Game Design Friday: Gygaxian


in memory of Gary Gygax, a game of exploration and improvisation
Game Design © 2008 by Scott Jon Siegel
[email protected] |

Gygaxian is a competitive creation game, with several “dungeon masters” (known here as GameGods) battling for control over the direction of a fantasy world. The sole Player moves about this world, in search of whatever treasure or other ultimate goal he chooses. Meanwhile, the GameGods build the world as the player traverses it, extemporaneously creating the map and its details through description (and dice).


One Player, and at least three GameGods (GGs).


  • At least one twenty-sided die (but preferably one for each GG).
  • Some paper, for the Player to map his/her course, items, and NPCs encountered.
  • More paper, for the GameGods to track their stats.

Setting Up:

At the start of Gygaxian, the participants should determine which one of them will be the Player. All other participants will be the GameGods, who create the world inhabited by the Player. The Player should have paper and a pen to map out his/her exploration and progress, as well as to mark locations of items, creatures, and other elements of the world.

Before gameplay can commence, the GGs must roll for their initial stats across three attributes: Confidence, Resolution, and Creativity. Using a twenty-sided die (d20), each GG makes three rolls, and chooses which number to commit to which attribute.

  • Confidence:
    This stat represents the GG’s ability to take control of the game. When GGs roll for control, this value is added to a GG’s roll. The GG with the highest total value gains control. Confidence is increased by using Creativity, and describing non-Player-characters (NPCs) and objects in the game.
  • Resolution:
    Once a GG has control of the game, he or she must be careful not to lose it too quickly. Resolution represents how tenaciously a GG retains control. With the exception of the start of the game, Resolution is defined at the start of a GG’s turn by the value of the roll made for control (not including the Confidence bonus).
  • Creativity:
    When a GG describes a room’s objects and non-Player-characters, he uses Creativity to do so. Using Creativity adds value to the GG’s Confidence stat, but also subtracts from the Resolution stat, and adds to the Creativity stats of the other GGs.

Once all GGs have defined their starting attributes, the Player must describe his/her starting “room” in the game’s world. This is the only room in the game world described by the Player. Once the room has been described (and marked on the Player’s map), the GGs will roll for initial control of the story.

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How to Play:

The basic structure of gameplay is simple: the Player traverses the world by moving from room to room, his options and surrounding described to him by the GameGods. The GGs, in turn, work to each gain control of the game. The GG in control at any given time describes the Player’s progress, and gives detail to the rooms, but also fights to remain in control. When control is lost, the other GGs roll to take control of the game, and the cycle begins again.

Gaining Control:

In order to take control, each GG rolls a twenty-sided die. Each GG’s roll + the GG’s Confidence value is that GG’s control value. The GG with the highest control value takes control of the game (being sure to make the value of that roll his/her new Resolution stat).

Describing Rooms:

The word “room” here is used to describe a quadrant of space in the game world. Each turn, the Player moves a distance of one room in the direction of his choosing (if that direction is physically possible based on the world’s layout). For every new room a Player enters, the GG in control must describe that room.

Whenever a GG describes a room, that GG has full creative control over the room’s atmosphere. He can take as much or as little time as necessary to detail the room, but should be sure to indicate in which directions the Player can traverse (eg: in one room, a Player has come from the West, and can proceed North, South, or back the way he came).

For each new room that a GG describes, that GG must remove 2 points from his Resolution stat, but only after rolling to retain control (see “Keeping and Losing Control”).

Creating Objects and NPCs:

In addition to creating rooms, GGs can create items and various non-Player-characters for the Player to interact with. Unlike describing rooms, creating objects and NPCs uses points from the GG’s Creativity stat, and also depletes Resolution. Using Creativity also adds to the Creativity of the other GGs.

Every object or NPC created has a value, defined by the number of letters in its name. An “axe”, for example, has a value of 3. When created and described in a room, the value of the object is subtracted from the GG’s Creativity stat. One half of its value (rounded down) is then added to the Confidence stat and the other half (rounded up) is subtracted from Resolution. The rounded-up half of the value is also added to the Creativity stat of all other GameGods.

For example, creating an axe costs 3 points of Creativity, but adds +1 to Confidence. It also takes -2 from Resolution, and adds +2 to the Creativity of other GGs.

For more Confidence points, players can create items with longer names, or include descriptive prefixes (such as a “Gygaxian Axe”).

Keeping and Losing Control:

Every time the Player moves to another new room, the controlling GameGod has to roll to retain control. The number rolled on the d20 must be less than the GG’s Resolution stat for that GG to retain control. If the value rolled is lower than the current Resolution, then the GG can proceed to describe the next room (deducting 2 points from Resolution as he does so).

If, however, the number rolled is higher than the Resolution stat, then the GG loses control of the game, and all other GGs roll to take control (see “Gaining Control” up top).

Note that a GG who has just lost control does not roll to take back control that turn. Only the remaining GGs do so.

The controlling GameGod can also lose control without rolling if the Player chooses to double-back, returning to a previously-traversed room, or otherwise connects to a previously-entered room. In the event of reentering a room, the GG who first described that room regains control. The GG’s Resolution stat does not refresh, leaving it in the last state that it was in. If the Player then moves in to a new room from that room, the now-in-control GG must roll to retain control, as normal.

The Player’s Role:

While the GameGods dictate the environment, it is the Player who traverses it, deciding which direction to go in, what items to collect and when to double back.

Further, it’s the Player’s duty to draw the map as he or she progress, making sure to mark items in each room, as well as which GG describes each room (in the event of back-tracking). The Player should also keep track of his own inventory. Other than these elements, the Player has no stats to track.

End of Game:

Gygaxian has no true ending. Instead, the game can simply be played out until participants feel it’s time to end, or an arbitrary end goal can be set. Of course, exploration and improvisation should be enough motivation to play. If we can learn one thing from Dungeons & Dragons, it’s that no game ever has to truly end.

Next Page: Designing Gygaxian

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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