Though I had several college buddies who were ferocious Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts back when the game was just getting started, I found D&D was seldom more than mildly diverting and frequently pretty tedious. For a while I was convinced that the two most terrifying words in the English language were “dungeon crawl,” and I usually made tracks from the dorm room whenever somebody broke out a set of polyhedral dice.
So I felt no personal conection with the news that E. Gary Gygax, co-creator of the role-playing game, had died at the age of 69, though I did pause to think that his name could well have been taken from the pages of one of the sword & sorcery adventures that provided such a rich mine of tropes for D&D gamers. A brother to Vermithrax Pejorative, perhaps? But there’s no denying the man was a pioneer, and like many pioneers he never really got to share in the bounty he helped make possible.
Not the least of Gygax’s accomplishments, as Jeff Sypeck reminds us, was to begin the process that would culminate in fantasy becoming socially acceptable. Sure, girls now squeal over Legolas, Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings garnered a boatload of awards, and all but the snobbiest literateurs will admit to liking Harry Potter.
But, as Jeff says, it was not always thus:
When I was in middle school in the dark days of 1983, a science teacher rescued me from study hall with a weekly session of [role-playing games] and military wargaming. That class, for which several of us received academic credit, solved the mystery surrounding the sprawling scale models of the European countryside that took up half of the chemistry room and the elaborate maps of imaginary places stapled to the classroom walls. The teacher, a retired two-star general, was always an iconoclast. Years later, when faculty were forbidden to smoke on school grounds, he reportedly researched the property limits and spent his lunch hours loping just outside the borders, puffing away in furious protest. Those were the sorts of adults who embraced fantasy back then: outsiders, autodidacts, guys who literally brought their vast knowledge of military history to the table, and similar pre-Internet obsessives who made their classmates and co-workers—the type whom every eight-year-old in the Western Hemisphere now knows to call “Muggles”—very, very nervous.
Of course, for those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community. Hardcover tomes served as authoritative published sources. Pages of rules, charts, graphs, classifications of moral and ethical philosophies, and endless systems of nomenclature were all punctuated with academic abbreviations (”cf.,” “q.v.,” and so on) that required training and memorization. Like knowing how to use the Patrologia Graeca and its accompanying scholarly apparatus, mastering the material in the various D&D manuals was a skill not easily acquired. All of this stuff was, like the foundational scholarship of any field, composed by sages whom we knew primarily through their written pronouncements. They published regular supplements, such as Dragon magazine, which featured articles as specialized and as arcane as anything in Byzantinische Forschungen. From disquisitions on the ecologies of imaginary creatures to lengthy debates about the physics of falling and its effect on the proper way to calculate hit-point damage taken by characters wearing variously configured armor, Dragon was a newsletter, marketplace, and academic journal all rolled into one. Its luminaries even hosted annual and regional meetings; in-the-know players became attuned to rumors of contentious professional politics among the inner circle.
Those were the days when accepting one’s place in the geek universe could mean severely curtailed opportunities for dating and intimacy, and exposed one to people who would roll their eyes and make little twirly motions next to their temples whenever one walked past with a book bearing an enormous dragon on the cover.
So, a toast to E. Gary Gygax, who helped make the world a geekier and a nerdier place. We’re all better off for it.