Role Player

It’s a little difficult to see the late Gary Gygax, a sturdy, bearded Midwestern uncle type, in Grand Theft Auto’s glitz and violence, Spore’s bizarro creature building, or Metal Gear’s urban sneak ’n’ shoot, but he’s there. Indeed, the megabillions video-game industry likely owes a good chunk of its enormous cultural brainshare to Gygax. For all the advances that programmers and designers have made in graphics and coding, it was Gygax and his fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons that first and definitively moved games off a board and into your head.

Growing up in the small resort town of Lake Geneva, Wisc., Gygax was very much like someone who would sink into Dungeons & Dragons decades later: a bright though not industrious student who was fascinated by military history and pulpy fantasy novels, especially Robert Howard’s Conan series. He matured into an unremarkable young man, married and started a family, and worked as an insurance underwriter. His main hobby/quirk was spending his free time playing war games, refighting Gettysburg and other legendary battles with die-cast metal soldier figures, maps, dice, and some rules.

Gygax was increasingly less interested in following rules for rules’ sake. As recounted in an epic March 2008 article in Wired, in order to get around the statistical unevenness of the standard six-sided dice, Gygax brought in dice with more facets, including the fabled 20-sided die. In addition to the usual medieval knights and castles, he wanted to add supernatural wizards and dragons. And where wargaming figures had previously represented units, he argued that they could, and should, represent individual figures — ”heroes.” He devised a new game, and Chainmail, released in 1971, was a modest hit. Teaming up with fellow gamer Dave Arneson, he continued to tinker with the formula. (It was Arneson who brought in the concept of “dungeons,” i.e. underground mazes that kept gameplay contained.) Gygax’s game baffled some by being open-ended — like real life, you didn’t “win,” you just kept going — and wargame company Avalon Hill declined the newly named Dungeons & Dragons when Gygax offered it. Gygax formed his own company, TSR, and published the game himself in 1974. By 1982, sales of D&D products had reached $16 million a year. Overall sales are estimated at $1 billion.

But the stuff — the rules and reference books, the graph-paper maps, even the dice — wasn’t really the game. The game existed in the players’ imaginations, prompted by descriptions of situations by the “dungeonmaster,” and their personal interactions in Dorito-littered basements all over the country determined its outcome. Players weren’t moving pieces around a board; they were individual protagonists in their own evolving story. First-person-shooter video games still draw on this fundamental narrative shift in gameplaying today, and online fantasy gaming titan World of Warcraft is the 21st-century’s answer to the collective collaborative games and gameplay that Gygax inspired.

Gygax was good at games, but less adroit at business. First, he lost controlling interest of his own company, then in 1985 he sold his remaining interest in TSR; toy-making giant Hasbro now owns the Dungeons & Dragons brand. Gygax continued designing games and frequently railed against what he saw as the various degradations that corporate ownership and technological innovations such as internet gaming wrought. “D&D is not an online game,” he said. “There’s no role-playing in an online game that can match what happens in person.” He continued to host annual conventions and play role-playing games until a few months before he died on March 4 at age 69.