Rage Of The Norsemen
“The Egg of Coot”
(E. Gary Gygax)
(Note: the article was first published at www.crackpotpress.com in 2008)
It’s been a week since the passing of the father of role-playing games, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax and I’ve had time to reflect on what the event had wrought in me. I had known the old man (69) was in failing health, but with his weekly game of AD&D (First Edition!) still taking place, I had no reason to suspect that this has come to pass. But it has. Gary Gygax, creator and author, responsible for years of my youth spent in other dimensions, has gone to that twenty-sided coffin in sky. Or so we can at least hope. It was a dark day for me. Gary was the one person that I would always answer to the question of… “If you could meet anyone living who would it be?” This isn’t because of the game (or games) that he created, or that he was the king of official “geekdom” (although his smoking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, white beard having image was far from it), or that he authored several books, and created the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. No it was because Gary Gygax was one of the last few believers in the power of the imagination over all, in an age where it is fleeting fast. Gary concentrated the powers of the unconscious mind, in the game, brought it to light and gave its practitioners something that would – literally – last forever. Like any sacred activity, it attracts, like a magnet, the furthest reaches of our society as sure as Sauron attracted the corrupt races of Middle-Earth.
In D&D it was the “geeks” and “nerds” and this often dis-colored the true nature of role-playing. Star Trek and Star Wars has it “Trekkies” but does that mean the films are so easily dismissed? Film, music, theatre, politics, all bring in raving super-fanatics and clichéd stereotypes, but does that make them illegitimate? No. So, in honor of Gary, The Egg of Coot (special AD&D code only us geeks who rolled the dice understand) let’s set the record straight on the lasting social implications of the game.
Dungeons & Dragons was billed, like many of then TSR’s (Gary Gygax’s game design company) a “product of the imagination.” And that is exactly what it is. It’s not the product of sitting in front of a Playstation until your eyes burn out (running your imagination for you), not watching a film based in total on C.G.I (running your imagination for you) or sitting around tossing out cards with pre-determined outcomes (no-imagination). It is a template for an exercise of your own creation, requiring pen, paper, dice and knowledge of few game mechanics. It’s all cheap, and lasts a lifetime. Important in this day and age. Name something else that interactive that can boast the same. Like a film, or play or story it requires a collaborative effort to succeed. If an actor or a script or director stinks, the movie bombs. But when all are in play, in the game, a group of people totally in consort in imagination, the rewards are as epiphanic and ecstatic as any drama or ritual (which was the real reason the game suffered vile attack by the Moral majority). It was therapeutic.
In D&D you learned to act as a group, not as single individuals wrecking their greed and yoke upon the world (although you could in my campaign ). You did learn to value others, you couldn’t survive without them. A great game table brought together people from all cliques, walks of life, and economic spectrum creating stories that would last forever in their minds. You learned to get along.
While taking away valuable high-school, college (and for some – career and job time) you were given books written with Gary Gygax’s encyclopedic knowledge of completely useless things, yet within them all one was practicing math (adding up those dice and hit points), English (looking up all those Shakespearian words) and so forth. It was educational.
In D&D, if you were so inclined, (like Dungeon Masters as myself) you learned how to tell a story. And more importantly, you had to lay it out for the players to critique, step by bloody dungeon step, and cursing and pencil throwing told you instantly if your work was any good. You had rejection and success, tools for the writing world. It was career making.
In D&D (Advanced, First Edition of course) you have the greatest heroic-fantasy role-playing game of all time, still unbeaten (and many have tried) to this day. The iconic characters classes, monsters, magic items and dungeon crawls have formed the hallmark of classic, the Great Pyramids of Role-Playing mythology. The reason for this is that Gary Gygax understood the true basis of heroic fantasy-fiction. It was absolutely not J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite it’s background in elves, dwarfs and halflings, AD&D was meant to be as far from The Lord of the Rings as a Quasar galaxy from Earth. While great in their work as literature, and world-building, the settings of Tolkien lacked the open-ended structure of heroic adventure – the purpose of creating a character! (In heroic-fantasy role-playing – there are other types, but this isn’t about them). Gygax turned to the primal worlds of the pre-Tolkien writers and their descendants. R.E. Howard’s “Conan”, the horrors of HP Lovecraft, the humor and pseudo-Monty Pythonesque worlds of Pratt & DeCamp, Lieber’s thief-guild infested streets of Newhon, and even the dark and soul-searching path of Moorcock’s “Elric of Melnibone.” It was these Stygian worlds the birthed what the game was in Gary’s head. And in mine. It lent itself to rules edition books with naked virgins sacrificed on a supine alter to some unknown horror instead of some computer-colored Todd McFarlane hackwork that you see in the current version of the game and elsewhere.
Gygax had his detractors, and many may be cringing as they read this. Most of this harkens back to the birth of the game and a co-creator by the name of Dave Arneson. While wild tales of Gary’s ego have circulated throughout the realm, unless you’ve really known the man, you can’t truly judge him. You have to judge the work. And what is written above remains firm. Yes, Gary did not invent role-playing. Dave Arneson did. Gary Gygax did not create D&D, he co-created it with Dave Arneson (and others). But his title as “father of role-playing” remains. It takes two to tango, and Dave Arneson can be the mother of role-playing if his ego demands it. But it was Gary Gygax who brought it all together and made it happen. And he left behind a voluminous collection of arcane lore: books, games, and classic epic adventures that stand at the top of the genre. He had a lifelong commitment to the game, Dave Arneson did not. Like any parent, Gary saw his child grow up to become everything he couldn’t stand, and let it go on the paths of Card Game publishers and Toy Manufacturers (Hasbro). He continued on with other games that bear his name, but for D&D he will always be renowned.
Gary Gygax wanted to be remembered for giving people a game they could enjoy forever. This is certain. And he should also be remembered for one thing above all – good ‘ol escapism! He established the armchair adventurer. A pair of dice in one-hand, a Mountain Dew in the other and asked him to stand up and create a world just like all those authors of his youth – one anyone could participate in. It is, to quote L. Sprague De Camp “ in such a world where gleaming cities raise their shining spires against the stars; sorcerers cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spirits stalk crumbling ruins; primeval monsters crash through jungle thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on bloody broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor. Nobody mentions income tax or socialized medicine. The purpose of heroic fantasy is neither to solve the problems of the steel industry, nor expose the defects in the foreign-aid program, not to expound the questions of poverty or inter-racial hostility. It is to entertain.” And that is exactly what Gary Gygax did. May your alter-ego be dashed or saved as the dice fall where they may.
I’ve longed for the day where I would bump into him at a convention and ask, “What exactly in the hell does a Periapt of Wound Closure do?” It’s not going to happen.
And so I wish to offer all my condolences to Mr. Gygax’s surviving family. My best wishes that his weekly AD&D game will continue for eternity. And to all the people who have sat down in Holy Communion at the gaming table, play one for Gary. I know I will.
PS – This year’s Gen Con will be a living honor of 35 years of E.G.G.’s influence. Take the pilgrimage.