Tabletop Review: Gygax Magazine #1

Gygax Magazine Issue #1
Publisher: TSR, Inc.
Page Count: 64
Price: $4.99 (PDF)
Where to get it: DriveThruRPG

Wow, let me just start off by saying how honored and humbled I am to review this piece. I think a lot of folks would agree with me in saying that this issue is a symbol of many things about our hobby: one, that we remember those that came before and celebrate them; two, that the love for the hobby causes it to go on and renew itself through the efforts of its proponents; three, that we hope Gygax magazine will be something that we can look back to years from now and say “yeah, I was around when that first came out, those were good times”. Seeing the cover of this issue is like seeing an old friend you thought you never would see again, it’s like rediscovering a bit of magic in a box out of the closet, and maybe it’s like that bit of trepidation when you see one of your favorite performing artists on stage for the first time, thinking “I hope they don’t suck live”. Maybe I’m waxing a bit heroic with my similes here, but you have to admit, the publication of a print magazine with “Gygax” emblazoned on the cover takes some Vorpal +4 Balls of Polished Steel in a world moving toward the digital. Even the foreword makes the point that it is amazing that you have purchased a print item in this day and age, even if you just bought the PDF or some other digital version.

However, the foreword doesn’t really talk about how amazing this publication really is. First off, Gary Gygax’s sons Luke and Ernest (Gary Gygax Jr.) are involved with the magazine. What exactly “involved” means is kind of murky, although they will be writing articles for the magazine on a regular basis, so it seems. Second, a new company named TSR Games Inc. has been founded by Jayson Elliott, who is apparently just a cool gamer guy who likes to start interesting projects, like magazines for niche subjects. So, TSR is back, but it’s completely different from the old one, except for the name and involvement of various Gygaxes. Third, Jayson and crew gathered up industry veterans, writers for The Dragon magazine and TSR staff from bygone days, and various other persons of note to write articles for this issue (and subsequent issues?). Let’s take a look at what exactly is in this thing.

A Galaxy of Opinion, a Lot of Memories

The first article, “The Cosmology of Role-Playing Games”, is really interesting. Basically James Carpio, a freelance author and proprietor of Chapter 13 Press if I did my Googling correctly, puts together this admittedly rough illustration of the history of role-playing games, with Dungeons & Dragons as the shining nexus of origin. Included is this incredible graphic I wish I could hang on a wall somewhere of a universe with concentric rings loosely distinguishing different eras of role-playing games and planets for the games that were pointed to as markers. It looks really cool. He outlines some defining periods when popular or influential role-playing games were developed, pushing the hobby in different directions. Like a Big Bang, James contends that role-playing games have more or less careened outward from D&D, splitting off and becoming different and more innovative until you get to today, where we have games using all kinds of mechanisms and themes. As for myself, just thinking of games like Kingdom of Nothing and The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game makes it clear to me how the RPGs on my shelf from the early 80s are so much different from the ones next to them from the 2000s. Also, since I am fascinated by the history of role-playing games, this article had me hooked right off the bat.

Next in the lineup were two old-school guys, one who had worked for Gary at the original TSR, and another that had been involved in helping write and edit rules for TSR, as well as writing for The Dragon: Tim Kask and Len Lakofka, respectively. It’s just amazing to me that these guys were asked and able to contribute to this magazine. Tim’s article, “Still Playing After All These Years”, is a collection of stories about being a Game Master and a bit about working for TSR. You get the sense that he’s got a lot of stories to tell. Len’s article is a bit obtuse, talking about the mathematics behind choosing a weapon that is +1 to hit vs. +1 to damage. Before that, he tells a few short stories about what he’s been up to all this time, his experience proofreading and editing the rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and how he had an influence on the project, being one who often made up his own rules to add realism or flavor to the game. When he begins talking about the +1 weapon I was a bit perplexed, thinking, “He does know Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t use THAC0 anymore, right?” Be that as it may, it adds to the old-school flavor of the magazine in general. In these first articles especially, there is a lot of nostalgia, and rightfully so perhaps, given the namesake of the magazine.

The two articles by Gary Gygax’s sons, Luke and Ernie, are definitely interesting to read. I don’t know about you, but I have not heard a peep from these guys until this magazine, and I didn’t even know their names. Luke’s article is roughly about seeking an issue of The Dragon so he could share a story or adventure he enjoyed in it with his family. He doesn’t really reminisce much about Gary or TSR or anything like that. The article is very much in the present moment, as though he is just talking about something funny that happened to him yesterday, not looking back and summing up any feelings or experiences. I hope to hear more from Luke in coming issues, and I am interested in what his articles will be like, because he strikes me as being somewhat ambivalent about role-playing games. Ernie Gygax’s article is much different. In it, he remembers fondly how Gary Sr. would tell bedtime stories and how he played with the different kids in the family (there are sisters too!). Ernie is much more open about his father, and what made him special. I tell you, if any article was going to make me tear up a little bit, it was this one, as this is a great read and a nice little window into the Gygax household of yore.

Looking at Role-playing in General

There are a slew of articles in this magazine. I can’t believe they have so many, and I will be surprised if there are the same number in future issues. Of course, it is a quarterly magazine, so they have more time to get all that stuff together, so we’ll see. There were a few I didn’t read because they just didn’t interest me, and they seemed to be for specific games or on very specific subjects, like banshees or powers for ICONS. One article I did enjoy was called “Keeping Magic Magical” by Dennis Sustare, as he had a lot of good things to say about magic that I agreed with. Right away he points out the time-honored tactic of casting a sleep spell on a group of opponents, then resting to cast the spell on the next hapless aggressors, and he acknowledges how lame it is. Another example he gives is using a “create water” spell to drown enemies, or do various other things the spell was probably not intended for in the first place. Basically, he gives some examples of poor and unimaginative use of magic, then proceeds to give several ways that magic can be treated so that it does not become rote and crutch-like. He suggests using cards from Magic: The Gathering, treating magic ability like a special power that requires more energy to be more effective, essentially offering ideas for limiting the simplistic “you know this spell, you pretty much cast it whenever” way of handling magic. I really appreciated this article, as it was well-written, offered lots of varied examples, and was focused. While this may be one of those articles where seasoned and savvy GMs figured this out ages ago, some GMs with less experience might welcome some ideas on limiting the efficacy of magic-users they find are overpowered. Obviously Dennis was not writing about low-level D&D mages, because there ain’t nothin’ overpowered about that!

I was a little surprised to find an author here whose name I recognized from a book I had randomly picked up: Ethan Gilsdorf (a perfect fantasy RPG name if I ever heard one!). I have read his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, and I found it to be a rather aimless and tepid look at geek culture. At the end of the book I was left wondering: “is this former geek still a geek, or is he sort of bi/curious about the whole thing?” I mean, I love being a geek, and if you are going to write a whole book about it, I would expect an enthusiastic voice! Nonetheless, I thought his article here in Gygax was good. It is entitled, rather definitively, “The Future of Tabletop Gaming”. He gives an account of the 70s when he began to have a social life by getting involved with Dungeons & Dragons, meeting up with a band of other newly minted role-players. From nostalgic recollections, he explains the effect of the rise of technology on gaming and how, in the 80s, there were more and more alternatives to sitting at a table for several hours rolling dice and drawing maps. He remarks heroically about how much D&D taught him, and how it has affected so many people who are creative minds and big names in the entertainment industry today. Overall, the article is a nice blend of nostalgia and personal thoughts on the hobby, but it is so focused on D&D you might wish he would try some other games. At least I did. Mr. Gilsdorf can’t seem to help himself, making platitudes here and there and otherwise sweeping statements about this or that aspect of role-playing and role-players in general, and that’s fine, as I think I have the same tendencies. However, you have to remind yourself when reading the article that this is just his view, and while he tends to write more authoritatively and empirically, a critical eye will reduce each statement down with the simple qualifier: “so says you”. I may have bashed him a little, but this is a good and entertaining read.

Everyone Has Ads

Ads, this magazine has them. From full-page color ads down to little black-and-white space fillers, everything from conventions to tabletop games to gaming accessories are advertised here. I honestly did not mind them, and I liked looking at the different products and layouts. It reminded me of the short period of my life when I read comics, and it reminded me of when I didn’t keep track of games through podcasts and websites, but more by going to the game store and perusing shelves or flipping through some issue of SCRYE or Nintendo Power. Okay, okay, I’m just going to go ahead and say I really liked the ads, they brought me back to some good times. I don’t know if their novelty value will wear off with future issues, but if they keep the circulation fresh with new ads, then I think it’ll be fine. The other non-article material in the magazine consists of comics. Fun! Even better than that, they are comics about gaming. Phil Foglio is among the crew of comic artists/writers, and each one I read was genuinely humorous and well-done.

Gosh, what else is there to say? I thought this was an excellent first issue. I will be curious to see how much treatment Dungeons & Dragons will receive in relation to other RPGs, and hopefully there will be some more branching out and more articles for indie games. In relation to system-specific magazines like The Rifter for Palladium and Pyramid for Steve Jackson Games (GURPS), I can see Gygax having a great chance of success covering a broader scope of the hobby, and I hope it does. While I have not yet received my print copy (*ahem!*), the PDF looked great(edit: I received my copy shortly after this article went live). The layout looks very professional and the style is very clean. I will complain a bit about cutting Ernie Gygax’s article in half and making me scroll to the end of the magazine to read it… it was such a good article, how could it get the “continued on page blah blah” treatment? Gygax Jr. gets the hook, but an article about super-talents in Godlike during WWII is just fine to interrupt it with? I don’t get it. Also, Ernie’s article should have been earlier in the magazine, in line with the other old-timers and nostalgia feelings. That said, I definitely recommend getting this magazine, even if just the PDF version, to read through and enjoy. It’s got a little something for everyone, and I think even non-roleplayers would enjoy reading some of the non-technical articles. A piece of role-playing history for five bucks? Just do it already. Support Jayson Elliot and Gygax magazine, maybe ten years from now we will all be glad you did.



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