The reprehensible moral universe of Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons.
For decades, gamers have argued that since D&D came first, its lame, morally repulsive experience system can be forgiven. But the damage is still being done: New generations of players are introduced to RPGs as little more than a collective fantasy of massacre and greed. If the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft is the direct descendant of D&D, then what, exactly, has Gygax bequeathed to us unwashed, nerdy masses? The notion that emotionally complex story lines are window dressing for an endless series of hack-and-slash encounters? There's a reason so many players are turned off after a brush with D&D. It promises something great—a lively (if dorky) bit of performance art—but delivers a small-minded and ignorant fantasy of rage, distilled to a bunch of arcane charts and die rolls. Dungeons & Dragons strips the "role-playing" out of RPGs; it's a videogame without the graphics, and a pretty boring one, at that.
There is a way to wring real creativity, and possibly even artistic merit, from this bizarre medium—and it has nothing to do with Gygax and his tradition of sociopathic storytelling. In the mid-1980s, right around the time that Gygax was selling off his company, Steve Jackson began publishing the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, or GURPS. Jackson's goal was to provide the rules to play games in any genre. More importantly, characters in this new system could be fleshed out down to the smallest detail, from a crippling phobia of snakes to a severe food allergy. And when it came to experience points, characters got whatever the "gamemaster" decided. They might earn points for succeeding at a given task or simply for playing their character in a compelling way. Of course, players could still take out their real-life bitterness in a fictional killing spree, and the game master might end up with a bumbling and incoherent story line. But GURPS created the potential for so much more.
There are other complex, challenging games out there, and GURPS is still in print. But the bloodthirsty Dungeons & Dragons franchise remains a bestseller. If it seems overly harsh to fault Gygax for his seminal work, keep in mind that in 1987 he helped create the gaming equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. In the now-infamous Cyborg Commando, you play a man-bot battling an invasion of alien insects. Unfortunately, you seem to have been built for comedic effect, with lasers that shoot out of your knuckles and your brain inexplicably transferred to your torso. That frees up cranial space so you can suck liquids through your nose for further analysis. Not that there are any rules for said chemical analysis, or for much of anything, really. Gygax wasn't much for the details. In the end, his games are a lot like his legacy: goofy, malformed, and fodder for a self-deprecating joke or two—before being shoved in the closet for good.
Erik Sofge is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics.
Photograph of Gary Gygax by Alan De Smet.