Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gary Gygax: No Puns, Just the Death of a Giant

"So CNN says the guy who invented Dungeons and Dragons died."
"Gary Gygax died?"
"Umm...let me find it. Yeah. Geez. You knew that? You are a nerd."

Yes I am.

At least I was, or still am when it comes to certain things.

I did not play D&D as often or for as many years as a lot of my peers, but I did play it from early on...1977 or so (maybe one of you who knew me then can fill it in) and full-on, unabashedly loved it. It was a completely new experience. D&D was a "game" like a symphony orchestra is a "band." In complexity alone it was an exponential leap.

Basically, in 1974, here were the games available to you as an American:
(I'll leave out the games for small children, like Candyland)
Chinese Checkers

I'm sure I will hear from you with a few others. But that's basically it.
We're talking about a game universe of around ten games, most over 20 years old. This was a decade before Boggle, for chrissakes. Lucky for us, in those days you were allowed to run around outside, and unlike the children of today, we were not too tired to do so for all our running between the tables at restaurants. Adorable.

It was not far into a boy's youth those games lost their luster, especially as they were expected to be played with members of one's family. Anyone who believes fierce competition is enjoyable in a family setting has never experienced either. Visits to the local hobby store for more glue and Metallic Silver model paint eventually led to an answer. Shelves of different, more serious games. "Strategy" games.

By 1977 I had played a few of these strategy games. The serious kind. Maps large enough to require hunting through the back of a closet for the kitchen table's extra leaf. The entirety of Europe layed out flat and chopped up, not into a simple grid, but a honeycomb of hexagons each about 1/2 an inch wide. Hundreds of tiny cardboard chits, painstakingly released from their perforated sheets, would soon cover the table. Infantry Squads, Half Track units, Supply Units, Air Resources. A near unit-by-unit recreation of the European Front. Games would last hours, stretching over a day or two, and usually end with one of us and our 11 year-old attention spans throwing in the towel. We were in above our heads. For crying out loud the Rulebooks to these games went on for 10, 15 pages...

D&D blew that out of the water.

Books. Plural. Here was not only a game. Here was a universe. It was a familiar universe to my friends and I, we had tore through the Tolkien books in 4rth and 5th grade. But here was a universe full of fantasy and adventure not waiting to be read but waiting to be explored! Waiting to be had, by a hearty group of adventurers and friends with a taste for battle and an unquenchable thirst for orange soda. I vividly remember how we knew we couldn't start playing until everyone knew the rules and how books were borrowed, or how spare books were studied on the couch as others played around a basement rec room coffee table. The mad rush to learn as much as possible as fast as possible, and then to get everything set up; the graph paper, the dice, the pencils, the notebooks...and then a sudden stop.

A pause. An unconscious moment of group silence just before...The Beginning of the Story.

And that is what I feel is at the core of the success Gary Gygax and his creation have achieved. (We are talking about big time success, by the way. I argued today that Gary Gygax saw his creation, the Role Playing Game, flower in a way unparalleled in the modern entertainment world. Walt Disney would be an obvious contender, but though the myriad Disney franchises are impossible to avoid in this country, you have to measure that against countries like South Korea, where 15 million people, or roughly 30% of their population are registered gamers, the vast majority of those role playing games. Add China into that mix, and you have vast swaths of the globe where role playing games are an obsession, including the US. Can Disney claim that sort of global footprint?)

At this point I'm sure many people who never played this game or one of its many offspring are wondering just why they should care at all. People who originated games or toys die all the time and nobody writes heartfelt eulogies for them. So the guy was successful, so what?

This is what I think...

I think the secret to the success of this new form is that it wasn't new at all. That tiny unconscious moment of silence shared by those around the table was the same exact moment shared by those around fires in caves and savannas tens of thousands of years ago. It is The Beginning of the Story. The genius of D&D was the leap from reading or even telling the story to playing the story. It created a framework for the spontaneous, simultaneous creation of a work of fiction by a group of people. It is this act of original creation that to me is the unique quality of the original pen and paper game, and probably why I've never found any of the many computerized role playing games all that interesting.

Around that table, it was you and your friends against rapacious bandits, insidiously clever traps, and of course, every goddamned nasty creature from every single goddamned mythos ever put to paper, stone or clay. There was a game master in charge, a sort of narrator/host/card dealer/referee, with the power to change the direction of the story at any moment, but your little group of adventurers had that same power, through the decisions you made. The presence of a human referee, unlike a computer program, means that solutions to the challenges you come across are not limited to what the computer has been programmed to respond to, but can be truly creative, or ridiculous, or sublime. The people around that table are creating, each time they sit down, a new original story. They are both playwright and audience.

People don't speak much anymore about Dungeons and Dragons making children devil worshipers, the apocalypse of young America they predicted never really panned out. But the topic was hot as brimstone back in my day. My parents, I believe, were genuinely worried. Then I had the friends I played with over for a game at our house and my parents realized they were all a lot smarter and well-behaved than I was. Three of them would finish in the top ten of our high school class. After that, I was encouraged to hang around them as much as possible.

Sadly, their manner was not contagious, but I do think I learned quite a bit from playing Mr. Gygax's invention with them. I learned about teamwork and negotiation. I learned that sometimes it was good to make a stand and sometimes it was just foolish, with quick and merciless consequences. (I forgot that soon after, it seems.) I was not a philosophical or religious kid, but determining the Alignment for the characters I made up had me thinking about righteous piety and powerful evil and the consequences of one's position on that continuum...

And I found out that guy who played the bass clarinet was a real tool.

Good lessons all.

Like most things I enjoyed in the past, that is where it belongs, but I'll always look fondly at that small compartment on my Nerd Utility Belt, even if I never open it again.

I thank you very much for those hours of escape at a time I desperately needed them, Mr. Gygax. God speed.

Edit: A late note...As I've gone about the nerdy side of my daily surfing, I've found the comments sections on many of the blog posts about Gygax's passing are running two or three times their usual lengths. A quick scan of these comments reveals many, many small details of playing this game back in the late 70's that I can completely identify with and which bring a smile. I thought I'd add some links to them here.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun
BBC News
the subliterate cinophile
Penny Arcade


  1. Mike (Level 12 Paladin)11:23 PM EST

    Well put, Don.

    I'd never thought of what we were doing as "storytelling," but you are exactly right. We were all little novelists, creating characters, building plots, entertaining ourselves and each other.

    Here's another thing about D&D: For a game that was supposedly played only by social misfits, I have to say that over the past 30 years, I've lived in five states and built networks of friends from scratch in each one. Each time, I have found myself surrounded by D&D veterans.

    Why? One theory is that dorks -- even people who hide their dorky roots -- tend to attract each other, I suppose. But I think it probably has something to do with imagination -- we all tend to be readers, and dreamers, and believers in fun over social conformity, often.

    Here's to the fellowship of the die; and I lift a flask of ale in honor of Mr. Gygax.

  2. Well spoken.

    He fundamentally changed the way people play, and such an effect is not to be taken lightly.

  3. James McKenney11:43 AM EST

    (A NOTE FROM DON: I stole this comment. It is actually a reply to a group email a few of have been sending back and forth with rememberances of when we used to play D&D as kids. This reply was from James McKenney, the writer/producer/director of "Automatons" [now available on DVD, ahem...]. Click on his name above to learn more about his latest adventures, or just search this blog to read me complaining about him...)

    Nicely said, gentlemen. Far more so than the obit on Attack of the Show (which was pathetic and awkward). I tip my Helm of Teleportation to you. It's very sad. Who's next? Erol Otis?

    I'm not going to put anything on my site, since I stopped commenting on pop culture there a while ago. I struggled with posting an obit for Ben Chapman (The Creature From the Black Lagoon) who died recently, but decided against it. I don't think I could come close to what you have already said anyway.

    I will share this little anecdote with you:

    About two weeks ago, the guy who works as a production manager at our Glass Eye Pix office (we'll call him "Brent") read the script for our newest film, "Satan Hates You" which (as Don knows) contains two scenes with a group of guys playing D&D.

    Brent says to me, "You should change that. Dungeons and Dragons is so dated."

    I asked, "Did you play D&D?"

    "Of course. I was obsessed with it as a kid." he replied.

    "As was I." I said. "And I'm fifteen years older than you -- an entirely different generation. And every Wednesday when I go to pick up my new comic books at the local shop (The Bearded Dragon -- seriously), the back room is filled with kids playing D&D or rolling the 20-sided for some other RPG inspired by D&D. That isn't my idea of something that's dated, that's what I call timeless-- a classic."

    He agreed.

    Yeah, I know that people are more inclined to play World of Warcraft these days (and I'll admit to having a WOW account where I'm grooming a certain orc named Rimfrost for battle in realm of Icecrown), but the fact that there are two stores in the nearby town (which doesn't even have a Kinko's or FedEx store) that sell traditional RPG gaming supplies mean that the stacks of hardbound manuals and multi-sided dice are still relevant to the kids these days that have so many other things competing for their attention.

    The guys hanging out in these shops are so nerdy it's PAINFUL (and that's coming from me). But in the end who's going to go out into the world and contribute more to society -- the kids that are using their imaginations and interacting face-to-face with others, or some kid who sits alone in the dark for hours playing Halo? (Not that I have anything against Halo)
    Okay, it's probably the kid who stays home and only uses a computer to do his homework, but I'd never want to hang out with that asshole.

    Rest in Peace, Gary Gygax. You can now take your rightful place amongst the other Deities & Demigods.

    GenCon won't be the same without you.

  4. I never played the game, but you make quite a good argument for its usefullness and legacy.

    "Anyone who believes fierce competition is enjoyable in a family setting has never experienced either."

    I can't believe someone who never played Sorry, Monopoloy or Lie, Cheat, and Steal (political board game) with my brother wrote that sentence.