David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Gary Gygax: An Appreciation

You may have heard that E. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, lost his final saving throw with the great dungeon master in the sky this morning.

Perhaps I should have called this post “Dungeons & Dragons: An Appreciation,” since I really didn’t know Gary Gygax from Elric of Melniboné. I don’t think I ever heard the guy speak or saw his picture until this afternoon. I may have read an interview or two with him over the years, but they certainly didn’t make any lasting impression.

But to me, Gary Gygax was not primarily the inventor of a popular role-playing game; he was an unparalleled author of fantasy. Gary Gygax wrote three volumes that were highly influential to me as a kid. I speak of the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual. I present them below in the editions that will forever be branded in my memory:

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual

My experiences as a player of Dungeons & Dragons have generally been pretty miserable. I played my first game at perhaps the age of eight, with my brother as dungeon master and my older sister serving as co-adventurer. I’m guessing this was 1979, because the module we were playing, In Search of the Unknown, was published that year. I believe we were playing the Basic rules, using the set pictured below. (Gawd, do these pictures bring back memories…)

Basic Dungeons & Dragons set

We made an awful team. My sister and I spent a couple of hours building our characters — I was a dwarf, if I remember correctly — and got into a horrific argument about how we should order our party for the inevitable foray into the dungeon. Tears and screaming ensued. (Hey, I was eight.) Finally, we decided to just put aside our differences in the interest of pursuing adventure, but the adventure proved to be short-lived. We found ourselves shooting arrows at a band of ravenous giant centipedes, which we pictured as these enormous Dune-sized worms with enormous jaws and enormous sharp teeth. Then my brother cheerfully informed us that these giant centipedes were only about a foot long, at which point the game dissolved into a fit of giggles and never resumed.

Over the next half-dozen years, I was determined to find a good game of Dungeons & Dragons and become one of those legendary dungeon masters you read about in Dungeon Masters Guide. But despite fervent evangelism to my elementary school friends, the most that ever materialized was a rather pathetic playthrough of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. I served as dungeon master to my then-friends, who wandered disinterestedly through a haunted house killing everything that moved, without ever realizing that the place was just a ruse set up by pirates to scare the locals away from their smuggling operation.

When I finally found a group of guys who were serious AD&D players, we were all heading into the dungeon of puberty. We had weekly sleepovers where eight or nine of us would earnestly head off for adventure, and then quickly drift off into Giggling & Gossip after an hour or two. This continued for a couple of years until my friend Geoff and I brought the entire role-playing phase of the group to a close by creating a game called Chutes & Dungeons & Ladders & Dragons. The raucous game, played only once, went something like this:

ME: You turn the corner and you see a giant ladder.

PLAYER: I’ll climb the ladder.

ME: You get to the top of the ladder, and you see Matt’s dad yelling at you to take out the trash. He summons Cthulu, who zaps you with a lightning bolt that costs you four million hit points.

PLAYER: I’m rolling a saving throw… it’s a 3! That means the lightning bolt bounces off me and kills Matt’s dad instead. [throws Cheetos]

And that, in a nutshell, is my history with fantasy role-playing.

Despite the fact that I never had a satisfactory Dungeons & Dragons gaming experience, I spent years poring over those books you see above. I read them cover to cover multiple times. I studied the artwork. I sketched out a million dungeons and was never far from a pad of graph paper and a felt bag full of 20-sided dice. I would daydream about the world of Greyhawk and psionic powers and what would happen if I gathered a group of a hundred adventures and we all screamed “Hastur!” at the top of our lungs. (Readers of Deities & Demigods get the joke.)

Through those books you see above (along with others like The Fiend Folio, Deities & Demigods, The Monster Manual II, and Oriental Adventures), Gary Gygax opened my eyes. He introduced me to Norse mythology, Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. He gave me a hard-on for imagination that’s been with me ever since. (And if you’ve ever spent any time poring through those books, you can imagine that they produced hard-ons of a more literal variety too. Let’s just say that in the ’70s, topless large-breasted she-demons were about as hard core as it got for a preadolescent kid in Orange County, California.)

What was so fabulous about Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks?

I think it was a combination of Gygax’s boundless enthusiasm, his slightly cornball sense of humor, and his ability to gleefully cannibalize any piece of film or literature in the service of adventure. It wasn’t armor classes and spell requirements that I was learning by reading those books. I was learning how to turn life into an adventure that would never end no matter how good you got at it. I was learning how to size up the world around me with a rigid set of rules and statistics and dice rolls. I was learning a handy set of moral rules in the alignment chart, which taught me more about human nature than eight years of Hebrew school ever did.

Detractors of D&D often stereotype RPG fans (as well as SF fans) as people with poor social skills. (And I suppose one must admit that there does seem to be some kind of correlation.) But to me, the hallmark of the D&D player is the tendency, on unfolding a map of Greyhawk, to look at those peculiar countries on the edge, the ones with the strange names about which the accompanying booklet simply says “not much is known about this land,” and instantly want to be there, to yearn beyond all else to jump into that map and be the first one to trek through it and map it out and provide a complete description of its history, customs, and politics for the world’s edification.

E. Gary Gygax unlocked that tendency in me in the late ’70s. And the fact that he’s gone now makes the world that much poorer. Damn it, how come there’s never a 25th-level Cleric with a Wish spell around when you need one?

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  1. Cindy on March 4, 2008 at 10:35 pm  Chain link

    Ah yes, your older sister also remembers that fateful game of D&D, when I pretended to be humoring my two younger brothers while secretly thinking the whole thing was really cool.

    I believe that when our brother, the dungeon-master, told us the centipede at which we had been shooting arrows was only a foot long, you threw up your hands and exclaimed in frustration, “Well, just step on the stupid thing then!” And we did and we died. At least that’s how I remember it; perhaps we need to speak with the dungeon master to confirm.

  2. Soni on March 4, 2008 at 11:16 pm  Chain link

    Detractors of D&D often stereotype RPG fans (as well as SF fans) as people with poor social skills. (And I suppose one must admit that there does seem to be some kind of correlation.)

    Well, yeah, for values of “social skills” that include the desire to spend hours after school poring over Teen Glamor and Vogue trying to decide which fashion trend to inflict on everyone this week, huddling outside the school doors in January trying to impress the jocks while freezing to death in denim miniskirts and giving a crap about such idiotic television shows as Beverly Hills, 90210.

    Me, I had baaaad social skills – couldn’t give half a crap about most “girly” stuff and was oblivious to the rest of it. But I turned all that energy inward into pure dungeon brilliance as a DM. My crowning glory was the creation of an adventure in which the adventurers had to make their way through the lair of an ancient and extremely powerful dragon who’d fallen prey to an insanity curse. Said lair included a transparent/invisible maze o’death among other fun bits (because the dragon was insane, you see, and also apparently desperately bored with a lot of time on it’s hands). The capper was that when they finally succeeded, they couldn’t just kill the damned thing but instead had to give it a pill/magically-spelled de-cursing pearl of great size. Because said cursed dragon was, not insignificantly, the oldest friend and favorite chess partner of the local ruler, who had hired them to help his friend.

    Oh yeah. Those were the days. The Bwwaahhaaahhaa!!! flowed like a snowmelt-engorged river back then.

    *Survivors? What survivors?*

  3. Gary Gygax at Tobias Buckell Online on March 5, 2008 at 1:36 am  Chain link

    […] even though his passing went unnoticed by me, many, like David Louis Edelman have penned some heartfelt remembrances to the impact this one individual had on their lives: I think it was a combination of Gygax’s […]

  4. Matt Jarpe on March 5, 2008 at 8:21 am  Chain link

    I had almost the exact same experience with D&D, although with a family of six kids the potential for conflict increases exponentially. I joined the D&D club in high school (because I was shopping around for a new reason for the jocks to beat me up) but never got a decent game going. But I sure loved those books, and making maps, and building characters. Baldur’s Gate brought those days back for a while (all the adventure and none of the annoying interaction with other humans). Sad to see Gygax lose all his hit points.

  5. J Alan Erwine on March 5, 2008 at 11:22 am  Chain link

    Every one of those books and adventures you named brings back countless memories for me. I actually had a lot of positive experiences from the game, and it taught me a lot about structuring plot and characters. I certainly owe at least some of my creative abilities to Mr. Gygax.

    Thanks for posting.

  6. Thom Stanley on March 5, 2008 at 12:09 pm  Chain link

    My experience with D and D was similar. I loved the books, poring over monster manuals and PHBs, enthralled with them. But when it came down to playing, games with my classmates were usually uninspired. It wasn’t until the Navy that I had found a group that did it right. It was focused on the story, not your level, or your skills, or how many orcs you could disembowel. Unfortunately, I have not found another group that had fleshed out a world so beautifully. However, it did lead me to find a game online that was chat based, by the name of Black Bayou, that also helped develop some of my creativity. All thanks to D and D.

    I raise my glass. To Gary!

  7. Soni on March 5, 2008 at 9:17 pm  Chain link

    PS: I have all of those books. And others.

    I was also lucky enough to find a few good gamers, after a few family fun games eerily similar to your own experience (God only knows how many times my sister’s response to “What do you do?” was “I duck”…until we all shouted at her in unison that her armor class assumed she was at least attempting rudimentary evasive abilities.)

    I’m one of those who prefers “fun” gamers over “serious” gamers any day. My favorite gaming group had two kenders, which led to regular rounds of “shake the kender” upon arising for the day’s hacking and slashing, and a 6’5″ monk with +5 flatulence (one episode of “pull my finger!!!” resulted in a fireball that cleared an entire stone balcony of orcs).

    At one point in the adventure, the kenders found a broadsword. Too big for either of them to wield alone, they bundled the blade end in leather and took to stampeding down hallways at knee height, which proved to be a rather successful method of attack. When one of them was shot in battle, the other kept right on going at full speed, creating the forever-famous (and surprisingly destructive) “Kender Blender of DOOOM!!!”

    Ah, those were the days…

  8. David Louis Edelman on March 5, 2008 at 10:21 pm  Chain link

    Soni: Well, I had plenty of fun gaming experiences. But considering the fact that we were all 13 and 14, it was really just a bunch of kids staying up until 3 in the morning eating pizza and junk food and watching heavy metal videos.

    Still, I would have liked to know what it was like to really… really… get into D&D.

  9. Steve Smith on March 6, 2008 at 10:36 pm  Chain link

    Sounds like I wasn’t the only one who, for whatever reason, could never find a great adventure or Dungeon Master…but like you I loved those books. When I heard that Gary Gygax died I went up to the attic and dug out those books and thumbed through them again…it’s been years. After reading your blog I am going to show them to my son (he’s only 5 and if he had been around back then I am sure he would have been a player too) in the hopes that he’ll at least get a kick out of some of the monsters in the “Manual”. I agree with J Allen Irvine in that I am sure that at least some of my creative and analytical abilities can be linked back to those books and even some of the awful adventures.

    Here’s to the man who allowed millions of us to use our imaginations…

  10. Soni on March 7, 2008 at 12:38 am  Chain link

    Still, I would have liked to know what it was like to really… really… get into D&D.

    Dude, you spend years writing a series of books that create entire new worlds/cultures. You spend hours, days, weeks or even months perfecting each scene – trying to get the background, technology and characters just right. Then you run a reasonably well-bonded group of people through these worlds.

    The only difference between what you’re doing and what we did is that you’re taking both the GM and players roles at once, and you get to make up all the rules.

    And, yanno, there’s no dice involved (that we know about).

    Yeah, it’s like that. (Especially on the GM side. God, if you only knew how many hours of my life disappeared into adventures that have never seen the outside of a notebook…or appeared briefly, only to have weeks of work completely obliterated by a well-place spell and a natural 20.)

  11. Jim Stewart on March 7, 2008 at 9:26 pm  Chain link

    I feel bad for kids today whose only experience with fantasy gaming is either with an MMPORG or whatever you call them – where the computer figures out all the hard stuff for you – or else scooting stupid little cards back and forth across the table.

    I did have a good group, we lasted for ten years. But I know exactly what you mean about immersing yourself in those books and dungeons. I have strong memories about spending over an hour rolling up a character and figuring out every little detail about the person, even though I often never ended up playing the character in a game. What better preparation could a would-be storyteller have?

    I didn’t know about GG’s death. Thanks for letting us know.

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