The merry heart and home of Dungeons and Dragons' Gary Gygax: A first person account...
(Tim: I first met Paul Cote walking down the hall of our dorm at Northern Illinois University. Wearing a tall leather Lincoln hat, Paul mentioned he liked Dylan. We became friends. Since then, we've roomed together, gotten our M.Divs. together, and we continue to visit and correspond. Through the years, I've occasionally asked Paul to retell the story of his friend, Gary Gygax, and the beginnings of Dungeons and Dragons. What did he think about all the Christians who were convinced that D&D was something close to necromancy or child-murder?
Here on the occasion of the death of Gary Gygax is Paul's personal account of the origins of D&D in the Gygax's merry home, a home large and generous enough to take Paul and many other teenage boys in and to give them fun. As you read this eulogy, stop and think: What if our Christian homes were as stable, joyful, and generous to the waifs all around us?)
When I was a 13 year old boy living in Chicago, a friend's father introduced his son, my friend, and me to military board games published by the Avalon Hill Company of Baltimore: Gettysburg and The Battle of the Bulge. As boys we had enjoyed listening to our fathers telling stories about World War II, and watching old war movies with John Wayne, and especially Errol Flynn. And on rainy days when you couldn’t play outside, these games were more fun than abstract games like cards and chess. Historian John Keegan states in the introduction to The Face of Battle, “for a young man training to be a professional soldier, the central question is: what is it like to be in a battle?” Knowing that our fathers had gone to war, and that it was a formative moment in their lives, in becoming men, our imaginations were fired by the same question, and war games, like reading military history, were a way of thinking about these things.
Here's a picture of Gary Gygax at the podium, addressing the opening of the first
wargaming convention, the Geneva Convention (Gen Con.) held in Lake
Geneva, Wisconsin. Standing next to Gygax is Bill Hoyer, president of the
International Federation of Wargaming (IFW). This and the other photo below may be the only pictures taken at this first wargaming convention in 1968.
Avalon Hill published a magazine for its customers called The General, and through an ad in the back I began corresponding with a “war gaming club” in the Chicago land area, with the grandiose name, "The International Federation of War Gaming" (IFW). The IFW consisted of a couple of dozen gamers, most of whom had never met one another, but who played games by mail, wrote articles about games etc. That’s when I began corresponding with Gary Gygax, who worked in downtown Chicago but commuted by rail to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Gary lived in a small, comfortably run down house on a main street in the Town. He had 5 children, all close in age, and all having bright red hair just like his wife, Mary...
Gary and his wife, Mary, were an inspiration to me, as a young man. Unlike my parents, who I saw struggling between each paycheck just to pay the mortgage and provide for me and my sister, (for which I am profoundly grateful), Gary and Mary did not own their home, had even less money than my folks, and yet they did not worry about money: they spent their time doing what they enjoyed doing. They valued their freedom more than their security. Clearly, they were both ‘not uptight’, part of that great experiment in the late 50’s and early 60’s of pursuing happiness, and yet they were not utopians, did not believe that politics would save the world, were not into drugs, or any of the excesses associated with the 60’s. They were warm, friendly, and hospitable, surrounded by friends, and had a lot of fun. Why did countless teens who saw A Hard Day’s Night decide they wanted to be like the Beatles? Because in the movie, they seemed to be having so much fun. Hanging around with Gary was a little like that.
Freedom and playfulness are not unmixed blessings in a sinful world, but neither are they to be feared as always destructive. With judgment and self-control, they can be beneficial.
Gary was a charming man, who had extraordinary charisma. He had a gift for connecting with people, and I found that even people who met Gary only a few times felt that he was a friend. He was a good listener, and was open with everyone. I remember one afternoon when I went to visit, expecting to play games, but I ended up going with Gary and his family to some land he owned outside of town to pick strawberries, and we ended up talking about everything that mattered to both of us, even though I was 15 and he was 30.
In 1968 Gary arranged for the IFW to rent a delightful old exhibition building called Horticulture Hall about two blocks away from his home, and the club sponsored a weekend get-together called the “Geneva Convention” where many war gamers from across the country met one another for the first time. About a hundred people came. Gary’s wife and kids sold sandwiches or hot dogs in the hall, which was a good thing since most of the young teenage boys at the convention, like myself, had no intention of wasting an hour of gaming time to leave and get lunch. People crashed in cheap motel rooms (I stayed at the Hi-De-Ho Motel, which sounded like a lover’s hideaway to my folks) and stayed up most of the night playing games.
Gary had a sand table in his basement and every weekend guys would come over to play miniatures, especially medieval miniatures, which was Gary’s favorite time period. Gary had read hundreds, if not thousands of science fiction and fantasy books, and so had a wealth of knowledge of not only stuff in the books, but plot twists, things that happen to people in the course of adventures and stories and so on.
One time, Gary put a castle in the corner of the sand table, and the knights went inside to explore. The castle was not big or detailed enough inside to get all the figures inside so action inside the castle became a paper and pencil game. They found a dungeon, and got all wrapped up in exploring the dungeon, finding treasures, avoiding traps and so on and sort of ignored what was going on with the battle on the sand table. They had so much fun doing that, from then on players just went for the castle and the dungeons, and the sand table became passé.
I used to visit Gary when I could, (being 15 with no car) and that included during family vacations to the church camp at Lake Geneva. I recall watching the riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention on the TV in Gary’s living room. Then one time in the early 70’s I stopped in to play the new Dylan record for Gary and Mary, and to hang out, and when I suggested playing a board game, Gary simply said, “we don’t play them much anymore, we’ve been having a lot more fun playing paper and pencil games”. So I sat down on his porch with his oldest son Ernie and we played “going into a dungeon”.
Some rules for miniature war games were fairly simple, and some gamers were especially interested in the models and figures themselves, painting them and collecting them. Other rules were very detailed and complex, and required a Judge to oversee the game, taking pieces on and off the table as each side took it’s turn so that each side only knew what they could “see” and surprise could be incorporated into the game. The most elaborate set of rules was published in 1966 by Michael F. Korns ("Korns rules") in a book titled Modern War in Miniature. It contained tables of information about WWII weapons, and formulas for everything a soldier could do, for example, “In daylight on an average day, ¼ square meter of man or machine exposed at a distance of 200 meters from an enemy soldier will be observed once every 24 seconds by the enemy soldier. In any given two-second period (the length of a turn in the game) the soldier’s chance of sighting the ¼ square meter area is s=1/12 or 8.3%. Games using “Korns rules” required a game judge to execute the complex rules, while limiting players knowledge to ‘what they can know’ and to narrate the action. An example of play is given by Korns in the introduction to his book:
- PLAYER: I’m picking up my sub-machine gun and my grenades and running over to the ditch beside the bridge. I want to keep looking for the American in the houses while I’m running.
- JUDGE: There he is again! He just stuck his head around the corner of that white building about 30 meters in front of you. Here, he’s looking around again.
- P: Am I in the ditch now?
- J. Yes, you’ve been here about 2 seconds now.
- P: All right, then I’m firing my Schmeisser at him in a long burst.
- J: THERE IS A SUB-MACHINE GUN FIRING ON THE BOARD.
- J: Your schmeisser is kicking chucks out of the edge of the building all around him….It’s hard to say whether you hit him or whether he pulled his head back.
- J: AN M-1 HAS FIRED ON THE BOARD.
- J: That rifle round hit you in the side. It knocked you a little farther into the ditch; you’re bleeding from the mouth too.
- J: You can see who did it now. The American is on your left about 12 meters away running at you with his bayonet.
- P: Can I still move?
- J: Yes, but you are almost unconscious.
- P: I’m turning around and firing the rest of my schmeisser’s clip into him.
- J: THERE IS A SCHMEISSER FIRING ON THE BOARD.
- J: He’s coming up fast. Your bullets are jerking around in an arc towards him as you turn. Seven meters, four meters, one meter. I’m afraid you’re dead.
People often wonder how did Gary Gygax come up with Dungeons and Dragons? Was he a genius? Lucky?
Or did he, like blues man Robert Johnson, go down to the cross-roads and sell his soul to the devil for fame and fortune? No.
In fact, Gary was an extraordinary man who was also in the right place at the right time, and the result was a eucatastrophy. He brought together people, and then ideas, to create something extraordinary at just the right time, in the evolution of game technology.
As someone who was there at the time, I can say that what Gary really did was to combine the way of playing, and the relationship between the players and the judge, from Korn’s rules with medieval miniatures rules and his extensive knowledge of Fantasy and Science fiction novels to create a shared storytelling experience. The mechanics were a paper and pencil game, but the key was Gary himself as the ‘dungeon master’ and it became wildly popular simply because it was a lot of fun. Later, with the publication of D & D the experience was mass produced, but as with enlightenment in the rock opera Tommy, there were a number of drawbacks to bringing the special experience to the masses.
Typical concerns about D & D are that players spend too much time doing it, and get obsessed with alternate personalities and that it encourages belief in magic or the occult. I have always told concerned Christians that there is nothing inherent in the game itself that is evil or unhealthy. But the people playing, the ‘sub-culture’ surrounding a group of players does effect what playing the game means and whether playing is a bad influence on the players. And yes, it has attracted some unsavory or unstable people.
I use this analogy. Participating in High School wrestling is of “some value”. It teaches hard work, discipline, and character in the face of adversity, among other things. On the other hand, Professional wrestling is quite another matter. It is not a sport, it is a ridiculous spectacle glorifying violence, sex, “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does”. No one should gloss over the sin of professional wrestling, or be too quick to condemn High School wrestling.
I have not spoken to Gary for many years, or played D & D, or been part of the gaming community, but I did know the man. Although Christians disagree about the effect his invention has had on our culture, anyone who knew Gary Gygax personally would disagree that he was evil, or that he was used unwittingly by evil forces, or that the predominant influence of his life was to corrupt others. To say that a person devoted their life to playing games and making up stories may seem like a waste. But of course, Gary’s life was also about the friends he played with.
I can’t speak to Gary’s faith in Christ. I suspect that like a lot of very gifted people, faith in Christ did not have the place in his life that it should have. But having known him, I do feel impoverished by his passing. May God have mercy on his soul.
(This article may be reproduced in its entirety with the following attribution: "This article is reproduced by kind permission of its author, Paul Cote. It was originally published on the blog, "Out of our minds, too.")