Exit the dragon master

One of the 20th century's most influential cultural figures passed away this week, scarcely noticed except by the millions whose lives he changed. Michael Bywater celebrates the achievement of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons

Oddly shaped dice. Beards and ruddy cheeks and negligent haircuts and the unmistakable crackling wheeze of nerd laughter. Things that are not as they seem: doors which become maws, buildings which involute or intussuscept upon themselves; words such as "involute" and "intussuscept", and names such as Snarxx and Halabrakorn and The Great God H'w'whiffttt't. And girls. Girls with insolent eyes and thighs of steel and engulfing breasts and tempestuous manes of hair. Sometimes they were monsters; but aren't they all?

This is the legacy of Gary Gygax – an odd name, sounding like something out of his own creation, or something you have sliced thin on brown bread, with dill and mustard sauce. "Gygax?" "Mmm, lovely". He was the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, and died earlier this week, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of mourners – at least.

And I confess to being one of them. I never really played D&D but I wanted to, and I imagined playing. I drew up "character sheets" detailing the name and powers and strengths and weaknesses of the character I would be pretending to be, complete with back-story and vulnerabilities. I drew endless maps of imaginary worlds: swamps and mountains, the Dark Lake of Unknowing, the crumbling village of Reborzo, the Lost City of Fna'a'a'aa, where the wailing of the Araprast mingled with the harsh cries of the reborzo-changers. I even went as far as buying special mapping software to draw detailed charts of my imaginary worlds. But I never played with anyone – or, rather, played just once, but it didn't really count, and I died.

The trouble was the popular image of Dungeons & Dragons players as the People Evolution Spurns. Scrawny (or pudgy), whining nasal voices, an ill-kempt beard, eating as if with a shovel, against a deadline; an intolerance for, and incompetence at, small-talk; the dress sense of the majority of the animal kingdom, which tends to go out as it is; a faint smell of tea-bags; a tendency to behave, whenever any subject is raised, as though an imaginary Mossad agent were sitting opposite them: "Tell us everything you know."

D&D, in the popular imagination, is for geeks, the nerds, the unpopular kids at school, the ones whose mothers fed them in their bedrooms, otherwise they wouldn't eat: losers, fit only to be sneered at by the cool kids.

But the geeks are now running the world, while the cool kids are sitting in vast fluorescent hangars in post-industrial hardship zones, calling you on behalf of Capital One in connection with your account; or wondering if you'd like fries with that.

Back in the 1970s, before PCs, Gygax was the uncool kids' saviour.

It is all too easy to laugh. The lazy reporter says to himself "Gygax, silly name, lonely geeks, wizards, monsters, sub-Tolkien nonsense, Billy-no-mates with imaginary friends" and out come a thousand sneering words. Job done.

But this week's online tributes to Gygax tell of a much-loved man who offered the devotees of his invention the central good things of life: engagement with others, a spur to the imagination, commensality, and a structure for the socially uneasy to make friends in a common pursuit. God help us, it was silly; no argument about that.

But Dungeons & Dragons was also benign. A site devoted to role-playing games – rpg.net – ran a thread asking what its members learnt from Gary Gygax. One poster summed it up. "Imagination," wrote James McMurray, "is a workable substitute for companionship, but imagining with your friends rocks!" And Leo Grin, writing on The Cimmerian website, called Gygax "one of the greatest proselytisers of imagination in my lifetime".

What exactly is Dungeons & Dragons? Essentially it's a system for imagining characters and situations – cityscapes, conflicts, confrontations, alliances – within a tightly rule-based structure and driven by the throw of dice. (The dice themselves are celebrated, having up to 20 sides.) The traditional D&D worldscapes draw largely, but not exclusively, on the mise-en-scène of Tolkien's "Middle Earth", though futuristic, urban and sci-fi scenarios are also popular. Players are provided with intricate maps of the gamescape, which is also populated with non-playing characters – dragons, goblins, villagers and anything else you can think of. They move around this imaginary world, expending strength, fighting battles, casting spells (if they know them or can find them) in an environment which is described by one gamers' website, wizards .com, as "part acting, part storytelling, part social interaction, part war game, and part dice rolling", under the control of the Dungeon Master, who "controls the monsters and enemies, narrates the action, referees the game, and sets up the adventure". Complex books of rules and scenarios guide the Dungeon Master, and they can seem pretty arcane:

"Does the powerful build racial trait allow a character to take advantage of feats for size Large or larger creatures such as Awesome Blow? Would a half-dragon goliath qualify as Large for determining whether it has wings?

"A: No and no. The powerful build racial trait (found in the goliath entry in Races of Stone and the half-giant entry in Expanded Psionics Handbook) spells out exactly when the character is treated as one size larger than normal."

For devotees, the combination of raucous imagination and intricate rules is enthralling; sometimes, too much so. Tongue-in-cheek warnings abound on the Net: don't fall in love with another D&D enthusiast; never play at lunchtime; if you find yourself dreaming in the D&D world it's nature's way of telling you to back off; do not fill in your tax return with your character-name by mistake; remember you don't actually possess the power of invisibility. And remember: Girls Don't Get It. (Not entirely true, but, as a general principle, D&D is a male pursuit; as, of course, are rugby, Formula One racing, invading foreign countries and so on.) Yet D&D suffers from the geek-who-can't-get-girls calumny. Given that its inventor left behind a wife and six children, that would seem unfair from the outset; yet a Scott Johnson cartoon – "Geeks Make Bad Blind Dates" – sums up the preconception by showing a more-than-ideal-weight computer programmer announcing to a startled woman, in D&D-speak: "I'm Jack. I currently have +10 in making out and I am proficient in four magical forms of sweet loving."

The type is immediately familiar from Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons; yet it is Comic Book Guy who, on the few occasions when he seems on the point of forming a relationship with a woman, is of all the characters in the series the most demonstrative, kindly and devoted of lovers. If Dungeons & Dragons is an archetypal geek/nerd pursuit, then an affectionate corrective to the image can be found in The Nerd Handbook ( http://www.randsinrepose. com/mt/lcom.cgi?entry_id=460) by Michael Lopp, author of Managing Humans.

If D&D is a nerd's pastime, then there are a lot of nerds around. Guesstimate calculations – it's impossible to reach a precise total – suggest that Dungeons & Dragons has about 25 million regular players worldwide. Certainly Gygax made more than $1bn in sales since he invented it in 1974, a figure which he claimed surprised him, saying he thought he would have made about $50,000. And the game's legacy has been massive. "Interactive fiction" – the first commercial example being Infocom's Zork of 1981 – occupies the same landscape of abandoned mine-workings, semi-medieval villages, mysterious strangers and supernatural monsters as D&D, sometimes quite explicitly, as in the Infocom trilogy of Enchanter, Sorcerer and Spellbreaker. Sophisticated graphic games such as World of Warcraft, Quake and Doom draw so heavily on the D&D mindset that it's hard to imagine them without it. MMUDs – "Massive Multi-Player Online Dungeons" – make their debt clear in the name, and you might even view Second Life as a D&D game without a quest. D&D reanimated the fantasy genre of fiction, whether straight or, as in the case of Terry Pratchett (whose first Discworld novel appeared in 1983), comic; geeks, after all, notoriously love intricate jokes. From the sublime – the Armoured Bears in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy – to Xena, Warrior Princess, the culture is rich in material which seems to link back to Gygax.

And Dungeons & Dragons has repeatedly achieved the ultimate accolade of any popular medium: being accused of inherent evil. Perhaps the most marvellous example is a majestic jeremiad by one William Schnoebelen ( http://www.chick.com/articles/dnd.asp) in which he describes the game as "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft" and claims that the spells and magical rituals are authentic; this he knows, because before he saw the light, he "was a witch high priest (Alexandrian tradition) during the period 1973-84" and his coven was "just a short drive away from the world headquarters of TSR, the company which makes Dungeons and Dragons."

It is possible that Schnoebelen – and the hilariously anti-D&D Jack Chick strip ( http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp) – may have missed the point. Gygax's wife is reputedly a conservative Christian, and the presence of a character called "The Cleric" in the original game – who has a particular aversion to swords, daggers and anything sharp – is said to be there to please her.

Even more gratifying, perhaps, for enthusiasts was the condemnation of Dungeons & Dragons by the Israeli army. Eighteen-year-old recruits who admit to playing the game are, it's said, automatically given a low security clearance; an army spokesman reportedly described them as "detached from reality and susceptible to influence", which a cynic might consider prerequisites of any successful soldier.

As might the skills required. The only time I ever got to play Dungeons & Dragons for real was for a radio programme, and it really was real. Instead of an imaginary world at a living-room table, it was set in the dungeons of Peckforton Castle in Cheshire. People in costume camped there all weekend, visiting the dungeons to play in real darkness and damp, with real mossy walls and creaking doors, and other people costumed as Orcs, Kobolds and other forms of oubliette low-life. I didn't do too well and the BBC duly broadcast the Dungeon Master (or Mistress, in this case) shouting "Bywater! Your chest has been caved in! You are dead!"

Later I asked the organiser who had done best. "Well," he said, "we had a group of blokes, very anonymous. Army chaps. Based at Hereford ... they arrived, all rather small, all rather wiry, all rather silent. In they went. Ten minutes later they were out again. All the monsters were dead and nobody had known they were in there until they were on top of them."

If Gary Gygax's legacy is good enough for the SAS ...

The mourning after

Selected tributes to Gary Gygax, posted in cyberspace this week ...

'Thank you. I wouldn't be the geek I am today without Gary.'

'I started playing 30 years ago – I was 10. I've been a regular player, designer, and contributor to the gaming world for 20 years - and to this day I am (for the most part) more fascinated with the world to which Gary gave birth than the one that collects my taxes. Thank you, Gary. thank you for everything.'

'From age six on, this man has brought me unending hours of entertainment. Name a single product that people play and love for almost 30 years.'

'As a spotty, overweight 12-year-old in 1977, too uncool to be a punk, and not balanced enough to ride a skateboard, what would life have been like without D&D?'

'He will be remembered by many geeks of a certain age for helping making long-lasting painful celibacy seem almost hip and cool (almost) ...'

'I learnt that everyone has at least one adventure in them, they just have to find people to help bring it out ...'.'

' I learnt what incredible fun it can be to create worlds and invite your friends into them ...'

(All from "What Gary Gygax taught me" at http://forum.rpg.net )

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