There are a few names that have absolutely changed the face of the roleplaying world. If you’re a fan of geek culture in general, you probably know one or two. If you’re a member of the general public, though, there’s perhaps only one name that you’d possibly know – Gary Gygax.
Gygax was many things during his life. Twice married, the father of six children was a founder of the roleplaying world and an elder statesman of geekdom until his death. Taking a closer look at his life and his works helps to prove how much of an impact he made on the hobby. This was a man who didn’t just help to invent a very popular game, but who happened to do something that absolutely changed the face of entertainment.
The Life of Gygax
Gary Gygax was born in 1938 in Chicago. An active and somewhat unruly child, Gygax would become involved in a bit of trouble that would cause his family to pull up stakes and move to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It would be from here that Gygax’s life came into a focus and that he would eventually grow roots over time.
Gygax was a huge fan of games even as a child. While he was fond of card games early on, he’d also become a dedicated chess player when he grew a bit older. At the same time, he began to play rules-based imagination games that heavily resembled modern Live Action Roleplaying Games. Gygax, it seems, had always had a passion not just for games but for developing the rules behind them.
While not much of a student – he was a high school dropout – he was a voracious reader. His love of pulp classics would shine through the works that he’d produce for most of his adult life. After a brief stint in the Marines, he would settle down, get married, and begin his obsession with wargaming.
Though Gygax and his wife did move to Chicago briefly, he’d eventually return home to Lake Geneva. While there, he was introduced to concepts like those found in H.G. Wells’ Little Wars and began to develop rules for wargaming on his own. He’d begin to experiment with various types of dice and different types of maps, eventually starting to move towards writing magazine articles about wargaming and becoming highly active in organizing the fandom.
The Genesis of D&D
If there’s a definitive start to Dungeons and Dragons, it must be traced to Gary Gygax’s fascination with war games. While his childhood games were complex enough, things would start to gel into the concept we know and love today until 1967. That was the year that Gygax cofounded the International Federation of Wargamers and hosted the first Lake Geneva Convention – the forerunner of the modern GenCon.
In 1970, Gygax began to work in the gaming industry. As an editor for Guidon Games, he published a pair of historical war games, but his real success game with a new game called Chainmal. The 1971 edition of Chainmail would become the first in a line of fantasy wargaming books, but even that game would be lost to time. What was far more important than the game itself was the supplement that it included. This supplement had the rules for fantasy warfare, including rules for what would become the core classes of Dungeons and Dragons.
It would be a demonstrating from Dave Arneson that brought everything together. Arneson was using the rules for Chainmail for his homebrew campaign, something that inspired Gygax. The two would work together on what was originally called ‘The Fantasy Game’ and that would later become Dungeons and Dragons. The game was extensively playtested by a number of individuals who would become major names in the roleplaying world as well as Gygax’s own children. Some of the most famous characters of early D&D would be created during this early period, while settings like Greyhawk and Blackmoor would be largely defined and sadly forgotten as the game would continue to evolve.
Gygax has some difficulty selling the concept initially. Guidon games was too small a publisher, while the industry giant Avalon Hill didn’t see the point of the game. Gygax would have to take matters into his own hands to get the game published.
The TSR Years
In 1973, Gary Gygax co-founded Tactical Studies Rules with Don Kaye. The immediate purpose of the company was to publish Dungeons and Dragons, though getting to that point was hard going. They had to bring in a third partner and, during the off time, Gygax largely focused on creating more miniatures rules for new games. By 1974, though, Dungeons and Dragons would see its first box set release.
After Kaye’s death in 1975, Gygax quickly found himself as a minority stakeholder in the company he had created. He would work largely as a writer on various D&D supplements and go on to found the magazie that would later become Dragon. He still playeda vital role in shaping the future of the game.
By 1975, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would be published and D&D would begin to become a true cultural phenomenon. While there was doubtlessly a great deal of negative press during the 1970s and 80s, it was during this time that Gygax enjoyed most of his success. He woudl write most of the core books for the series himself and would eventually leave Lake Geneva for Hollywood, during which time he spearheaded TSR’s attempts to get movies and television properties off the ground.
When TSR ran into financial difficulties, Gygax returned home to take up the reigns. It was during this time he produced Unearthed Arcana and he also began to publish books about his character Gord the Rogue. TSR would become sucessful again, but Gygax would eventually be outsted as president of the company. Understanding that he was finally at a point at which he would never have control over the D&D line again, he left TSR. While he was able to take Gord the Rogue and a handful of other characters with him, he left behind the rights to much of what he had created both during and before his work with TSR.
Life After D&D
Gygax’s role in the gaming world absolutely did not end when his relationship with D&D was terminated. He almost immediately began working with New Inifinities Productions, a company that was largely kept afloat in its early days by his Gord the Rogue novels. Gygax would try his hand at several others games, none of which would end up as successful as D&D and the company would only last as long as his Gord novels. By 1989, NIPI was finished and Gygax moved on to other projects.
His next projects would be mired in legal controversy. He created a new, rule-heavy system called Dangerous Journeys, which would serve as the basis for not only a traditional roleplaying game but also for a computer game. TSR was heavily litigious, though, and eventually bought the rights from Gygax in lieu of further legal action. Gygax was paid well, but these projects would never see the light of day.
MOre successful would be Gygax’s Lejendary Adventures line. Originally conceived of as a computer game, it found more success as a tabletop game during the era when TSR’s financial woes kept it out of gaming stores. Gygax would continue to work on the line for years to come, though the sales were never quite as high as he would have liked. It was during this time that his relationship with the franchise he helped to create would be mended, as his remaining rights to D&D were purchased by Wizards of the Coast and he even agreed to write the forward for one of the game’s adventures.
By the 2000s, Gygax had settled comfortably into the role of elder statesman of the gaming world. Thanks to the internet, his contributions to the world of roleplaying were becoming known far and wide and he gained a bit of cultural cache that he otherwise would not have had. It was during this time period that he’d do a bit of voiceover work for various cartoons, including a turn as an animated version of himself for an episode of Futurama. Gygax would also have a role as a Dungeon Master for one of the dungeons in the massively multiplayer online version of Dungeons and Dragons.
He did not, however, entirely give up on gaming. It was during this latter part of his life that he finally began to put pen to paper for Castle Greyhawk. While the actual trademarks were still held by other companies, his work on Castle Zagyg was an honest attempt to finally describe the apocryphal castle and its surroundings. He initially worked on the project with Rob Kuntz, but creative difference did lead the latter to leave the project before it was published. Gygax soldiered on, eventually being able to complete the first of a planned six books describing the setting. His health, however, would put a stop to that project.
In April of 2004, Gygax suffered two serious strokes. His health never truly recovered, drastically reducing the amount of work he was able to complete in a day. While he kept working on his projects, there was never any real chance that they could be finished. He was later diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which the doctors believed would be fatal. Citing his age and health condition, Gygax chose not to undergo surgery. After years of failing health, he passed away in March of 2008. He did manage to publish the second volume of his Castle Zagyg before he passed away.
Gygax’s death was felt strongly by the roleplaying game community. As one of the original founders of the hobby, it was felt that an important piece of the gaming world was now gone. While several people did attempt to continue on with most of his work, Gygax’s widow withdrew his licenses from the various studios publishing his works and founded a new compay.
It’s hard to overstate the legacy of Gary Gygax when it comes to roleplaying games and popular culture. While Gygax may not have been the sole father of Dungeons and Dragons, he is the man who is perhaps most responsible for the genesis of the game. Every tabletop roleplaying game owes a huge debt to the man, as do all the PC games that have sprung from the system. There’s not a nerd hobby shop out there that doesn’t benefit from the work Gygax did, nor would any aspect of geek culture be where it was without the man who helped create Dungeons and Dragons.
The entertainment world also owes a debt to Gygax for his role in creating the first real gaming convention. GenCon is still a powerful force in the convention community and the other conventions that have followed suit can really trace their lineage back to this event. Gaming is naturally a social phenomenon, but it’s hard to imagine it growing to this level without the original convention in Geneva. Even if you don’t credit the man for his role in creating Dungeons and Dragons, you have to give him quite a bit of respect for being the father of the modern gaming convention.
From introducing the d20 to coming up with the basic rules for fantasy combat, Gary Gygax has a hand in all things tabletop gaming. Genres like LitRPG wouldn’t exist without the man’s work. He was one of many who helped to define a genre that we’ve all come to know and love and his memory will persist because of that. Gary Gygax was a true visionary – a man who was able to see the potential in something to which no one else was paying attention. Next time you roll for initiative, remember everything Gygax did for the gaming world.