Each year around this time I find myself reflecting on a man I never met. A man whose life and works affected my life deeply. That man is E. Gary Gygax the father of the modern role playing game and the creator of Dungeons & Dragons the largest, most widely known and played fantasy role playing game in the world. His influence on my life began at the age of 11 and continues to this very day. Over the years my impressions of this man have changed, but I have always felt a deep gratitude for the gift he gave to me and so many others…Dungeons & Dragons.
Earliest Impressions of Gary
My earliest recollections of Gary were what he’d written for new Dungeon Masters in the pages of the adventure module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. His exhortations we clear. Be fair, but firm and make sure you and your players are having fun. I devoured those pages eagerly before I launched my hobby career as a Dungeon Master at the tender age of 12. We played the Holmes Basic Edition rules for a while, maybe 12 – 18 months before we moved on. After our first several successful forays into the Caves of Chaos, I eagerly looked for more from Gary, which I found in a special section of my local hobby shop A.B. Charles & Sons. I bought new adventure modules and fawned over shiny new hardback books for something called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I decided I must have them! I saved my paper route money to make the purchase (then a grand total of $32 for the set, I believe).
AD&D and The Dragon
It was the late 70s when I discovered Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and everything changed! Here was a much larger work by Gary to absorb! And not just 3 levels for adventuring, but virtually unlimited levels! I was impressed with everything Gary put down in those books. They influenced my style of play which survives to this day. For me role playing is about character and story, not mechanics, numbers, stats and equipment. I learned that from Gary and so much more. He told me in those books to focus on exploration and wonder, I still look for opportunities to do that when I Dungeon Master now.
It was around this time that I also discovered The Dragon (thank you Tim Kask, Jake Jaquet and Kim Mohan in particular, and all the contributors during their editorships). Here was a regular source of wisdom from the creators of AD&D and hundreds of worthy contributions from people just like me. But in particular I loved to read the content Gary submitted. His writing did, and still does speak to me in a way I cannot quite explain. Like a half-seen movement in the corner of my eye, an explanation eludes me, but I would rather read Gary on gaming than anyone else.
The Ouster and AD&D 2nd Edition
As I’ve said before, I think maybe I was still too young for Gary’s ouster from TSR to register much. His articles continued to appear for a while in Dragon Magazine, slowing to a trickle until finally they stopped altogether. But Gary’s influence on me did not end there. Even with the issue of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition a few years later, I continued to love 1st Edition rules and particularly the 1st Edition play style and feel. I attribute all of that to Gary.
Through the Years
Through the years my group moved on to each new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I always felt something was missing. Something Gygaxian. The basic rules were still roll d6s for stats, roll a d20 to hit or to save, but beyond that Gary wasn’t there. His influence on the game had long ago faded. And then in 2008 Gary was gone.
It was around the time 3rd Edition came out that I urged our group to return to 1st Edition, but no one listened. I did so again when 4th Edition came out, and still again when 5th Edition was released. Yet I was always ignored, or even mocked. I came to realize that among my group, Gary was not respected and that his creation was viewed as aberrant instead of the norm. It was at that point I left my long time group of role players in search of a group with sensibilities more aligned with my own. More aligned with what I think Gary’s sensibilities were. Luckily after a few years of searching, I found them! Today we play bi-weekly at my house and Gygaxian play is the rule, not the exception.
A Life Well Played
Knowing some of Gary’s children (Ernie Jr., Elise, Heidi, Luke and Alex) via the modern day wizardry of Facebook, I feel like I’ve gotten a better picture of the man who entered my life over 39 years ago. A man who loved to imagine, who loved to game. I’ve heard more stories than I can relate here about people who would just walk by his Lake Geneva home, walk up to the porch, and be invited to enjoy a few hours of gaming with a giant. A giant, not of the many D&D varieties, but just a man who loved to play games. Thank you Gary! I am forever grateful!
Illustrations: Jeff Easley and Matthew Ray