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Deified and Demagogued

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, passed away this week. A gaming enthusiast remembers how the discovery of a game opened a new world of imagination and fun.

IMAGE BY DEAN STEVENS

Every nerd remembers his first time.

I was 13 in 1984 and, for the first time, visiting the home of my friend Kevin. We had gone to his house to after school to play Atari. After a few rounds of Yar’s Revenge, he invited me back to his room to see his stuff.

Kevin had built himself a shrine to fantasy, with Boris Vallejo prints on the walls, Conan the Barbarian comics on the shelves, and a giant plastic dragon perched on the monitor of his Apple II. Where the rest of us had become disciples to George Lucas, Kevin pledged allegiance to Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Stephen R. Donaldson, and J.R.R.Tolkien.

Against one wall was a small table, upon which laid a number of cryptic documents, an assortment of irregularly shaped dice, and a screen that divided the area in two. “That’s my D&D game,” Kevin told me. “Wanna play?”

Of course, I’d heard of Dungeons & Dragons before—this, I was lead to understand, was the pastime transmogrifying the nation’s youth into a generation of Satan worshippers. But a quick game couldn’t hurt, I reasoned. And, besides, the dice looked pretty cool.

We sat on either side of the table; Kevin handed me a player sheet that was already complete, suggesting I simply adopt the character of the last person he had played against. He then, and without preamble, announced that I was under attack by a green slime. “Roll this,” he prompted, handing me a d20.

After a few moments of melee the monster was dead, only to be replaced by another. “OK,” Kevin said, paging though his dog-eared Fiend Folio, “now you are fighting a hobgoblin.”

The rest of my friends were deterred from playing by the bad press the game was receiving, or the perception that it was lame-o city. With Kevin there was no narrative, just an endless queue of creatures for dispatching. But even so, the possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons quickly became apparent to me. At some point I suggested that, instead of simply reporting hits and misses, Kevin should give a blow-by-blow account of the battle. “You know, if I like hit him, you could say ‘he staggers backwards’ or something.”

Kevin agreed. And the next time I failed a combat roll, the umber hulk didn’t simply stand there as I flailed by sword ineffectually, he “ducked beneath the blade.”

At that moment, I was hooked.

 

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For the next five years I was a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan, despite the fact that I only played the game a few more times. Kevin turned out to be as petty as he was unimaginative when it came to Dungeon Mastering—often, when we were engaged in activities completely unrelated to D&D, he would vow to sic red dragons on my character in our next session unless he got the bigger donut, or we agreed to watch his preferred television show. The rest of my friends were deterred from playing by the bad press the game was receiving, or the perception that it was lame-o city.

Still, I acquired and read the books, and many of the modules as well. It wasn’t the actual play of the game that excited me, but the design: the morass of interlocking mechanism, the balance between simulation and abstraction, and the layers and layers of exceptions and caveats that accompanied every rule. Not to mention the panoply of tables and charts, specifying everything from the effects of disease to the exact subgenus of harlot you randomly encountered (a roll of 11-25 gave you a “Brazen strumpet,” while 76-85 signified an “Expensive doxy”).

But while every book and supplement contained massive amounts of different information, the covers had something in common. They all said “Gary Gygax.”

 

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His very name was a microcosm of the system he invented: the exotic “Gygax,” calling to mind the pantheon of Lovecraftian gods and remote regions of Hyborea; the mundane “Gary,” reminiscent of suburban kids all over the nation who were ignoring their algebra homework in favor of The Dungeon Master’s Guide. He took these two worlds and amalgamated them into a single entity every bit as improbable as a half-orc ranger.

He didn’t do it alone, of course. The predecessor to D&D, Chainmail—a set of rules for miniature gaming in a medieval setting—was written in conjunction with Jeff Perren. Shortly thereafter, a man by the name of Dave Arneson contacted Gygax to say he had been running a proto-role-playing campaign using the Chainmail rules in a fantasy setting. Intrigued, Gygax met with Arneson at a convention, and soon thereafter the pair collaborated on what would become the first edition of D&D. While it’s unclear what, exactly, each man contributed to the completed project, Arneson is and always has been cited as the game’s “co-creator.”

What happened thereafter was the subject of a lot of virtual Usenet ink. According to some, Gygax’s ego grew commensurate with the success of D&D, to the point where he began muscling Dave Arneson the man out of the picture and “Dave Arneson” the name off the cover of the books. Other accounts have Gygax as the victim of some Machiavellian maneuvering on the part of the other owners of TSR Hobbies, Inc., the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons.

At a work meeting, as I impulsively blurted “Man, you could play a helluva D&D campaign with this module,” the brotherhood of geekery was immediately revealed as several other men around the table chortled with gusto. Regardless of who did what to whom, one thing is clear: By 1984, the time I first took notice of the game, Gygax and TSR—and, by extension, Dungeons & Dragons—had parted ways (although all the key players would be tethered together by lawsuits for years to come). By the time the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition was released in 1989, Gygax was no longer listed as a primary author.

But, in my mind, Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons have always been synonymous. Even now, knowing the full story behind D&D and TSR, I still think of those tomes I read as a kid as having been authored by one preternaturally imaginative man, perhaps toiling by candlelight in a dank cavern far underground, documenting the fantastic world in which he lived.

Although I never became a player, exposure to Gygax’s opus indisputably shaped the course of my life in large and small ways. For instance, it gave me a lifelong appreciation for game design. These days I am an avid board-gamer, and, when encountering a game with some exceptionally clever or elegant mechanism, I get the same thrill I felt when thumbing through the Player’s Guide at age 15 and marveling at all the accoutrements I could carry as a thief. And even to this day I will occasionally buy a role-playing book and just read it, cover-to-cover, as if plowing through the newest Grisham. On my shelf sit the guides to Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, GURPS, Over the Edge, and Spirit of the Century, none of which I’ve played, but all of which I’ve enjoyed.

Plus, knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons lore is as much a cultural touchstone for my age as Woodstock was for a generation prior. At a work meeting recently, when someone brought up a Visio diagram crammed full of boxes connected by lines, and I impulsively blurted “Man, you could play a helluva D&D campaign with this module,” the brotherhood of geekery was immediately revealed as several other men around the table chortled with gusto. When my wife and I attended a seminar on child rearing, shortly after our son was born, and we received handouts that showed possible discipline styles on a grid, with “order” as one axis and “kindness” as the other, I realized in an instant that someone had simply translated the D&D character alignment system into parental terms. When you were raised in the World of Greyhawk, you see its influence everywhere.

 

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Gary Gygax was my hero as a kid because he created the system I found so fascinating; he is my hero as an adult because he never stopped gaming.

At the conclusion of this interview with GameSpy, when asked how he would like to be remembered after his death, Gary replied, “As the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else.” And in many of the obituaries that appeared after his death on Tuesday, his wife is quoted as saying that the thing that brought him the most joy was hearing from fans who enjoyed his games, and knowing that he had contributed to their happiness.

Over the course of his life Gary was hailed a genius, lauded as a pioneer, denounced as an egomaniac, and slandered as a corrupter of children. But through it all he stayed true to his ideals: having fun and helping others to do likewise. The world needs a lot more of these people. His passing leaves us with one less, but his legacy ensures that countless more will take his place.