Farewell to the Dungeon Master

How D&D creator Gary Gygax changed geekdom forever.

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax was the salvation and curse of nerds worldwide. The co-founder of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, who passed away on Tuesday at 69, created a form of fantasy escapism that you could share with others. D&D unified geeks, giving them accoutrements (multisided dice, colored figurines) and a language that bound them together. It was a secret club of sorts, a playground where social outcasts could be themselves and vent over life’s frustrations. That wasn’t always a good thing—playing Dungeons & Dragons didn’t generally lead to activities like going outside or talking to girls. Still, a caffeine-fueled marathon D&D session was a place where your geeky tendencies were something to be celebrated rather than an affliction to be overcome.

Yes, we all knew, deep inside, that D&D wasn’t cool. Being able to say, “I cast a Level 3 lightning bolt at the basilisk while averting my eyes so I don’t turn to stone” doesn’t have the social pull of “I know a guy who will buy us some alcohol.” Even despite the social stigma, millions of people, me included, wouldn’t have made it through adolescence without Dungeons & Dragons. A dedicated bookworm, I devoured D&D’s rule books. It was more important for me to know how to repel the undead or make a flesh golem than to watch baseball or learn karate. Becoming a dungeon master, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in geekery, gave me a sense of mastery and accomplishment, not to mention my first real leadership experience.

Gygax thought a gaming experience wasn’t complete without a good group of people to play with. He co-founded the International Federation of Wargamers in 1966. A year later, the first meeting of Gen Con—now a huge gaming convention—was held in his basement. In 1974, Gygax and his collaborator Dave Arneson published the Fantasy Game, later renamed Dungeons & Dragons.

The game Gygax created is easy to describe but difficult to imagine. My D&D pals and I basically sat around a table “role-playing“—i.e., pretending to be people with more interesting lives. Using dice and figurines, we brought to life the fictional characters we’d created on paper. Like life, Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have specific goals. The game never quite ends. Rather, you choose your path, grow, and suffer setbacks. Sometimes you have to start all over. Most of the game takes place in your head, with the dungeon master acting as referee and director. He sets the scene by describing what your character sees or, in the case of a spear thrust into your neck, feels.

The genius of D&D is the way it parcels out rules and fantasy. The game tethers the imagination just enough to keep you focused on an imaginary world (main goal: slaying nasty things for profit) without putting limits on what you could do inside that world. Dungeons & Dragons is like the greatest Etch A Sketch on earth: It gives you the tools to create whatever you want.

While D&D certainly encourages creativity, the ingredients Gygax conjured weren’t exactly original. The game’s stew of swords, sorcery, and mythological beasts was mostly appropriated from pulp writers and fantasy greats like H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien. Gygax’s skill in integrating fantasies, however, was unparalleled—the world of D&D may have medieval trappings, but its creatures were unbound by time or place. He took monsters from every culture and folklore, from the Greek Pegasus to the Japanese Kirin dragon to the Egyptian sphinx, and made them coexist in a single aggregate world.

Gygax was responsible for creating or adapting the game’s spells, races, and character classes (cleric, fighter, etc.). Perhaps his essential contribution was to develop a way to translate physical characteristics into numbers. An American Gladiator, for example, might have a “strength” of 18, while a Woody Allen-like character might have a four. In combining math and fantasy, Gygax engineered a cocktail that no geek could resist. It was also his idea to create “levels” and “experience points,” allowing a character to become more skilled as you spend more time with the game. This idea made the game impossibly addictive and helped yield $1 billion in worldwide sales (according to the BBC), scores of books, miniature sets, board games, a cartoon show, and a pretty crummy movie.

D&D fans were often super fans. Many painted their own figurines, went to conventions dressed up as orcs, or spent nights and weekends gaming. As opposed to other geeky addictions, though, this one was social (kind of). While it might have been socially detrimental to be known as the best dungeon master in all of middle school, it’s also true that some people just don’t fit in very well. D&D can provide a social outlet and a way to kick ass without being afraid of getting your ass kicked. Running a D&D campaign took a lot of paperwork, a lot of organization, and a lot of focus. I spent hours creating creatures, towns, and dungeons that that I didn’t always end up using. I liked some of these scenarios so much I turned them into stories, and these experiences were one reason I decided to become a writer.

While Dungeons & Dragons has been a source of inspiration for innumerable people in the last three decades, none of Gygax’s post-D&D projects proved particularly successful. Quarrels with staff led to his departure from his company, Tactical Studies Rules, in 1985. Both he and TSR failed to take the lead in the newest role-playing sensations, most notably video games (some of the D&D games did well, but Gygax’s online RPG Lejendary Adventure Online never got off the ground) and collectible card games (TSR was eventually bought by Wizards of the Coast, owner of the mega-successful Magic: The Gathering franchise).

Some people have blamed Gygax’s failings on the fact that he was always more gamer than businessman. He grew unhappy with later versions of D&D, declaring them “rule intensive” and more focused on singular achievements than group cooperation. Perhaps his purist belief in an anything-goes fantasy world became out of fashion in the greedy 1980s and disaffected 1990s. For whatever reason, people grew more interested in turning their characters into godlike beings and got less focused on the intricacies of team play. (Sort of like the NBA.)

Despite his late-career failings, Gygax’s innovations have continued to spread. In creating the greatest nerd hobby of all time, he built the foundation of every future role-playing game. His idea to assign numbers for health, armor, stamina, and magic has also provided the backbone for innumerable video games, including the Final Fantasy series and the blockbuster World of Warcraft. Wherever geeks cluster, whether playing a Pokemon card game or a video game like Oblivion, they’re playing by the rules that Gary Gygax laid out. It’s fitting that through Gygax’s creativity and inspired descendents, the realm of nerddom has found eternal life.