Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Gary Gygax on "Tomorrow" with Tom Snyder (1979)

It was early in November 1979: the publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide had recently completed the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons trilogy, and thanks to the "steam tunnel" incident, D&D was suddenly famous. Gary Gygax was no stranger to game industry press interviews, but now the mainstream media began to shift its focus from the controversy surrounding the game to its success, and to Gygax himself. You know you've made it when you're summoned to the late-night talk show circuit, and Gygax arrived on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow." It can be hard to explain the game to a general audience, but when Snyder asks Gygax if he could demonstrate it, his response is, "Certainly, instantly, right now." Listen for yourself, and/or follow along with the transcript of this long-lost interview below.

Or listen [on Soundcloud].

This was a tough clip to hunt down. The audio track here was transferred from a cassette tape that a  recorded in front of a television while the interview aired. Until a video recording surfaces, this will have to tide us over. Recordings of this length of Gary Gygax from these early years are quite rare.

Gygax cannot have been thrilled that Snyder immediately refers to the game as "cultish," as the word "cult" appeared too often in the press surrounding the steam tunnel incident. But overall, it is a sympathetic interview, where Snyder tries to understand what the game is and why people play it; he seems eager to continue the brief story of his magic user. Gygax's explanations are not always very clear, but they are genuine and unscripted -- the messiness of live interviews can often be revealing. Note as well that Snyder represents Gygax as "the" inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, which became a common talking point in TSR marketing and media in the era, to the frustration of people fighting to recognize other contributions.

This transcript was generated with the help of Trint. There are a couple of places where the audio was difficult to follow, but this should be reasonably accurate.

Tom Snyder’s "Tomorrow" Gygax interview

Midnight, Thurs, Nov 8 1979 (well, so, Nov 9 – that’s why they call it “Tomorrow”) on NBC nationally, Gygax fourth and final guest.

Snyder: [00:00:00] Now, all the way from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, here's Gary Gygax, who is the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a game that is going crazy on college campuses across this country. It is, it is cultish, people are forming groups to play it all the time. And it's, it's a game that has no board, no lights, no dials, don't deal cards, nothing like that.

Gygax: [00:00:19] That's true.

Snyder: [00:00:20] What do you do?

Gygax: [00:00:22] You sit and talk much as you and I are talking right now, but the difference is that you're dealing with aspects of life that aren't immediately apparent and you're doing it in a way that's fun. You're having adventures in a world that's pretty mundane - you have an adventure crossing a busy street perhaps, but that, you really risked your life there. Here in a fantasy world, you're approaching various, various moral and ethical judgments in your life and in working with professions which are make-believe professions and, and seeing how you really want to do what you're going to do for the rest of your life.

Snyder: [00:01:03] All right. Tell me about the game. What are the professions involved here.

Gygax: [00:01:07] Magic-user, someone who cast spells; a fighter, whose approach is pretty basic, you go in and hit things; a cleric whose major role is a supportive role; and a thief who does things through cleverness.

Snyder: [00:01:25] [unintelligible] [voice in the room “that’s you”]

Gygax: [00:01:25] Well there are many many side trips there and combinations of.

Snyder: [00:01:30] So now those four occupations and then the others. I mean, how does it work, is what I'm asking you?

Gygax: [00:01:34] OK, the simplest way to explain how it works is this: it's making believe, as children play cops and robbers. And sometimes the books tend to fool people into thinking, "oh, well there's a lot here," but there isn't really very much to it at all to play the game. It's just a matter of sitting down, and making believe. Suspending your disbelief and believing in this, in developing a character in a make believe world who's going to solve problems, you know, which are rather adventurous: so slaying dragons or going through a labyrinth, a maze, that nobody has found their way out of yet, let’s suppose.

Snyder: [00:02:14] Could you and I play this game?

Gygax: [00:02:16] Certainly, instantly, right now.

Snyder: [00:02:18] OK.

Gygax: [00:02:18] OK. We'll assume that you'll be - what profession, what would you like to be?

Snyder: [00:02:23] I would like to be a magic-user.

Gygax: [00:02:25] OK, you're a magic-user. You have three spells with you right now: you have a sleep spell; you have a fireball spell, where you can throw a huge fireball; and you have a teleportation spell where you can escape. Those are the three spells you have left. And your -

Snyder: [00:02:39] And what do you want to be?

Gygax: [00:02:41] Well, I'll be your dungeon master, I'll tell you what -

Snyder: [00:02:44] Now, you've introduced something, the dungeon master leads the game, is that the idea? Or he guides the game?

Gygax: [00:02:48] He guides the game and plays all the roles that you're not going to play. In other words if you're the, the magic user, you're going to run into things, perhaps a red dragon that will talk to you. I'll play that part.

Snyder: [00:03:01] So you're the dungeon master, and I'm the magic user, and I've got a sleep spell, and I've got a fireball spell, and I have a teleportation spell which lets me get out of here without getting up and leaving.

Gygax: [00:03:10] Right. You'll say, "Goodbye."

Snyder: [00:03:13] “Sayonara.”

Gygax: [00:03:13] OK, now, let's - I'll pick it up as if you were actually in a dungeon, and I'll relay to you, because I have to be your eyes and ears and everything, and you're going to tell me what kind of information you need. So we'll assume that you are in a four-way passageway underground and you can choose any direction you want to go. Ten foot wide stone corridors deep beneath the earth. Now, you have a choice of any of the four directions, you tell me where you go to.

Snyder: [00:03:38] OK, let's go to the left.

Gygax: [00:03:39] OK, you go to the left and we'll say you were going north, so you're going to head off to the west.

Snyder: [00:03:43] OK.

Gygax: [00:03:44] OK, you go west and I tell you how many feet, you've gone a hundred feet west - and suddenly there's a huge bronze door before you, with a big doorknocker on it, a big ring that obviously opens the door and serves as a knocker also. Do you want to turn around and go back the other way? Open the door? Knock first? What would you like to do?

Snyder: [00:04:04] I think I'll knock first.

Gygax: [00:04:05] OK. Now, without having all of this written down, of course, there could be, the - perhaps the knocker will trigger a stone block that drops on your head. Perhaps, that's the only way to do, politely at it, because it might be something that's not hostile, that might be very benign and friendly. Or it could be a warning system, so that whatever's behind the door is waiting to greet you with drawn arms. This is, the surface adventure is fun, it can encompass whatever imagination you really want to deal with, you can put any creativity you want into the game.

Snyder: [00:04:42] I still want to knock on the door. (laughs)

Gygax: [00:04:43] OK. OK. You're really putting me out [on the spot?] here.

Snyder: [00:04:49] I am, I am a little bit. But obviously the dungeon master must have spent some time preparing for those people who are going to play the game - preparing a scenario of things as they happen and preparing choices for them as they go through the game.

Gygax: [00:05:03] That's true - and, preparing for the choices that he won't have thought of, also, because he has to think fast, a dungeon master has to be very fast on his mental feet.

Snyder: [00:05:14] It sounds like this game could last a long time.

Gygax: [00:05:17] It's open ended. Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There's no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time. Um, [to himself] what can I say about it?

Snyder: [00:05:45] That's a pretty good statement. The reason young people play is because they have a lot of time. And as you say it's open ended. What determines the end of the game? Is there a resolution of some kind? A victor of some kind?

Gygax: [00:05:56] No, it's a group cooperative game, it's generally played with a group. Several people maybe take turns feeding information or feedback as the Dungeon Master. Rather than competing within the group each player, if it is a good team, that is, will cooperate. So if they learn their respective strengths and weaknesses, and operate more efficiently. Each session of play of the typical adventure, as it's called, tends to go on for as long as the group can stand to play. And -

Snyder: [00:06:25] (laughs) A lot of games are like that.

Gygax: [00:06:27] The dungeon master's voice usually gives out before everybody's ready to quit. That's the end of an adventure. You've gained a little professional expertise, and the next time you come back, you're a little better, and... I don't know, I guess I heard somebody mention [NBC CEO] Freddy Silverman's job: that's probably the top of the TV "character", if it was in Dragons & Dragons: the President of the network. So everybody is working upward.

Snyder: [00:06:52] Well, there's another way to put it: that the president of the network could easily be put in the dungeon for a long, long time. There's a lot to fantasize down there, about dragons and things.

Gygax: [00:07:00] That's true.

Snyder: [00:07:00] Where did all this come from? Where, when did this come out of your head?

Gygax: [00:07:05] I started in fantasy, I suppose, from stories my father told me when I was just a little boy. Magazines that were read to me as a child. Walt Disney movies have great fantasy, there. Grimm's fairy tales, all of those things. Um, the first, the progenitor of this game was a game called Chainmail, which was a set of rules for medieval miniature figurines, small scale figures placed on tabletop and used to recreate medieval fantasy battles.

Snyder: [00:07:41] When did you sell the first Dungeons & Dragons?

Gygax: [00:07:44] The first Dungeons & Dragons game was sold in January of 1974 and it took quite some time to move the first thousand copies.

Snyder: [00:07:53] And you published them yourselves?

Gygax: [00:07:56] Yes we did. We do.

Snyder: [00:07:56] Did you advertise?

Gygax: [00:07:59] Not initially. Word of mouth. There's always been a strong word of mouth campaign on our behalf. Because, it is a hobby rather than a game, and everyone that plays and loves it really loves it, it kind of either leaves you cold or you become very enthused about the whole thing. And it works more or less on the theory that everybody that plays, will eventually want to be a dungeon master. And if you want to be a dungeon master, you want to get a new group, rather than the same group you were playing with, so you go out and find some more players.

Snyder: [00:08:28] So you know you're really swimming against the tide very successfully because now most of the games they advertise are these electronic things that go beep beep and boop boop and beep beep and that's, um... And this is just the boxes with some books in it and some equipment and some charts and you go out, and out of your mind, comes the game.

Gygax: [00:08:48] This is a - people like take to tests. We're trained to in school. So it's a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete - but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, "Hey I won the game." Because you all play and you win as a group. It makes people think and imagine and read alot and do research because they want to get better: they need to know numbers if they're going to understand probability curves that are in here. And there's nothing wrong with games that go beep and boop boop too, as long as you can put something back into them, instead of taking it all out. So it, it's the inputting, as well.

Snyder: [00:09:31] Gary, thank you for being with us, tonight.

Gygax: [00:09:32] My pleasure.

Snyder: [00:09:33] You've had a fantastic success and an interesting story. Mr. Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons. We will continue after these announcements: now, for the NBC television stations.


  1. Thanks for this Jon. I've never heard Gary talking about D&D before, so it was very interesting to hear him speaking

  2. It's amazing to hear Gygax speak about the game so simply, giving a breakdown of the core concept. We see systems, these days, that become excessively wordy with their ideas. The role of Dungeon Master has mostly been relegated to "guy who reads the adventure path", as far as big name publishers are concerned.

  3. Great to hear his voice again talking about what the game was really all about. When he first showed it to me around the time of GenCon 5, it was just as he describes it: a simple game all about imagination and enjoying the company of others in that atmosphere.

  4. Thanks, Jon. Very interesting to listen to such an early Gygax.

  5. Thank you, Jon! This is a wonderful find.

  6. What a find! Thanks for sharing this, and for including the transcript. It's all the more precious given that even late-era Gygax audio/video is so scarce. Hopefully the video for this will turn up eventually.

  7. Just read the transcript. Good interview, but Gygax could have really gone for it. The wizard in the dungeon session kind of ended before it began. Sure, he was on the spot. But still... Did Gary even bring dice?

  8. This is fantastic; thanks for finding (and sharing!) it.

    This quote is amazing:

    "Here in a fantasy world, you're approaching various, various moral and ethical judgments in your life and in working with professions which are make-believe professions and, and seeing how you really want to do what you're going to do for the rest of your life."

    It sounds like Gygax had a very interesting take on what the game was "about" and how it was supposed to be played (long term!). Also amazing is the idea (or "theory") that everyone that plays will eventually want to become a Dungeon Master and find a new group of players. It DOES sound a bit cultish with that concept!

  9. This is fantastic; thanks for finding (and sharing!) it.

    This quote is amazing:

    "Here in a fantasy world, you're approaching various, various moral and ethical judgments in your life and in working with professions which are make-believe professions and, and seeing how you really want to do what you're going to do for the rest of your life."

    It sounds like Gygax had a very interesting take on what the game was "about" and how it was supposed to be played (long term!). Also amazing is the idea (or "theory") that everyone that plays will eventually want to become a Dungeon Master and find a new group of players. It DOES sound a bit cultish with that concept!

  10. Found an interesting similarity in a different Gygax dungeon. In the DMG Sample Dungeon, Example of Play, the door to Room to is described as thus: "...the passage ends in a door to the west. It is a great, heavy thing, bound in corroded bronze. There is a huge ring in the center.” (the direction even matches!)

  11. This is fun. Tom seems much more compliant and easygoing than I remember him being with other pop-culture figures. Gary doesn't do much better at systematically explaining things than he does in the original books, hee hee.

  12. I finally got to listen to this after bookmarking it days ago. Thank you, Jon! Terrific peek into the past.

  13. What a gem. Thank you very much for finding and posting this.