I was driving back to the office from lunch on Tuesday when a friend called to tell me Gary Gygax had died. I only met the guy a couple of times — my tenure at TSR coming a few years after he left — but the news hit me hard. Harder than I expected, frankly.
I knew he’d been in ill-health for a while, so I can’t say I was surprised, but I wasn’t ready for the news that he’d passed on. I pulled over to the side of the road and spent some time thinking about what the guy’s work meant to me. Not surprisingly, I discovered that it meant a lot.
I discovered D&D in 1978, about four years after Gary and Dave Arneson and their Wisconsin gaming buddies invented the game. My first Dungeonmaster was Bruce Sterling, now a well-known writer, but at that time an unpublished wannabe. The rest of the players in the group were writers or wannabes, too, of one sort or another. We met once a week for about ten years, as members of The Rat Gang, troublemakers in the River City of Shang who went on to become political and military powerhouses in the world Bruce laid out for us to explore.
I was in other D&D groups as well — once you get the itch, you have to scratch, right? We played a lot of D&D — modifying the rules to suit our needs. We tried other games, other rule-sets, including Champions, Runequest, The Fantasy Trip… a bunch of ’em. But none of them captured our attention or occupied our time the way D&D did. Eventually, my experience as a player led to jobs at Steve Jackson Games and TSR and a bunch of electronic game companies.
So, in a very real sense, I owe my career to Gary Gygax. No D&D, no…me.
Personally, that makes Gary Gygax a very important person in my life (and, luckily, I had the chance to tell him that several years ago. I make sure to tell Dave Arneson how important HE was to my life every time I run into him!).
But Gary’s influence goes way beyond creating an industry that has allowed me to make a nice living and do some fun, creative work. In a very real sense, D&D changed the world. He and Dave created a set of rules that turned child’s play — Cops and Robbers… Cowboys and Indians… — into something far more… into a tool for creativity and self-expression. And, beyond that, the rules Gary and Dave drafted were open-ended enough to qualify in a very real sense as “open source” — every group of players modified those rules, made them their own. Though D&D sometimes got a bad rap (before videogames replaced roleplaying in the public consciousness as the root of all teen angst), the real power of the game isn’t that it turns kids to the darkside but that it turns people, players, of ALL ages into authors. It provides a structure in which ANYONE can become a creator and in which many can become game designers and entertainment/experience creators. That was something entirely new in the world back in the ’70s, and it’s something some of us still aspire to deliver to people today.
Gygax and D&D begat Garriott and Ultima… and Garfield and Magic: The Gathering… D&D was the impetus for the series of Dragonlance novels which, long before Harry Potter, convinced teenagers that reading could be cool (in some nerdy sense of cool) and helped drive a resurgence of interest in fantasy literature. Go to the movies these days and you can see the effect THAT had on the world.
I could go on all day about Gary, about D&D, about roleplaying and games in general, but I’ll stop there. I have a ton of work to do — a ton of games to make. And making them is probably the best way I can honor Gary’s memory.
I’ll tell you, though, I’ve said for years that every game developer and papergame player and videogamer should take a break every day, face north to face Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and say some words of thanks to Gary and Dave. With Gary’s passing, that seems truer than ever.