Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gygax on Game Design, Part I

Part I

Welcome to this week's installment of Tomeful Tuesday.  Continuing my ramble through Gary Gygax's Role-Playing Mastery (1987), this week brings us to chapter 8, and this week I will cover the chapter through page 146, that is, through PC generation.

Chapter 8
pp. 138-146.

"Have you achieved gaming mastery?" asks Uncle Gary (Grandpa Gary, to some of my younger readers). "Are you ready for the challenge of the 'ultimate feat of creativity'?" (138)

"Yes," responds the eager rambler.  "I hunger to prove myself up to the gygaxian standard and become a game designer!"

"Then, for you" Gary replies with a frank and fixed look, "'this chapter should be required reading for the sake of the basic guidance it supplies'" (Ibid.).

Gygax breaks the basic choices in game design down into Initial decisions and Rules.  As has been my general practice, I will outline and sometimes summarize Gygax, focusing on any ideas or quotations that I find exceptional.

Initial Decisions (138-140)
Genre.  The imaginative field in which the game will be set.  Sci-fi?  Fantasy?  Espionage? etc.
Period.  The time period in which the game will be set.  Mythic?  Late Medieval?  Victorian? and so on.
Scope.  Where play will begin and the action from there to the end of play.

Writing the Rules
Once these initial decisions for the game have been made, rules may be written that are appropriate to play in the genre and time period, that allow play to progress from its starting point towards its intended end.  Gary then divides rules into what he sees as the most common elements that they must cover.

Technological base.  Delineating the level of technology available, appropriate to genre and period, and rules governing the use of technological devices.

Game area, or milieu.  Identifying where the action of the game will take place.  It's not enough to say Victorian espionage.  Victorian espionage might be taking place on airships protecting India from invasion by a Sino-Russian Marxist confederation who is attempting to extend its undead Marxist proletariat southward into the British Empire.

Time scale(s).  Of the various sizes needed for play within this game.

Distance scale(s).  To govern the movement of people, vehicles, and other objects.

Movement.  With the above two to allow for the spatial aspects of the game.

Combat at a distance

Hand-to-hand combat

Morale/Reaction.  Rules for determining how all beings in the game other than those personifying the players react to events.

Player character generation.  Gygax identifies this as "one of the most critical portions of any RPG.  At the root of everything, a character is... a set of numbers that quantify just what a character can do...and how difficult it is for him" (143-144).  These numbers, assigned as the scores of particular attributes, also oblige the player "to do his best to portray the character in that vein when that particular attribute comes into play during a scenario" (145).  He concludes, "without a sophisticated and comprehensive system for character generation, we would have role assumption rather than a role-playing game" (146, the emphasis is Gygax's). While he notes that this means that character generation can become an off-putting, "tedious and time-consuming process," yet "clever and careful rule design and some imaginative methods of keeping action and adventure in the process of statistical generation and the recording of character information" can alleviate this (146).

Stopping here allows us to end on a high note of the chapter.  New readers who are interested in catching up on this series are directed to the "Gygax" and "Tomeful Tuesday" tags below.  Until next week, I bid you happy perusal of your tomes.


  1. RPGs designed to support their active storytelling purpose are the only ones that tend to stand out. Dungeons and Dragons was originally designed to model the high adventure Uncle Gary found in the fiction of Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Lovecraft and Tolkien. Since the majority of those stories revolved around combat, many of the rules for the original implementation were guidelines on presenting a character in a fight (according to whichever archetype that character represented).

    Several modern games which don't center their stories in a martially-active setting have rules which support these alternate pursuits. Investigation games like _The Esoterrorists_ also include more thorough mechanics supporting the sussing out of clues and information. _Call of Cthulhu_, one of the first horror RPGs, directly models the descent into madness that Lovecraft's characters undergo in his fiction.

    _Cat_ is an RPG where players assume the diverse roles of domestic housecats in their fuzzy world. Game system stats like Ears, Nose, Whiskers, and Tail are used not only to describe the individual character, but they feed into specific mechanics which affect the characters in game.

    All of these different games pay homage to Uncle Gary's vision by interfacing their character's strengths and weaknesses directly into the game system.

    "Generic" RPG systems are still usable for this kind of immersion, but tend to require the Narrator / Game Master to do the work that Uncle Gary advocates above (as though they were writing a game from scratch), creating specific points where the story is directly affected by a character's skills or stats.

    Thanks for the interesting reflection!

  2. You're welcome, and thanks for the great comment, GeralKahla! You put the C in commenter!

    I do think that Gary's design started from combat as the base, but was moving out from there in other directions, but your point about the marriage between mechanics and the kind of play/storytelling is well-taken, as is the extent to which EGG/D&D's influence may be strong where it is unseen -- the former from a design point of view and the latter from a game-play perspective.