Given that my analysis of a recent article about Gary Gygax only covered the opening paragraph, I am very happy to see that Oakes Spalding over at Save Versus All Wants has given this piece his full attention:
When I say that the narrative of D’Anastasio and her friends is the reverse of the truth, I don’t mean it’s the precise reverse of the truth. Unlike them, I’m not a complete ideologue on the historical question (though I admit my pro-OSR rants may often make it appear so).
The early Gary Gygax was an explicit advocate of making D&D your game – with the “your” referring to both the players and the DM. But the later corporate Gary Gygax was a bit more mixed – “If you want to change the rules, you can, but in that case you just won’t be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” And, as I understand it, when he ran his own campaign, Gygax was often as much of a Svengail figure as he was a referee, with all of that mysterious rummaging behind the file cabinets, and so on. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but opinions differ.
Gygax famously said that your “backstory” was what you did to get to 6th level (or some such). Now, I personally think that that’s more of a pro-story approach than anti-story. Or, more accurately, it’s simply a philosophy about how stories are or should be created: It’s better to make them by playing, instead of by writing them before hand. I happen to agree with that. But if you think D&D is better now because there’s a bit more of a focus on backstories, that’s okay with me.
And some early TSR adventures or sets of adventures, did have their “railroad” elements. After all, you were sort of expected to go from G1 to G2 to G3 of those Giant Modules (though, I would argue that you still had much more freedom within the modules, and that “railroading” in general was not present to anywhere near the extent that it is now).
As snarky as even I can sometimes be about them, the current Wizards people are not all horrible corporate meanies. The Dungeon Master’s Guild, while clearly a vehicle designed to help the brand, is not a bad idea (though, I don’t much like the rule system – 5th edition – it is built around).
And, of course, the OSR owes a huge amount to Wizards for the OGL. The irony is that the OGL is often used by OSR people to design products that (as I would put it) circumvent the banality of current Wizards products.
By the way, before I forget, the claim that “Dungeon dimensions are less particular (now), to leave room for players’ whimsies” is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard – as if caves in Storm King’s Thunder contracted or expanded in response to the player-characters holding hands and singing.