Truth Holocaust

On March 11, 2008, in General, by Neil Stevens

Erik Sofge virtually peed on the late E. Gary Gygax’s grave yesterday with a attack on the family man and innovator that is so ridiculous, I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll just walk through the article bit by bit and pick it apart.

When Gary Gygax died, the gaming community lost an icon, its founding genius. At least that’s the story being told in countless obituaries this past week by writers as eager to praise Gygax as they are to out themselves?with faux embarrassment?as former nerds whose lives he changed with 20-sided dice. And lo, what a fascinating and tortured bunch we are, with our tales of marathon role-playing game (RPG) sessions in windowless basements, our fingers hardened to nacho-cheese-encrusted talons, and our monklike vows of celibacy. Part testament to Gygax, part cathartic confessional, these obituaries are rapidly cementing his position at the head of the geek pantheon.

From the first paragraph, Sofge sets the tone. This is no mere opinion. This is a personal grudge against someone or something. The man believes there’s something fundamentally wrong with role playing games. If a group of men get together for an evening of harmless fun, engaging in a mental and social game, there is something amiss. Sofge is embarrassed that he didn’t instead engage in the hedonistic culture pushed by Hollywood. You see, he apparently thinks young men should be out in bars trying to have promiscuous sex rather than take part in “celibate” activities.

Of course, below that we find the assumption that these games are played only by men. Of course it’s not true, but why does Sofge think it? Is there something about the way he acted that drove women away from his games? Who knows. But women do play RPGs, so there must be something going on behind the scenes here.

But it has to be said: Gary Gygax wasn’t a visionary to all of us. The real geeks out there?my homies?know the awkward truth: When you cut through the nostalgia, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a good role-playing game; in fact, it’s one of the worst on the market. Sadly, Gygax’s creation defines our strange corner of the entertainment world and drowns out all the more innovative and sophisticated games that have made D&D obsolete for decades. (As a game designer, Gygax is far outclassed by contemporaries such as Steve Jackson and Greg Stafford.) It’s the reason that tabletop gaming is not only stuck in the pop culture gutter but considered pathetic even by the standards of mouth-breathing Star Trek conventioneers. And with the entire industry continuing to collapse in the face of online gaming, this might be the last chance to see Gygax for what he was?an unrepentant hack, more Michael Bay than Ingmar Bergman.

Wasn’t a visionary? Maybe it seems obvious now, but so many good ideas are, but Gygax took a huge step when he made the leap from his first game, Chainmail, to the granddaddy of role playing games, Dungeons & Dragons. In those days, people played war games with miniatures, and Chainmail was a set of rules for medieval fantasy miniatures games. D&D did away with the need for miniatures and expanded beyond combat with the imaginations of the players, which allowed all involved to get away from pure hack-and-slash combat and into parleys, puzzles, exploration, politics, romance, and everything else that can come up in the life of a fantasy adventurer.

But no, let’s not give him credit. Let’s compare his genre-creating work with the works of those who built on it. Isaac Newton? A lousy physicist. Sure, he came up with the inverse square law of gravitation, but later physicists like Albert Einstein came up with more accurate theories. Newton was just a hack and shouldn’t be remembered so fondly.

And again, we have another hint of some other, deep-seated antipathy driving the article. Where on Earth did this grudge against Star Trek conventioneers come from? I guess people who go beyond sitting and staring at the television screen, and meet people outside their homes, are just to weird for Sofge to deal with.

Hold onto that thought though, remember: online computer games are killing RPGs, says Sofge, and it’s all Gygax’s fault for inventing D&D.

What’s wrong with Dungeons & Dragons? It plays like a video game. A good role-playing game provides the framework for a unique kind of narrative, a collaborative thought experiment crossed with improvisational theater. But D&D, particularly the first edition that Gygax co-wrote in 1975, makes this sort of creative play an afterthought. The problem is most apparent in one of Gygax’s central (and celebrated) innovations: “experience points.” To become a more powerful wizard, a sneakier thief, or an elfier elf (being an elf was its own profession in early editions, which is kind of like saying being Chinese is a full-time job), you need to gain “levels,” which requires experience points. And the best way to get experience points is to kill stuff. Every monster, from an ankle-biting goblin to a massive fire-spewing dragon, has a specific number of points associated with it?your reward for hacking it to pieces. So while it’s one player’s job?the so-called Dungeon Master?to come up with the plot for each gaming session and play the parts of the various enemies and supporting characters, in practice that putative storyteller merely referees one imagined slaughter after another. This is not Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, with its anti-fascist political commentary and yearning for an end to glory and the triumph of peace. This is violence without pretense, an endless hobgoblin holocaust.

Excuse me for a moment; your writer has to go clean his computer monitor. He just left some saliva all over it, sputtering at how brazenly Sofge did a complete 180 from paragraph to paragraph without even acknowledging it. Squeak Squeak There, that’s better. But look at it: D&D losing out to video games was a sign of weakness, but now D&D is bad because it apparently is just like those video games!

And while it’s true, I did find it frustrating when I first encountered the D&D basic set that elves had no classes, but so did Gygax! That’s why he later turned around and created Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But I digress.

We now get a hint, though, about why Sofge has so much pent up anger and resentment for RPG players. He and his group just weren’t playing it right. They tried to play a simple hack and slash game with no depth and oh, role playing, and then got frustrated.

The whole point of D&D was to expand on it. the original ruleset didn’t even include complete combat rules! It took Chainmail and added imagination. Quoting Gygax himself in the rulebook:

“These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!”

So I don’t know what game Sofge was playing, but it wasn’t D&D. Back to his article, though:

Here’s the narrative arithmetic that Gygax came up with: You come across a family of sleeping orcs, huddled around their overflowing chest of gold coins and magical weapons. Why do orcs and other monsters horde gold when they can’t buy anything from the local “shoppes,” or share a jug of mead in the tavern, or do anything but gnash their teeth in the darkness and wait for someone to show up and fight them? Who knows, but there they are, and you now have a choice. You can let sleeping orcs lie and get on with the task at hand?saving a damsel, recovering some ancient scepter, whatever. Or you can start slitting throats?after all, mercy doesn’t have an experience point value in D&D. It’s the kind of atrocity that commits itself.

See, there we go again. Because his group went around slitting throats instead of roleplaying, he assumes everyone else did , too. Contrast with others’ view of the original D&D though:

The whole purpose of play was to defeat the monsters in combat and figure out the puzzles set by the referee (usually called the Dungeon Master, or DM), and gain treasures and experience that would help you to defeat bigger monsters. Treasure would be used to further enhance one’s fighting ability. The eventual goal of building a stronghold was to provide your character with a source of income and men at arms, both of which would more or less directly help you be a more effective monster-killer, or you could move on to a more traditional medieval-style miniatures war with other character’s strongholds. There was no discussion of playing your character, or establishing a personality for him or her. On the other hand, even in this early edition, there are suggestions that opponents might be interacted with outside of simply fighting them: a defeated player character might be turned into a frog by a witch if his charisma were high enough, for example. Clearly, this wasn’t a game to be played by a mechanical adherence to the rules. In fact, the rules clearly call themselves guidelines, and advise players that individual DMs will modify them to suit their own games, an attitude that co-author Gary Gygax would later completely flip-flop on for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game.

And how does AD&D discuss experience for roleplaying? Let’s quote the Second Edition Player’s Handbook, as that’s what I have handy:

A character can also earn experience for the player’s actions, such as playing the game well. When a player does a good job creating and pretending to be his character, the DM may give the player experience points for good role-playing. If the player is really involved and takes a major part in the game, the DM can give the player’s character extra experience points. If the player uses his head to come up with a really good idea, the DM can give the player experience points for his contribution.

So again, Sofge didn’t play the game right, so he attacks Gygax and makes the man’s major work out to be something wicked. He also can’t even get Tolkien right. Christopher Tolkien notes in The Silmarillion that his father had already begun work on his mythology for England as far back as 1917. And this mythology consistently draws not from the current events of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but from the Bible. From the Trinity of Eru/Manwe/Gandalf, to the Great Flood of Númenor, to the Death and Resurrection of Gandalf for the peoples of Middle-earth (of whom the Fellowship of the Ring was a microcosm), J. R. R. Tolkien retold the story of Christianity in his books.

While it’s certainly true that The Lord of the Rings was influenced by the horrors of war (in which Christopher was fighting in the RAF as page by page of the story was written and sent to him), and the man himself knew death from the Great War (“By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”), to strip the Christianity from the Lord of the Rings and make it a topical allegory is to miss the point.

But that’s not entirely surprising. Erik Sofge misses the point of the Lord of the Rings, of Dungeons & Dragons, and he absolutely picks the wrong time to kick dirt on the record of a beloved man who just passed on.


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