Ernest Gary Gygax (1938-2008), co-founder of Dungeons & Dragons, would have been 74 today.
Many of us have either direct or indirect memories of and associations with Gary.
As a kid, I was entranced by this mythical place, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and this company called TSR. To my adolescent mind, TSR was a mysterious entity and Lake Geneva an unimaginable land, both as distant as Middle-earth. And the name “Gygax” seemed as odd and wonderful as my own (“Gilsdorf”). Was this man, with his gray ponytail and beard in his latter years, a wizard?
I dreamed of someday visiting Gary, or at least his hometown.
I finally did, making a pilgrimage to the unassuming lakeside resort town of Lake Geneva, about an hour southwest of Milwaukee, where E. Gary Gygax founded the company called Tactical Studies Rules in 1973. This became TSR Hobbies, Inc., which Gygax built into a role-playing game empire. The company thrived here through the 1980s, churning out the original blue-and-white D&D boxed set with which I learned to play D&D, and later the beloved AD&D books that I played throughout high school.
I had always wanted to see Gygax’s house, walk the streets of his town, and see the old storefronts that once housed TSR. Though the company had long since left Lake Geneva and ousted Gygax, for me, the place remained the fount whence fantasy games flowed.
But I never met the man — I had waited too long to meet him in person. He died in 2008. But his legacy lives on in his games.
I always loved this quote, which appeared in Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). I think it encapsulates D&D and the spirit of what Gary was trying to create:
Dungeons & Dragon is a game in which the continuing epic is the most meaningful portion. It becomes an entity in which at least some of the characters seem to be able to survive for an indefinite time, and the characters who have shorter spans of existence are linked one to the other by blood or purpose. These personae put up with the frustrations, the setbacks, and the tragedies because they aim for and can reasonably expect to achieve adventure, challenge, wealth, glory and more. If player characters are not of the same stamp as Conan, they also appreciate that they are in effect writing their own adventures and creating their own legends, not merely reliving those of someone else’s creation. Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always — or nearly always — have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game is created upon.
To me, these elements — adventure, challenge, wealth, glory; the idea of players writing their own adventures and creating their own legends, and the idea of escapes (both what the characters do in-game, and what happens in the players’ imaginations) — form the core of what D&D and Gary created.
If you want to make a donation to the Gygax Memorial Fund, you may do so here. Wizards of the Coast also just released reprints of the original AD&D core rule books — Dungeon Masters Guide, Monster Manual, Players Handbook — and I must say they are sweet items, with shiny new faux-leather covers, gold leaf gilt edges, and that built-in-fabric bookmark. I just got my copies in the mail today (see photos). Sales of these books also go to the Gygax Memorial Fund.
Happy birthday, Gary, and thank you.