R.I.P., E.G.G.: I’m… [rolls dice]… saddened by his passing

Gary Gygax passed away yesterday. Tributes and discussions popped up all over the web for the co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons — the venerable tabletop roleplaying game (“RPG”), forerunner of today’s immensely popular fantasy multi-player computer roleplaying games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft.

(My favorite article about Gygax, which I read far too late into the evening last night, was this extremely funny and well-written story from 2006.)

In 1979, as an awkward 12-year-old newly arrived to America, with a weird British accent and not a single friend in the entire country, I stumbled across a lunchtime club at my junior high school playing AD&D. I joined in. In the first few minutes I played, the party was encountering a group of mind flayers, far tougher monsters than our group of low-level characters could handle. The mind flayers asked for a sacrifice to let the rest of the party go free. Not understanding the rules at all, trying to hard to ingratiate myself with the other players, I volunteered to be the sacrifice. The DM nodded and said, “Ok, you’re dead.” Wait, what? Your character can die in this game? What kind of game is this! Fortunately, over time, I got better at playing.

I introduced the game to my brothers and cousin, and we played. A lot. An awful lot. I played with them and other groups, through college and beyond. We tried many different RPGs over the years, but always kept going back to AD&D. To the chagrin of my wife, there’s still a huge stash of old AD&D books and modules and character sheets taking up space in our hall closet.

As my brother Rob said, on one occasion of taking up the game again, “The fact you can kill some monsters, roll some dice, and end up with 10,000 gold pieces is just awesome.” Sure, more modern games are better designed, better balanced, take less time — but the appeal of a game with such charming and bizarre rules, that is powered mainly by imagination, and offers infinite (even unbalanced) possibilities, and defies the entire concept of “game” by having no winners and no end — well, you can’t beat that. (Literally.)

Over the years, Gary lost control of the company he founded to sell D&D, and different versions of the game came out that he had nothing to do with. The newest versions seem to have lost a lot of the soul and quirkiness of the original. The original game was earnestly written, each page of the dense rules packed with ideas all happily lifted from dozens of sources ranging from Tolkien to Moorcock; dungeons were populated with mythic Greek creatures living side by side with creatures out of Arthurian legend or gothic horror or Arabian Nights. It stretched my vocabulary and creativity.

It was never a “cool” game though, and even here and now it’s a bit weird to be typing this up, knowing there’s a stigma with associating yourself with such an uncool pastime. I never met Gary, but the profiles and interviews paint him as an uncool guy. But a happy guy, a generous guy, and a supremely creative guy — who was not ashamed to be uncool.

These days, geeks and nerds aren’t so reluctant to identify themselves as such. Geekdom is slowly becoming cool. Vin Diesel plays D&D, and Vin Diesel is cool. So what the heck. In honor of Ernest Gary Gygax, creator of works that fired up my teenage imagination such as The Tomb of Horrors, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and (most of all) Against the Giants — I hereby admit my enjoyment of Dungeons and Dragons, and raise a flagon of mead to salute the life of the man who started it all. Thank you, Gary, and RIP.

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