With Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax created a monster.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
March 10 2008 6:35 PM

Orc Holocaust

The reprehensible moral universe of Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons.

Gary Gygax. Click image to expand.
Gary Gygax

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.