If you haven't heard, E. Gary Gygax passed away today. That name either means a great deal to you, or nothing at all, but I'm sure that all of you have felt the repurcussions of his life's work.
You see, Gary created a little game called Dungeons and Dragons back in 1974. Unsatisfied with his miniatures war-gaming rules because they didn't encompass anything but the battles, he (and Dave Arnesen) fleshed them out, creating the first Role Playing Game. Sounds like a prosaic enough feat, but remember, there'd never been anything like this before. There had always been winners and losers, always been cards or boards or the like to tell you who was the victor. Players were themselves, and they won or lost as they competed against other players. Not any more. The role playing game allowed for a collaborative game, with evolving storylines and the ability to play characters other than yourself.
Now, Dungeons and Dragons has taken a great deal of flack for being many things over the years. A haven for nerds, geeks, and social misfits, for one. To some extent, sure, that's true. You talk to gamers, and some of them are a bit out there. Still when you look at it, it's a nerdy world these days, and being relegated to the sub-basement of morbid geekdom because you roll weird dice sometimes seems a bit unfair. Is that any more nerdy than, say, fantasy football? I don't think so. But this piece isn't an encomium to D&D, but rather, a farewell to a guy who, for some of us, provided us with an amazing outlet for creativity.
I was exposed to D&D when I was about eight years old, playing with my family. I remember getting killed just about every adventure when we were playing "Village of Hommlet". I loved every minute of it. I wanted more. I pestered the Dungeon Master about Owlbears until he threatened to have one come and eat my next character.
There were times in my life after that when I had no one to play these games with, but I always had the books, the original hardcover AD&D books written by Gygax, to keep me company. For me, I didn't even need to play the game. I could read about the monsters and the characters and simply dream about the game. It gave me license to concoct my own adventures with fighters and wizards and owlbears. Those books were my friends. Along with Tolkien and King, they formed my articles of faith for imagination.
It's not just me and a few other basement gamers who have been influenced by Gygax's work. Anyone who's enjoyed games like Heretic, Diablo, World of Warcraft, or Everquest owes Gygax a debt. He pioneered the idea of building a character and using them as a conduit to experience a fantastic world. I'm sure someone else would have eventually figured it out, but he DID IT. If you play computer games, your walking on the ground that Dungeons and Dragons conqured.
I was able to meet Gary Gygax a few times in the early 2000s, and he was a really nice guy. He remained enthusiastic and thoughtful as the game he'd created changed and changed again. The last few times I saw him, though, he seemed to be in poor health. It was for this reason that I was saddened, but not terribly surprised to hear of his passing. As I told one of my friends today, I like to think Gary lived his life the way he wanted to and accomplished a great deal in his 69 years. All the gamers of yesteryear and today owe him a debt. Farewell, Mr. Gygax. You will be missed.