Farewell to the Dungeon Master

Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax arrives at the Pearly Gates; a magical dwarf mourns.

You never forget your first character. Mine was a weredragon barbarian, because I was 11 years old and a big fan of Sega’s Altered Beast. I was in middle school, and my social studies teacher ran an after-school Dungeons & Dragons group for students, and I needed something to do after school and it damn well wasn’t going to be sports.

I didn’t understand the rules (I don’t know if I ever really understood some of them — THAC0, anyone?), or that there were actually classes of characters I could have chosen from, or that the weredragon I created might have been a tad overpowered, but who cares about playing fair when you’re breathing righteous fire on your enemies? Soon I had a backpack full of source books and a bag full of obscure dice that most people probably don’t even know exist. (Oh, the unlucky soul that has not experienced the joys of the d20!)

As it goes with many new initiates, my parents did not approve of a game that included something called a “Monster Manual” that had pictures of demons on it. (It wasn’t actually a demon, by the way; it’s called a “beholder”). But by then I had learned to love this game that was 75 percent imagination and 25 percent calculation; that was played in worlds where people went to school to learn sword-fighting or wizardry, not social studies; where magic was real and could be wielded with unforgiving force; and where every stroll through a forest was sure to be accompanied by a goblin attack or, if we were very lucky, a hill giant or two.

Oh, yes, the dungeon crawls were slogging and treacherous, the dragons were death-on-wings, but if that’s not what you wanted, then you probably shouldn’t be playing a game called Dungeons and Dragons.

When Gary Gygax introduced D&D to the world in 1974, I wonder if he knew what he had unleashed — a legion of dice-spinning dungeon masters and those who hung on their every word; a horde of Bible-beating critics who were sure that with every hit point lost, we were losing a bit of our soul? Then again, with a name that sounded like it came right out of a Monster Manual (seriously, “Gygax”?), maybe he did.

For two decades, the phrase “role-playing game” conjured images of spinning dice and dungeon masters; then the term was co-opted by video games — video games created by former dungeon masters, by the way. Gygax might not have created the fantasy genre, but he created generations of fans of that genre. Now there are 7 million people online pretending to be blood elves and shamans. All Gygax wanted to do was create something fun for him and his friends to play.

These days, the character I’m playing is a dwarven cleric/necromancer. He’s no weredragon, but he does allow me to tell my wife, on the occasional Sunday when my friends and I can meet up for a game, that I’m off to pretend I’m a magical dwarf. We laugh and catch up and role-play our way into dangerous situations involving evil wizards or hobgoblin armies, then fight our way back out. If I’m lucky, I get to commune with my goddess, raise a zombie, and throw a fireball or two.

It’s a kind of imaginative, no-holds-barred play that most people don’t keep in their lives after childhood. It’s one of the last great all-ages bastions of pretend that hasn’t been swallowed up by the digital age.

Sure, the elements of D&D are more recognizable in its spiritual descendant, World of Warcraft, and any number of online RPGs. But that element of pretend isn’t there, not when the computer is imagining everything for you. And to paraphrase a recent D&D advertisement, if you’re going to sit in your room and pretend you’re a magical dwarf, you might as well invite your friends.

Gary Gygax died this month at the age of 69. After a long illness, he missed one last fortitude save. Magical dwarves and half-orcs the world over are still mourning.

I hope he died knowing how much fun so many people had because of him. And that he hit the afterlife rolling all 20s.

Article © 2008 by Steve Spotswood