From the Vault: Thank you for giving us endless worlds to explore, Gary Gygax. Rest in peace.

This was originally written and posted in 2008:

I just found out that Gary Gygax died. He was only 69.

I failed my save vs. stunning blow, so forgive me if this isn't the most polished thing in the world.

For most geeks, RPGs are a huge part of who we are, and many of the games I've loved — and continue to love — probably wouldn't exist as they do without Gary Gygax. The news reports are calling him "the father of D&D," but he was really the father of all role playing games, whether they were played with dice and paper, a deck of cards, or on a computer. Yeah, wargames existed before D&D, and fantasy existed before D&D, but D&D is the game that introduced fantasy gaming to my generation.

I didn't know him, and never met him, but his impact upon my life can't be overstated.

To honor his passing, I'd like to share an excerpt from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek, from Happiest Days of Our Lives:

December, 1983

I sat on the floor in Aunt Val’s house and opened up her Christmas present to me. It was a red box with a really cool-looking dragon on the front of it. Inside, there were a few books, some dice, a map, and a crayon to color in the dice.

“That’s a game that I hear lots of kids like to play, Willow,” she said. “It’s dragons and wizards and those things you liked from The Hobbit. The back says you use your imagination, and I know what a great imagination you have.” My brother played with Legos and my cousins played with handheld electronic games. I felt a little gypped.

“Wow,” I said, masking my disappointment. “Thanks, Aunt Val!”

Later, while the other kids played with Simon and Mattel Electronic Football, I sat near the fireplace and examined my gift. It said that I could be a wizard or a fighter, but there weren’t any pieces that looked like that. There were a lot of weird dice, but I had to color in the numbers. That seemed silly, but at least it was something to do, so I grabbed the black crayon and rubbed it over the pale blue dice, just like the instructions said.

Aunt Val (who was my favorite relative in the world throughout my entire childhood and right up until she died a few years ago) walked into the living room. “What do you think, Willow?”

“I colored the dice,” I said, and showed her the result. “But I haven’t read the book yet.”

She patted my leg. “Well, I hope you like it.” She moved to the other side of the room, where my cousin Jack poked at a Nintendo Game and Watch.

I opened the Player’s Guide and began to read.

February, 1984

It was afternoon PE in fifth grade, and I was terrified. I ran and jumped and ducked, surrounded by a jeering crowd of my classmates. The PE teacher did nothing to stop the attack – and, in fact, encouraged it.

“Get him!” someone yelled as I fell to the asphalt, small rocks digging into my palms. I breathed hard. Through my adrenaline-fueled flight-or-fight response, the world slowed, the jeering faded, and I wondered to myself why our playground was just a parking lot and why we had to wear corduroy pants in the middle of a Southern California heat wave. Before I could offer any answers, a clear and loud voice spoke from within my head. “Hey,” it said. “You’d better get up and move, or you’re dead.”

I nodded my head and looked up in time to see the red playground ball, spinning in slow motion, as the word “Voit” rotated into view. Pain exploded across my face and a mighty cheer erupted from the crowd. The PE teacher blew her whistle.

I don’t know how I managed to be the last kid standing on our team. I usually ran right to the front of the court so I could get knocked out quickly and (hopefully) painlessly before the good players got worked up by the furor of battle and started taking head shots, but I’d been stricken by a bout of temporary insanity – possibly caused by the heat – on this February day, and I’d actually played to win the game, using a very simple strategy: run like hell and hope to get lucky.

I blinked back tears as I looked up at Jimmie Just, who had delivered the fatal blow. Jimmie was the playground bully. He spent as much time in the principal’s office as he did in our classroom, and he was the most feared dodgeball player at the Lutheran School of the Foothills.

He laughed at me, his long hair stuck to his face in sweaty mats, and sneered. “Nice try, Wil the Pill.”

I picked myself up off the ground, determined not to cry. I sucked in deep breaths of air through my nose.

Mrs. Cooper, the PE teacher, walked over to me. “Are you okay, Wil?” she asked.

“Uh-huh,” I lied. Anything more than that and I risked breaking down into humiliating sobs that would follow me around the rest of the school year, and probably on into sixth grade.

“Why don’t you go wash off your face,” she said, not unkindly, “and sit down for a minute.”

“Okay,” I said. I walked slowly across the blacktop to the drinking fountains. Maybe if I really took my time, I could run out the clock and I wouldn’t have to play another stupid dodgeball game.

January, 1984

Papers scattered across my bed appeared to be homework to the casual observer, but to me they were people. A thief, a couple of wizards, some fighters: a party of adventurers who desperately wanted to storm The Keep on the Borderlands. But without anyone to guide them, they sat alone, trapped in the purgatory of my bedroom, straining behind college-ruled blue lines to come to life.

I tried to recruit my younger brother to play with me, but he was 7, and more interested in Monchichi. The kids in my neighborhood were more interested in football and riding bikes, so I was left to read through module B2 by myself, wandering the Caves of Chaos and dodging Lizard Men alone.

February, 1984

I washed my face and drank deeply from the drinking fountain. By the time I made it back to the benches along the playground’s southern edge, I’d lost the urge to cry, but my face radiated enough heat to compete with the blistering La Crescenta sun.

I sat down near Simon Teele, who, thanks to the wonders of alphabetization, ended up with me and Harry Yan (the school’s lone Asian kid) on field trips, on fire drills, and in chapel. Simon was taller than all of us, wore his hair down into his face, and really kept to himself. He was reading an oversized book that sort of looked like a textbook, filled with charts and tables.

We weren’t officially friends, but I knew him well enough to make polite conversation.

“Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you have to play dodgeball?”

“Asthma,” he said.

“Lucky,” I said. “I hate dodgeball.”

“Everyone hates dodgeball,” he said, “except Jimmie Just.”

“Yeah,” I said, relieved to hear someone else say out loud what I’d been thinking since fourth grade.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you reading?”

He held up the book and I saw its cover: a giant statue, illuminated by torches, sat behind an archway. Two guys were on its head, prying loose one of its jeweled eyes, as a group of people stood at the base. One was clearly a wizard; another was obviously a knight.

“Player’s Handbook,” he said. “Do you play D&D?”

I gasped. According to our ultra-religious school, D&D was Satanic. I looked up for teachers, but none were nearby. A hundred feet away on the playground, another game of dodgeball was underway. I involuntarily flinched when I heard the hollow pang! of the ball as it skipped off the ground.

“You’re going to get in trouble if you get caught with that,” I said.

“No, I won’t,” he said. “If I just keep it turned upside down, they’ll never see it. So do you play or not?”

“I have the red box set,” I said, “and a bunch of characters, but I don’t have anyone to play with.”

“That’s Basic,” he said. “This is Advanced.”

“Oh.”

“But if you want, you could come over to my house this weekend and we could play.”

I couldn’t believe my good luck. With a dodgeball to the face, Fate put me on the bench next to the kid who, over the next few months, helped me take my first tentative steps down the path to geekdom. He had a ton of AD&D books: the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which had a truly terrifying demon on the cover, and would result in certain expulsion if seen at school; the Monster Manual, which was filled with dragons; and the Fiend Folio, which not only had demons and devils, but a harpy and a nymph, accompanied by a drawing of a naked woman! with boobs!!

Simon’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his mom in a huge house in La Canada. His room was filled with evidence of a custody Cold War. Too many toys to count littered the floor and spilled out of the closet, but even though we were surrounded by Atari and Intellivision, GI Joe and Transformers, we had D&D fever, and the only prescription was more polyhedral dice.

Of all the things I do that make me a geek, nothing brings me as much joy as gaming. It all started with the D&D Basic Set, and today it takes an entire room in my house to contain all of my books, boxes, and dice.

Thank you for giving us endless worlds to explore, Gary Gygax. Rest in peace.

 

16 thoughts on “From the Vault: Thank you for giving us endless worlds to explore, Gary Gygax. Rest in peace.”

  1. “a custody Cold War” — what an excellent metaphor!
    Thanks for a fantastic (re)post. What a great way to end the weekend. I shall sleep soundly with wistful memories of an 80’s middle school experience floating through my head, when my friends and I thought for sure that “Gary Gygax” had to be a made up name–it was just too alliterative and cool.

  2. Wow… slight goosebumps here. When I was the same age, it was 1968, I was sad that the Monkees weren’t going to be on TV anymore, and there was a potential ‘custody cold war’ happening in our house too. I’ve lost my Davy Jones, and you all have lost your Gary Gygax. My sympathies to you all, as I think the games of today were borne from D&D experiences? And I know how much our nephew enjoys some of them. I raise my coffee mug after a moment of silence.

  3. Great story. I missed the first publish of it in 2008. I have a friend of mine’s little brother to thank for D and D.
    Went over to his house to play and he wasn’t home. I think it was 1983 or 1984 and I was about 12 years old. My friends brother was year or two younger than me but still a cool kid.
    Said he had a neat game and since Mike wasn’t around if I wanted to play. Out came the red box and after I got home that day I got my Mom to buy it for me too.
    Even had my dad get a huge plank of particle board where I drew cross hatching to play on like a psuedo board game version with lead minatures!
    Probably one of the most impactful parts of my life was this game and still effects my reading, movies, conversations, etc.
    Oh, and in 2011 I found Mike’s little brother on facebook and thanked him for introducing it to me formally.

  4. It’s a gaming convention organized by Gary’s family and friends to honor him. This year’s edition will be the fourth. According to my better half, it’s kind of an old-school type of convention, more about actual gaming and less about vendors. Gary’s son Ernie usually hosts at least one DnD session at his home in Lake Geneva and I hear he’s a pretty mean DM.
    Check them out on Facebook, under “Gary Con Gaming Convention” or at garycon.com

  5. Thanks for sharing this one. I have some great memories from the early to mid 80’s of those exact books and your descriptions gave me some flashbacks to some old, faded, and worn books of my childhood. Thanks to those books, I loved The Hobbitt and The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to Tolkien and HG Wells, I am getting ready to graduate with my degree in English. It’s amazing how many of us had some very similar experiences regarding gym. Me? I was picked right after the big girl with thick glasses and held the disctinction for being the only kid that struck out at kickball – on more than one occassion (no joke).
    Now? I’m proudly teaching my three children about Star Trek and why the guy in the red shirt never comes back. They wanted to know “What happens if the Captain dies while they’re on the planet?” I got to tell them how he’ll never die. ;)

  6. AMAZING read….really brought me back to smack dab in the middle of our little gaming store in PA…..surrounded by ADD, Car Wars and any other game I could get my hands on. :) Really miss those days. :) Thanks!

  7. never got into role playing games, though I think I may have if I had the chance…huge lord of the rings fan and I hated PE too.
    Just played Settlers of Catan last week and that was pretty awesome…not quite role playing but fun nonetheless.

  8. D&D was a ‘boys’ game’ as well as being a tool of Satan (I always thought that was the Ouija board, but I guess Satan can have multiple tools, right? Rush Limbaugh comes to mind…)
    Anyway, I never played growing up because my parents wouldn’t allow it. I look forward to introducing my boys to DnD when they’re old enough.

  9. There is also a movement underway (slowly) to get a statue raised in his honor in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They have the place approved to place it, but I believe they are still raising funds. If it is OK with Wil, I could give the link to the page.

  10. Only marginally off-topic… WHERE can I buy The Happiest Days of Our Lives? I see the hardcopy is pretty pricey on Amazon (I’m more of a Kindle gal myself anyways) – I’ve heard legends of an audiobook version, but can’t seem to find a link to anywhere it is actually, currently available.
    Help?

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