E. Gary Gygax may not be a household name in your house, but he has been in mine for 33 years. You see, Gary was one of the two creators of Dungeons & Dragons, a game I have played for all those years.
I had the opportunity in 1980 to go to Lake Geneva, WI, where Gary lived, and spend two days talking with him. The fourteen hour drive (each way) was well worth it. I treasure that conversation.
Role-playing games are, I think, a natural successor to the old radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s. As with baseball on the radio, these are truly “theatre of the mind”. Played with only paper, pencil and dice, all of the action takes place with the ability to paint a scene and describe actions. It is a play that evolves at the hands of the game master (who is responsible for the setting of the adventure, the types of things that happen, and the adjudication of events) and of the players (who are the main characters and decide at each step what they will do in response to what they hear).
Growing out of mediaeval battles using miniatures, Dungeons & Dragons added elements of fantasy: the fantasy races of elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, etc., the ability to battle fantastic monsters (dragons, goblins, and more) in settings reminiscent of great horror literature (dungeons, abandoned castles, ruins and deep, dank forests). The players make choices as to what to play: what race, and what “character class” (to be an arcane magic user, a channel for divine energy, to trust to stealth and guile as a rogue, or to be a straight-forward swordsman in armour). All of the evolution of the rules over the years from the first three little booklets published in the mid-1970s stem from these basic elements.
Players become their characters after a while (and these are often quite unlike who they are in their day-to-day lives). Flesh is put on the bones the game provides of die-rolled statistics; personality and habit emerge. It is a game that rewards continued play.
When I had children of my own, and they were old enough to play, we commenced our family game. I had to shift, at that point, from player to game master. Each has its rewards. The greatest reward is in breathing life into a whole world that unfolds around the players, just as this world unfolds around us, with almost everything that happens unknown but following a logic that can be discerned and put to work, but, alas, there aren’t enough hours in the day to engage in that level of creation. Still, others do, and publish their work, and so we can play in theatres of the imagination that hold us for years at a time.
This game that Gary helped bring into being has brought us so many happy memories over the years. The bat cave, with a floor covered in guano, and two of the other family members’ characters would get up, slip and fall back down in it, over and over again, while the third member of the party of characters never slipped once. One family member who, upon being threatened, jumped into a 80 metre deep hole to escape (knowing it was that deep, having just climbed up) and then turning in surprise to find that I had rendered the decision that the character was dead, having lost more than enough “hit points” in the fall to die. The great “let me tell you a story” moment with the Goblin King (another death). Last year’s moment of summoning a god to do battle — perishing — being rescued by the one party member who wanted no part “of the stupidity” — only for all of them to die in the next chamber they entered. Great moments of bribing the priest at the local temple for yet another discount resurrection.
And, along the way, the moments of triumph, that come with heroic deeds and fantasy.
Gary Gygax’s creation went on without him long ago: others took over the evolution of the game and its rules. He continued to create new rule sets — I suppose for a game designer there is a continuing quest for the “perfect” set of rules, as simple and light-weight as possible, and pregnant with the most possibility, and with the cleanest set of outcomes for the poor game master to handle — but he also continued to add to his original creation.
His legacy has been the subject of hostile attacks by many who do not understand that just because the manual contains (for instance) a demon as a possible opponent the game master need not use it; by those who think that any attempt to branch out from “reality” and “focus on what matters” is a horrid thing to do to a child; by those who simply mistrust something that can keep teenagers glued to chairs for twelve or more hours at a stretch. Nevertheless, it endures. It has forged video games, multi-player Internet games, a great body of fantasy literature, and a forest of opportunities for small publishers to try and seek their fortune doing something they love. It is, in other words, something good.
Gary, I shall miss you. But, as you taught us (and as the creators of gaming’s great and funny look at itself, Knights of the Dinner Table, said when they killed off the creator of the game the players in that comic play a few years back), the game goes on. There may be an empty chair at the table, but those of us who have enjoyed all you gave us will continue to roll our polyhedral dies, cry out “I waste him with my cross-bow” or “fireball coming online”, and play for those who cannot.
That’s you, big guy.
And if I’m wrong about things and there is an afterlife, look up my departed dear friend Ron Speyer, who introduced me to D&D back in 1975, and have a seat at his table. Just be careful … he’s a chaotic neutral type, and a little collateral damage to his adventuring party never worried him when there was treasure to be gained.