Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Called... To the Home of the Giants?

Lower the flags and ring the bells, across the Flanaess from the Sea of Dust to the old Great Kingdom: The Free City of Greyhawk knows mourning tonight.

(From Websnark. It's a long but good read.)

Gary Gygax has died. Creator of Dungeons & Dragons, the Gen Con gaming convention, Dragon magazine and a thousand thousand other things related to role-playing gaming, and fantasy's position in the "Fantasy and Science Fiction" section of bookstores. And video games. And movies.

To wit, from the linked article:

You know what else wouldn't exist now? World of Warcraft. In fact, the entire computer RPG, MMORPG, Action RPG and a Hell of a lot of Platforming games wouldn't have existed without Gary Gygax -- certainly not in the form they do now. Any time you level a character, it's because of Gary Gygax. Hell, Knights of the Old Republic used actual mechanics derived from his writing.

So, take out Gygax, and take out Final Fantasy at the same time. Take out Dragon Warrior. Take out Adventure and Zork and that Atari game with the bats. Take out WarHammer and City of Heroes and absolutely core and seminal elements of essentially all modern video gaming. Without Gary Gygax, that whole industry would look radically different today, if it existed at all.

You want to know what else disappears? All three Lord of the Rings movies from the 90's and the turn of the century.

Oh, you don't believe me? Look, right when Dungeons and Dragons was coming out -- and before it became well known or popular -- there were adaptations of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was a Ruby/Spears cartoon for children most known now for the cloying song "The Greatest Adventure" (which is a bad rap -- The Hobbit wasn't bad for what it was -- a 70's childrens cartoon special meant for the family hour). The Lord of the Rings was a Ralph Bakshi trip and a half that was a commercial failure at the box office, leading to the story being finished by Ruby/Spears once more. The Lord of the Rings was a failure in the mainstream.

And Fantasy? Fantasy was a subsection of Science Fiction. A small subsection of Science Fiction. Most of the great fantasists were also Science Fiction writers, or were so crossover that it made no never mind (Michael Moorcock was at heart a true Fantasist, but somehow you could buy his work as New Wave SF too, for example.) Even The Dragonriders of Pern was a science fiction novel at heart (seriously. They're colonists on an alien world who lost their culture thanks to DEATH SPORES FROM ANOTHER WORLD).


Flash forward to the turn of the century. Most "Science Fiction" sections in bookstores are primarily Fantasy, along with a whole rack of licensed tie in books that sometimes is as big as the entire section. And alongside the (fantasy/horror) Buffy books, Star Trek and Star Wars books and the like are the books based on Role Playing Games.

The biggest chunk of that section? Dungeons and Dragons.

And those huge fantasy fans remade the marketplace. Fantasy movies started doing better. Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings was done again, this time (mostly) live action and epic, and it made more money than Ecuador.

My own time in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons was far briefer and shallower than I'd have liked when I was younger, thanks mainly to being a fairly insular kid, and not living close to too many other D&D-obsessed kids. But my brother Matt and I had the first-edition rulebooks, and then some: Dungeon Master's Guide, Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, Deities and Demigods, Unearthed Arcana... I could recite over half of the Websnark article linked above verbatim. Many a teenage afternoon was whiled away by running Matt through die-roll-determined dungeon crawls from the few pages in the "random dungeon generation" section in the well-leafed-through back of the DMG.

Later in life (a scant few years ago, actually) I drove frequently from Richmond to the Washington, DC area to hang with some good friends there and battle orcs and the like using the third-edition rules. The comedy relief to be had by watching our motley delving crew do something so simple as scale a rope ladder was well worth the hours on the road. Note to self: reestablish contact there--there are far too many highly intelligent, funny and good-hearted people in that group to leave left-behind the way I did when I moved to Birmingham.

This barely scratches the surface: the roleplaying habit I acquired thanks to Gygax's work extended to the collection of more than forty GURPS rule- and sourcebooks I now own, a large segment of the videogames I play, the books I've read and want to write, the fact that Amy and I are now regular Dragon*Con attendees, and finally many of the good friends I've acquired over the years.

Gygax the man I never met, but by many accounts he was an iron-willed visionary within his games, a kindly mentor to the legions of gamers he inspired and led, and an industrial-strength son of a bitch when dealing with the gaming industry's business vicissitudes and turf squabbles.

His work, though, has influenced millions, made fortunes of billions, and shifted the dreams of a generation.

E. Gary Gygax, requiescat in pace.


PS. Amy's a believer that things like celebrity deaths come in clusters, usually of three. Makes me wonder who's next.

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