Dungeons and Dragons changed my life -- thanks, Gygax
Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.
This is where it all began.
One Christmas, either 1981 or 1982 -- it's hard to be sure now, thirty-plus years later -- I received a gift that would change me forever. It came in a cardboard box with a lurid cover painting underneath the words Dungeons & Dragons. To an objective observer, there wasn't much inside -- just a pair of slim booklets and a handful of weird, polyhedral dice. But to me, and thousands of other kids like me, there was so much more inside -- a limitless world of high fantasy that would occupy my imagination for the better part of the next decade, and beyond.
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This Saturday, July 27, Gary Gygax, the creator of that game and the father of the role-playing game, would have been 75 years old. When I opened that box all those years ago, only a bare handful of people had ever heard the term "role-playing game," much less had any idea what it meant. By the time he died in 2008, games like World of Warcraft, built on the concepts he created, were among the biggest entertainment franchises in the world. Not a bad legacy for a high-school dropout and one-time insurance underwriter.
Alan De Smet Gygax in 2007
I don't remember how I heard of Dungeons & Dragons, but I do remember that from the moment I became aware of it, I was pretty much obsessed. By that age -- eight or nine -- I already loved games, a passion I'd picked up from my maternal grandmother. Board games, card games, video games, even stuff like word searches, it didn't matter. I couldn't get enough. I also loved anything science fiction or fantasy, a passion my father had instilled in me by the time I could walk. In Dungeons & Dragons I'd discovered a near-perfect combination of two of my favorite things into one fantastic package.
Once I had the game, the obsession only deepened. With most games, I'd open them, read the rules and be playing within twenty minutes. It didn't take me long to figure out Dungeons & Dragons was different, or rather, it took me quite a long time to figure out what the hell it even was. There was no board, but there were maps and character sheets and lots of weird-ass dice. And rules on top of rules. Wrapping my head around the concept of a game with no winners, no losers and no concrete, finite goals took some time. But my love of games and fantasy kept me working at it, and before long I was running sessions with my brother and anyone else I could wrangle. Once I had saved enough allowance I added the Expert set, with more monsters, more weapons, more everything. A few months later we moved, and my dad bought me the entire three-volume hardcover set of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of "sorry we had to move during the school year" consolation prize. By that point, Dungeons & Dragons was not just my favorite game, but almost the only game I played that wasn't a video game. Everything else just seemed so simple and limited in comparison to the game's imagination-driven treks through haunted castles, eldritch tombs and monster-filled dungeons.