Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gary Gygax has died:

Gary Gygax (pronounced “Guy-Gax” says the NY Times) died yesterday. He was only 69.

J. R. R. Tolkien opened the universe of fantasy realms to us. GG invented a wonderfully imagination-rich way for us to populate those realms, called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Strangely, Gygax began as a table-top battler. These old-fashioned gamers would fight the Battle of Antietam, say, with model figures built to scale, following some game rules of combat. GG and his friends got to wondering what it would be like if their “realistic” warriors could do magic and cast spells, instead of shooting guns.

There are some pretty simple answers to that question (I mean, there are ways to make simple adjustments to your gaming rules to answer that question. See my UPDATE, below.). GG provided a simple example years later, when he invented a table-top football game, to be played between teams whose players had limited spell-casting abilities in addition to their more usual football skills. But what arose from those table-top battlers was a mighty deep answer: The invention of the Dungeon Master created a whole new type of play, in which one person spun and weaved a magical universe that the others explored.

The extremely detailed rules that GG and his coworkers developed and published -- the dungeon master rules, the player rules, the monster rules – these were not intended to stifle creativity, but to spur it, and to create a gaming world in which people could develop their fantasy characters and carry them from one gaming experience to another. At its best, we received a lot of wondrous wonder from Gygax. There could be boredom, frustration and sudden endings – it was all up to the players to supply the real magic – but magic there was. You could invent your own dungeon and play it with your friends, but you could also buy commercial adventures from Gygax's company, TSR, study them and play them. Who can forget module C2 with its chess room and its inverted-gravity tower? Or module S4; at a time when most Dungeon and dragon games took place underground, S4 featured sprawling wilderness adventure.

Gary Gygax, you had the most awfully convoluted style of writing, but many of us plowed into your turgid prose because there was so much to discover. I tell you what I'm going to do: I'll roll one D20 and see whether you still have to be dead.

(Tomorrow: my favorite D&D story.)

UPDATE: My wife pointed out in frustration that I provided no response to the question I raised above: What's a simple answer to the question: what if warriors could do magic and cast spells? To help my damaged brain, she also suggested a genuinely simple answer: Girls would play too.
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