How I Failed to Create Dungeons & Dragons


Friday, March 7, 2008

 

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Gary Gygax died recently, as I’m sure you already know, and that sad event has put me in a nostalgic mood.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the time I tried to create Dungeons & Dragons.

 

No, seriously.  It was in 1971 or ’72.  I was in college then, and I came up with a project that I thought of as a kind of interactive theater piece with only the actors themselves as audience.  It was going to be a murder mystery on a spaceship which was mysteriously similar to the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I put an enormous amount of work into drawing up character sheets, ship layout charts, and so forth.  It also had an elaborate chance-based mechanism-or-system, the details of which I’ve mercifully forgotten, so that I could myself participate in the thing without having an advantage over the others.  I cannot tell you the seriousness with which I approached this enterprise.

 

Finally, I gathered eight or so friends and, sitting around a conference table in an unused classroom one night, we tried it out.

 

It bombed, of course.

 

Despite the fact that several of my friends were actors and all of them were game, the scenario could not be made convincing.  The story would not come to life.  After a few hours, we concluded that whatever this thing was, it could not be made to make work.  No trace of it now remains, not even so much as a single character sheet.

 

But here’s the interesting thing.  My wife, Marianne Porter, did very much the same thing at about the same time.  She called it “writing a novel” and she and a batch of her friends got together and tried to do exactly that — except that instead of writing it all down, they would make it up on the fly, each one playing an individual character.  Another friend tried to create a Western adventure on the fly with a roomful of compatriots.  And over the years I’ve spoken to several others who testified that, about that same time, they were working on something analogous.  It was just in the air.

 

Which is not to downplay Gygax’s achievement.  Exactly the opposite.  Nobody appreciates how hard an accomplishment is, quite as well as someone who failed at it.  In retrospect, it’s clear that what I lacked most were a DM, the concept of randomizing encounter outcome (not just the setup) with dice, and a more open-ended adventure.

 

But that’s like Columbus’s Egg.  Once it’s been done, it’s no big deal.  It’s that first time that’s difficult.

 

As I and (surely) thousands of others proved.

 

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