Gary Gygax, RIP

Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons line of games, failed his save roll today. He was 69.

Gygax probably isn’t particularly well known by name outside of a few pockets of specific demographics, that demographic undeniably the overlap of the “young,” “male,” and “geek” population. (Although he had a voice spot that barometer of ultimate celebrity, Futurama, was fulfilled with all the grace and dignity that talking cartoon robots drawn by twelve year old South Koreans can generate.) Sure, sure, there are middle-aged guys playing GURPS and girls who play D&D and a few inner bell curve populates who crack out the ten-sided die on occasion, but it’s difficult to not see role playing games as primarily a young adolescent male hobby. Also see: kinda creepy.

I’ve visited the town of RPG but I’ve never moved there. In my teenage years I’d play some science fiction-based role playing games—I wasn’t particularly interested in fantasy games, a weird combination of elves and spells and hellhounds and warmed-over pseudo-occult Disneyfied Alistair Crowley-style Merlins and trolls. Certainly, this was the epitome of geekdom: the ranking clearly goes playing bridge with grandma’s friends > chess player > sci-fi fan > kobold enthusiast. So by throwing dice around in a world of warp engines and alien races, I solidified my own self of self-importance by declaring that at least I wasn’t playing dungeon hockey, even though it would take only one sufficiently advanced technology to prove that we both bleed red. Ultimately, I decided that the world of RPGs was just a touch too geeky for me to tolerate, so I abandoned it to go geocaching and pursue a degree in Economics, clearly a lateral move at least. Right?

In Gygax’s world, though, there was nothing at all like it. (Actually, the first rule in Gygax’s world is that proper nouns should be allowed in Scrabble. But, later.) The best anyone could come up with were these monstrous tabletop wargames simulating such grand campaigns as the Napoleonic Wars or the Peloponnesian Conflict, “simulating” being about as accurate as Survivor being an accurate simulation of surviving. No, these wargames didn’t have much to do with dungeons or dragons, but they had plenty of complicated rules to argue about over a table full of baldy painted pewter horses in a four-year span every other Thursday night.

By creating Dungeons and Dragons, he filled a niche probably nobody in the world knew existed. The ensuing commercial success of D&D established a large, lucrative hobby that exists in almost ridiculous proportions today. (Technical note: Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons are two completely different products, a fact that 1) the people who should know that already knew that, and 2) the people who didn’t know that don’t really care.) Of course, as with all new, creative, and ground-breaking ideas in this world, it took only a few years for it to become a small commercial darling into a company beset with partnership drama, financial difficulties, and a Saturday morning cartoon, all clear signals that the death bell is soon to toll as soon as it can get a good +2 modifier to do so.

Still, Gygax launched what would turn out to be genre that billowed out beyond a sixteen-page bluebook filled with spreadsheets and formulas. The computer game industry makes more money than the movie industry, and there are very few games on the market that can’t point to some influence to role playing. While role players are hardly mainstream, no longer will passersby stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks.” They will now stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks. Come fix my computer.” (Aside: the response to that last statement is dependent on the gender and amount of cleavage of the asker.)

All broad, sweeping generalizations aside (cough, cough), role playing games also confer several extraordinarily important skills and benefits to its players.

1) It encourages face to face socialization, at least compared to MMORPGs and programming visual basic to display and repeat on the screen “Miss Dalton is teh hott!” along with a crude graphical representation of her most outstanding attributes.
2) It familiarizes players with mathematical equations and rational thinking, a highly prizes skill even if it’s only incorporated into a game, given how important calculating things in base eight helps out in the real world.
3) Many a role player has thanked their lucky stars they played Dungeons and Dragons as a child when the inevitable horde of armored changelings descends upon them on their thirstiest birthday.

The fantasy genre didn’t rise and set on Dungeons and Dragons, but it did a lot to legitimize itself over the ensuing decades. What A Beautiful Mind did for eccentric game theorists and Million Dollar Baby did for foxy boxing, role players can point to The Lord of The Rings and say, “ours.” Also see: kinda creepy.

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