When I called Alex Brown, owner of The Sword & Grail comic book and game shop today, he sounded remarkably cheery. It turns out that he hadn’t yet heard that visionary game designer Gary Gygax was dead from an unnamed cause at age 69, and his reaction was stunned. Among a certain crowd, after all, Gygax is bigger than Chuck Berry, Picasso and Spielburg, all rolled into one.
You’re probably wondering who this Gygax person is, and why it’s a big deal to anyone that he’s dead. In 1974, Gygax and collaborator Dave Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons, which would become one of the most popular of role-playing games. With its interactive storytelling of heroes, monsters and literally endless game-play, D&D became one of the cornerstones of the modern-day gaming industry. Today, even the most conservative industry estimates place the number of RPG players worldwide in the millions.
“He was a pioneer of so much stuff,” Brown said, a little distractedly, as he searched online for news of Gygax’s death. “He was such a creative force for so many years.”
And he was. Far beyond the tired cliché of pale, nerdy kids rolling dice and pretending to be heroes in the safety of their parents’ basements, D&D was the inspiration behind the early videogame industry and built the market for online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. It inspired collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering (and its cousins Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!), and helped keep the fandom for Tolkien’s works (upon which D&D was based, to a great extent) alive in the days before Peter Jackson brought Lord of the Rings to the big screen.
Pop culture — and the videogame and fantasy-fiction industries in particular — owe a huge debt to Gary Gygax, although they probably wouldn’t recognize the name.
“I’m not sure that anyone will ever measure up to his legacy, or get anywhere near it,” Brown said. “It’s a shame, because the last third of his career has been almost trivial in the gaming industry. He started so much, but after [RPG’s] took off, he kind of faded out of it.”
As he scanned through various stories online, Brown told me that he thought it unlikely there would be much of a public reaction to Gygax’s death. He wasn’t a star, after all. But for gamers, particularly those from the old-school, paper-and-dice “dungeon-crawling” era, it’s a different story.
“A lot of people will contemplate and think about it,” Brown said, adding that he expects Gygax’s passing will be the talk of the shop at Sword & Grail for the next several days. And although Brown doubts that there would be much demand for any kind of in-store memorial service, he expects that the original “dungeon master” will be marked in some way by the local gaming community.
“There’s a role-playing group that meets here on Tuesdays, and maybe we’ll do something to remember him,” he said.
— Steve Shanafelt, A&E editor