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March 5, 2008

Ernest Gary Gygax, 1938-2008

Gary Gygax, a co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, with a partner that game's first publisher, and an active participant in the growth of role-playing games as a viable entertainment category, passed away yesterday morning at his home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He was 69 years old.

Gygax was a science fiction fan as a child who began to play wargames as a teen. It was through that hobby that Gygax met various people that would help him co-author or would themselves author volumes of the various, early and important Dungeon & Dragons books or, depending on your view, books that could be called their vital precursors. This included Jeff Perren, Dave Arneson and Brian Blume. Although I believe there are significant areas of dispute in terms of who came up with what and when, what would become Dungeons & Dragons generally grew out of the application of looser-than-usual combat and magic rules for miniatures combined with the introduction of classroom exercise-type role-playing to the scenarios in question, all of it kind of squeezed through a broad, pulp fantasy sieve. The hybrid form stood in stark contrast to the the much stricter, strategic goals of wargaming, and struck a nerve with a generation of hardcore fantasy fans -- many of them ironically coming from a JRR Tolkien-style epic fantasy tradition that didn't quite match Gygax's own specific interests in authors like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber -- looking for greater immersion in their favorite genre.

imageGygax and Don Kaye started Tactical Studies Rules in 1973 and together they published the first version of D&D in 1974, a 1000-copy print run that immediately sold out. Gygax would have a wild relationship with that company over the next few decades: buying Kaye's shares from the widow, re-naming the company, selling two-thirds of the company to the Blume Brothers, struggling with various officers over the company's direction, leaving the company in the middle 1980s and eventually settling with the company in an arrangement believed to involve financial remuneration or participation. The company itself would be purchased first by Wizards of the Coast and then by Hasbro, its current rights holder.

Just as wild but perhaps less stop and start in nature was the success of the game itself. Beginning with a rush of popularity in the late '70s and '80s, approximately 20 million people are believed to have played some version of Dungeons and Dragons. It is the anchor property on which an entire hobby industry focused on such games was grown, from the outsider riffs on the same material like the Arduin Grimoire books to more directly competing systems like Runequest to dozens of similar games set in different genres (Top Secret, Champions) to games that played up different aspects of the experience players enjoyed as they "gamed" (Ars Magica, Vampire: The Masquerade). The experience of playing the games and the devotion which it demanded from its players have both become a well-known part of the culture familiar even to those who have never played, as has some of the mythology of accusations from religious fundamentalists of D&D's evil, satanic-worshiping nature and its ability to send fragile-psyched youths over the deep end. They have had a direct and obvious influence on video games, both in terms of of subject matter and the nature of play. An imminent fourth edition is expected to show off how the game both influences and is influenced by its many fellow-travelers in the immersion-style fantasy experience realm.

Gygax's work had a significant impact on comics as well. The success of Dungeons & Dragons allowed for multiple comics-related role-playing games to be developed (for the big superhero universes but also for stand-alone properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and provided a second industry to be exploited by a significant number of comics shops, especially in towns where comics alone might not have been enough to swing a stand-alone retail establishment. It may be one of modern retail's grumpiest marriages, in that a large number of comics publishers don't produce material that can be naturally sold alongside fantasy games, an objection that's become more pointed over the years as comics has become more diverse. DC Comics had an official series that ran for about three years during comics' late-'80s flush period, and innumerable comics series such as Dork Tower have been informed by the tropes of that group of games and the enthusiasm they generated in their fans, while other cartoonists, like Mat Brinkman in his Multi-Force, have taken a clue from more abstruse readings of that material. Dragon, a magazine started by Gygax and Tim Kask in 1976, was home to a handful of popular comics features like Phil Foglio's What's New With Phil and Dixie?, while the rulebooks and supplements were home to several odd and affecting fantasy artists like the great Earl Otus.

Gygax would design other well-regarded games, write several books, edit a few random comic books (see above), pen a column for a late run of Dragon and serve as a kind of elder ambassador for the hobby he helped make so popular.

He is survived by his current wife, three sons and three daughters.
posted 9:05 am PST | Permalink

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