How Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax changed geekdom forever.

Bringing out the dead.
March 6 2008 12:17 PM

Farewell to the Dungeon Master

How D&D creator Gary Gygax changed geekdom forever.

Gary Gygax. Click image to expand.
Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was the salvation and curse of nerds worldwide. The co-founder of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, who passed away on Tuesday at 69, created a form of fantasy escapism that you could share with others. D&D unified geeks, giving them accoutrements (multisided dice, colored figurines) and a language that bound them together. It was a secret club of sorts, a playground where social outcasts could be themselves and vent over life's frustrations. That wasn't always a good thing—playing Dungeons & Dragons didn't generally lead to activities like going outside or talking to girls. Still, a caffeine-fueled marathon D&D session was a place where your geeky tendencies were something to be celebrated rather than an affliction to be overcome.

Yes, we all knew, deep inside, that D&D wasn't cool. Being able to say, "I cast a Level 3 lightning bolt at the basilisk while averting my eyes so I don't turn to stone" doesn't have the social pull of "I know a guy who will buy us some alcohol." Even despite the social stigma, millions of people, me included, wouldn't have made it through adolescence without Dungeons & Dragons. A dedicated bookworm, I devoured D&D's rule books. It was more important for me to know how to repel the undead or make a flesh golem than to watch baseball or learn karate. Becoming a dungeon master, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in geekery, gave me a sense of mastery and accomplishment, not to mention my first real leadership experience.

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Gygax thought a gaming experience wasn't complete without a good group of people to play with. He co-founded the International Federation of Wargamers in 1966. A year later, the first meeting of Gen Con—now a huge gaming convention—was held in his basement. In 1974, Gygax and his collaborator Dave Arneson published the Fantasy Game, later renamed Dungeons & Dragons.

The game Gygax created is easy to describe but difficult to imagine. My D&D pals and I basically sat around a table "role-playing"—i.e., pretending to be people with more interesting lives. Using dice and figurines, we brought to life the fictional characters we'd created on paper. Like life, Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have specific goals. The game never quite ends. Rather, you choose your path, grow, and suffer setbacks. Sometimes you have to start all over. Most of the game takes place in your head, with the dungeon master acting as referee and director. He sets the scene by describing what your character sees or, in the case of a spear thrust into your neck, feels.

The genius of D&D is the way it parcels out rules and fantasy. The game tethers the imagination just enough to keep you focused on an imaginary world (main goal: slaying nasty things for profit) without putting limits on what you could do inside that world. Dungeons & Dragons is like the greatest Etch A Sketch on earth: It gives you the tools to create whatever you want.

While D&D certainly encourages creativity, the ingredients Gygax conjured weren't exactly original. The game's stew of swords, sorcery, and mythological beasts was mostly appropriated from pulp writers and fantasy greats like H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien. Gygax's skill in integrating fantasies, however, was unparalleled—the world of D&D may have medieval trappings, but its creatures were unbound by time or place. He took monsters from every culture and folklore, from the Greek Pegasus to the Japanese Kirin dragon to the Egyptian sphinx, and made them coexist in a single aggregate world.