Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax RIP

Gary Gygax, co-creator and main proponent of Dungeons & Dragons died today. He was co-worker and a good friend to me, and the game he created changed my life.

In 1980, just after my 21st birthday, I moved from Sharon, Massachusetts to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to work on the D&D game as an editor. Just over a week earlier, I'd come west to attend GenCon and have a job interview for that position. While at the con, I'd fallen in love with Kifflie Scott, the woman who later became my wife. Kiff and I met because she played D&D with my DM (gamemaster) from high school.

So in a very real way, Gary Gygax is responsible for both my long career and my happy family. (Tolkien was, too, but that's another story.)

Thinking about it, I'm not sure I ever thanked Gary for that. He'd brought a lot of us to Wisconsin to work for him, so probably my story isn't that unique. TSR, at its peak, employed over 300 people -- and many of those folks had, like me, traveled a long way to work on a game that was fun and thrilling. We came not for money, but for love of the game. Gary knew that, and he liked working with people who liked gaming. I was lucky: not many people who came to TSR got know him as well as I did.

The funny thing is, I didn't really know him that well when we were both working at TSR. He was an executive, and didn't even work in the same building as those of us producing the games. Often, those of us downtown only experienced Gary as a voice from "on high," barging in with a thundering (and often inconvenient) memo. This tendency to shoot off fiery memos gave Gary a reputation of being something of an ogre. (A reputation he sometimes fanned with his columns in Dragon magazine.) Later, I came to realize that these memos were largely a reflection of two things: 1) He was engaged in a difficult struggle for control of the company, and 2) He really didn't want to be an executive; he would have been much happier designing and running games.

I distinctly remember the day that Gary went from being a boss or an ogre to being a friend. It was GenCon in 1984, and I had recently left TSR to help found Pacesetter, Ltd. (creators of CHILL). I was in the dimly lit underground cafeteria/lounge of UW Parkside (where the convention was still held) having lunch with my fellow rebels (Troy Denning and Mark Acres, and perhaps some others) when whom should we spot across the room but Gary. As I recall, one of us (maybe me) waved and called out "Hi, Gary!" Much to our surprise, he marched right across the room, greeted us warmly, and shook our hands. Far from being annoyed that we had "deserted" TSR, Gary thought it was thrilling that we'd struck out on our own, and he sincerely wished us all the best.

I couldn't help but feeling that he wished he could have done the same. And a bit later, he did, forming New Infinities with another group of "rebels" from TSR. I was a freelancer by then, and worked with Gary and his cohorts on a number of projects for that company. Later, he and I worked on an adaptation of his original Greyhawk dungeon, a project that, sadly, never saw print. (I did, however, have the distinct privilege of having the original D&D dungeons stored in my house for several years as we worked. How many people can say that?)

Both New Infinities and Pacesetter dissolved, but the friendship Gary and I had developed remained. I enjoyed both his company and the company of his family on numerous occasions -- though I'm sad to say that we never played many games together. If a family is the measure of a man, Gary did well, indeed. He did well in other areas, too.

The game he created has had a lasting effect on both the gaming industry -- my son once spent a fruitless afternoon trying to come up with an adventure video game that wasn't influenced by D&D -- and on our society as a whole. Gary opened up people's imaginations and allowed them to expand their horizons. His work influenced not only games, but also books (look at all the D&D and D&D-type novels), and movies. He changed the world in a good way -- and not just by joining Al Gore's Time Patrol on Futurama.

Now, I know that some factions out there have, over the years, seen D&D as a tool for "evil" or "dark powers" or some such rot. As someone who knew Gary, I can say that neither he (nor anyone I knew in TSR) was ever into the occult. For him, magic and dragons and demons were all just backdrops for great storytelling. (And, more often than not, backdrops for bad puns and inside jokes.) The magic of D&D was that you, as a player, got to be part of the story.

Gary created that. That was the gift that he gave to all of us: the gift of our imaginations set free by his imagination.

My friend, travel writer Edward Readicker-Henderson, put it this way:, "Anybody who put that many smiles on that many faces--and did it by harming no one else--did very, very well in life. Astoundingly well."

So, thanks, Gary. I owe you more than I can say: home, family, career. And of course, friendship.

I'll miss you, my friend.

See you at that big adventure-gaming table in the sky.

Rest in peace.

-- Stephen D. Sullivan

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