Gygax, Gary

Gygax, Gary
Jul. 27, 1938-Mar. 4, 2008
American game inventor


Games, according to Gary Gygax, who has designed them, are "an interesting diversion from everyday life. Games give you a chance to excel, and if you're playing in good company, you don't even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game." Gygax, who made that observation during an interview with Allen Rausch for (August 16, 2004), is a creator of the immensely popular-and, for a while, highly controversial-role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Inspired by war-strategy games and the many fantasy novels Gygax has read since childhood, Dungeons & Dragons differs from children's usual make-believe (when they play house or cops and robbers, for example) in that each participant takes on the role of a specific character in ongoing stories, most involving military-like campaigns, searches for treasure, and hazards that must be avoided or overcome, with complex rules guiding the action. A "dungeon master" or "game master" interprets those rules, which describe the characters' powers, the equipment each character should have, ways in which the characters interact, and many other aspects of the game. Unlike board games, card games, athletic contests, and games of chance, Dungeons & Dragons produces neither winners nor losers. Materials required to play are the Dungeons & Dragons rule books, sheets of paper on which the characters' traits are listed, pencils, and dice. Dungeons & Dragons is acknowledged as the first role-playing game of modern times and as the precursor to the flourishing industry built on multiuser, on-line role-playing games. The influence of Dungeons & Dragons on popular culture has been vast. As Malcolm Kelly wrote for the Canadian newspaper the National Post (August 24, 2005), "You can arguably trace so many movies, television shows, arcade, console, PC and board games, collectible figures, miniatures, toys, books, magazines and yes, even perhaps the adventures of Harry Potter, to January, 1974, when Dungeons & Dragons first hit the market in a box filled with three books, a unique set of dice and a lot of imagination."

Since 1985, when Gygax ended his association-not amicably-with Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the company that he had co-founded to market Dungeons & Dragons, he has invented, alone or with others, additional role-playing games. Among them are Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventures, table-top battle games, board games, and a three-layered form of chess. He has also written two series of fantasy novels, known as the Greyhawk Adventures and Gord the Rogue Adventures; many short stories; and a series of reference books, collectively called Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds, which offer instructions on how to create such worlds with the goal of constructing role-playing games. In his conversation with Allen Rausch, Gygax said, "I do stuff that I like. The books I write because I want to read them, the games because I want to play them, and stories I tell because I find them exciting personally. When you finish one you feel great." He also 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."

The son of Ernest Gygax and his wife, Ernest Gary Gygax was born on July 27, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois, where he grew up. (In some credits his name appears as E. Gary Gygax.) His father had immigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland or Germany, according to various sources; there is also disagreement about his mother's origins, some sources reporting that she was a native-born American and others that she was a German immigrant. Gygax began playing card games at age five and chess at age six. In his youth he enjoyed reading science-fiction and fantasy novels, including works by Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, and Robert E. Howard. He has also named the fantasy writers L. Sprague DeCamp, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, H. P. Lovecraft, and Fritz Lieber among his major influences. According to a profile of him on the BBC Web site, he dropped out of high school and spent just over a year at the University of Minnesota.

In about 1966, while working as an insurance underwriter in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gygax helped to set up the International Federation of Wargamers (IFW). In "wargaming," which began as a military training tool, possibly in early-19th-century Prussia, players use maps and figurines to enact battles, with outcomes decided by the rolling of dice. Members of the IFW met regularly in Gygax's and other members' houses. Before it disbanded, in 1974, the group had between 600 and 700 members, mostly in the U.S. Midwest. Many IFW members formed branches, to enable them to focus on games specific to their particular interests. Gygax, a medieval-history enthusiast, launched the Castle and Crusade Society; its members played Dark Ages-themed variants of war games, with rules linked to their figurines' possessions (horses or shields, for example). When Castle and Crusade players started to grow bored, Gygax and his friend Jeff Perrin added such features as wizards who had the power to throw fireballs. Those changes proved popular, and the game, called Chainmail, attracted many players, as well as the attention of Don Lowry, the owner of a mail-order business called Lowry's Hobbies. At about that time Lowry had launched a publishing imprint, Guidon Games, with the idea of offering a book series about wargaming with miniatures, and he recruited Gygax as an editor. In 1971 Guidon Games published Gygax and Perrin's manual Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures. That same year Guidon published rules for a naval simulation called Don't Give Up the Ship!, developed by Gygax and Dave Arneson, an IFW member whom Gygax had met at the 1970 GenCon gathering. Gygax had organized the first GenCon-or Geneva Convention, as it is formally known-in 1968; held at his home in Lake Geneva, it attracted about 100 gamers that year. The annual GenCon is currently among the world's major role-playing-game forums. Its conclaves take place at sites in Anaheim, California; Indianapolis, Indiana; Barcelona, Spain; Paris, France; and the United Kingdom. About 25,000 people attended the Indianapolis convention in 2006.

At GenCon 1971 Arneson introduced a gaming scenario in which each figurine represented one person rather than the traditional 20. According to Rausch in a five-part history of Dungeons & Dragons for (August 16-20, 2004), "While there had always been an element of 'role-playing' in wargames, the feeling of really 'being' a medieval warrior in Arneson's game was almost unprecedented." Encouraged by the enthusiastic response of gamers, Arneson and Gygax created additional fantasy scenarios, while adhering to the original Chainmail rulebook. Greyhawk, a mystical world of Gygax's invention, would endure as the setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Over the next two or three years, both Gygax and Arneson made further adjustments to what had come to be known as the Fantasy Game. Arneson abandoned the Chainmail guidelines and introduced more elaborate settings, such as underground sites with dragons and treasures, while Gygax drew up new rules for the game, borrowing thematic elements wholesale from fantasy writers; among them was the Vancian magic system (named for Jack Vance), also known as "fire and forget," in which, as Gygax explained to Rausch, "the energy you draw when you memorize the spell energizes your brain. When you speak the words, the energy drains from your mind." Gygax also started using a 20-sided die (the Platonic solid known as an icosahedron), which he had seen advertised in a school-supply catalog. One day, while listening to him and Arneson speaking about dragons while they were occupied in Gygax's basement, Gygax's wife suggested that they call their game Dungeons & Dragons.

In 1973, after trying unsuccessfully to interest publishers in Dungeons & Dragons (among them Avalon Hill, which produced many war games and board games and rejected Dungeons & Dragons on the grounds that there was no clear way for players to win), Gygax and a longtime friend of his, Don Kaye, decided to publish the game themselves. With that end in mind, they formed the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR, named after another gaming group Gygax had co-founded, with Kaye, Mike Reese and Leon Tucke-the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Associaton). Another game enthusiast, Brian Blume, contributed most of the company's start-up funds. In January 1974 TSR placed Dungeons & Dragons on the market, and within 10 months, 1,000 copies had been purchased-a large number by wargaming-industry standards. The next thousand copies sold out in three months. In the next few years, spurred largely by word of mouth, nationwide sales steadily increased. Gygax would get phone calls, sometimes in the middle of the night, from players who had questions about rules. "Dungeons & Dragons was exposing thousands of people to the joys of gaming, fantasy, [and] history, and was creating new social networks around the hobby shops that sold the products," Rausch wrote. In 1977 TSR published a second version of Dungeons & Dragons, with far more complex rules; it became known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. During an interview with Harvey Smith for Game Developer (November 2002), Gygax said, "I do not, and I stress not, believe that the RPG [role-playing game] is 'storytelling' in the way that is usually presented. If there is a story to be told, it comes from the interaction of all participants, not merely the Game Master-who should not be a storyteller, but a narrator and co-player. The players are not acting out roles designed for them by the GM, they are acting in character to create the story, and the tale is told as the game unfolds, and as directed by their actions, with random factors that even the GM can't predict altering the course of things. Storytelling is what novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights do. It has little or no connection to the RPG, which differs in all aspects from the entertainment forms such authors create for."

By 1978 Dungeons & Dragons had become extremely popular among college students and teenagers. One day during the next year, James Dallas Egbert, a troubled Michigan State University student, disappeared in the steam tunnels under the school's campus. A rumor began circulating that just before he vanished, he had been playing Dungeons & Dragons. Egbert's disappearance triggered a wave of negative publicity surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. (In truth, Egbert had entered the tunnels determined to commit suicide. When his attempt failed, he hid at a friend's home for a month. He later left Michigan and in 1980 died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.) In 1981, three years before the truth about Egbert's fate became public, Rona Jaffe published a roman a clef, called Mazes and Monsters, about the Egbert case; a cautionary novel about the supposed evils of RPGs, Mazes and Monsters was made into a television film starring Tom Hanks in 1981. During the next few years, Christian fundamentalist groups and coalitions of parents across the U.S. blamed the suicides of several teenagers on the alleged destructive effects of Dungeons & Dragons. Some condemned Dungeons & Dragons as having harmful spiritual and psychological effects and for promoting satanism, witchcraft, and other objectionable beliefs and practices. In Connecticut, for example, a spokesman for a group calling itself the Christian Information Council charged, "Playing these games can desensitize players to murder, suicide, rape, torture, robbery, the occult or any other immoral or illegal act," as quoted by James Brooke in the New York Times (August 22, 1985). Many reporters in the print and broadcast media presented stories concerning Dungeons & Dragons and its critics in a sensationalistic manner and likened players of the game to followers of a cult. In the opinions of many Dungeons & Dragons aficionados, Ed Bradley egregiously emulated such journalists when he interviewed Gygax for the CBS-TV news magazine 60 Minutes in the mid-1980s. Gygax told Rausch, "In many ways I still resent the wretched yellow journalism that was clearly evident in [the media's] treatment of the game-60 Minutes in particular. I've never watched that show after Ed Bradley's interview with me because they rearranged my answers. When I sent some copies of letters from mothers of those two children who had committed suicide who said the game had nothing to do with it, they refused to do a retraction or even mention it on air." Gygax told Rausch that he had received deaths threats over the phone and in the mail. "I was a little nervous. I had a bodyguard for a while," he said. Although many observers noted that passionate Dungeons & Dragons players often immersed themselves thoroughly in the worlds created during games, no scientific studies ever found evidence of a link between Dungeons & Dragons and suicide or any other seriously antisocial behaviors. Ironically, the controversy surrounding the game helped greatly to boost its sales. In 1981 TSR, which then employed some 300 people, boasted gross earnings of $16.5 million, with $4.25 million in profits. In addition to glossy Dungeons & Dragons manuals, merchandise included beach balls, toys, and a book series launched as part of a campaign to educate parents and teachers about the game as a means of strengthening reading, mathematical, social, and imaginative skills.

Meanwhile, despite its success, TSR was beset by internal woes: Arneson left the company after a falling-out with Gygax over credit for the game's creation (a dispute that was settled out of court), and after Kaye's death, in 1975, contractual disputes with Kaye's wife forced Gygax to incorporate and rename the company TSR Hobbies Inc. In doing so Gygax-who, according to most accounts, lacked business savvy-overextended himself financially, and he could afford to retain only a minority share of TSR Hobbies. Brian Blume and Kevin Blume (variously identified as Brian's brother or father) gained majority control, with Brian as chief executive officer (CEO), and Gygax had limited say in the company's direction. In 1982, when the Blumes suggested that he develop Dungeons & Dragons products for television and film, Gygax moved to California; there, he set up a new company, called Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment, with himself as president but with the Blumes in control. "It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to be recognized [on the West Coast] as someone who was for real and not just a civilian, shall we say, in entertainment," he recalled to Rausch. His efforts bore fruit when he negotiated with CBS the licensing of a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon spin-off. Co-produced by Marvel Productions and TSR, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series aired for three seasons beginning in 1983. According to Edward Power, writing for the Irish Times (December 16, 2000), "Despite its twee execution, the show exuded an otherworldliness approaching the haunting grandeur of Gygax's original vision."

While Gygax was in California, TSR's financial health deteriorated. Large sums were spent on company cars and frivolous office items, and according to Rausch, "nepotism under the Blumes' administration was rampant, with estimates that at least 90 relatives of the family had somehow ended up on the company payroll." When Gygax returned to Lake Geneva, as he told Rausch, "the bank was foreclosing and we were a million and a half [dollars] in debt." Gygax advised TSR's board of directors to remove Brian Blume as CEO, among other measures. His recommendations proved effective, but, not surprisingly, they angered the Blume family. In response, the Blumes then sold their shares in TSR to Lorraine Williams, a TSR board member who had inherited the rights to the Buck Rogers franchise. Gygax had little faith in Williams's potential as a manager for TSR (her disdain for TSR's audience of gamers had been widely noted), and he tried in vain, through legal means, to prevent her from gaining control of the company. At the end of 1985, he sold his remaining interest in TSR. (In 1997, with TSR deep in debt, Williams sold the company to the games publisher Wizards of the Coast.)

The year 1985 also saw the publication of Saga of Old City, the first of Gygax's two Greyhawk novels to bear the TSR imprint; the second, Artifact of Evil, followed a year later. The main character in both novels is Gord the Rogue, whose further adventures Gygax described in five additional novels, published in 1987 and 1988 by New Infinities Productions. In the early 1990s, after several years' preparation, Gygax and Dave Newton published the first installment of a new role-playing game, Dangerous Journeys, which came with an extremely complicated set of rules. Charging that the game bore too close a resemblance to Dungeons & Dragons, TSR sued Gygax for copyright infringement. Although Gygax contended that the accusation lacked merit, he agreed to settle the case by selling the rights to Dangerous Journeys to TSR, which agreed to pay his legal costs. His next role-playing game, created partly in collaboration with Chris Clark, is Lejendary Adventures. "Rules light and skill-bundle based," as Gygax described it to Rausch, the series was launched in 1999, with Lejendary Rules for All Players. As of early 2007, the series included two additional rule books, three "world setting" or "campaign world" source books, half a dozen adventure scenarios, and several boxed sets with "expansions." Gygax's publications also include Role-Playing Mastery (1987) and the reference manuals in his series Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds, which he described to Rausch as "generic books on how to construct a fantasy world"; the five volumes published since 2003 include Gary Gygax's Nation Builder and Gary Gygax's Extraordinary Book of Names.

Gygax had no direct involvement with the production of the film Dungeons & Dragons (2001), which was widely panned. In 2006 he lent his voice to Dungeons & Dragons Online, produced by Turbine Inc. Designed to replicate "that classic, sitting-around-the-kitchen-table Dungeons & Dragons experience," as Turbine's head, Jeff Anderson, told Seth Schiesel for the New York Times (February 27, 2006), that on-line game allows players to speak to one another via microphones on their computers, and a 20-sided die is displayed on screen. Contrasting the traditional Dungeons & Dragons with the Internet version, Gygax said to Schiesel, "The analogy I make is that pen-and-paper role-playing is live theater and computer games are television. People want the convenience and instant gratification of turning on the TV rather than … going out to see a live play. In some way, the computer is a more immediately accessible way to play games."

After he suffered a minor stroke and heart attack in 2004, Gygax quit his 50-year smoking habit and cut down on his workload. In 2006 he revealed on that he had an inoperable, potentially fatal abdominal aortic aneurysm. (As of late 2007 he had provided no further information about the state of his health.) His first marriage, which ended in divorce, produced two sons and three daughters (Ernest Jr., Mary Elise, Heidi Jo, Cindy Lee, and Lucion Paul). A grandfather of seven, Gygax lives in Lake Geneva with his second wife, the former Gail Carpenter, whom he married in 1987; the couple have one son, Alexander Hugh Hamilton. Gygax's personal library holds thousands of books (both fiction and nonfiction), magazines, and maps. His leisure activities include reading and fishing.

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