Mourning in Greyhawk

>> Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I got an e-mail from a friend today, asking me why I hadn't passed along the news that Gary Gygax had died. Well, I hadn't heard about it. I knew that Gygax's health had been bad for quite a few years, I think I'd even read about him undergoing several major hospitalizations. So I guess I wasn't really surprised, even if he was only 69, which isn't that old anymore.

I suppose there may be a few people dropping by for whom the name doesn't quite ring a bell, or who hear the bell chiming but can't quite connect it to a tune. Gygax was the co-inventor of Dungeons And Dragons way back when, with Dave Arneson, and it was Gygax whose name was synonymous with D&D and its original publisher, TSR, for many long years. It was Gygax's name on the front cover of all those first edition rules manuals back in the day.

This is the third draft of this post. It's not that I'm sooo emotional about something I think we all sort of knew was coming. It's that D&D has been a part of my psyche for so long that it's hard to write a personal reminiscence about Gygax that doesn't get hopelessly diverted into a story about my own childhood. And while I don't mind doing that, it doesn't quite seem appropriate, either. (So maybe there is an emotional subtext there, after all.) I'd say that for a lot of us, Gygax was someone we never met but sort of knew, a legendary figure heard of from afar who was a constant presence in our geeky lives even when we didn't think about it in those terms. We all had those well-worn rulebooks at hand, could quote from tables memorized through use, had ridiculously strong youthful opinions about the fundamental rightness or utter bone-headedness of various parts of the rules system. We could argue all day, and sometimes did, over whether the D&D rules adequately captured the properties of things we'd only seen in movies or handled briefly at a Renaissance Faire. And what we were really arguing, though we never noticed at the time, was E. Gary Gygax's knowledge of history or science or myth.

You only had to read an interview with Gygax to know he had his faults and they were near the surface. His strengths weren't always apparent because we were so familiar with things he'd written that we took them for granted. (And it might be speculated that his faults may have loomed so large because we were really disappointed that he had any at all. No hero survives scrutiny, even one you don't consciously idolize.) Picking up the old first edition books after so many years, especially after one has seen the game systems that followed (including the 3.x Dungeons And Dragons rulebooks), one is immediately impressed with Gygax's patience as a teacher. While the D&D rules address themselves to adults, Gygax had to know that most of his audience wouldn't be grown ups (grown ups so rarely made time for elves and magic in those days): and yet he assumed his readers would be intelligent and educated and he addressed his audience as a patient teacher who respects his students as peers. The first edition Dungeon Master's Guide begins with a discussion of probability and ends with appendices that include sundry matters such as herbalism, gambling, the meanings of common Latin abbreviations, and a wide-ranging bibliography of fantasy literature that includes Lovecraft, Moorcock, Tolkien, Vance, Leiber and Howard, among others. The first edition Player's Handbook includes, within its first dozen pages, not only a definition of a gaming term but a discussion of the game design considerations that went into the term's use. Subsequent RPGs may have benefited from more consistent and more organic rules systems--one can't argue, for instance, that the 3.x D&D rules aren't a far better gaming system than the original rules (cobbled together from a dozen independent subsystems). But few of these games assume that the reader is an intelligent person who likes learning things: Gygax never wrote for an imaginary lowest common denominator, instead he wrote with faith that his reader would rise to the occasion.

For those of you with the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide and the 3.5 DMG, here's a demonstration. On pages 94-100 of Gary Gygax's DMG, you will find an example of how Dungeons And Dragons is to be played. On pages 8-10 of the 3.5 edition of the DMG, you will also find an example of play. Amusingly enough (and to the credit of the 3.5 authors), they're the exact same example of play, or rather, they're the same scenario played out under the different versions of the rules.

Now, here's the sad thing: Gygax's version involves a Shakespeare reference and brief discussions of tactics and architecture. The 3.5 version of the same exact scenario involves a bit more discussion of dice rolls and a little bit of metagaming. I don't want to dwell too much on it, and I certainly don't want to be unkind to the hard work of the folks who have contributed to the game since Gygax went on to other things. As I said a moment ago, in many respects the current version of D&D is a far better system than the first edition ever had the potential to be. But... while the system has improved, the writing itself has gotten dumber. Sure, Wizards Of The Coast sells a lot of D&D rulebooks to kids... so did TSR. The current editorial decision is to make sure the books are accessible; Gygax's editorial call was to assume that if someone didn't understand something they would go look it up, like he would if he didn't understand something. He took the reader's intelligence as a given.

He'll be missed. It's too late for me to thank him, I guess, but I'll throw this out there onto the wilds of the internet anyway: thank you, Mr. Gygax. You've given me years of pleasure, and you treated me like I was a smart kid when I was young and insecure, and needed people to treat me like a smart kid. That's at least two I owe you.

Other memorials can be found here:
Boing Boing
Troll Lord Games (Gygax's last publishing partner)
J.D. Wiker
Wil Wheaton
Penny Arcade (thanks, Tania!)


Tania Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 1:37:00 AM EST  

It feels like a part of my kidhood has passed away.

I thought the Penny Arcade guys did a nice memorial. Poignant and funny.

Eric Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 11:27:00 AM EST  

It does feel that way, doesn't it?

I was waiting for the PA guys to chime in, and even looked to see if there was an entry on the blog section of PA when I was including memorial links. Tycho, as we all know, rolls 20s.

I'm adding the link you included to the memorials section in the main post.

Michelle K Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 11:45:00 AM EST  

Although I haven't gamed in years, I've been thinking about D&D recently.

Although my real life personality is lawful good, I realized that I tend to present myself on-line as chaotic neutral. Which was the nice thing about gaming--it allowed me to be the thing I wanted to be in my heart, without actually, you know, hurting anything or anyone.

But I was never any good at gaming, because I'm a morning person and never have been able to stay up all night for anything.

Thanks for the post and the links.

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