#240 In which our hero reminisces about his misspent youth and the man who attributed so much to it.
As geeks across the globe already know, Gary Gygax died last week.
His legacy, of course, is Dungeons & Dragons. Every article I’ve read in the past two weeks credits him as the “co-creator” of Dungeons & Dragons (along with Dave Arneson) but Gygax was, and always will be, D&D to me. Maybe it’s the exotic ring to his last name, or the unusual Y and X; I mean, doesn’t that sound like the name of an evil wizard? Tremble before the might of Gygax the Grievous!
I got into D&D when I was around 12 or 13. I don’t remember there being a big event, like I was first introduced at a friend’s house and became hooked for life or something like that… D&D has just always seemed to be there. I remember going into Walden Books at the mall with my dad; while he looked at the latest historical paperbacks, I’d always check out the D&D section. Walden had a shelf dedicated to D&D: all the hard cover books, plus countless flimsy modules with enticing names like The Keep on the Borderlands, Ghost of Lion Castle or The Lost Island of Castanamir. I’d be sucked in with their amazingly cool cover art and promises of adventure.
At some point dad finally bought me the Basic Set (in the red box). I devoured it. While I had played all the kid games you’d expect (Monopoly, Life, Risk, Uno, etc.) I had never seen anything like this. I guess I was predisposed in my thinking to want to be a romantic hero, sword flashing, slaying dragons and saving the damsel in distress. Even though at 13 it was more about killing the monster and taking its treasure than saving the fair-haired Lady.
I spent more time studying that rulebook than any of my textbooks. I went though it with a yellow highlight to mark what I considered the most important passages. My friends would later make fun of me because nearly the entire book was highlighted.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) came out about this time (in the blue box) and I devoured that, too. At this point I actually had a group of friends (well, two others) to play with. I was almost always the Dungeon Master, a role I relished. I spent hours upon hours drawing maps on grid paper, seeding dungeons with monsters and treasure, and trying to write an engaging story about the adventure. Granted, these stories almost always began with the heroes meeting in an Inn over flagons of mead; being contacted by a mysterious benefactor to go fetch some magic artifact (which was always hidden deep in a monster-infested underground dungeon), and being rewarded handsomely at the end, IF they survived. Which they always did, because I was a softy with my players. I wanted them to be heroes, not corpses.
As time wore on I got involved with some new friends, our mutual love of the game bringing us together. This group was more interested in story that just grinding out EP and, most importantly, one of them liked being DM more than I did. So I finally got to play. I finally got to be the hero I had been dreaming of. So I created a character who was a… Thief.
It seems odd to me now that I chose a Thief. I mean, why not a Fighter in shining armor? Why not a Magic User? (Well, I can answer that last one--Magic Users suck at the lower levels; it’s not until you get to level 5 or so that you have any spells worth a damn, and you still can’t wear real armor.) But something about being a Thief appealed. I could sneak around, pick locks, notice things other players couldn’t. I was part of the mysterious Thieves’ Guild, and even had a secret language, the Thieves’ Cant. And I could wear decent armor and use good weapons. I was known as “Strike.”
Strike and I saw a lot of action. Failed a lot of saving throws (I sucked at rolling the dice). Took a lot of damage, but somehow always managed to live to fight (and pick-pocket and backstab and climb sheer surfaces) another day.
I even took the thief thing a little too far, shoplifting several of the hardcover D&D books from my beloved Walden Books. This was during my shoplifting phase, which ended in disaster. Thank God my parents were supportive, and not the kind of people who bought into the media-fueled stories of kids going off the deep end due to playing “satanic” games like D&D. Because it would have been a short jump between identifying my D&D character as a thief, and realizing that their son was stealing things in real life. I certainly never made it to the Mazes & Monsters level of involvement (“I am Pardue, and I am a holy man”).
Funny aside, one of the guys I played with in high school recently emailed me to apologize for killing my character at the penultimate moment in what was probably the last campaign we played before leaving for college. I, of course, remembered the moment clearly: we had just vanquished the last bad guy, and it was just he and I in the treasure room. He was playing a Thief, which means I probably wasn’t playing Strike at that time. I don’t remember what character it was, but I do remember that I had a lot invested in him. It had been a long and grueling summer, and this was it, our final reward. I started to eye the treasure, planning on how the gold (and associated experience points) would give my character a must needed final boost when he used the full might of his backstab ability to drive a dagger deep into my back. It actually burst out of my chest, if memory serves. Wow, was I pissed. It was in character, being that his Thief was evil (or maybe just neutral-evil), but that did nothing to calm my outrange. I remember that the DM and I talked about me coming back as a Revenant, but for one reason or another our group never got back together.
I went on to play some D&D in college (it helped that my DM and I went to the same school) but I eventually grew tired of D&D’s rather obscure rules. Frankly, I never cared much about the game play, it was all about the role play. It never made sense to me that as armor became better at protecting you, the armor class number went down; until the best protected fighters had negative numbers. I would have been really happy if everything could have been converted to a simple percentage roll. I guess that would have done away with some of the cool dice, and I wouldn’t have wanted that.
I discovered some other games in collage that made more sense to me, most notably Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Great game. I think I was drawn to the storytelling aspect in Warhammer, which always seemed stronger than in D&D. Naturally, I put in my time playing tabletop miniatures (Warhammer and Space Hulk), horror roleplay (Call of Cthulhu, ‘natch), science fiction (Traveller) and more. I eventually got out of role playing altogether… not by any conscious decision, I just got busy with other stuff. But I’ll tell ya, I’d jump into a WFRP game in a heartbeat, if I could find a group of people who had the time to commit. Actually, some like-minded friends and I talk about it from time to time, but I think we all really know that it’s not going to happen. Not, at least, while I have two kids under the age of five.
But in my youth I played--and played a lot. It was Gary Gygax’s name that I saw on the stuff I loved, over and over again. He was (in my mind, if not in reality) the single driving force behind not just the game I loved, but the wonderful worlds I got to walk around in on Friday and Saturday nights.
And I’m not one to say that Dungeons & Dragons changed my life or molded me into the man I am today …but it did help. Gary Gygax and the game he created gave me an outlet, a way to funnel my creativity into something (arguably) productive. I made up people and places and creatures and entire worlds… and I really never stopped. I make up stuff today as part of my job. Of course, now I’m making up headlines to help sell car tires or making up promotions to get you to sample the latest flavor of sports drink or whatever… but I’m still exercising my creative muscles. And thanks in no small part to Gary Gygax, my creative muscles are strong and up to the task.
And unlike that kid of 13 pulling an all-nighter to finish an adventure, now I get paid to be creative.
Thanks, Mr. Gygax.