Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Magic of Gygax

The news is a fairly dreary procession of events and declarations, but once in a while you see or hear something that stops your little world spinning for a moment. In my inbox this morning was an email that Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, had died.

I was always quite impressed with the name 'Gary Gygax'. While you wouldn't be frightened of a dragon called 'Gary', 'Gygax' seemed a suitably esoteric and strangely archaic sounding name. Tolkien might have called his Farmer Giles of Ham dragon 'Gygax', rather than 'Crysophylax' - or maybe they were related in some way, hatched in the same dragon brood - because dragons lay eggs don't you know. The name also looked neat, and it alliterated: but most of all - I saw that name on the front of my Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. And - in some kind of Pavlovian response - that name began to symbolise that sense of magic, adventure, the feeling of my little village life in York opening up - and me growing up into something more exciting than a schoolkid with a bicycle.

But oddly, I don't think I've seen that name on the front of any rulebook for twenty years. In fact, I only played Dungeons and Dragons for about four years, but it did lead me onto other roleplaying games, onto roleplaying weekends when we would camp out in the grounds of a friend's house (whose parents just happened to own a country house and a theatre production company and so all the cloaks and shields and plastic stage armour any young lad could wish for) - where we cooked over camp fires and sat up late into the night - and I remember, it was then that I stayed up all night for the first time, and the toe of my wellington boot melted. But Dungeons and Dragons inspired me. It filled my hours in a strangely obsessive way. I wrote stories about my character's adventures. I drew maps of their temples and castles. I wrote letters to my brother's characters, and he wrote them back, and we tip-toed along the corridor that connected our bedrooms, late (as it seemed then) into the night. It was an old farm house and we knew that corridor and it's squeaky floorboards like the backs of our hands.

My parents were a little worried, I remember, and they sat in the same room and discussed me - in the way that parents do - while I sat and drew a new castle for my characters. Was it healthy, they wondered. Could it do any harm? Was it Satanic? (At the time D&D was banned by the monks at Ampleforth school for encouraging devil worship). I also remember hearing there was going to be a radio 4 play on called Dungeons and Dragons - and I sat and listened to it and was a little insulted, as (so it seemed to me then) tried and utterly failed the capture - the magic of being 10 or 11, and carrying a sword instead of a walking stick, or school bag.

Now: I had a lot of issues with D&D, but most of them were because it wasn't realistic enough. How could my 22 hit points fighter still fight with the same degree of strength when he had 1 hit point left? Runequest gave me the answers. And when I had enough little lead figures, Warhammer turned up and so my double life as an army general began.

There is no Rod of Resurrection, but there is magic in the name Gary Gygax, and it still brings that thrill of adventure - and the sense of opening, from this world to another where more is possible. And when I think about the events that led me to write novels, there are two that stand out in my memory: when I was nine or ten, hearing one boy give his book report on The Hobbit, and thinking that I should read that; and the year later when the odd boy in the back of the class was going on about this new game, D&D. I remember I begged my mother to get a copy. My school included Saturday morning, and I remember rushing home that Saturday lunchtime, and running in to see my boxed set - with it's red dragon curling on a bed of treasure -and my mother telling me that the lady at the Precious of Petergate toy shop told her that they had sold out - and I ran to my room sulking fiercely.

But there on my bed, lay a plastic wrapped copy of basic D&D.

'They said it was the last copy, but I asked them to check and the lady found one in the back,' my mother rather smugly told me, when I came back downstairs beaming.

And so it all began.

The news today is all about Ian Paisley resigning; the UK Transport Minister's plans to shelve road charging schemes; and the specultation about whether Obama or Clinton will win in Ohio and Texas. I'm actually supposed to be at work, but wanted to stay at home and try and capture this moment. And in my world - the mailing lists I subscribe to, and the message boards I visit - the death of Gary Gygax is the only real news there is. All the men who were once boys, and who sat in the same rooms as I did, rolling dice and staring at the player's side of the Dungeon Master's Screen - and graduating from hack n slay to a more intelligent way of interacting with worlds and monsters you have never come across before.

Gygax is dead, but there is still magic in that name: just seeing it and thinking about it has brought back all these wonderful moments that shaped my youth. And when the world presses too heavy and close, and I stray upon his name again, I know that I will feel that same sense of opening and possibility, and adventure.


Andy said...

Excellent post, Justin. Whilst I never melted my wellington boots, I know just what you mean.

Harry said...

What magic he brought to us. Thanks for that walk of rememberance. Walk in the stars, Gary.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely put, Justin. It made me smile.