I’m a few weeks late, and there are some great online eulogies out there already (The Simpsons writer Matt Selman’s blogging partner, Lev Grossman, wrote one, as did one of my favorite screenwriters, John August), but I just don’t think I can let the passing of Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, go without comment…
I’m not a Dungeons & Dragons expert. In fact, I’m not really an expert on any particular brand of geek culture; I continually meet people who know more about their area of focus than I could ever hope to know (eh, maybe I’m The Simpsons Guy). I enjoyed Dr. Who as a kid, but Tim Uren is the walking master database. I know the Star Wars films inside and out, but my brother, Jordan, is the person to talk to about the “expanded universe” of books and comics. Want to talk Batman? Talk to Greg Nesbit of local rock band, Freeze-Dried Fun. At any rate, D&D was a part of my experience growing up and it affects who I am today.
My first exposure to D&D was through my uncle Larry. He was a teenager when I was a wee tot of four in 1983 as the first episodes of the animated Dungeons & Dragons episodes hit the air. I watched that cartoon every Saturday, digging on rotating villains, amazing weapons, and Tiamat the dragon. It was violent, epic, and unapologetically unlike any other cartoon I’d ever seen.
On a visit to my grandparents’ home, I found Larry not only had D&D toys, he had a lot of D&D toys. Many of the toys back were big pieces of PVC, sometimes articulated with inner-wired tentacles, though he had several traditional-style action figures, too. I was really into Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, and my mother couldn’t see investing in yet another toy line (wait, that’s not true – He-Man was in there somewhere, too). The only D&D toy I ended up with was still a pretty cool one: Grimsword the Evil Knight.
What I remember most about that visit is that I learned D&D was more than toys and cartoons – it was a game, too. But it was unlike any game I’d ever seen; this game had more paper, pencil drawings, and loads of imagination. Larry had this tri-fold cardboard border that stood up to separate the players’ information with his information as “Dungeon Master,” a terms I was familiar with from the cartoon. He and his friends spoke of characters they created, beings and creatures depicted in numbers and lists as well as the occasional rough pencil sketch. I was already enamored with drawing, so pretty soon I was making up my own characters, too.
Larry and his friends let me play a game with them. I don’t want to go on some sort of smug self-indulgent tale about how at the age of four-nearly five, I could follow the game, write up my character, and even read the monster descriptions (I could, though. Ask my mother.), but that’s what happened. I remember having trouble understanding why certain dice did certain things, but they kept it simple and were all pretty understanding of this tag-a-long kid. I didn’t have much to do with D&D after that for around a decade.
In middle school and high school, I spent a lot of time in Aaron Weet’s basement playing AD&D 2nd Edition (I’m now aware Gygax was shed of royalties by shady TSR dealings through this distinction from his regular, Gygax-controlled D&D, but we didn’t know, and this was what was new at the time) at the end of elementary school, all of middle school, and some early high school. Our group was more into hack-and-slash missions and goofing off while playing, much to Aaron’s chagrin as DM. One mission I remember playing over and over was Of Kings Unknown, a kill-the-orcs, get the gold adventure from Dungeon Magazine #25 where characters gathered a fruit called “moon melons” for some old guy. If one ate the moon melons, crazy stuff happened to them, like a change in size, intelligence, armor class due to the growth of natural armor or exoskeleton, or even grow additional eyes. My ultimate grand idea? Find a way to raise an army of a thousand skeleton warriors and go toe-to-toe with a dragon for his hoarde (in fact, this dragon in particular). This eventually lead us to picking up a lot of books by Palladium, too, including Heroes Unlilmited and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. Sidenote: the TMNT role-playing game was especially interesting to own and play at the height of ninja turtlemania. All of our friends were obsessed with the Saturday-morning cartoon depiction of the characters, while we who played the role-playing game came to learn of their comic book origins and their original, more adult-oriented adventures.
Between AD&D 2nd Edition, TMNT, HU, Magic: The Gathering, and epic, sweeping board games like Risk and Axis & Allies, gaming was a big part of my life, and the social networks and companionship it developed in us as young men was an important part of my growing up. I learned how to explore my imagination within an established world, expand it to the creation of my own endeavors, and appreciate the nuanced details one can take when creating a storytelling world. As far as I can figure, much of this has to do with Gary Gygax.
Gary had imagination, and he was generous enough to not only share it with the world but also allow people to take his vision and do something new with it. I’m not talking about shady TSR business practices, I’m talking about how he empowered young men everywhere to write up characters, adventures, and have a great time with good friends. I think this has a direct correlation to many of those involved in creative entertainment today; the effects of Gary’s vision are far-reaching.
If you have a D&D story to share, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll give you a +1 pat on the back.
[tags]Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons, D&D, D & D, ninja turtles, imagination, heroes unlimited[/tags]