Gamers everywhere are mourning the loss of Gary Gygax, godfather of RPGs. After recovering from the initial shock, my thoughts turned immediately to an old friend, author Wayne Chambliss, who knew the man personally. I’d like to thank Wayne from the bottom of my polyhedral heart for taking the time to share some of his memories of Gygax here on Coilhouse. ~Mer
E. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, died on Tuesday. He was 69.
I can’t say I was surprised to hear the news. Last July, Gary told me he was already a year over his “expiration date”—the six months doctors gave him upon diagnosing his abdominal aneurysm. So, I wasn’t surprised. But I am hurting.
I don’t know why I miss him so much. I didn’t know him well. I spent maybe sixteen hours with him altogether. Sixteen hours on the porch of his house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Two long, summer days. Even so, Gary was an easy guy to like. He looked like a cross between Gandalf and Stan Lee, with a Lucky Strikes voice and a big laugh. He was a marvelous storyteller, an autodidact with wide interests, and, of course, the developer of an incalculably influential game system millions of people have been playing all over the world since 1974—including myself and at least 33% of this blog’s masthead.
The original Dungeon Master.
There are plenty of obituaries online right now that cover the basic facts of his life. The one in the New York Times seems representative: it contains no misspellings, but also very little of the man I knew, however slightly.
My friend Paul La Farge does a much better job. In a 2006 issue of The Believer (“Destroy All Monsters”), he tells the story of our first trip to Lake Geneva in a way that gets Gary Gygax right. For anyone even vaguely interested in Gary’s biography, Dungeons & Dragons or TSR, I strongly recommend Paul’s article. In my opinion, it is the last word on the subject. Moreover, its postscript is a more fitting eulogy for Gary than anything I could write myself—or have read anywhere else about him.
Maybe it’s simple. Maybe losing Gary is simply part of losing something even larger I will not, cannot, get back.
An early, careworn edition of the Monster Manual.
The years I spent as a boy in Camp Pendleton, CA are what I think of when I think of happiness. It was always sunny. I lived in a ranch-style house, in a neat row of identical houses, among row after identical row. The neighborhood was full of children. We all played kickball. We all played war. And we all played Dungeons & Dragons.
I quit in fifth or sixth grade, around the time our campaign deteriorated into bizarre power-leveling exercises: AT-AT Walkers tromping around Greyhawk, single combat with gods. That sort of thing. I played once in high school: a debauch at which I succeeded in smoking an entire carton of cigarettes on a dare, draining a goatskin flask of homemade Kahlúa and, ultimately, maiming several characters in my party with an ill-advised indoor fireball.
Gary Gygax DMing a game at his home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
I didn’t play again until I was thirty-two years old1, with Gary Gygax as the Dungeon Master2. For five hours, managing two characters apiece, Paul and I negotiated an early, unpublished campaign called Quest for the Teeth of Barkash-N’our—thirty or so lethal, laminate-sleeved pages in a black three-ring binder. It wasn’t Tomb of Horrors, but it was nasty. Gary later sent an email to Paul in which he complimented our game play. Whether or not he was just being polite, I cherish it.
Last year, having first been bribed with a copy of Chaykin and Mignola’s superb Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and a good burgundy, Gary took us beneath Xagyg’s Tower—another deathtrap. We spent an unreasonable amount of time down there fleeing French-speaking kobolds and fighting giant rats. Afterward, Paul and I speculated that a wire net soaked in pitch was probably the ideal solution. Just throw it over a bunch of them at a time and set the whole thing on fire.
On these two occasions, Paul recorded everything (with Gary’s consent, of course). We have about six hours of our conversations with him (and another ten hours of game play) on tape—a whole galaxy of anecdotes and ideas3, of bad jokes and pulp recommendations. Among other things, we got him talking about the years he spent “in exile,” working for TSR in Los Angeles—during which time he inhabited King Vidor’s mansion in the Hollywood Hills, was chauffeured about the city in a purple Cadillac (Gary never learned how to drive), hosted an after-party for contestants of the Miss Universe contest, and persuaded Orson Welles to attach himself to a D&D movie.4 Maybe I’ll upload the tapes and provide a link to them here. Some folks may find their contents interesting.5
What else? I came away with a few photographs, an autographed Players Handbook, some of Gary’s old pre-rolled tournament PCs, and a blank sheet of legal paper from his notepad.6 I wish I had taken a photograph of the life-size painting of Gary dressed up as a magic user that hung in his living room. Or of his purple velvet dice bag; or of the dice themselves, some of them rolled so often you couldn’t make out the numbers anymore.
Gary, Wayne and feline friend.
I wish I could convey the pleasure he seemed to take away from games. How young he was in those hours. How much he liked to play. Game play, wordplay, you name it. Of all the people I have ever met, I think Gary came the closest to doing what he wanted. He built his whole life around playing games. Not making them. That was a byproduct, I think. Or else, making games provided the excuse for playing them. Anyway, making them was work. Playing was what he loved to do. Just playing.
I wish I could play with him again.
Detail of a memento mori by Flickr user Monkey River Town.
WAYNE’S MAGICAL FOOTNOTES:
1 Excepting a warm-up session in New York at which my roommate Milena boozily declared: “I’ve been playing this game for hours and haven’t seen 1.) a dungeon or 2.) a dragon. I’m outta here!”
2 Take that, Stephen Elliott! Seriously, though, I do want to mention something about his style as a DM. Gary was clearly a wargamer. He had a brisk, action-oriented approach to game play. To him, role-playing was mostly an opportunity for elaborating strategies, developing ad hoc tactics, and fostering cooperative solutions to complex problems; in short, it was a way to privilege imagination to the maximum extent possible within an elaborate system of rules that govern the physics of the game.
3 I asked him what he would have done in the first Gulf War if he were Saddam Hussein. Without hesitating, he laid out a detailed alternate strategy for Iraq. Clearly, he had given the matter some thought.
4 An abysmal movie, by the way. We have the whole pitch on tape. It might have been worse—far worse—than even the Marlon Wayans stinker from back in 2000.
5 And maybe a little distressing. Gary had some odd things to say about women. For instance, when I asked him why TSR hadn’t marketed D&D toward girls in its heyday, he told me he was a “biological determinist.” It wasn’t that he thought females were incapable of playing such games, merely that they weren’t as naturally disposed to wanting to play them. Like I said, odd. Also, he didn’t have much patience for the role-playing part of Role-Playing Games, or for those who liked acting in character. He also had some really funny things to say about LARPing.
6 A novelist friend of mine collects the next piece of paper various celebrated writers would have written on. They’re framed all over his house, all of them blank. He even has one from Freud’s desk drawer. Really. Anyhow, he also has one from Gary Gygax.