evannichols (evannichols) wrote,
evannichols
evannichols

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Failing that Final Saving Throw

Gary Gygax passed away this week. In case you don’t know, he was one of the creators of the seminal fantasy role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons.” A big chunk of my teenage years were spent playing D&D. I never met Gary Gygax, but he certainly had a big impact on my life.

I spent a lot of time reading when I was young, and I loved fantasy/adventure books: Narnia, Chronicles of Prydain, Lord of the Rings, etc. So it’s no surprise that I’d take to a game that was the closest one could get to actually being in a fantasy adventure story. Players could explore mystical realms, fight mythic monsters and if the worst happened, one merely rolled up a new character and went right back at it (well, after the requisite whining about how “every time I get a good character, I get killed off,” naturally).

The game was amazingly variable. It was fun at the barest “kill monsters and find treasure” level, but I think it was best when the it spilled out of the dungeon into the world above. Elaborate quests made for huge puzzles to be solved, and sometimes thrust the players into plots, schemes and power struggles between powerful humans, monsters or gods. While I did play characters at times, I was almost always the Dungeon Master. I could claim this was because I was the best at it (and how would you know the difference?), but I think it was mostly because I was the one in our group who had the patience to create the world required for complex adventuring. How many hours did I spend in the Seventies carefully mapping out dungeon rooms on graph paper? I have no idea. A lot.

As a teenager, I carried my D&D books, polyhedral dice and dungeon maps in a briefcase. Actually, I still have it. I’ve hardly opened it in years, but it never felt right to let it go, so it’s followed me through multiple moves. Every so often I think about opening it up and finding someone to play, but I never do. Our group of players was fairly isolated, living in the Wilds of Arizona. None of us ever went to gaming conventions and we hardly ever played D&D with anyone else, and we didn’t keep buying all the updated rule books. So, like the linguistics of a remote mountain clan, we had our own distinctive style, rules and traditions. Every time I’ve played with other people since, I feel a bit of awkwardness about not knowing the “right way” to play.

I’d like it to feel the way it did back then, but how could it? I’m no longer a teenager, hanging out with my friends, playing far into the night with the abandon of youth who have nothing more important in the moment than whether or not our characters will survive a clash with a band of trolls. It was our own world, which we created together. We had years' worth of in-jokes and war stories. How could anything started today compete with those memories, blurred into warm, glowing hues by time and nostalgia?

I didn’t even consider this before, but it would have been nice to tell Gary Gygax that I appreciated how his work affected those years of my life. I’ve been away from RPGs for a while, and I guess I didn’t think about how the guy whose name was on those books thirty years ago would still be around and active in the gaming community. So I missed my chance, but I think Rich Burlew said it very well in his comic The Order of the Stick, with this tribute.

Farewell, Gary Gygax, and thanks.
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