Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Dungeon Master Bows His Head

The news is bouncing around the blogosphere faster than anyone can keep up with it: Gary Gygax, the co-creator and for years the dominant figure in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, has passed away at age 69.

I've told a little of my Dungeons and Dragons tales here before, about how my brothers and I continue to play on occasion, and how much fun we get out of watching our kids pick up on and teach themselves the game today. Gary Gygax was responsible for all that. I was, as I said in that other post, a nerdy nine or ten-year-old boy, who learned about this strange pastime (wait...you're not a piece of plastic on a colored board, but you're a character? Who crosses a map and explores dungeons and fights monsters for glory and gold? And you can get hurt? So you have to, like, make plans and prepare and train? And you play it all out with dice? Show me this game!!) from a strange uncle of mine, and slowly, bit by bit, it took over my young life and the life of my older brother Daniel. (As I said before, my other brothers were sucked in as well, but for me, for the longest time, it was a tight sibling thing, just Daniel and me.) We would ride our bikes down to the White Elephant, this massive discount toy-and-whatever store on the east side of Spokane, WA, and we'd stock up as we slowly earned enough money: starting with classic Basic Set, and on to the original Monster Manual, and the original Dungeon Masters Guide....all that great first edition stuff. And all of it written by Gary Gygax, a man who I later learned had been a different sort of geek, one obsessed with puzzles and strategies and chess and miniature figures, who turned to role-playing gaming after a long apprenticeship with tabletop wargames and in part because of his frustration over the inability of many gamers to appreciate the thrill of breaking with historical recreation and 64-square boards and plain-old ordinary 6-sided dice, and instead get busy doing something which put the whole imagination (or at least, the whole of the imagination insofar as young, nerdy, white American males were concerned) into play. Hence came his innovations: Chainmail, with Jeff Perren, then his involvement with Blackmoor, which was created by Dave Arneson; and then, finally, came his own company, TSR (for "Tactical Studies Rules"--what an awesome geek name!), and his own role-playing game system: D&D. (And then AD&D of course, and all the rest.) This stuff, with its history and its fun, its range and rambunctiousness, its seriousness and silliness, was as essential to the infrastructure of my childhood and teenage imagination as anything that Steven Spielberg or Marvel Comics or J.R.R. Tolkien or Charles Schultz ever managed to produce.

I had neither the money nor the time nor the permission as an adolescent to throw myself into that world the way I wanted to (Dad was suspicious of the game for a long time); there was no chance that Gary Gygax (whom one gamer I knew back in the day simply referred to as "God") and I were ever going to cross paths. But still, I read Dragon Magazine religiously (and don't start--that what it was called back when it was his magazine, back when the "Sage's Advice" column was always written by him), and I bought his modules and I followed the debates and lawsuits and arguments which followed through the gaming world in his wake. I even have to admit that I bought and read his Greyhawk Adventure fantasy novels, or at least the first couple (I wouldn't recommend them today--honestly, they weren't any good). In time, I became a mature enough player, and had a confident enough sense of how I thought one ought to think about and "play out" one's imagination, that I began to disagree with his ideas. But by then TSR was collapsing, and the world the idolized Gygax was fracturing, and I was moving on to other things, and the world changed. Now, with Dungeons and Dragons (up to its 4th edition, coming out this year) and the whole role-playing world having changed hands and changed directions a dozen times over, I recognize that my involvement and affection for it and its original genius has a very dated ring to it. But still, it's my bell (or my blog, or my campaign), and I'll ring it how I want. Tonight, I'm going to pull back out my 2nd edition manuals, and look over again some plans I have for an Against the Giants adventure with my brothers this summer. And I'll the while, this Dungeon Master is going to be busy acknowledging the legacy of the first, and one of the best. Gary, RIP.


Ross Bailey said...

I am surprised to remember some of what you wrote here after almost 30 years away from the game. Now, I am returning to it with my son. I hope it actually acquires a cross-generational tradition, but perhaps he won't find it engaging given all of the innovations out there. Russell gave my son Ashton a stack of adventures/modules several years ago. Thank you! We had them in the attic, but now they are in a next to my bed in a drawer. I am only scratching the surface. EN World (www.enworld.org) is one of perhaps many sites that publishes free conversions so you can play 1st or 2nd edition games using the 3rd edition rules. Some day, Russell, we will game.

Russell Arben Fox said...

30 years away?! Ross, first, I'm not even forty yet; while I guess I may have hit the 30-year mark of my first exposure to the game, I definitely haven't been away from it for that long. And second, I haven't even ever left the game. True, there were several years--the undergraduate and part of the graduate school years--that I had pretty much no contact with D&D. But from sometime in the late 90s until today, my exposure has been...well, sporadic, but never totally absent. A box of D&D stuff sits at my feet as I type.

Thanks for the hint about the free conversions; some of the innovations are off-putting for old-timers like ourselves, but still, I really ought to give them a try. And yes, Ross: someday, we will game!

Aranion said...

Thanks for the great memory of getting into the game. I was drawn into the game by my older brother; he soon went on to other things, but I played from junior high through college.

A religious leader convinced me the game was evil, so in 1990 I threw ALL of my stuff out, including irreplaceable homebrew materials and minis. Thirteen years later, I bought a Judges Guild publication from eBay on a whim, and the bug bit me again. I've been gaming fairly steadily since November 2003, all with first edition AD&D. My entire group is made up of folks in their late 30s or early 40s, and we're having a blast.

BTW, anyone interested in an active online community dedicated to out of print versions of D&D should check out www.dragonsfoot.org. Great place for free modules, great forums, and other resources.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Inspiring story, Aranion; good on you! I haven't really gone into it in any of my posts, but my father--motivated by religious concerns--banned us boys from playing the game and required us to chuck all our stuff (fortunately, mom was sympathetic, so we ended up just packing it away, to be recovered later on) sometime around 1983 or so. He relented about a year later. We never entirely forgave him for making us miss a year of fun.

That's a great story about your and many others' return to the game (and 1st edition to boot!) in your 30s and 40s. Thanks for the site recommendation! I'll have to check it out.

Aranion said...

Oh, you have the short version here. I left out my ex-spouse who accused me of trafficking with demons when I started playing again (despite creating a monotheistic campaign with a church comparable to the medieval church). Of course, "ex-spouse" pretty much tells all you need to know about that. :-)

The very first game I played - those heady days of having no idea of what you're doing - I remember trying to lure a bunch of brigands out of a room. I stupidly had my character say "We have gold" and the brigands proceeded to kick our newbie asses.

Heh. Good times.