So, this past Tuesday I wanted to head up to Elliott Bay Books* and see a reading by Michael Witwer, author of the recent biography of Gary Gygax (co-creator of roleplaying games, and co-founder of TSR and thus the rpg industry).
Several of us** heard about it and made tenative plans to drive up as a group, but our plans all fell through because of the weather: dark, rainy, and with blustery winds (up to fifty miles per hour).
Still, there's one big question I've had for years, which Witwer's book didn't address, that I would have asked, had I been there and had he been taking Q&A: What happened to Gygax around 1982 that broke him as a writer?
Years ago I made up a list of every book and boxed set and sourcebook and module for D&D/AD&D, current up to about the end of 1996, giving the title, author, and date. And in the process, I noticed that for Gygax himself the years leading up to '82 are filled with milestone after milestone: Gygax's work set the industry standard, and pioneered elements in adventure design that have become the models virtually all writers who have followed him in the field have drawn from ever since. But that faltered in 1982 and ceased altogether by 1985. Just take a quick look at the highlights of what he accomplished between '74 and 82 (leaving out most of the collaborative works) :
co-created D&D (with Arneson providing the basic idea and Gygax creating most of the rules)
co-wrote GREYHAWK, the first supplement to the original core rules
co-wrote ELDRITCH WIZARDRY, the third supplements to the original core rules
1977-79: creates AD&D, the definitive 'classic' version of the game
Dungeon Master's Guide
The G-series (G1, G2, G3): Jack the Giant Killer comes to D&D, as well as the first linked series of adventures.
The D-series (D1, D2, D3): Gygax invents the drow: elves as bad guys; introduces the Underdark.
S1. Tomb of Horrors. The classic iteration of the killer dungeon.
T1. Village of Hommlet: the default village, the base to launch adventures from
B2. Keep on the Borderland: the interactive dungeon that changes in response to the PCs' activities
S3. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: not a favorite of mine but beloved of many; the first crossover adventure.
The Greyhawk folio: a minor work in itself but the harbinger of great things: the campaign setting
1981: almost nothing
S4. Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (a neglected minor classic): a last hurrah
WG4. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (shd have been a classic but wound up merely minor)
1983-85: extremely minor
EX1 and EX2: weak parodies of Lewis Carroll.
WG6. Isle of the Ape: weak King Kong parody
T1-4. Temple of Elemental Evil: one of the greatest adventures ever written, but there's reason to think almost all the new material was written by Frank Mentzer, and that Gygax's contribution was limited to the reprinting of T1 and some campaign notes.
And after that, the wheels really come off the bus.
CYBORG COMMANDO, probably the most disappointing flop in rpg history up to that point***
MYTHUS, a second major flop. Had TSR not given it notoriety by their lawsuits it would have died an embarrassing painful death on the shelf (as witnessed by the next entry).
LEJENDARY ADVENTURES, the third and final flop, after which Gygax basically retired.
So, what happened? How did Gygax go from being the greatest of rpg designers, to tossing off little parodies, to someone putting his name on other people's work? The glory years of 1977-1980 may well have been, and probably were, unsustainable, but the falling-off is more drastic than we wd expect from mere burnout. If it'd been estrangement from D&D after he was shuffled out of TSR (first off to Hollywood and then out altogether), why was there no rebound when he was free to do whatever he wanted? Was it the drugs? The ego, after he had 'gone Hollywood'? Some otherwise undetected minor stroke, years before the major strokes that wrecked his health? Or are editors and collaborators like Mike Carr and Frank Mentzer rarer than you'd think?
At any rate, I think the break is definitely there, though the reasons behind it may remain murky. For my part, I've come over the years to appreciate the classic stage of Gygax's career, and his achievements then, rather than let the latter and much lesser work distract from them.
*which is not on Elliott Bay
**including several who had worked at TSR, one of whom had worked with Gygax
***you know it's a bad sign when a review of the game starts with a spirited defense against charges that this is the worst rpg ever written
1 day ago