Gary Gygax’s final quest

The co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons is dead. Let's all stop playing World of Warcraft for a minute, and remember him.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Gaming, Video Games,

I was 13 years old the day I almost died, pin-cushioned in the back by a swarm of arrows fired by my own trusted comrades. Much as I would have loved to curse them for their treachery, I had only my own stupid impetuosity to blame.

My very first act as a battle-ax-wielding dwarf in my first-ever game of Dungeons & Dragons had been to charge headlong into a band of goblins. Meanwhile, my friends — a raucous crew of elves, wizards and humans — cocked their crossbows and let fly. The Dungeon Master, a. k. a. my high school buddy Jimmy Felman, rolled the dice and shook his head. While I lay in a pool of my own blood, struck from behind, the goblins got away.

For the rest of the afternoon, my friends had to carry me in an improvised stretcher while they did battle with wave after wave of trolls and orcs, protecting me while I slowly recuperated. I was grateful — they could have just left me to die in a ditch.

That passage is the introduction to my review of the computer game “Diablo,” published in Salon almost 10 years ago. It captures a moment in teenage time that flashed instantly into my brain today when I learned that Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, died Tuesday morning.

But not without a legacy that beggars description. Worldwide, millions of people venture every day into role-playing-game fantasy worlds that, one way or another, trace their lineage back to D&D. My own 10-year-old son spends all his permitted screen time immersed in World of Warcraft, as clear a direct descendant as one can imagine. The game’s incredible depth and richness would have struck my 13-year-old self as the purest science fiction fantasy, but it’s all part of one continuum. And although my son’s WoW obsessiveness quickly exhausts the attention span of even the geekiest adults, there was no restraining my pleased smile when I first saw him leaping across his virtual landscape as a battle-ax-wielding dwarf.

The line holds true!

In the deep structure of ancient Internet culture, where the same computer programmers who helped build the Net often spent their leisure time pretending to be online wizards and warlocks, there’s no underestimating the genetic influence of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax’s legacy is built into the infrastructure. I hope he took pleasure in that as the years went by, and I hope Gygax always knew how much millions of gamers and fantasy-dwellers, whiling away their hours on online quests, owe to him and his co-author Dave Arneson.

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I know some of my readers, perhaps a majority, will shake their heads in confusion and perhaps dismay at this descent into gaming geekery. But the great thing about Dungeons & Dragons, and something that still holds true in games like WoW, is how they facilitate cooperation and companionship between real people. You play together. It was true for me, and it’s true for my son.

But this is no time for sorrow! In honor of Dungeons & Dragons geeks everywhere and for all time, I give you a YouTube video my son introduced me to this past weekend, in which World of Warcraft creatures imitate the classic “Mah Na Mah Na” made famous by the Muppets. It’s called ROFLMAO. I dedicate it to the memory of Gary Gygax.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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