Designing Gygaxian

On her blog, industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite sent out a challenge to game designers to honor the late Gary Gygax through his medium of choice. Just as poetry is written in memory of poets, and paintings are made in memory of painters, Brathwaite hoped that games would be created in memory of Gygax's contributions to the industry.

For my response to the challenge, I wanted to focus on the breakthroughs in game design which Gygax himself contributed. This meant distilling the aspects of D&D that Gygax could lay claim to, and for me definitely meant including twenty-sided dice - an innovation that Gygax brought to gaming, to eliminate the bell-curve of probability created when using multiple six-sided dice.

What followed was a somewhat abbreviated research period, spent studying Gygax's history, and the games for which he took design credit. Luckily, biographical information on Gygax was in no short supply due to his recent passing. A well-informed Wired feature by David Kushner ended up as my primary text, while I distilled out Mr. Gygax's design temperament.

I published my findings as part of my regular column at Joystiq, where I described Gygax's design style as contradictory in nature, obsessed with the importance of improvisation, but also rigidly attached to the idea of attributes and numerical values. My consensus was that Gygax embraced improvisation, but only while constrained. Rules created boundaries, but within those boundaries players could, well, play. This is where I found the overriding theme for my design.

Wanting to pay homage to the legacy of D&D - though without the countless rulebooks - I decided to invert the dynamics of the classic role-playing game. Since Gygax embraced improvisation - and since the Dungeon Master was always the main performer in a game - I made the role of DM the primary role of players in the game. Rather than one DM for four players, I wanted four DMs for one player, thus placing the importance on the delivery of the game design and story, rather than on the exploration.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it naturally followed that the primary conflict would be to take control of the game's progression. My ideal player behavior was to have several DMs, each with their own disparate ideas of the game's atmosphere, stubbornly switching between magical forests, futuristic space stations, and modern offices with each turn, the sole player all the while just trying to keep track of where he needs to go next.

Speaking of the player character, his role seemed problematic to me at first. He played a necessary role in the game (what's the point of building a dungeon if there's nobody there to explore it?), but his tasks were incredibly ancillary to those of the DMs. I didn't want to devise complicated mechanics for a character that really wasn't the game's focus, so I opted to downplay the player. His primary task would be moving around the game world (basically saying "North, South, West, get lamp"), but his most important task would be drawing the map, the only true artifact of the created space.

With the player relegated to the figurative back-of-the-room, it became important to devote stat-tracking and dice-rolling to the DMs (who were renamed "GameGods" or "GGs" as a subtle reference to Gygax's initials). Rolling a d20 to determine who goes next wasn't enough; I wanted the GGs constantly updating stats, with those stats not only determining one's ability to take control of the game, but also determining the degree of creative output once a GG had that control.

The latter idea became simplified to the game's "vocabulary" mechanic, with a Creativity attribute affecting the length of words GGs could use in describing their rooms. The other two attributes were devised to help determine which GG takes control each turn, and how the other GGs eventually wrest control away.

Some interplay between these stats was devised to ensure that the longer a GG had control, the harder it became to keep it. The logic involved in these interplays is questionable, but arguably present. Flaunting a big vocabulary boosts a player's Confidence, but affects their Resolution (you feel cool using big words, but it's tiring). Using Creativity also spreads Creativity to other GGs (it's a fact that being around smart people makes you smarter), a small addition that helps the attribute increase while GGs aren't in control.

I went a bit further in designing Gygaxian than I had intended. This is perhaps partly due to the game's rules, which took some time to express properly. Looking back, Gygaxian went from a tiny game in memory of Gygax, to something capable of standing on its own two legs. Fans of improvisation might really get a kick out of it. Unoriginal, introverted folk, not so much.

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