Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gygax 75

There's a worldbuilding challenge called Gygax 75 that's been making the rounds on the blogosphere. I decided to try to look its origins and follow the people who undertook it, as is my way.

The earliest origin of the Gygax 75 challenge is an article written by Gary Gygax in the April 1975 issue of the Europa fanzine. Gary lays out a 5 step process for building a new fantasy campaign. I think it's fair to say that this 45 year old piece of ephemera isn't the immediate source of most blogger's participation in the challenge, though.
Initial credit goes to Charles Akins from Dragons Never Forget. Charles is the one who found the long-forgotten Gygax article on the Internet Archive and shared the link with the blogosphere. Charles is also the one who called this worldbuilding method "Gygax 75" and threw down the gauntlet to make it into a blogging challenge.

The Gygax 75 challenge is a 5 step process that's supposed to take place over 5 weeks. Dragons Never Forget describes these in much better detail than me, laying out the parameters of the challenge, but permit me to at least briefly outline them.

Week 1 - decide on the thematic basis of your campaign and pick out some inspirational materials that you can refer to whenever you need help populating your campaign with details

Week 2 - draw a region map of the wilderness adventuring sites that will surround the dungeon that will form the heart of your campaign.

Week 3 - draw your dungeon! in one week! Gary recommends starting with some overview planning to pick themes, monsters, and architectural oddities for each dungeon level, and then setting out to draw and key the first few levels. in a week! I would argue this should be an 8 week challenge, with week 3 devoted to planning and perhaps mapping, and weeks 4-6 given to keying levels 1, 2, and 3.

Week 4 - design a "home base" for your players, replete with factions, NPCs, and rumors so your players can engage in social intrigue in between trips to the dungeon.

Week 5 - design the larger world around the starting region. you don't need a detailed map of the whole world, but you should know the other regions that can be reached from the current one (either by overland or magical travel) so that you can start writing rumors to entice your players to travel to them.

The Gygax 75 Challenge Introduction - Charles links us to the original Europa article and provides links to his other posts in this series.

1 The Setting of the Campaign - summarizes Gygax's worldbuilding advice and lays out his own campaign inspirations, setting the stage for post-apocalyptic science-fantasy.

2 The Map Around the Dungeon - Charles creates his starting region, the Valley of the Three Forks.

3 How to Build the Gygax 75 Dungeon - summarizes Gygax's dungeon-creation advice. pick your themes, place your setpiece treasures and encounters, then write or borrow random tables and procedurally generate the rest.

3 Dungeon Level 1 - the top dungeon level is a ruined, abandoned temple

3 Dungeon Level 2 - the next level features a hall of statues and a giant chamber full of pools

3 Dungeon Level 3 - a prison level, with an exit leading down to allow for further expansion

4 The Local Town and All the Trouble - Charles goes over Gygax's town-building advice and comes up with a list of neighborhoods and the most important shopkeepers in each one.

5 The World Plan - describes three important factions that will be encountered outside the Valley

0 Conclusion and Links to Other Challengers - Charles once again encourages us to take up the Gygax 75 challenge, and points us to Viridian Scroll and Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.
As is often the case in these kinds of situations, the person who created the challenge and the one who popularized it are not the same person. Credit for successfully spreading the word goes to Ray Otus of Viridian Scroll. If you've seen another blogger taking on the Gygax 75 challenge, they've likely been directly inspired by Ray. If you've seen a single-link version of the challenge, it's probably been to Ray's free pdf version on Ray fully credits Charles, but Charles inspired a couple bloggers, while Ray inspired at least a dozen. I should note that Ray's pdf contains both more detailed instructions and a workbook to follow along in, so the work he put into the presentation might explain his greater success in popularizing the challenge.

As we'll see in a minute, Ray and JJ from Beyond the Gates of Cygnus did the challenge at the same time and recorded several episodes of the Plundergrounds podcast about their experiences.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Ray describes the premise of the challenge and links back to Dragons Never Forget and Europa.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - gathering together inspiration, Ray envisions a world where Iron Age humans in city-states reside uneasily alongside communities of monstrous humanoids.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - Ray sketches and then finalizes a vibrantly-colored map of a desert region, Timuria, the Land between Two Rivers.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - more iterative sketching results in a single dungeon level based loosely on a Hindu temple. 

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - released more retrospectively than the others, this one covers setting up the town of Addak, which matches the vaguely Babylonian naming scheme of the other cities.
Over at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, Cinderella Man JJ used the Gygax 75 challenge to create a setting for a Delving Deeper campaign.

0 Creating a Delving Deeper Campaign in 5 Easy Steps - JJ announces the start of the challenge, which he's completing simultaneously with Ray Otus from Viridian Scroll.

1 The Overall Setting - in addition to using the Delving Deeper rules, this setting will be inspired by the band Rush.

2 The Starting Area - a town called Willow Dale, a Necromancer's tower in the heart of dead forest, and the River Dell leading to the Down Mountains.

3 The Dungeon - JJ creates the most important details for the Necromancer's tower dungeon.

4 The Home Base - the basic features of the town of Willow Dale.

5 The World - more Rush albums are brought in to help define nearby regions of the gameworld.
The Plundergrounds podcast is a collaboration between Ray Otus and JJ. In addition to taking the challenge at the same time, Ray and JJ met once a week to compare notes and talk about their worldbuilding progress.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - introducing the challenge and comparing sources of inspiration.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - drawing the starting area maps.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - starting dungeons that will continue being updated over the next couple weeks.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - working on the starting villages.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 5 - thinking about the wider worlds, and looking back on the challenge.
Not everyone who starts the Gygax 75 challenge decides to finish it. Most people, in fact, seem to stop after a couple weeks. The next person I found who started the challenge was Italian blogger Omnia Incommoda Certitudo Nulla. They were apparently inspired by a post by Shane Ward on a message board called OSR Pit

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week One - the starting pitch here is for a campaign world inspired by The Hobbit, but also by Dracula and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week Two - a starting map, largely without features, and a wandering encounter table emphasizing human antagonists like duelists, cultists, and bounty hunters.
Shane Ward from 3 Toadstools Publishing was the first person I saw who took up the challenge because of finding Ray Otus's He got scooped from being the first person to start it without a personal connection to Ray because he managed to inspire OICN to try the challenge before starting it up himself.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Shane announces the challenge and starts brainstorming, drawing on ideas from Piers Anthony and fantasy botany.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - a more developed start to the setting, inspired by Xanth, Shanara, and Disney's Robin Hood.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2? Sorta - Shane begins drawing a region map, listing possible encounters, and thinking about character classes
Verbum Ex Nihilo also briefly attempted the challenge.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - about the potential benefits of structure and deadlines in worldbuilding, with the challenge as one way to impose them.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - about the process of selecting a notebook, creating a mood board, and attempting to conquer writer's block by looking for structures to build one idea off another.
Dave from Blood of Prokopius was the next to complete the challenge. Dave comes in with his own ideas and methods for creating sandboxes, keying dungeons, etc, so an interesting part of his commentary is about trying to set his own approach aside to try it Gary's way (as interpreted by Charles and Ray).

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge - introduces Dave's inspirations, science fantasy pitting the forces of Heat & Light against the forces of Cold & Dark.

1 Laser Guns and Plasma Swords - defends adding scifi weapons to this particular fantasy setting.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 2 - Dave draws a fantasy map loosely inspired by Kyrgyzstan, starts stocking his sandbox, and creates a very Lost World random encounter table full of dinosaurs and cavemen.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 3 - a general plan for a dungeon of caves atop a glacier atop a crashed alien spaceship.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 4 - keying the dungeon with monsters and treasures, and writing a wandering monster table.  

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 5 - Dave names his starting city Darkport.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 6 - Dave creates a random name generator to name two shops, and observes some differences in the equipment lists of Basic and B/X.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 7 - human and elven factions for Darkport.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 8 - Dave builds out his world by adding three more factions and developing a key NPC for each.
King Brackish actually attempted the challenge twice, first starting it on Tomb of the Wandering Millennial (apparently inspired by Verbum Ex Nihilo), and then restarting and finishing it on Brinehouse.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Brackish proposes a setting inspired by Berserk and Dorohedoro, among others.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the city-state of Evangelos, surrounded by the Blackmange Forest and the Sancana Steppe, and a random encounter table full of megafauna, necromancers, and skeletons.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 1 - Brackish restarts the challenge with a similar, though not identical list of inspirations.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 2 - a new region map with the port city of Dis on the coast of an ocean, surrounded by three distinct forests. the new random encounter table emphasizes boars, wolves, dragons.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 3 - Brackish outlines the three-level Temple of the Swine God.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 4 - the village of Mun, along with 10 shops and 5 NPCs.

5 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 5 - more worldbuilding, including a sun god, rumors of dragons and falling stars, and religious-themed magic treasures.
Andrew Sawyer from Seven Deadly Dungeons is the last person on my list to finish the challenge. 

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Andrew's plan involves creating a fantasy postapocalyptic Meso America.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the region contains an active volcano, a ruined city, and several places where ghosts are on the haunt.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - Andrew has a pretty cool dungeon concept here. the whole complex is a superweapon meant to kill angels. the top level is filled with ghosts, the middle is a star chart that functions as the weapon's targeting system, and the bottom level is a site for the blood sacrifices needed to power the weapon.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - NPCs from the character's home base, all of whom have terrible injuries, which is presumably meant to communicate something about the danger of this place.

5 Gygax 74 Challenge Week 5 - encounter tables for three terrain types.
I've noticed religious themes, and especially postapocalyptic settings have come up in several of these challenges. Justin Hamilton from Aboleth Overlords picks a decidedly Biblical apocalypse to set his game in the aftermath of.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - human civilization has returned to a late bronze age in the aftermath of a Deluge that drowned the world.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the setting gets a name, Umbroea, along with a list of villages, geographic features, possible dungeons, and encounters. 
I'll admit that Liche's Libram's Tlon setting is the one that excites me the most out of all of these. It's one that they were working on before, and seemed to use the Gygax 75 challenge as a way to continue building out their setting. Tlon reminds me of Dying Earth fiction, but transplanted from Earth to a Dying Mars.

1 Tlon Week 1 Gygax 75 Challenge - an overview of the setting's themes. everything is old, civilization is crumbling, water is the most important treasure.

2 Tlon Week 2 Surrounding Area - a visually compelling map, accompanied by descriptions of two cities, a couple geographic features, and a necropolis.
Rob Magus from Penny Ventures decided to make a setting in the aftermath of a cyberpunk apocalypse. I like the image he conjures of whole forests of solar-panel trees.

1 Technoccult Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - the opening setting pitch. images of demon-haunted computers and ghost towns of still-functional neon lights.

2 2d6 Electric Devil Skeletons Gygax 75 Challege Week 2 - locations for the Technoccult setting and a random encounter table with a number of undead cybernetic monsters.
Like Liche's Libram, The Eternal Slog was already working on their Zorn setting when they discovered the Gygax 75 challenge, and started it as a way to do a bit more worldbuilding on an ongoing project.

1 G75 Challenge Week 1 Zorn - the setting here is a previously undiscovered island that rises out of the ocean in 1936 on the even of WWII. various countries send explorers to the island to plunder its ancient occult treasures to use in their war effort. a pretty solid pitch!
Jim from d66 Classless Kobolds is an interesting case to me. He published his Weird North game in August 2020, then started the challenge in October to start making a campaign setting for the game.

1 The Conceptual Beasts of the Weird North - human Vikings on an alien planet that resembles Earth's arctic north, full of ancient tech and extradimensional visitors.

2 The Dank Morass A Swampcrawl for the Weird North - a rather nice-looking pointcrawl map and a random encounter table full of dinosaurs and robots.
Mihau from Fractal Meadows of Reality started the challenge to work on a far-future alien world setting. One interesting thing about going through these challenges is getting a chance to see where the current campaign setting zeitgeist is at. Science fantasy, post apocalypses, aliens instead of demihumans, and magitech meets stone-age all seem to be en vogue right now.

1 Attempting the Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - inspiration from videogames and an online art book that looks very cool to me. humans and aliens on a distant world ruled by satellite gods.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 Plains of Eyes and Hands - the Ascendancy of Teal arcology sits aside the Plains of Salt, and an encounter table full of megafauna and cavemen.
Phoe of Magic Trash is the most recent person I've spotted to start the challenge. His proposed setting is inspired by extremophile biology and vernacular architecture - a winning combination as far as I'm concerned!

1 Gygax 75 Week 1 - no humans, no humanoids, only talking animals and extremophile aliens, each building unique cities.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 The Legend of Gygax's Gold - a few points of light in the wilderness, with attention given to the architectural style of each place.


  1. Thanks for putting this together! Lots to binge through.

    On a more selfish note, thanks for the very kind words, which, together with my internship ending, maybe just what I need to get started back on the damn thing.

    1. You're welcome! And yes, I'll always be happy to see more glimpses of Tlon!

  2. Wow, as ever, the breadth of your blog-reading amazes.

    World-building gets sniffed at a lot, but I still enjoy reading setting detail, especially when it's structured, like these are.

    And these RPG blog ethnographies are fun to read through in their own right. Nice work.

    1. Thank you! I find a lot of posts just by browsing the OSR Discord's blogroll. It also helps that people usually link back to where they got their own idea from.

  3. Great article, man! Thanks for exposing me to this concept...

  4. Great list! Wasn't expecting to see myself on there lol.

    1. I actually thought about putting you on there twice! But I thought the consolidated entry would be easier for everyone.

  5. Love this post. Thanks for this useful compilation. I remember seeing a few comments about this challenge in the past, including something from Shane, and realising I’d seen it before. It helped me get some structure to my world building. It also helped me realise I had about 5 or 6 different ideas competing for attention, and that to get anything done I’d have to be ruthless. So I ended up with Ray’s document, to be used in the future. However your summary and collection of some really interesting goes at this is great. Seeing other people’s world building from a similar or common take, like the Gygax 75 challenge, is great fun. Like looking at different Traveller oriented blogs and seeing the worlds that get created from the Traveller Universal World Profile. Or a post from Shane Ward on creating a micro setting in 10 monsters: — that is something that I think could have done with a bit more love.

    Very nice to see the background though, as well as various inspirational takes on this.

    1. Right, there's always something interesting about seeing how different people approach the same common writing prompt, isn't there?

  6. I need to go back and post the three "other weeks" for my setting. The problem I ran into is I ended up playing it pretty immediately after creating the overland map and a whole lot changed.

    1. I for one would be interested. Your week 1 + mood board + list of inspirations is pretty succinct, and very clear. Quite fascinating.

  7. As always, your curation is impeccable!

  8. I really need to finish this Hahahah. Darn it.

  9. Man, this is makin me wanna finish this project.