalyst. Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, a journalistic-cum-memoiristic look at D&D and related hobbies, was the first book to make it to market, in 2009. John Peterson’s 600-page historical Playing at the World (2012) seems to have opened the floodgates. Shannon Appelcline et al’s industry history Designers and Dragons, Kickstarter-funded in 2013, runs to four volumes and a supplement; David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men, also of that year, is another sort of I-put-away-childish-things-but-then-I-didn’t memoir in the mode of the Gilsdorf book. Around this time Kent David Kelly self-publishes a sort of extended fannish quibble with Peterson, the three-volume Hawk and Moor. It will be noted that Gygax is not the only person connected with the hobby to struggle with conciseness. Michael Witwer’s 2015 Empire of Imagination notes in its introduction, “I was stunned to find that a complete biography had not already been written.” In last month’s Rise of the Dungeon Master Koren Shadmi and David Kushner present Gygax’s life story as a graphic novel, based heavily on a profile Kushner wrote after interviewing Gygax the year of his death.
Playing at the World is the deepest and best of this litter of books, and by some degree the most analytical: the first part of his book is a (fascinating) history of the amateur war-game scene of the American 60s and 70s; upon the publication of the D&D’s first edition Peterson pauses to untangle the three strands he sees as essential to its success. The book thus constitutes: a history of the pulp fantasy genre in the 20th century; a history of the war-game, starting with the German kriegspiel of the late 18th; a history of the much looser idea of ‘role-playing’, which touches in its first dozen pages on psychotherapeutic practice, the Brontës, and Diplomacy.
Witwer’s biography invents scenes he claims are concise dramatizations of emotional states held by the participation of the time, and does so with all the nuance and nous of the average soap writer: Gygax, for example, drafting a public resignation and tearing it up, or his wife bursting into a friend’s basement convinced she will find Gygax committing adultery, only to find him leading the Confederate Army to battle. All of this is rendered in a prose remarkable in its combination of the purple and the banal. Here is the moment Gygax meets Arneson:
“Neat! What do you play?” asked Gary.
“We use the Fletcher Pratt naval rules. I play with my group in the Twin Cities. I’m Dave … Dave Arneson.”
“Gary Gygax. Nice to meet you.”
The natural wood hues of the Napoleonic-era ships seemed to perfectly complement the earth tones of Arneson’s rugged flannel shirt, making the young man seem somehow an extension of the ships or vice versa.
He is, however, the only one to point at all to the class aspect of the narrative: Arneson, whose lack of input and refusal to get down to brass tacks would become a bugbear for Gygax, was a student when they met and would end his life a professor of computer game design, whereas Gygax had dropped out from high school and the Marines both, and in the years leading up from D&D’s launch had gone from white-collar (insurance underwriting) to blue-collar work (cobbler). Don Kaye was working at his father’s sheet-metal shop when he and Gygax founded TSR; when Gygax was ousted, it was by a newspaper heiress/minor member of Hollywood elite he’d found in California and brought into management.
These details are largely absent from Rise of the Dungeon Master. Kushner writes in the second person throughout (“You are Gary Gygax…”), alluding to the RPG referee’s second-person address to his players, a style which pre-empted the mode’s brief mid-late 80s literary hipness. While the author’s Masters of Doom is one of the most illuminating books written on computer games, Rise is a fairly throwaway piece of work: it portrays the facts with charm and concision, but perpetuates a level of analysis that fails to really grasp some of the levels of the game’s appeal.
The easiest and laziest take seems to be that D&D’s (and role-playing’s) popularity rests on some kind of escapism. Gygax’s fondness for the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard has been remarked. In these the titular barbarian is usually discovered either en route to an exotic locale or unhappy after a period of city residence; he will discover something eldritch, in the former type of story, or something decadent, in the latter type; he will emerge victorious either by wrestling with something or someone, or sword-fighting something or someone, or both. The somethings are, most usually, demonic serpents, or demonic apes. Kushner quotes Gygax’s grandson: “It’s written in every man’s heart. We want to feel like warriors. That’s what gramps let people do.” Certainly this is for some part of the appeal: the continuing pre-eminence of D&D-style games, and of heroic fantasy, would suggest this.
But consider what one has to do, in Gygax’s first edition AD&D rules, merely to attack, Conan-style, a demonic ape:
i. consult the entry APE , Carnivorous in the Monster Manual (“It hungers particularly for human flesh … If it strikes its opponent with both hands the ape does an additional 1-8 hit points of rending damage”) for the creature’s AC;
ii. consult the ATTACK MATRICES in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for one’s character’s chance to hit this AC, expressed as a fraction with the denominator 20;
iii. roll 1d20 to determine whether one hits the APE, Carnivorous;
iv. on a successful hit, consult the equipment table again in the DMG to learn the damage range of one’s character’s weapon;
v. roll the appropriate sized die to determine how many HP of damage one deals.
A combat consists of tens of these transactions, bookended by equally complex rulesets regarding who gets to act first, and what happens to creatures reduced to 0 HP. At least some kind interest in engaging with the numbers seems requisite: players who go through a whole combat still feeling like a warrior and less like an accountant, one might suggest, would be better served by another pastime—bear-baiting, perhaps, or psychotherapy.
To return to Conan—a character a little flattened in the Schwarzenegger interpretation, but certainly representing a more two-fisted approach to the fantastic than that of The Lord of the Rings—few are the stories of Howard’s which don’t eventually turn on his ability to hit something with a sword or kill it with his bare hands. But Howard’s world is, charitably, not just a fantasy of limitless male potency. Conan is an oddly melancholic figure, one whose supreme competence finds him rising to the top in situation after situation (be it a faux-Norse saga or a faux-Machiavellian intrigue or any of his unfortunate voyages to faux-ancient faux-North Africa); one whose supreme adaptation to his niche finds him astray again and again, caught between the twin props of decadent civilization and weird magic from before the dawn of time.
Howard’s friend and correspondent, HP Lovecraft, shared with him the belief that human history was a long, slow slide into decadence and irrelevance. His fiction, or the most famed parts of it, is concerned with New England figures of upper-class backgrounds dealing with the resurgences of various elder species whose presence on this planet predates ours and whose very existence mocks all categories of human value. (As with Howard, Lovecraft’s revulsion with the modern world seems to have motivated his investigations of an imaginary past.)
Sandy Peterson’s 1981 Call of Cthulhu, a game officially licensed by the Lovecraft estate, is something of a step forward for role-playing. Unlike earlier competitors to D&D — The Fantasy Trip, or Chivalry & Sorcery , or the remarkably blatant Tunnels & Trolls— Cthulhu changes not just the setting or rules but seriously détournes the basic logic of D&D. Whereas that game presents the PCs as exceptional humans from the get-go, and their arc is one of gradual ascent into the realms of the superheroic and/or divine, Cthulhu PCs are basically normal humans, who basically do not progress, and who are going to wind up, quickly enough, in a death spiral towards madness or worse. The narrative arc of D&D is an exponential curve upwards; of Cthulhu, the same flipped through ninety degrees. It’s here that one begins to have solid reasons to doubt the claim that role-playing games operate on wish-fulfilment: whatever your opinion on the claim that, pace the Gygax grandchild above, men want to feel like warriors, it’s probably not written in every man’s heart that they want to feel like 1920s New England antiquarians driven insane by forces they do not comprehend.
The key insight of Call of Cthulhu is that the kind of rules you make affect the kind of stories you can tell. The rules of D&D are well-tempered towards the peripatetic narrative of a Howard story: as long as the PCs continue going from place to place, and finding things to kill there, the world is rendered in loving detail. This leads to a kind of lather-wash-repeat problem. Fantasy in the Howard-Gygax mould seems, beyond a certain point, curiously banal. If this is what the player wants, these days, World of Warcraft is a much simpler way to scratch the same itch. In the early 90s, the first bloom of online RPGs, while too primitive to retain Warcraft’s massive audiences, contributed to a flowering of debate about whether the writing was on the wall for the pastime: about what the point of the role-playing really was.
The threefold model which made for a kind of shaky consensus online is now most familiar in the form codified in Ron Edwards’ 1999 essay “System Does Matter”, dividing gamers into narrativist, simulationist, and gamist. Simply put: while the gamist player wants a fight to depend on a series of tension-introducing die rolls, the narrativist player is more invested in which outcome will make the more satisfying story. The simulationist player is more concerned with whether the dice accurately represent the attacker’s choice of falchion as opposed to broadsword, with an appropriate modifier applied for the weight of the defender’s armour.
Most highbrow defences of the pastime (there are some) are on narrativist bases. A 2014 New York Times piece by Ethan Gilsdorf (who, following Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, has made a sideline of this sort of thing) focuses on gaming as a mode of socially collaborative narrative, and quotes two Pulitzer winners: Junot Diaz notes “I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been for gaming”; David Lindsay-Abaire suggests that it taught the need of an audience “to understand how the world works … The Hunger Games is a perfect example of ‘OK, these are the rules of this world, now go! Go play in that world.’”
RPGs, of course, embed the idea of the rules of the world in a far more literal manner. AD&D is notorious for allowing its simulationist tendencies to infringe upon its narrativist ideals: the Dungeon Master’s Guide opens with the exhortation “each of you must create a world” but the Player’s Handbook has a list of “Weight and Damage by Weapon Type” which includes almost twenty different kinds of pole-arm. (By comparison—and to illustrate the claim that mechanics facilitate storytelling—the 80s slasher-horror RPG Chill models literally all weapons the same way, on the grounds that the final girl discovering a knife is functionally the same event as her discovering a handgun.)
Kushner notes in passing that the day job Gygax was fired from, as an underwriter for the Fireman’s Fund, had a passing resemblance to the sorts of rules he would now develop. Insurance underwriting means reducing the freight of the world to a series of numbers. It’s a practice where capital and mathematical models both infringe on life as it is lived, and one which touches a chord with the two big turning points in the early history of D&D—the death of Don Kaye and Gygax’s falling out with Arneson. To put up the capital to start TSR, Kaye had taken a loan out on his life insurance in order for them to start to produce the game; his death from a heart attack shortly after the original printing created a capital crisis for the company, and decisions made in its aftermath would be critical in Gygax’s later loss of his company and his game. As for Arneson, something he tells Kushner encapsulates the root of the argument between him and Gygax: “He thinks you can write a rule to cover any situation. I don’t.”
It’s an argument which was fought for years in the hobbyist press. The fanzine Alarums and Excursions, as early as 1975, makes the claim that “D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax.” Miniature war-gaming had always had an amateurist side to it, in which rules were almost the common property of the hobby; building off the work of others, almost a right. TSR, in creating their own evolving canon of rules—to the extent they’d litigate when they felt their models were infringed upon—were insisting on a different precedent at the birth of role-playing as a hobby. Gygax himself oscillated between a laissez-faireism and a kind of hyperbolic insistence on the importance of rules, as if not just his company’s prosperity but the ontology of the entire project was thrown into doubt when they were not followed. What is aimed at, he writes in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, “is a ‘universe’ … with certain uniformity of systems and ‘laws’”.
Different wings of the game’s fanbase have taken differing views about how necessary it is that the rules (in their many, many iterations since) are to be obeyed. For some the game has an implied ‘rule zero’ (approximately: if following a rule makes things less enjoyable, change the rule); other gamers exist whose pleasure is dependent upon running their games by every rule every published in every supplement—pejoratively, rules lawyers. It’s often called, jokingly, a philosophical difference—my claim is that it genuinely and profoundly is.
Even the most incurious of D&D players is engaging with the question of how to parse the world. The more deeply inculcated will discuss, say, a different mechanic for turn-taking in fights in much the same way aficionados might discuss, say, the difference regularising the orthography makes to the reading experience of Dickinson: two conversations which to a layperson would seem not just inscrutable, but founded on basically alien assumptions about how poetry works, or how play does. It would seem that making the desire to obey rules a part of your imaginative play—willingly submitting to an abstract authority, whether that be the referee at the table, or the side on which a polyhedron falls—is to question the logic and value of the imaginative act.
Gaming pretty profoundly affects your relation to fictions. The illocutionary acts of the gaming table witness frequent shifts of reference: players narrate their actions shifting between first-person direct (I stab the serpent); first-person possessive (my character stabs the serpent); third-person (Grok stabs the serpent.) These changes are mirrored from the outside: what is grok doing? what is your character doing? What are you doing? Leaving aside the merely local uncanniness of hearing an in-game entity referred to by the second-person pronoun—or one’s own personal name—this grammatical slippage mirrors the slippage of a game’s narrative among the fixtures of its taken genre. Table talk frequently invokes a kind of dramatic irony (out of character, I know there’s going to be a serpent in this abandoned temple.)
This is just to consider two modes prevalent, but certainly not exhaustive, in the pastime: the heroic-fantasy-escapist and the cosmic-horror-nihilist. For a long time now the critique of the former mode has been overt; in John Scott Tynes’ Powerkill (1999), a meta-game designed to bookend sessions of D&D, the players are analysands of a psychiatrist played by the DM, who interrogates them about their need for fictional avatars who do nothing but kill people and amass possessions. D&D retains a status as a gateway drug in much the same way that Marvel and DC do for comics, say.
The common lineage in many of the books above (D&D, after a Burgess Shale-like explosion of diversity among tabletops, all of which died with the industry, begat early computer RPGs, which begat, on the one hand, Fallout, and on the other World of Warcraft) misses the ways in which the pastime has developed at the fringes: in games which more clearly articulate, or which explicitly criticise, the authoritarian mode implied by player-DM relations and the banality of the heroic fantasy mode; games which suggest alternative ways of playing and being.
Jason Morningstar’s 2009 Fiasco is a fair demonstration of how far from its origins the hobby can stray. It’s a game designed to create neo-noir comedy, more or less; the creator defines the genre as “capers gone wrong”. There is no referee. Creation is entirely collaborative, so much so that at the opening of the game, each player rolls dice which are then pushed to the centre of table as results for players to choose from throughout. Character relationships (“AA sponsor / participant”; “parent / stepchild”) and desires (“to get the truth about why he really came here”; “to get rich through a misplaced suitcase full of cash”) are generated, using these dice rolls, from a list of noir setups, as are locations (“Rose’s Village Motel”; “Suds and Duds coin operated laundromat”). In a nod to the lets-pretend origins of the hobby, these are labelled “playsets”; the above examples are drawn from one titled In A Nice Southern Town. This year’s Ten Candles does something similar, but the setup is not “a caper gone wrong” but “the apocalypse”.
This kind of player-created system is an example of games evolving “a more sophisticated technology”, to steal a phrasing from Caleb Stokes, designer of the upcoming Red Markets, a very self-aware zombie-movie “game of economic horror” in which the players have great powers of collaborative creation, but the powers of the referee and the dice are set against their abilities to self-actualise. As with the other games under discussion here, the relation between the mechanic and the narrative levels of the game is something like that between the base and the superstructure. Here, though, things are rendered a tad more literally: the dice are always rolled in pairs, one black and one red; the referee is to be referred to as Market.
These games are fringe activities on the edge of a fringe activity, but within the heroic-fantasy mode the point of the game remains in question, and more so now than ever. In recent years the so-called “Old School Renaissance” has led to a number of different iterations or isotypes, all of which set themselves apart by a different approach to how fiction works. Whitehack explicitly presents the dice-rolling as a machine for narrative production. Lamentations of the Flame Princess insists that players develop skill, try to win; Dungeon World explicitly sets up players and DM as adversarial. These games all return, on some level, to the old Arneson-Gygax argument of how many rules do you need, a question that applies to activities far more profound than game-playing.
Thos. West  studied at Oxford and elsewhere. He currently lives and works in Seoul.