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The Dungeon Master: An Interview with Gary Gygax

November 1, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

If he isn't the most influential person in the world of RPGs, Gary Gygax certainly belongs in the pantheon of the giants of the genre. He started out by writing his own pen-and-paper games during the late 1960s and early 1970s and went on to revolutionize gaming with his involvement in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, Gary Gygax is looking to bridge the gap between gap between pen and keyboard by throwing his Lejendary Adventure pen-and-paper RPG into the MMOG ring (currently being produced by Dreams Interactive). Ion Storm project director Harvey Smith, being an RPG fan of both electronic and paper varieties, seemed like a natural -- and very willing -- volunteer to talk to Gary about RPGs, MMOGs, and the transition from pen-and-paper to mouse and monitor.

Harvey: First off, this is a surreal experience. RPG's have been a huge part of my life. I started playing on the night of my 11th birthday (in 1977), during a weeklong winter camp. I had heard a lot about D&D, and at that first game I was immediately hooked on the creativity, camaraderie and fun. I still play in a weekly group. Over the years, I've played just about all the major paper RPG's. At the same time, video gaming has been a tremendous part of my life. So it brings me a certain amount of pleasure to conduct this interview.

The screenshots and concept art for The Lejendary Adventures Online RPG look good. The time seems right to launch your MMPOG. The commercial success of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring cannot be denied, not to mention the success of EverQuest. Are you happy with the game so far?


Gary Gygax

Gary: As we spent several months discussing the shape of the Lejendary Adventure RPG online before concluding a deal with Dreams-Interactive, I must say that we share the same vision, so I am indeed pleased. Of course right now there is not much game to look at. However, we have the systems and mechanics pretty well set for alpha testing, so soon the shape will be changing, a lot of course, as all the usual glitches and kinks in a design and graphic presentation are discovered and ironed out.

Harvey: How involved are you with the LA online RPG on a daily basis?

Gary: That varies. Early on in discussions with D-I, I was very involved, then came a period where I was feeding them information, getting material back. Just now they are working on a new and larger demo, so I am standing by. When that demo is completed, I'll be busy again. Meantime I have plenty of pen-and-paper game work to take care of.

Harvey: Chris Crawford (who is either a grandmaster designer of the computer game or the industry's village idiot, depending on who you talk to) once said something brilliantly ahead of its time about the mistakes inherently involved with translating a game from one medium to another (specifically electronic) medium. His example was Poker, but obviously this is relevant to discussions about translating RPG's into computer form. Any thoughts?

Gary: From the above, I'd say Chris is a grandmaster designer. Ignore the fact that I am sometimes referred to as the village idiot too:) The analogy to poker is apt, for what happens when that game is translated to the electronic media is similar to the transition of the game-mastered pen-and-paper RPG to the online format. I have spent a fair bit of time discussing this subject with D-I, and there is no doubt that there will be changes in the LA game when it comes up as a MMPORPG. What is exciting to me is that even as certain rules and systems change thus, there will be new and very interesting ones replacing them. The basics of the pen-and-paper game won't change, and the "soul" will be the same, but the new medium and format will have innovations and new aspects that I am sure will be most appealing...and prevent common abuses too.

Harvey: What do you think a traditional game designer game guy brings to the computer/console game development process? Are there skills that transfer (and skills that don't)? Has there been a lot for you to learn or would you say there's more unlearning to do?

Gary: Well, there's a tough question. First, many a programmer has told me my original designs were great in that they were presented very much the same way that they outlined their material for an electronic game. After that's said, though, there are considerable differences in the scope of what can be done in the two media, and how to deal with the problems peculiar to each.

I must add that the basis for the LA RPG was a system I designed for a computer game that almost went into production. That's why the LA game is as it is, rules-light and with only a few stats.

Anyway, there has been some learning for me in regards the problems of the MMP game, but they are not of the "unlearning" sort, rather how to think in regards to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. It goes without saying that the expertise of the D-I team has made the study a pretty easy one so far. Likely my experience in working on a few CRPG's, and before that working with the Marvel team on the D&D Cartoon Show, where I had creative control of the scripts, has helped me a lot in being flexible and assisting with problem solutions.

Harvey: RPG's often split people into several camps, sometimes polarized between those players more interested in interactive storytelling and those players more interested in killing monsters and collecting treasure. There're also people who play for the interesting tactical challenges, seeing the game as an extended board game. Then, of course, there are those of us who enjoy all three. Have you had the chance to play the LA Online RPG yet? (Is it stable enough yet?) How do you see the game environment shaping up? How heavily does it cater to each of the player types described above?

Gary: Insightful, that question, and allow me comment on it a bit before answering.

I do not, and I stress NOT, believe that the RPG is "storytelling" in the way that is usually presented. If there is a story to be told, it comes from the interaction of all participants, not merely the Game Master--who should not a "Storyteller" but a narrator and co-player! The players are not acting out roles designed for them by the GM, they are acting in character to create the story, and that tale is told as the game unfolds, and as directed by their actions, with random factors that even the GM can't predict possibly altering the course of things. Storytelling is what novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights do. It has little or no connection to the RPG, which differs in all aspects from the entertainment forms such authors create for.

As false to the game form as the pre-scripted "story," is play that has little more in it than seek and destroy missions, vacuous effort where the participants fight and kill some monster so as to gain more power and thus be able to look for yet more potent opponents in a spiral that leads nowhere save eventual boredom. So pure hack and slash play is anathema to me too.

Tactical, and strategic, play is a fine addition to the RPG, and if it is in-character, something I see as desirable, In this category fall such things as exploration, economics, politics, and even intrigue.

The LA RPG was designed to accommodate any and all styles and play approaches, and hopefully so presented as to encourage an amalgam of all the elements of the game form. That encourages varied adventures, different challenges from time to time, and well-rounded characters (and players) that find the game has long-term interest for them. In short, I agree with you in that all aspects of the RPG should be presented and played.

Now, as to the LA MMPO game, I have not yet had the opportunity to really get into anything like what actual online play will be. We have discussed that a good bit, naturally, and soon I expect to be adventuring about with an Avatar in more than just a general environment, as has been the case up until now. What is particularly exciting to me about that is the new facets of play that will be presented thus, things not now contained in the LA pen-and-paper game.

Harvey: How would you sum up the unique vibe of LA? What makes it special, when compared to other FRPG's?

Gary: The LA game system is rules-light, uses a skill-bundle basis and offers players the opportunity to create virtually any sort of Avatar they desire. There are "Orders" reflecting archetypes, or the player can select Abilities (skill bundles) as desired to get a very unique character. Mechanics are easy and straightforward. In all the game allows play of any sort desired, with emphasis on the role-play involved, not the rules. That makes it fun to GM and to play. Because it is adaptable to any style other than rules-lawyering, advancement is made on the basis of active participation in the adventure, not what one kills or loots. Overall, I think it fair to say that no other game plays like the LA one does.


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