In the wake of the sad news that E. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died, I wanted to say a few words.
Every Friday evening, I go to a friend’s house for a session of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been doing this, off and on, since 2000, which means I started gaming long after Gygax had moved on from the project that made him famous. Yet I still knew his name, before I even started playing D&D. You couldn’t hang out in geek circles and not know his name: the man was a legend. Oh, he was a controversial figure, for sure; people argued over his approach to roleplaying, his game design philosophy; some people claimed that his influence had condemned roleplaying culture to be dominated by the rules of wargames whether that was appropriate or not. I never took those arguments seriously, because even if there was some truth in them, they didn’t change the fact that without Gygax, there’d be no D&D, and without D&D, there’d be no roleplaying culture. And besides, I was having too much fun playing my plane-touched bard/rogue or my half-elven warrior princess to care.
There’s always been an overlap between comics culture and RPG culture. In my home town of Dublin, the best shops to buy RPG books and materials are the comics shops, and this is true in lots of other cities as well. Not everyone who games reads comics and not everyone who reads comics is a gamer, but we tend to like the same kinds of things and move in the same kinds of circles. So there are comics about RPGs — like Knights of the Dinner Table and Dork Tower — and there are RPGs inspired by comics — like Champions and Big Eyes Small Mouth. More than that: there’s an overlap of sensibilities between roleplayers and comics readers, especially superhero comics readers: an appreciation of the fantastic, a love of world-building, a taste for symbolic combat, an almost fanatical attention to fine detail — and a love of illustrative art: I’ve got more than one RPG sourcebook on my shelf that I bought mostly because the illustrations were gorgeous and only partly because I thought I might actually play the games. Some RPG illustrators have also worked in comics — or should I say that some comics artists have illustrated RPGs? — and when the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon was produced back in the 80s, comics writers Steve Gerber and Mark Evanier contributed scripts, as did Paul Dini, now best known for his work on the DC animated universe.
It always surprises and delights me to see the ways in which one burst of inspiration will set off others, culminating in an avalanche of new ideas about art and storytelling and everything in between. The original Dungeons & Dragons was a melange of elements from classic fantasy, mythology, wargames, and Gygax’s own imagination. It was a fantastic creative achievement in itself, but what made it so remarkable and so important was that it encouraged others to unleash their own creativity — not just because maybe one day they might be able to get a novel out of it, but because… well, because it was fun. Creativity for the sake of creativity! How utopian is that?When GameSpy asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he said “I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else.” I think he got his wish. No — I know he did. When Friday comes around and I sit down at the dinner table with my D&D buddies, I’m going to line up my dice knowing that I owe all my hundreds of hours of roleplaying, and the friends I made through roleplaying, and Dork Tower, and Erfworld, and Order of the Stick, and God only knows how many other wonderful comics (and films! and books!), at least partly to E. Gary Gygax, who set the dice rolling back in 1974.
Thanks for everything, Gary. I never met you, but you changed my life anyway.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.