A lesser-known Gary Gygax quote

Back in 2015, I came across a Gary Gygax quote I hadn’t seen before — one that resonated deeply with me then, and which still resonates just as deeply 18 months later:

Role-playing isn’t storytelling. If the dungeon master is directing it, it’s not a game.

I love this quote. It’s a strong stance, and it’s one of the cornerstones of how I see Gary and his work.

I do see roleplaying as a form of storytelling, but a collaborative one; I guess I part ways with Gary on the definition. But the second half? That sums up my feelings perfectly.

I don’t have a stake in what anyone else considers a game, or how anyone else plays. But for me, if the GM is directing the game, I’m out. Video games do that style of play so much better than tabletop RPGs, and that’s where I go for that particular fix.

8 thoughts on “A lesser-known Gary Gygax quote”

  1. Trailblades

    Agreed! I very much prefer a the term “Adventure Game” that used to be used in the days of old, as role-playing is a muddied term these days. Playing a role does not mean acting, and refereeing does not mean directing. Very nice post! :-)

    1. Martin Ralya

      Terminology is fun! I hadn’t even considered “directing” in the cinema sense — but it totally fits.

  2. First of all, I’m thrilled to see new posts! I’m glad I checked the archive this morning!

    Second, I wonder when the quote was said. Certainly during the World of Darkness era much was made about the storytelling-above-all aspects of role-playing, and diceless games like Amber were all the rage…that kind of thing might have been antithetical to a wargamer at heart like Gygax. One thing about some of those 1st edition modules was about how sandbox-y they could be. But then 2nd edition started getting a bit railroad-y in my opinion.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Thanks. :-) (There are also subscription options in the sidebar, email and RSS, all automated, if you want posts — however occasional to come to you.)

      I also wish I knew the context for this quote, but I don’t and my Googling hasn’t turned it up either.

  3. Hello, all. Found my way here from a post on Google+ about Star Wars World.

    This can be an eye-opening topic; it was for me!

    Gygax is kind of asked that question in a 2000s interview that can be found here:


    (5th “Harvey” entry)

    That said, early in the 80s his stance was more like that described in the post. In fact, I think he penned a piece in Dragon Magazine warning against the trend toward storytelling. Gygax, in my opinion, still seems to have a tinge of this believe in the interview link, too.

    This comment in this post tends to be supported in early works like Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and more: pick a “role”, and play the “adventure”. Chris Gonnerman of the great OSR Basic Fantasy RPG makes some very good arguments regarding this topic in his “Old School Primer” or the BF rule book (can’t remember which without looking).

    I must admit, I tend to agree that at least certain RPGs should be more “adventure game”. My long-time game group morphed into a “storytelling”- type RPG play style, and here of late I find it very unsatisfying.

    There are a number of drawbacks from being too attached to a character, for example. It can affect not only the player’s meta game (“I’ll take the risk ’cause the DM won’t kill me.”), but the DM’s meta game (“I can’t kill him… he’ll kill me!”). Suspension of Disbelief goes out the window for the other players watching the interaction.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Thanks for the link! Here’s the relevant bit:

      “I do not, and I stress NOT, believe that the RPG is “storytelling” in the way that is usually presented. If there is a story to be told, it comes from the interaction of all participants, not merely the Game Master–who should not a “Storyteller” but a narrator and co-player! The players are not acting out roles designed for them by the GM, they are acting in character to create the story, and that tale is told as the game unfolds, and as directed by their actions, with random factors that even the GM can’t predict possibly altering the course of things. Storytelling is what novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights do. It has little or no connection to the RPG, which differs in all aspects from the entertainment forms such authors create for.”

      That’s a fantastic expansion on the short version I found. So cool!

      Re: drawbacks to character attachment, that’s an interesting point. Depending on how the game is being played by all involved, the specific concerns you mentioned might not come up at all — but I agree that if they do, it’s not good.

  4. Alistair

    Very interesting. Ref as co-player and narrator or referee resonate for me. As does ‘directing’ or ‘director’ – but as good terms describing the style I don’t like. Most of my gaming buddies are this way inclined but the hardest thing I’ve ever run was amber for some fans of the book. And we managed to avoid directorial storytelling. Hard to do but worth it.

    1. Martin Ralya

      You’re making me nostalgic for Amber! Such a great game.

      My memory of playing it is that it felt very natural to play without strong direction from the GM. The PCs can do so much right out of the gate, and the basic setup is so focused, that things tended to happen on their own — which I love.

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