Off the Grid: Gygaxian game design

Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column about card games, board games, and everything else non-digital.

The passing of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax means the passing of one of gaming's most notable and influential designers. The legacy of Gary Gygax, however, is more difficult to discern than most realize. After all, the evolution of D&D is credited to both Gygax and co-designer Dave Arneson -- not to mention Gygax's other games, both before and after the golden age of his company Tactical Studies Rules. So what kind of designer was Gary Gygax?

Gaming was already social when Gygax came on the scene. He was only one of a growing force of war-gamers. But it was Gygax that made gaming personal, with his own designs uniquely focused around the role of the individual. Instead of controlling the army, Gygax wanted to control the soldier. Instead of manning the fleet, Gygax wanted to man the ship.

While such a transition was hinted at in expansions and additional rules for Gygax's early games like Don't Give Up the Ship! and Chainmail, the idea would truly hit its stride in 1974 with Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, with individualism had to come rules for individualism, and here is where Gygax flourished.

From his earliest designs, Gygax excelled at creating order from chaos. In a way, Gygax was one of gaming's first stat-heads. If it had a role in a game, Gygax wanted it bound with values. Gygax wanted definition.

For those random aspects of life that could not be defined by set integers, Gygax turned to dice. Unhappy with the short range of values offered by the standard six-sided dice, Gygax brought the five remaining platonic solids to game design, giving him 4, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided rolls accompanying the standard 6. He contributed to the design of Tractics, the first game to ever make use of a 20-sided die.

Though Gary Gygax spent a great deal of time devising rules, he also felt that people relied too heavily on rules. The rulebooks and parameters dictated the dimensions of each universe Gygax created, but the flavor and color of the worlds was generated through improvisation. In a piece recently published at Wired, Gygax sounds off on the attachment of war-gamers to the stipulations of rules: "[Players] would write in and ask the publisher of the game what to do... Whatever they were told, they did. And I said, that's silly - just make it up."

This may seem contrary to the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons, a game infamous for its sheer number of rules, and accompanying tomes of stats. But perhaps it was the tension between anarchic and rule-bound play that made Gygax such a potent designer. Whether digital or non-digital, games are constantly walking the fine line of "constrained freedom." Gary Gygax was one of the first designers to walk that line with unabashed confidence. Perhaps that -- more than 20-sided dice, or stacks of rulebooks, or dungeon-crawling elves -- can be considered truly Gygaxian.

For more information on Gary Gygax's legacy, check out David Kushner's "Dungeon Master: The Life and Legacy of Gary Gygax."

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, a professional blogger, and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at numberless, and he's STILL anxiously awaiting either a copy of Power Grid or Marrakech to review.