Gary Gygax died this week. The Wisconsin native and co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons was 69 years old. I was introduced to the game by my Junior High science teacher, Mr. Jozwick, who started an after-school D&D club. I remember picking up the oddly shaped gaming dice for the first time and creating a chaotic-evil thief who was nimble (Dexterity: 15) but ugly (Charisma: 8). Almost instantly, my gifted program peers and I were hooked. The game’s genius came from the flexibility it gave to players. The rules merely provided a launching pad from which your imagination could take off from, your enjoyment bounded only by your creativity.
It wasn’t long before The Monster Manual and the Dungeon Masters Guide became like the two testaments of the Bible for me and my friends. Weekend afternoons and and late-night sleepovers were spent exploring scenarios dreamt up by the cruel minds of my brilliant and socially awkward compatriots. There were glorious battles with Orks and Beholders, forbidden liaisons with Succubi, violent deaths, and endless arguments over the byzantine rules of play.
At the height of my gaming obsession, a friend’s Mom generously drove us to Gen Con, a yearly convention held for enthusiasts in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I remember the excitement that took hold when we found the TSR store, overwhelmed by the amount of figurines, books, and role-playing accoutrements that were unavailable to us in town. Then, someone in the store said that Gary Gygax, the man, the legend himself, was leading a game as we spoke. Gary Gygax Dungeon Mastering his own game? It was like getting a chance to see James Naismith shoot hoops, or Les Paul play electric guitar. I think I left a contrail behind me as I took off toward the convention hall.
There he was, looking much as I had imagined; gray beard, wise eyes, a 12th degree Wizard with high charisma and many hit points. We watched him rapt, as he effortlessly made his fantasy world come to life in way that was immediate and completely captivating. When the man signed my Dungeon Masters Guide, I was in awe. At the same time, I also recall looking at some of the unkempt middle-aged men holding court behind their three-ring binders and making a mental note to myself, “Don’t let that happen to you.”
That thought was the beginning of the end for D&D and me. Though it’s hard for me to quantify how much an impression the game has made on my life, some fifteen years later I wrote a play called The Gifted Program, which is in no uncertain terms a love letter to Gary Gygax and a game that continues to enliven imaginations everywhere.
So, Mr. Gygax, today I pour a few of my 20-sided dice on the sidewalk in your honor, sir.
(Image, “Bietka the Succubi” by Melissa Szeto, courtesy of the artist.)