Kind of a grim week already, this one, for all the celebrations over the weekend I had. And now it’s a little sadder:
Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragon and one of the fathers of tabletop role playing games, died today at the age of 69. He had suffered from heart problems.
The news was first announced on the message board of Troll Lord Games, the publisher of Gygax’s most recent works. It has since been directly confirmed by the company, which will post an announcement on its web site later today.
Gygax is one of those folks who I realize with a sudden shock made my youth what it was, in part — and a lot of what followed afterwards. It’s no surprise that the other week I found myself wondering what I was finally going to do with those old Monster Manuals I still had around, as I worked through clearing out a slew of other things I really didn’t need anymore. But for a while I really, really needed them.
I was young enough to be a perfect target audience for Dungeons and Dragons, in that it was some sort of fully formed creation for me rather than a logical outgrowth of a lot of different impulses during the post-WWII decades in America (the building popularity of fantasy via Tolkien and Howard’s work, an increasingly elaborate gaming culture in general, medieval recreation societies like the SCA, a new sense of communal storytelling, the concept of teenage free time in general, the codification of outsider teen culture via cult movies, music, etc.). It never not existed, much like color TV or — just barely, in my case — video games. It was a cultural baseline, an assumed starting point from which a lot grew.
My initial encounter with D&D was probably via a friend’s Basic Dungeons and Dragons set when I was living near Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay area. My dad’s sub was then being refitting in a two year overhaul, so we were all pretty much sitting pretty on the Mare Island base killing time in our own ways from 1979 to 1981, and I remember a lot of formative things happening for me in those years, from eight to ten years old. It ranged from that first delirious sense of movie anticipation I ever felt (the release of The Empire Strikes Back) to an actual sense of pop music on the radio and what was there to be heard to my first readings of Tolkien to my first ever camera — even my first initial attempts at cooking, with my mom’s happy encouragement.
D&D was part of that, and the Basic set was designed for a younger player like myself — still not the easiest thing to fully understand, maybe, but it was a perfect gateway nonetheless. Odd thing is is that while I ended up playing a number of games, the mechanics of the game fascinated me more — the manuals, the modules, all the details. Rather than playing my way through the adventures to find out what was going on, I tended instead to read them myself — spoiling the surprises, maybe, but I treated them almost as modular stories, if not conventional ones in the way I’d learned them.
I forget how I accumulated the various elements of D&D culture as I did, but I did — a copy of the Basic box was soon mine, as well as the Expert set and finally, a little after we’d left Mare Island to return to Coronado for a year before departing for New York, some initial copies of the Advanced manuals as well as a few modules. I’d be really intrigued to get back fully into my head then to see and sense what exactly I made of it all — the details about the various Inner and Outer Planes, the whole huge sequence of Drow modules that started off simply and ended up putting the characters in a confrontation with the Chaotic Evil demigod Lolth, the issues of Dragon magazine that I randomly picked up here and there (which, like the few issues of Electronic Games that I had at the time, became so thoroughly read and reread by myself that weren’t so much individual issues as they were books, little peeks into something more).
Above all, I think, I loved the maps, the elaboration of the worlds that were being codified, created and added to — there was the central D&D world of Greyhawk, the first of the many mock-medieval settings that remained the basic stock-in-trade of epic fantasy gaming, as much as it was most epic fantasy writing (in sum: take Europe, twist it around a lot, vaguely rename everything and add magic), while Ed Greenwood was already on staff with his Forgotten Realms setting that at the end of the eighties would become part of the last great burst of interest I had in D&D as a whole. Then there was Krynn, the setting for the Dragonlance stories…but that’s a post for another time. Part and parcel with my growing interest in Tolkien and fantasy and SF in general, it was all part of my growing up and an experience I’ll not belittle nor try and pass off as a waste of time — it’s part of me and if my foci in life are elsewhere that’s just the way things go in life, with no regrets.
You’ll note in talking about all this that I’ve said little about Gygax — but that’s somewhat intentional, because he was just a name for me, one that everyone at the time seemed to nod respectfully towards (that said, the whole story about TSR and Gygax isn’t a happy smiley one at all — this summation, well worth a read, is a salutary reminder of how businesses are businesses and how humans aren’t paragons). He was less of a public face and figure to me than someone like Jim Henson or George Lucas or Charles Schulz, all those people who directly shaped my youth — I had a vague impression of him visually, but he was always more of a name than anything else. Meanwhile, his work away from TSR when he sold his interest in it never amounted to much for me — I think I picked up a few books here and there, I can’t recall — and I’d not been aware of his health problems before the news of his death.
But thinking back now over all that now is utterly, completely standard in popular culture — elaborate, character-driven, world-wide gaming efforts, both via face to face get-togethers and in the online universe, most obviously represented in the popular mind by World of Warcraft, as clear a descendant of the D&D world as anything else — it’s astonishing to realize how much Gygax was on to something, an architect of the future as much as anyone else. Like with many such figures, it could be argued that he was in the right place at the right time, and he owed his success as much to how well he could put the product out there as much as to the creative impulse. But this is precisely the balance one needs for success, a drive that relies on both, and if he never did anything as volcanic as help get D&D and tabletop gaming into established mass consciousness in the space of a few years, with everything that’s resulted since — well, that’s way more than most.
And besides which, no D&D, no Dead Alewives skit about same, which is one of the most scarily true to life bits of comedy ever created. There are about eight million interpretations of it online — try this one for the hell of it:
RIP Mr. Gygax — and yes, everyone can have a Mountain Dew.
[EDIT: Was reminded of this over on ILX -- great Believer story and interview with him from a couple of years back, well worth a read, though it is VERY much a Believer piece stylistically -- so don't be surprised if you get tired by the fourth footnote.]
[FURTHER EDIT: John at Balloon Juice kindly linked over here with a h/t, and the comments there are a treat, with good memories and plenty of good snark. My two favorites:
I’m saving my sympathy for all the helpless goblinoids he slaughtered in his day."
"Death attacks Gygax.
Gygax misses saving throw.
Gary Gygax dies."]