"The Game is the Thing": Gary Gygax on Rules

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Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, passed away on March 4, 2008. His influence on role playing games of all types is inestimable.

61-68 gets you an Otyugh!

One of the richest sources of his thinking on rules and games is the original Dungeon Masters Guide (TSR, 1979). The DMG, while a thick book of rules itself, contains many exhortations to use the rules as tools to further the game rather than as constraints. Yet he was also mindful that too loose an interpretation of the rules could undo the base consistency he felt players had a right to expect from the game.

A collection of Gary Gygax’s thoughts on gaming and rules from the DMG, after the jump.

One of the key notions about D&D fostered by the DMG is that players who are running characters, rather than acting as the Dungeon Master, should not have access to the rules.

As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that otherwise arises from a game which has rules hidden from participants.

If the DM is to have flexibility, he or she must be free to alter rules without the players feeling cheated somehow. Hidden rules allow such mutability but also require trust on the part of the players that the DM is not playing favorites. They also work to prevent the dreaded rules lawyer . . .

It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game.

The focus on the “obvious intent of the game” is paramount for Gary Gygax. He certainly wants the basic rules of D&D to be followed, so that players can move from one campaign to another—an essential condition for the game to spread and succeed as a commercial venture—but he’s aware, too, that if players aren’t having fun, they’re not coming back.

They are gathered together and eager to spend an enjoyable evening playing their favorite game, with the expectation of going to a new, strange area and doing their best to triumph. They are willing to accept the hazards of the dice, be it loss of items, wounding, insanity, disease, death, as long as the process is exciting. But lo!, every time you throw the “monster die” a wandering nasty is indicated, and the party’s strength is spent trying to fight their way into the area. . . . Expectations have been dashed, and probably interest too, by random chance. Rather than spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time, omit the wandering monsters indicated by the die.

And that, from a book with page after page of lovingly tailored wandering monster tables.

Of course, he also cautions against giving the players too easy of a time, noting that adventurers must be adventurous!

Assume that your players are continually wasting time (thus making the so-called adventure drag out into a boring session of dice rolling and delay) if they are checking endlessly for traps and listening at every door. . . . Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice and then telling them the results are negative, and statements to the effect that: “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far —”, might suffice. If the problem should continue, then rooms full with silent monsters will turn the tide, but that is the stuff of later adventures.

In the end, though, play is paramount for Gary Gygax, and that emphasis on playability within a large yet flexible rule framework might well be his finest contribution to gaming.

If your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play.

I think we can safely say that Gary Gygax’s work has been sufficient.

[All quotations taken from the Revised Edition of the DMG (December, 1979)]

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