Remembering Gary Gygax

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.

–Wayne Chambliss

Detail of a memento mori by Flickr user Monkey River Town.


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.

20 Responses to “Remembering Gary Gygax”

  1. Vespers Says:

    Oh, I would so be interested in hearing those tapes. Funny ideas about people just give personality, one’s used to that, and even if it was actually offensive (must hear what he has to say about LARPers) It’d be oh so worth it to hear Gary Gygax’s ideas as recorded in a unofficial context.

  2. Tequila Says:

    This is just plain beautiful…I’ll be re-reading this often. D&D is one of those odd things in my life…I was too anti-social early on to dive deep into it but I poured over the books nonetheless. I was less interested in the fantasy world as I was how it all worked together. That’s really the magic of D&D in that its reach is so vast, it’s appeal to broad, and it’s possibilities so endless that you have to be pretty close minded not to enjoy it on SOME level.

    His comment about women not wanting to play games is fair in the context of the era D&D hit and the early 80’s…but man has that changed…even in the online and computer game versions of D&D.

    “…He also had some really funny things to say about LARPing…”

    Well to be fair who doesn’t?

    “…Playing was what he loved to do. Just playing…”

    Now that’s a way to live I say.

    Anyone check out the Penny Arcade tribute?

  3. Mark Says:

    That was a really interesting piece, thanks Wayne.

    I genuinely feel quite rueful that I never had a chance to try role-playing games when I was a bit younger – it just wasn’t something that anybody I knew did. On my own, I played the Fighting Fantasy dice books (Warlock Of Firetop Mountain ftw!), but that’s as close to that whole world as I’ve ever got – I still don’t even really know what proper role-playing, in the Gary Gygax sense, actually is, really.

    I want to, though. It sounds wonderfully silly and absorbing. But the best explanation I’ve had came from a drunk bloke dressed as a Hobbit back at uni, and he wasn’t making much sense to be honest. It sounded a bit like a picnic with storytelling, but I couldn’t work out how characters got killed, or won, or whatever…from his hiccupy description, it sounded like the sort of thing where if the storyteller went off on a tangent that someone didn’t like, that person would just pick up their ball and go home. Which surely can’t be quite in the spirit of things.

  4. Mark Says:

    Oh, and by the way kids:

  5. DJ Velveteen Says:

    I think I may still have that Monster’s Manual.

  6. ampersandpilcrow Says:

    A really insightful, poignant tribute. Thank you.

    The first group of gamers I ever played was about half of the Gygax breed — old wargamers who emphasized teamwork and tactics uber alles while guzzling down more caffeine than I thought possible. I later moved onto different groups and games, with a more character/acting driven style. Those were created in reaction to what came before, but they wouldn’t exist without Gygax’s brainstorm.

    There was such mystery around RPGs when I and my friends first found them. Opening the books seemed like a glimpse into worlds we’d never tire of. Each new character or adventure had a hint of limitless possibility. For a bunch of awkward teens in rural NC, it was powerful stuff.

    So thank you, Gary. You created something that not only made a lot of us weird, but pushed us to have fun with it. Our lives are richer for it.

  7. q gauti Says:


  8. james puckett Says:

    If you have all those hours of Gygax DMing on tape, you owe it to humanity to post them on

  9. Ben Morris Says:

    A good essay by author Charles Stross on Gary Gygax’s influence on augmented reality and virtual worlds.

  10. Nadya Says:

    I remember my one and only experience with D&D fondly. My dad and I got the game soon after we’d moved to America. I think someone gave it to us second-hand. Everyone in my family is a Tolkien fan so it seemed like it was right up our alley. I remember taking everything out of the box and then reading the instructions and looking at the pictures and turning over the strange dice. We went through the rulebook and quickly lost interest; neither my dad nor I knew English well enough at that point to make sense of it. So it kind of fell by the wayside. I never got the chance to play it again.

    I met many people in life who had played D&D at some point, including some of my closest friends. But by the time I met all these people, they had all already “gone through that phase.” I feel like I really missed out on something that I would’ve really loved. I got a sense of some of the basics of D&D through playing some computer games built on the same principles, but that idea of a game based on collaborative storytelling is something I never got to experience.

    I really wish I’d had that, and I’m glad that Gary Gygax was able to give what seems like a really profound experience to so many wonderful people I know.

  11. Conan the Librarian Says:

    D&D was such a part of the first 22 or so years of my existence, I really can’t imagine how things would have been without it. It carried me through a turbulent early family life and when I was overseas with the Marines–this was during the mid 1990’s–there were dudes, big tough macho dudes, real Jarheads, who were totally into it. There was such a geek stigma attached to the game, which was really undeserved–there are a lot of people who have played it, loved it, and now in their ’30’s and ’40s will never admit having played and loved it. D&D is a definite Gen X phenomenon, along with Pac Man, GI Joe, and Grunge. Mr. Gygax will always be considered one of our greatest cultural mentors, along with Richard Scarry. Thanks, Gary.

  12. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Fantastically magical hours upon hours spent both DMing und playing. Pouring over DragonLance books. Copying drawings from monster manuals. A boyhood full to ze brim with quests und adventures. Danke Gary. Und danke Wayne, for this view of ze man, to further ze breadth of ze pure wonder his work has brought me.

  13. Mark Says:

    Nadya – snap, totally (see above!). The far-too-aged-for-this-nonsense OAP D&D Society starts here! ;)

  14. Wayne Says:

    Thanks, Mark. That xkcd panel made me laugh.

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  16. Mark Says:

    Wayne – your column made me smile from the very middle of myself, so thank you. :)

  17. Wayne Says:

    Jerem – Ah, Dragonlance… On that first trip to Lake Geneva, we also took Margaret Weiss, co-author of the Dragonlance series (and publisher of the Serenity RPG), out for sushi at a rural strip mall. Afterward, we drove back to her place for coffee. She lives in a huge, custom log cabin filled with dragon (and Dragonlance) iconography–statuary, jewelry, framed drawings & paintings, the works–and more dogs than one can easily count. She is a very bright, competant woman. And very polite. In my opinion, however, she’s also a bit tightly wound. To be fair, we may have caught her at a difficult time. I believe she was finalizing a divorce.

    After the trip, I re-read one of the Dragonlance books and found it hard to finish. That said, I tried to read one of Gary Gygax’s own fantasy novels during the trip and couldn’t make it through the third chapter. These experiences probably have less to say about them as writers than about me as a reader. After all, who am I to argue with such sales figures?

  18. Joseph Walters Says:

    This was an amazing article and an honorable tribute to a great man. I wish I had been given the opportunity to meet him, even for just 16 hours.

    I grew up playing right around the same time as you were mentioning. It shaped the remainder of my life. Junior high, high school, college and beyond. Now, I am teaching my 10 year old son how to play.

    I run my own game company now and I owe it all to the marathon gaming sessions that we used to go through. My favorite story is how a few days before New Years eve of this year two of my staff members requested New Years day off because they were planning a three day D&D gaming session. I knew I had hired the perfect group of gamers.

  19. Rachel Summers Says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’d be very interested in hearing the tapes; please do let me know if/when you upload them. I’ll also try to remember to check back here periodically.

  20. Tal - Jerusalem Says:

    you make me cry because you went from us.
    Our wizard of fantasies.