Today is an unofficial national day of mourning for anyone who has ever rolled a d20. Gary Gygax, one of the founding fathers of Dungeons and Dragons, has died at age 69.
I began playing D&D at the ripe old age of five. Caught up in the enthusiasm of my uncle, I created my first character, a thief/assassin because even then, way before I would write about evil wizards, psychotic vampires, and homicidal trees, I thought the idea of killing people and taking their stuff was high entertainment. Little did I realize that my character would live on far beyond even my wildest expectations and would set me on the road to some of the most valuable lessons of my life.
Growing up among friends consumed by sports and television, role playing remained my secret obsession for a long time. I would go out and play shortstop in a little league game, maybe play a pickup game at point guard, but then I would hide out in my room, flipping the well-worn pages of my original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook. It wasn’t until middle school that I discovered that other people were also interested in role playing and those of us who preferred spending our time as elves and halflings gravitated together, united by a friendship held together by the rolls of funny-looking dice.
My core group of friends throughout high school consisted mostly of six to eight guys (depending on who was fortunate enough to be dating at the time) who spent damn near every free moment playing D&D. One campaign that started our freshman year lasted until the summer following graduation and, even then, was merely put on hiatus until one fateful day in the future when we might all get together again and spend one more evening banishing the forces of evil. We all enjoyed each other’s company and were mostly oblivious to the skills we were developing between handfuls of peanut butter M&M’s and scoops of cheese dip. Problem-solving, conflict resolution (there was a LOT of conflict, mostly between us players), quick decision making–all these and more were enhanced by our portrayals of wizards and knights, rangers and clerics, thieves and kings. Like most things in high school, it wasn’t until we were far removed from that environment that we realized how we had benefited from sharing those times.
I, like so many others who still love the fantasy fiction we gobbled up in between role playing sessions, scavenging for ideas, owe a tremendous debt to Gary Gygax. By stepping beyond the traditional board game, by understanding that we have enough imagination to hold the entire contents of the game between our ears, he transformed us and began a new generation of teens and young adults who found escape in something other than drugs and alcohol. Far from the geek breeding ground that has become its reputation, D&D paved the way for millions of people now in the workforce to think independently and use their imaginations to accomplish their dreams. This is especially true for many fantasy writers, who owe as much to Gygax as to Tolkien and Lewis.
The loss of Gary Gygax is a loss to imagination as a whole and he will be missed by many who never even met him. It’s as though the suns and moons on whatever worlds we have created are shining a bit less tonight.
And as for my thief/assassin? He’s still around, living a nice life of quiet solitude, still flipping through that old Player’s Handbook. Every once in a while, he chuckles to himself and says a silent thank you to Gary Gygax for his very existence.