Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Big Dungeon in the Sky

Gary Gygax died today. Don't feel bad if you don't know who he is. Most Americans have never heard of him. For a select few known as gamers, Gygax was a legend. His life's work helped many nerds and geeks find friendship over a game involving polyhedral dice, small painted metal figures and a world of imagination.
In 1974, Gygax and Dave Arneson published a game called Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) where players assume the roles of wizards, rangers, knights, clerics or other archetypes from high fantasy. Inspired largely by mythology and fantasy, D&D caught on in 1977 when Gygax's company, TSR, published a box set. That was followed in 1978 by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The game went through a few more rule changes but its popularity is still strong today.
The game is the bane of several fundamental religious groups who claim role-playing games are Satanic. Some of the early artwork and demon stats in the earlier books enforce this, but, contrary to Jack Chick, players don't embark on quests only to kill themselves in the municipal sewer system. That's bullshit.
I remember joining the Dungeons & Dragons Club at my junior high school in 1983. Video arcades captured my interest as a kid, but it was this paper and pencil game that really grabbed me. I liked how the Dungeon Master created adventures for his players using story telling and imagination, two things missing from my video-addled, television-infused youth.
I bought the main rulebooks, the Monster Manual, Deities and Demigods and a few modules. Yes, adventures back then were called modules. I bought a bunch of the metal figures which were probably made from lead. Those early D&D books are among my most prized possessions. Where else can you see an illustration of bare-chested succubus or nymph? As a teenager too young to buy a skin mag, this was the next best thing. I even had the early blue box set and a stack of Dragon Magazines from the early 1980s, which my mother threw away a few years ago, not knowing what they were.
Several years passed and I hadn't cracked open any of my D&D books. I abandoned RPGs for the brain-numbing fun of computer games. In high school I started playing a game called Torg. I liked it, but wasn't interested in continuing with RPGs then. After all, they're for socially awkward geeks, right?
When I was in my 20s, I found a game store in Cape May County, New Jersey. The owner got me interested in a game called Deadlands, a Western game set in an alternative past. A few years later, I wrote to the owner of Pinnacle Entertainment, Shane Hensley, the designer and creator of Deadlands. I contributed an article to his short-lived magazine, The Deadlands Epitaph. I'm in my 30s and designing my own RPG called The Ravaged Earth Society that will be compatible with Pinnacle's Savage Worlds system.
So everything came full-circle. I'd like to think Gary Gygax inspired me when I was 14, with that first roll of the polyhedral dice, when my character Champion Ator crawled through the dungeon of Zaporon's mountain fortress, avoiding orcs and discovering treasure.
Thanks for your creation, Mr. Gygax. You're more than the father of RPGs - you're the father of countless dreams and worlds.

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