Wed 26 Mar 2008
If you have any existence at all in the roleplaying game subculture, you heard about the recent passing on of one of its iconic figures. In a nutshell, Gary Gygax was one of the people responsible for bringing the Dungeons and Dragons game into the mainstream consciousness. There are many roleplaying gamers who feel they owe the existence of their hobby to the efforts of this man. The passing on of the Mr. Gygax marks a generational shift in the hobby and a time for it’s middle-aged players to reflect on the past.
I was ten years old when I first heard about the game. It seemed like one of those strange, goofy things nerds do and I paid no attention to it. My folks often went to hobby stores to get materials for their art projects. The kind of local hobby stores that would later be replaced by big chains like Michael’s. These sorts of places were the only stores you could find Dungeons and Dragons materials at first. Later on, they started to crop up in book sections of department stores and in places that sold model kits.
While my folks did their shopping, I’d examine the shrink-wrapped modules and read the rulebooks. I’d stare at the lead figures and strangely shaped dice behind glass counters and wonder what the game was about. The illustrations always looked so exciting. Who wouldn’t want to go adventuring in a fantasy world and kill monsters, win treasure, and save the town?
I decided to get my folks to buy one of the rulebooks and see if I could make anything out of the game. I got my hands on the now rare edition of the Deities and Demigods book, which was a sourcebook of material for different kinds of divine pantheons you could use in the game, not a part of the rules at all. I never got a handle on the difference between “Basic” and “Advanced” Dungeons and Dragons, and the rules for Hit points, Hit dice, and Saving Throws all sounded like a foreign language to me.
I got my folks to buy me Steading of the Hill Giant Chief next, in the hopes the game might be made clearer. I’d gotten my hands on an adventure module, which showed me the kind of places a Dungeons and Dragons player might adventure. There seemed to be a lot of monsters to kill and a lot of treasure to be had. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play anything yet.
Eventually, I figured out I needed a “Basic” set sold in a box to obtain the bare minimum to play. My folks didn’t want to shell out money for a “Player’s Handbook”, “Dungeon Master’s Guide” and “Monster Manual” just yet. These things were all comparatively expensive at the time, and parents hardly can be expected to bankroll a product line for something this obscure and hard to understand.
The basic set came courtesy of my aunt at Christmas time, which included an introductory adventure module, a set of dice, and a basic rulebook. I got my folks to buy me some lead figures – a barbarian swinging an axe, four tiny batwinged demon creatures, a pack of six giant spiders, and a large winged demon with a curved sword. Were they what I needed to play? How should I know, it just seemed like everyone needed lead figures to play somehow.
It took me a long time to learn how to play. I was eleven by this point, and I would sometimes play “pretend” Dungeons and Dragons with my friends at school during recess, using information I’d read in the material as inspiration. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. A group of my school friends tried to start a regular meeting at the local library to play every weekend, but that was scraped. My cousins were playing. A neighborhood boy down the street was buying materials and trying to figure out how to play. Everywhere I looked there were pockets of people adopting the game and talking about it.
Nobody I knew seemed able to actually play without cheating. It was popular to make powerful characters up in the game and just loot the adventure modules. I remember me and a friend spent an entire night going over the Deities and Demigods book, saying we killed powerful gods and took their stuff to divide up amongst ourselves. I’d take Zeus’s shield, and he’d get Apollo’s bow. The goddesses we just took captive for our imaginary harems, though we hadn’t even hit puberty yet.
I wouldn’t start playing the game with someone else seriously until high school. That marks for me the development from fantasy wish-fulfillment to actual hobby gameplay. I’d spent countless hours making up dungeons with monsters and treasures. I had a subscription to Dragon magazine and so knew all the latest rules changes and alternatives. I had even picked up other games that were starting to join the available list of playable hobbies.
I changed from a kid that spent a lot of time outdoors to a mostly indoors, introverted kid. I spent less time drawing and more time writing and re-writing my fantasy worlds. Video games were becoming huge around this time, which further contributed to my psychological change. Going through puberty, I changed the way I entertained myself and the focus of my life energies went down a completely different path. The results of that transformation would resonate through me for many years to come.
Eventually, I abandoned Dungeons and Dragons for another game. The development of my intense study and play of roleplaying games has borne strange fruits and taken me through some rather dark dungeons of the psyche. The human beings who find themselves engaged in this hobby are of an interest that speaks of both a damning statement on humanity, and unexpected hope for the future of the planet. It’s still too soon to call. The accusations of “deviltry” by some sections of the population are not entirely without merit, though it is wise to remember people can become possessed by anything.
It’s hard to imagine where I’d have ended up as a person without the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on my life. The hobby has been a major part of my personal development, so if it hadn’t been there, I don’t know what could have replaced it. I’ve been a part of a geek subculture that has grown to become a participant in the mainstream entertainment industry.
I’m moving into middle age and it’s midlife crisis realignment. Perhaps as a result, I’ll find out about the part of me I didn’t develop by going down this path. I won’t be abandoning my interest in roleplaying games, but I don’t need them as much as I used to. I’ve been rolling dice for thirty years now.
There’s definitely a psychological change going on with me with regards to gameplay. So I find the passing on of Mister Gygax as a synchronistic event. It’s personally meaningful in that it means the foundations of my interest in the hobby have undergone a change and are passing on. That frees up a lot of life energy for new pursuits and allows new interests to take hold of me. I’m curious to see what the next year will bring.
- The Deities and Demigods book
- Hill Giant action
- The basic rulebook
- An introductory module at last
- Advanced module of death