Gary Gygax: Creator of Dungeons & Dragons

Friday 07 March 2008 01:00 GMT
Gygax shaped many people's lives and careers - in Dungeons & Dragons he created a cultural phenomenon
Gygax shaped many people's lives and careers - in Dungeons & Dragons he created a cultural phenomenon (AP)

You are walking down a dark, dungeon corridor. The air is dank and unpleasant and rats scurry across the floor. Twenty metres further on, you come to a wooden door in the lefthand wall that has "Keep Out" written on it in blood. From the other side of the door you can hear scratching sounds and whispering voices. Ahead, a skeletal figure armed with a sword and shield advances towards you out of the gloom.

"What do you want to do?" the dungeon master asks, smiling. "Anvar the Barbarian is going to attack the skeleton with his two-handed axe," replies one of the adventurers.

"Ragnar the Thief is going to open the door," replies the second player. "Son of Croo the Magic User is going to prepare to cast a sleep spell in case it all goes off when the door opens," the third player says.

"Typical hanging around at the back you useless, one-spell charlatan!" says the dungeon master. He rolls an eight-sided die. "OK, the door opens into a room full of broken furniture and old bones. There is a wooden chest in the far corner of the room guarded by two hideous creatures with green, scaly skin that lumber towards you to attack."

Welcome to the world of Dungeons & Dragons, the game created by Gary Gygax in 1974 that became a commercial and cultural phenomenon. Every now and then a game comes along that changes the world; Monopoly is one, Scrabble another and Dungeon & Dragons a third. Gygax was the pioneer of role-playing games and one of the most influential people in gaming ever. The game he invented engaged the imaginations of millions of people around the world, as they spent hundreds of hours slaying monsters and finding treasure in the comfort of their own living rooms.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D as it is commonly known) is a sophisticated form of make-believe in which each player rolls dice to create a persona and acts out that part in a specially designed game-world created and controlled by a dungeon master (DM for short), who is essentially a creative referee.

Players interact with one another, usually acting co-operatively in pursuit of some fabled treasure hidden inside a monster- and trap-filled dungeon. In so doing, player-characters gain experience and "level up", becoming more powerful in combat, more able to survive wounds and more able to use magic. D&D is really theatre on the fly, set on a fantasy stage. There is no end to the game as long as the characters survive. And people get very attached to their alter egos, remembering them fondly years after their demise.

More of a "design-a-game" kit than a complete game in itself, Dungeons & Dragons slipped quietly into the world in 1974. It had started as a 50-page manuscript entitled "The Fantasy Game", written by Gygax in 1972. Much of the content was drawn from Chainmail, a set of medieval wargaming rules that he had written with Jeff Perren in 1971. After two years of play-testing, revision and expansion, "The Fantasy Game" had become, with the help of Dave Arneson, the three original rule booklets that comprised D&D. It was published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), a company formed by Gygax and his friend Don Kaye. Kaye died soon afterwards, and Gygax acquired his shares.

Self-publishing was forced upon Gygax as other games companies showed no interest in the radical concept of a role-playing game. The first print-run of D&D amounted to only 1,000 hand-assembled copies that took more than six months to sell. But by word of mouth its popularity spread, and by 1975 the print run was up to 25,000 copies, with growing interest from overseas, too.

In 1975 the Games Workshop, newly formed by Steve Jackson and myself, which then operated out of a flat in Shepherds Bush in London, signed a three-year exclusive European distribution agreement with TSR on the back of an order of six copies of D&D. A few years later, Dungeons & Dragons was a household name, its notoriety in part spread by an ill-informed media that linked the game to black magic and dark cults, which only added to its mystique.

Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago in 1938, the son of a German-speaking Swiss immigrant and an American mother. He became an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels. As a teenager he began playing war-games, and devising games became his passion.

He dropped out of high school, but none the less went on to study Anthropology at the University of Chicago. After graduation, he worked repairing shoes and selling insurance, but it was games that he loved. His passion for Dungeons & Dragons was remarkable, and through drive and enthusiasm, he turned his hobby into a business. He was a gregarious character, a natural raconteur with a big personality.

The launch of D&D heralded the birth of interactive entertainment, long before computer and video games. Nowadays the concept of personalised player-characters who exist in a virtual world is commonplace. Without D&D, games like World of Warcraft, with its millions of online players, might have developed differently; Games Workshop might not have survived to create Warhammer, and Steve Jackson and I might never have written our Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. Gygax shaped many people's lives and careers – in Dungeons & Dragons he created a cultural phenomenon.

After a number of arguments with fellow directors, Gygax left TSR in 1985. He subsequently worked on several new role-playing projects but none came near to achieving the success of D&D.

While Gygax recognised that the world had entered a digital age, he himself remained sceptical, believing games of the imagination to be superior. A favourite anecdote of his concerned some children talking about the difference between radio and television; one boy said he preferred radio because "the pictures were better".

Ian Livingstone

Gary Gygax, games inventor: born Chicago 27 July 1938; twice married (three sons, three daughters); died Lake Geneva, Wisconsin 4 March 2008.

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