Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, dead at 69

(Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg at The Corner.)

Holy smokes. Another one of the people who shaped my outlook on life has died within the week. Gary Gygax is best known for creating the Chainmail miniatures rules system with Dave Arneson in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In 1974, the two revamped the system further into the game we know as Dungeons and Dragons.

The company co-founded and fronted by Gygax, TSR (for Tactical Studies Rules, for those of you who wondered), quickly became the first 900-pound gorilla of the gaming world. Other game companies such as Steve Jackson's Metagames (later Steve Jackson Games) and Champaign-based GDW (creator of such RPGs as Traveller and Twilight: 2000)were able to ride the wave of fame and infamy created by this wonderful game. These games became the road to ruin for many a young man in the Midwest, spending most of his hard-earned coin on books, books, and more books to add excitement and novelty to the role-playing games. There were and still are people who will refuse to have any contact with role-playing games in the belief that such games are Satanic. The urban legends of game-related suicides (hyped by Rona Jaffe's book Mazes & Monsters) and the shoddily-researched Pulling Report (written by Patricia Pulling, whose son's suicide was blamed on the occult influences in D&D) added to the notoriety of these games. Even Jack Chick, that ever-tolerant illustrator known for his religious tracts came up with Dark Dungeons, a tract that is now a rightly-lampooned joke. Nevertheless it was suddenly becoming dangerous to be a nerd. It wasn't dangerous because you'd go out and kill someone, but that your mortal soul was in danger just by reading the charts on what a fighter needs to hit a monster with Armor Class 6. You were on the road to spiritual ruin by playing these games.

Vae mihi. (That's the approximate Latin for "Oy gevalt!") Look, folks, D&D isn't a horrible gateway to Satan. It and the games spawned to compete with it were great ways to get together with friends on a cold February day to hang out and have fun. Any spiritual ruin was brought on by other things in this world, but not by a game where evil appears and your fictional characters go forth to whoop up on it.

Now, I got a chance to meet Mr. Gygax when I still lived in Wheeling. One of the major gaming stores in the suburbs (in Mount Prospect) was hosting a games day. Gary was running his new game for a group of local players and they seemed to have a lot of fun as he wove a pretty-decent story of the land and creatures the characters faced. Myself, I opted for a different game, focusing on superheroes in World War 2. With the first sessions done, we took a break and headed to a local place to get something to eat. I got a chance to talk to Gary.

He was full of himself, in a good way that a person can be full of himself. A cynic would say he loved to hear himself talk. He's a gamer. Gamers love to talk about the games where they took part. They're fishing stories, hunting stories, and general yarns meant to entertain others. Sadly not every gamer is as self-possessed or as well-versed in public speaking as Gary. That is, Gary also knew when to stop talking. He wasn't without fault, though, as he did one-up a gamer at this lunch break. Competition is a human thing, after all. He loved playing the games he made, though I wonder if even he could wrap his head around the system he created for the game "Cyborg Commando."

I can't say what kind of bad blood went on between him and TSR or him and Dave Arneson other than what I've read on the internet, and I wasn't about to ask him, either. That's something you save for when business proposals are on the line. He loved his work, though, and the huge number of add-ons to the games he made showed what a good cottage industry came from gaming. It was capitalism in action.

Much like William F. Buckley, Gary Gygax increased my love of reading as a young man and expanded my vocabulary. Where else would you hear the word "millieu" on a regular basis outside of the literary world, and D&D proved that the dodecahedron isn't just for math majors anymore. I'm also indebted to him for a love of history. If it wasn't for Gary Gygax, I wouldn't have read Greek myths of heroes like Odysseus and then read further to find out about the people in Homer's day and age. I wouldn't have read about kings and knights and how the world of high fantasy was very different from historical reality. I probably would have watched a lot more television as a child, or at least done more homework.

Albert Einstein once said that God does not play dice with the universe. God has a sense of humor, so I could easily see Him rolling a d20 for initiative now that Gary has brought Him a full set of polyhedrals. Rest in peace, Mr. Gygax. You'll be missed at the head of the gaming table.

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