Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Passing of Gary Gygax

I read today that one of the icons of my childhood has passed.

Now, I realize that I could probably write a post like this at least once a week. There's always someone noteworthy, someone worthy of respect and remembrance, passing on. I found myself wondering a week ago about whether I should write something about the passing of the great William F. Buckley. He was an institution, after all. He left such a mark on the political scene of this nation that had he not existed, it's fair to say politics in this country would have developed so differently that none of us would recognize it.

Of course, he was such a colorful character that the personal tributes that have been penned since his passing nearly always contain some off-the-wall anecdote. One personal recollection I read mentioned the fact that for someone with such a huge vocabulary and powerful wit, he was in fact a lousy Scrabble player. The comment was made that maybe this was because he was unaccustomed to speaking in words of eight letters or fewer.

Now, I'm not really the one to pen a tribute to William F. Buckley, not having been intimately acquainted with either the man or his work (aside from a brief subscription to National Review a few years back, which I decided to let lapse because I couldn't find the time to read it). For tributes, go to the National Review site--there are some very moving and insightful ones there.

But another man passed today for whom I can provide a tribute. If Buckley was the man responsible for introducing phrases like "Immanentizing the Eschaton" into the modern lexicon, today we mourn the passing of the man who introduced phrases like "Armor Class" and "Hit Points" and "Saving Throw", and who was responsible for introducing many a budding mathematician and engineer to the Platonic solids.

Gary Gygax, the creator of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game franchise, passed on to "one of the Outer Planes" earlier today at age 69.

Yup. I was a D&D gamer back in my Junior High days.

(I can just hear all the astonished gasps from my readership...)

Of course, not long after its introduction the game quickly became associated with geekdom; those who played it were usually not considered the cool people. But you know? We didn't really care. The fact was, the game was fascinating. Most of us had developed a taste for fantasy literature--Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander (the Prydain Chronicles), Terry Brooks (The Sword of Shannara, etc...), Piers Anthony, the list goes on. And what we found was that after reading and digesting one of these works, our imaginations would be lost in that world. These fantasy realms were so much more interesting than the mundane realm we inhabited--of grim and grey schools, where jocks and cheerleaders fancied themselves our betters, where the opportunity to do great things and be great people so rarely presented itself. After reading these books, we wanted to inhabit them; we wanted to walk the vale of Lorien, we wanted to lead a cavalry charge, we wanted to scale the side of Mount Doom, we wanted to pick the pocket of the corrupt nobleman and slink away into the shadows.

Gygax figured out a way to transport us into those worlds. We were no longer passive observers, merely reading about these great realms and wishing we could have been there; we could now participate. We could affect these worlds, and be affected by them; we could experience fear, and joy; we could act with wisdom, or with folly, and reap the consequences of our actions; we could display heroism, and face death. We did not merely read stories of bravery, heroism, or magnanimity; we got to live them.

And it should be noted that some of our number lost themselves so completely in the game that they never came out. It's not always easy to disengage the imagination. Occasionally one would hear of a player who became so despondent over the death of his character in the game, one that he'd been playing and developing for months or years, that he would commit suicide. This, of course, would be followed by parental campaigns to do away with the game. And there were questions raised from time to time about all the combat imagined in the game; there was lots of fighting of monsters--and of other people--involved, and that didn't sit well with certain segments of society. Furthermore, there were of course magical elements in the game, that caused concern among many Christian parents. Some of us felt a little like rebels for playing.

Rebel or not, though, I think it was actually good for most of us--especially considering the other things kids can get themselves into these days. At least we were there engaging our minds. The game helped some people with their reading and creative writing skills, with artistic skills, and even with math skills. All this was especially true for those who were the Dungeon Masters; they had to develop a scenario--including maps, placement of monsters and other challenges--and then keep track of a thousand little details as they acted as a neutral arbiters between the players and the challenges written into the scenario.

(And you have to admit, we adolescent boys who were deeply into Dungeons and Dragons were generally not engaging in underage sex.)

Truth be told, there were some difficulties that I and my brothers had with the game. For one thing, the game works best when you have at least five or six people, and we didn't often have that. During the time we were most interested in D&D, my family lived near Air Force bases in Germany. We would occasionally have the chance to get together with other Air Force brats to play a game, but mostly it was my two brothers and me--which really isn't enough to do it justice. And to do it right, you can't just play it occasionally--it has to be a regular commitment, so that everyone can see everyone else's characters grow and change in a fantasy world that has some continuity from one adventure to the next.

And then there are inevitable problems that result when your character dies unexpectedly. What do you do for the rest of the afternoon, while all your other friends are discussing strategies to sneak up on all those bugbears? We had a beginners' scenario once, where we all went in with newly-created Level 1 characters, and my thief fell into a pit in the very first room we entered and took enough hit-point damage from the fall to kill him. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around outside wishing some of my other friends would die so I could have someone to talk to.

So having a really good D&D campaign was difficult to arrange. You need lots of people who are willing to commit to showing up every time the group gets together; you need to have contingencies in case someone gets knocked out of the game too soon (like, will they meet any wandering strangers during the course of the game, that you can assign to the bereaved player?), you need a good, imaginative, and fair-yet-flexible Dungeon Master who's committed to a successful campaign (successful from the point of the players, not necessarily their characters--there's a difference). These things are not always all available, and as a result my D&D experiences were sometimes a little frustrating.

Nevertheless, I have many fond memories of playing the game, and I've often found myself in agreement with what this guy said:

Yet I've remained nostalgic about D&D. I still have a box, stashed away in the recesses of my basement, that holds a Player's Handbook, a Monster Manual, and, of course, the DMG with that big red monster on the cover. Duct tape is the only thing keeping these battered volumes together. Stuffed into the box with them are a collection of adventure modules, stacks of character sheets, and folders full of carefully drawn maps of cities, kingdoms, and worlds that have existed only in my imagination. It's a pretty big box, this one. And no — as I inform my wife every year or two — I won't get rid of it.

That's because I've long harbored a secret notion in the back of my mind: Wouldn't it be awesome to get a game going again?

There. I've said it. If you feel an urgent need to call me a big loser, I'm ready to take it like a man.

Well, yes, there would be something awesome about it. Ain't going to happen anytime soon, but it'd still be awesome.

Anyone else out there have thoughts on Gygax or D&D, his +3 Gift to Geekdom, that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear about it.


silvermine said...

It was actually my parents that introduced it to us. We used to sit around and play as a family. (Crazy people!)

Anyway, I just read this after I logged out of World of Warcraft, where I play with my husband. ;) Not all geeks were boys! (Before we got married, we had a weekly game of Runequest, with some GURPS and a few other things mixed in. Usually played from noon to sunrise...)

The McMullen Family said...

And, uh...shouldn't this D&D admission have gone into your Five Sordid Facts post? Hmmmm??

Actually, my husband was into D&D too, and he earned his Eagle Scout. What a geek. A well-prepared geek.

Timothy Power said...

McMullen Family,

I did say in my post on sordidness that I had plenty vices to choose from; the five you saw weren't the only five I have. :-)

But actually, I don't really consider D&D a vice--at least, it isn't so long as the players maintain a proper balance between D&D and the other, non-fantasy aspects of their lives.

Now World of Warcraft, that's a different case entirely. :-)

Just kidding. Silvermine, I remember that those young ladies who were interested in the Role Playing Games were considered highly, highly desirable by the male geeks--partly because there were so few of them, partly because they understood us and could relate, and partly because they didn't treat us like bugs (like all the other women did). My guess is your husband probably considers himself a very fortunate man.

marshymallow said...

It was my (reverend!) father who introduced me to D&D, and we also used to play as a family - still do, 'smatter of fact.

And I can attest to the desirability of female gamers. Once the guys in my highschool found out I played... Put is this way - it was definately a lot easier for me to get a game started than my brother.

Good times, good times.