Celebrate today with some role-playing games in honor of one its primary creators, Mr. Gary Gygax. Gary Gygax was born on July 27, 1938. In 1974, he and Dave Arneson published Dungeons and Dragons (originally published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR) and by Wizards of the Coast since 1997). Most folks consider this to be the beginning of modern role-playing games, and it has had a huge and profound effect on people’s lives and popular culture. Gary was a history buff as well as a big fan of fantasy and science fiction. He also had a keen understanding of game theory and inter-personal storytelling.
In 1971, Gary helped develop Chainmail, a miniatures wargame, based on medieval battles. It included a “Fantasy Supplement” that provided the structure for things like armor class, character class, spells, monsters, and more. If you have a copy of that supplement and game, you have serious geek cred.
What started as traditional war-gaming with figures and hex maps, took on a whole new aspect when Gary and his fellow players decided to create specific characters and rules for multi-person storytelling narratives. The collective zeitgeist of gamers everywhere changed when Gary turned a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon and, using hair from a barbie doll and modeling clay, made a giant and put it on the table. He had found a company making plastic “Platonic Solids” shapes, and they became the models for the various dice (like the famous D-20) now used for a variety of games today.
Gary saw the potential of Dungeons and Dragons and left a successful life as an insurance underwriter to help create one of first companies to publish content for role-playing games. Role-playing games (RPGs) of all sorts started to be released, from western-themed (Boot Hill) to futuristic (Gamma World) and alternate worlds (Empire of the Petal Throne). Sadly, as success hit, so did the squabbling over money and rights, and Gary spent a lot of time fighting lawsuits, and eventually left the company he created.
Role-playing games have encouraged players to explore new concepts, research and create worlds and amazing stories, and develop many friendships. Concepts like “I did not make my saving throw” and “Crit!” have now entered common parlance. Dungeons and Dragons and the games that followed helped create the million-dollar gaming industry, which in turn helped inspire thousands of books, games, some rather sad movies and TV series, and online games like World of Warcraft and League of Legend. There have been a variety of spin-off games like Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) and Alternate Reality Games (ARG), which are now part of the tools used in cutting-edge Trans-Media. Collectively, the industries influenced by that first rule book are worth over a billion dollars.
Sadly, Gary passed away in March 2008. But it’s estimated that at least 5.5 million people still play table top games today, and over forty million have played at some point in their lives. Famous players include folks from all walks of life: Joss Whedon, Vin Diesel, Wil Wheaton, Stephen Colbert, Eddie Izzard, Jon Stewart, Nathan Fillion, and hundreds more, including scientists, authors, athletes, and politicians.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Gygax 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.”
So if you have ever picked up a D-20 or thought about playing a role-playing game, remember July 27 as Gary Gygax Day, and invite a few friends over to play. It might be a great way to make some friends and share an adventure or two. You will be surprised at how many of your friends have been jonesing to have a game!
Robert Seutter is a graduate of USC’s Navy-Marine Cinema Program; a professional storyteller, known as True Thomas; a sci-fi novelist; a scholar of folklore, myth, and legend; a proud geek and a gamer since D-20 dice were carved from mastodon bones!