Gary Gygax, 1938-2008

The world of role-playing and strategy gaming lost its most cherished icon when Gary Gygax passed away yesterday at the age of 69. A life-long resident of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gygax discovered strategy games in 1953, and quickly developed a passion for not only playing complicated games, but modifying and adapting them as well. Among other innovations, he came up with the idea of using dice beyond the traditional six-sided variety. In 1967 he organized a gathering of twenty gamers in his basement, which developed into an annual event known as Gen Con. This event quickly evolved into the biggest gaming convention in the country.

But that's not what Gygax is best known for. Always a fan of Medieval fantasy and miniatures, Gygax and his friends started to develop a series of rules for creating settings in which humans, dwarves, and elves freely interacted and heroically fought against all sorts of mythical creatures. He and his friend Don Kaye founded Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, in 1973 to publish their work, and then released the first version of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Gygax continued to watch over the game's evolution, and the first major alteration of the game came in the form of a series of hardcover books, all written by Gygax, under the name Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. These books, in particular, gave the game the massive cult following it continues to have today, and were the primary influence on all role-playing games that have followed.

Gygax and TSR split acrimoniously in the mid-1980's. It's a long story whose details most D&D fans are familiar with, so I'll spare you the exposition. Gygax did some other work in the gaming field after this, but relative to the heyday of D&D in the late seventies and early eighties, he kept a fairly low profile the rest of his life.

Dungeons & Dragons has always been the kind of game that's enormously popular with a small group of people. Gary Gygax was hardly a household name, but to those who did know of him, he was much revered. As somebody who's played role-playing games, especially D&D, for over twenty-five years, I kind of feel as though I've lost a childhood friend. Gygax might not have created Middle Earth, but he made possible the creation of all sorts of other similar worlds. Each of these worlds was shaped by a particular group of players, who through their own tastes and personalities, produced something that was unique and, at least to the participants, special.

1 comment:

James Lynch said...

Gary Gygax may have done more for the gaming genre than anyone in recent history, and he did more for the medieval fantasy genre since J.R.R. Tolkien. I never met him, but I had the impression he was a friendly man with a good sense of humor about himself. (I remember his appearance as himself on FUTURAMA: "Here, use my +1 mace.") Mr. Gygax will be greatly missed.