Slate, conventional wisdom, and E. Gary Gygax

>> Tuesday, March 11, 2008

(In case you can't tell from the title: yes, this is another gamer entry. No, I don't expect to do any more for a while. Yes, I'm sorry if you don't care, but I hope you'll come back when I write something interesting.)

Why do I read Slate? I have to wonder sometimes.

Alright, it's sometimes informative. And Dahlia Lithwick is one babalicious legal correspondent. But is that really, really sufficient? I've gone spells where I kicked Slate for months, only to find myself back on their site for a fix, a needy junkie in search of current events and snark. But it's not a particularly good news and commentary site, despite Lithwick and a few other decent columnists.

Slate's vice is that Slate likes being contrary for the sake of contrariness. Slate wants to be the coolest kid in school, disagreeing with all the "conventional wisdom" and showing off just how awesome it is. It's a sign of insecurity, is the thing.

Or one of the things, I might say. The other problem Slate runs into is that sometimes it's merely disagreeable for the sake of being contrary. Today's exhibit: Slate takes on Gary Gygax, passed away last week (and previously the subject of a somewhat more respectful obituary on the same site) and ripe to be taken down a few pegs:

...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.
Setting aside the fact that real geeks know no such thing--I'm not sure where the author gets his bit about who considers tabletop gaming "pathetic"--the real problem with the article is that Slate categorizes it under the rubric "the conventional wisdom debunked." Which might be nifty except that the article doesn't debunk the conventional wisdom at all: the conventional wisdom is that Advanced Dungeons And Dragons was a kludgy, awkward system. All the article does is disrespect someone who hadn't done much of anything to deserve it, at least not recently.

Gamers have been ragging on D&D since the beginning. Almost every gaming group in existence came up with assorted house rules to make up for real or imagined deficiencies in the published rules. Other deficiencies became running in-jokes for more than a decade: the high-level fighter who could plummet from any height and brush himself off after he hit the ground; the low-level assassin who couldn't kill a high-level victim even if the victim was trussed, unconscious, and already ill. We laughed and often we moved on: during the '80s gaming boom, there were RPGs for every era and every genre, RPGs for people who wanted the illusion of ultra-realism and games for people who wanted no dice and lots of roundtable acting. And when Wizards Of The Coast bought out TSR and announced a major revision of the rules, eventually introducing a third edition (and a subsequent "3.5"), there were plenty of folks who had to agree it was A Very Good Thing, and that the 3.x rules solved many of the problems that plagued the earlier editions.

What everyone knows about the old editions of D&D, even if they don't realize they know it, is that Dungeons And Dragons isn't a rules system so much as it's a rules set. That is, Gygax and Arneson didn't exactly sit down and come up with a coherent game from top to bottom. Instead, they took a miniatures wargame that Gygax had put together, allowed the miniatures to become individual characters who developed over time, moved the "battlefield" into underground caves, added various house rules to accommodate new situations as these games continued over time, and gradually phased out the significance of the miniatures that the game had originally been built around. Combat was based around high rolls on 20-sided dice because that was how combat worked in Chainmail, D&D's direct predecessor; attempts to resist poisons and dodge traps were based on low rolls on 20-sided dice because that was what someone (probably Arneson) used when the wargame became a game about exploring ruins where such perils were more common. There was another, entirely separate system for opening locks and sneaking around based on percentages (instead of d20s). The rules system for magic could have been based on "attacking" with spells (in fact many later games would use the same system for skills, combat and magic), but Gygax apparently didn't think of it and had a fondness for the novels of Jack Vance.

The Slate piece focuses on experience points, the system Gygax and Arneson created to allow players to develop their characters over time. In a lot of ways, experience points are a lousy way to measure progress. A lot of ways, but not all: they have the virtue of being simple, intuitive and obvious, which is why experience points have been embraced in so many other games, including computer games. But many gamers also know that the main conceit of the traditional experience system--murder for fun and profit--was roundly mocked by game design guru Greg Costikyan years ago in a parody game called Violence. It's all too easy for experience points to become too simple and to reward crude, mechanical, and often violent play instead of clever play.

We know. So what?

I don't think I'm likely to say why it's sad that Gygax passed better than I said it here. So I won't repeat myself. I'll merely close by saying this: it's one thing to challenge the conventional wisdom when it needs to be challenged. It's another thing entirely to be petty, vindictive and mean for the sake of showing off. 'Nuff said?

Postscript: Monte Cook attended Gygax's funeral, and wrote a very nice piece about it here.


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