Slightly over a week ago, ten years had passed since the passing of Gary Gygax. Gygax has in later years become quite a controversial figure, with many idolising his creations while some deeply despise his style and the direction he had for gaming. Whether you belong to either group or neither for that matter, one thing is indisputable – every single roleplayer owes the man a great debt, whatever you think of his work.
Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago to an American mother and Swiss father. He always went by his middle name, inspired by legendary Hollywood actor and heart-throb Gary Cooper. The family moved early on to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, a location that should be very familiar to most old-school gamers.
The early influences
Gygax became a huge fan of pulp fiction at an early age and the pulp influence is very strong in D&D, especially early on. The work of authors such as Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber is obvious, especially in how magic works.
He also became active in wargaming in the 60’s and was a rather big name in the field, being a co-founder of the International Federation of Wargamers. It was through wargaming that Gen Con was founded (short for Geneva Convention) and also how he met Dave Arneson – and that is a meeting for which we should always be grateful, whatever we think of D&D then or now or really any RPG system.
Gary Gygax eventually created Chainmail, a wargaming system with heavy fantasy elements like magic and monsters. Chainmail was quite successful and innovative – one of the new ideas and additions was what would later become the d20 to determine success or failure instead of d6’s.
Dave Arneson had created fantasy lands called Blackmoor and was playing in this faraway, imaginary realm through Chainmail rules, but with the important distinction that each character had an identity – in other words, players had specific characters and controlled them. If this sounds familiar, it should. Dave Arneson is effectively the man responsible for even the concept of a roleplaying game. Gygax saw the opportunities and potential for a game in this and they collaborated on creating not just a new game, but a new kind of game.
From a Wisconsin cellar to every corner of the world
Gary Gygax spent a few years developing the rules, style and execution of the game. He created the setting or dungeon of Greyhawk (soon to be covered here at Yawning Portal) and used it for playtesting with his children and fellow enthusiasts. The company he (sort of) worked for and had published Chainmail wasn’t big enough for the new game. The largest wargaming company wasn’t willing to take a chance and declined. There was only one option left. Starting his own company.
And thus Tactical Studies Rules or TSR was born. It was founded by Gygax and Don Kaye but for the venture to work, a third and wealthier partner was required, which is how Brian Blume came into the company. Now they could finally finance publishing the game and it was an instant hit, despite being quite literally home-made, as the boxed set was assembled in Gary Gygax’ cellar.
Tragedy struck when Kaye died only in his mid-thirties. Not only was it a personal loss for Gygax to lose a friend, his company needed to find buyers for Kaye’s shares, as the widow was not interested at all in the company. The Blume family bought the shares, something that effectively meant that Gygax became an employee of his co-owners. This would also cause a major shake-up in later years.
Success is a double-edged sword
The period between 1975-1985 was a glorious time for Gary Gygax in his professional life. He could do no wrong and his co-creation of D&D, creation of AD&D and a truly remarkable series of adventures that were must-haves back in the day were incredible achievements. Just think about this list: Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Against the Giants, Queen of the Spiders, Temple of Elemental Evil, Keep on the Borderlands and the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. That’s a hell of a list and I’m still leaving out a lot of things, but some of these are true classics. How well his work has aged is debatable but more on that later.
D&D become so big in the early 80’s that Gygax and TSR had ambitions to expand into Hollywood. But there was more to it than just banking on the popularity of the D&D name. Brian and Kevin Blume’s relationship with Gygax was steadily getting worse and they were happy to be rid of him. His personal life was also unstable at best. He had become a heavy drinker and cocaine user and recently divorced. Mid 80’s Hollywood for a successful man was not the place to stabilise your life and his drinking and drug use increased and he started womanising as well.
And for all the excesses of the 80’s, there was also the moral panic and few things were hit harder by that than D&D. Many conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians were convinced D&D was the evil work of the devil and there was considerable backlash against the hobby. This must have been a surprise for Gygax, a Jehovah’s Witness.
But there was worse to come…
Thank you for your services. Don’t let the door hit you.
While in California, Gygax learned that the Blume brothers were attempting to find a buyer for TSR. Understandably, he was upset and went back to Wisconsin, where he discovered that the company had been badly mismanaged and despite monstrous sales and market dominance, the company was at best breaking even. He took a gamble by exercising his stock options and creating Unearthed Arcana and wrote his first Greyhawk novel. It paid off as both were successful and the worst of the money troubles were in the past. However, a newly hired manager had bought out the Blume brothers and was now the majority stake holder and made it very clear that Gary Gygax’ services were not particularly desired anymore.
He resigned soon thereafter… which caused a rather unexpected problem. Because Greyhawk was very much his baby, and several noted characters and elements of the world were more or less named after him, TSR wanted to get rid of Greyhawk. TSR had attempted to expand with Dragonlance, but while the novels were major commercial successes, the game products were not as good sellers. This paved the way for the Forgotten Realms (to my everlasting annoyance… sorry, couldn’t resist). Gygax’ Greyhawk connection caused problems for years, but again – that will be addressed later.
So what’s the most experienced and celebrated RPG designer in the world to do?
Dangerous Lejendary Crusades
Gygax was notoriously difficult to work with and wanted full creative control of his works. While it is commendable to have a vision and stick to it, being inflexible simply does not work in business. Perhaps that is a large reason for why his subsequent attempts at making RPG’s weren’t particularly successful.
First up was Dangerous Journeys, originally released in 1992. I own the game and have read through the rules many times. There is just something so hopelessly overcomplicated and messy about the game – so Gygaxian to be honest, that I’ve never been excited to play it. I’ve started some experimental games but just never had any fun. I hear the same from many others who’ve tried the game.
Lejendary adventures came along in 1999. I’ll be honest – I know practically nothing about the system. What I’ve heard is not positive but I can’t knock it without trying it. Unfortunately, that just isn’t all that likely since Gary Gygax’ widow pulled the license from the publisher after his death and the game has been out of print for years and cannot easily be acquired legally.
The final game which can be traced to Gygax is also his best since being ousted from TSR and considering its roots, that should not be a shock. Castles and Crusades was very much a tribute to times past. It’s based on the OGL (Open Game License) and d20 rules but with a distinct old-school AD&D flavour and simplified rules. Playing it when it was fresh was very much like playing twenty years before – in a good way for the most part. Castles and Crusades is still going and there is a lot of pretty good stuff available for it if you’re willing to give an adventure or two a chance, they’re easily convertible to almost any D&D derivative.
Gary Gygax’ health was very bad at the end. He survived two or even three strokes, had heart problems and died from complications from an aneurysm. He was less than four months away from his 70th birthday.
Let’s face it, we owe a lot to the man…
The more you start researching Ernest Gary Gygax, the more fascinating he becomes. He was a complicated mess of contradictions. He was a fundamentalist Christian raised as a conservative traditionalist and an avid gun collector. Yet, he is above all others most responsible for this escapist hobby that seems so strange to outsiders and deals with magic, demons and complete fantasy. For years, if not decades, he was the one and only RPG celebrity out there. It’s a different world now and a lot of people have used D&D and RPG’s to become quite well known. But for a long time, Gary Gygax was pretty much it. He even played himself in a Futurama episode.
His body of work is incredibly impressive. Apart from writing and creating all the base rulebooks and rules, many of the best known adventures of D&D were his creations. These adventures were major sellers back in the day and many of them had to kept in print when TSR was trying to completely remove Gygax from the D&D name because they were so popular. But while his imagination is incredible and the adventures are great for their time and how the game was played, Gary Gygax was not a good writer. At all. His texts are hopelessly complicated, full of repetition and clumsy wordings that make it unattractive reading. Yet, all is forgiven because you want to play the adventure, warts and all. His style is very much a product of the times, which to some is completely unforgivable because of how the game has evolved. I think that’s ridiculous myself. Any GM worth the name can use the good elements from his old adventures and fill in the gaps.
If there is one thing he ever did that encompasses both the good and bad of Gary Gygax, it is Tomb of Horrors. This adventure is a classic for better AND worse. There are versions of it in every single edition of D&D, including a recent 5e adaptation. It’s a really old-fashioned dungeon crawl, but there are very few fights in the module. The real dangers are endless and nasty traps and as originally written the potential for death is limitless. Small wonder – the stated purpose of creating the adventure was to beat down the overconfident adventurers in Gygax’ group. The surprise was that while their characters fell like freshly mowed grass, the players had fun. It was a tough, brutal challenge but players tend to like a challenge and life was considerably cheaper in the old days. So it evolved into a convention adventure before finally getting published as the S1 module. I’ve played and GM’ed through it several times and in many editions. It’s always been fun, even though it’s brutal and feels very old. Many, many, many players who should know better judge all his works from this adventure alone and the term Gygaxian (often not used in a positive manner) is pretty much entirely based on how Tomb of Horrors works. A lot of his work is completely different.
Far more interesting are Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and Against the Giants. The first requires considerable work to play in modern rules, the second is easily adapted and the last has more or less already been converted to 5e as Storm King’s Thunder. It’s not the same, but inspired by the original.
It annoys the pants off me when I hear someone criticise Gary Gygax for his adventures, especially those who never played the older versions of D&D. Things were different then. They weren’t better, they weren’t worse. They were just different and I had the same fun then as I do now.
Rest in Peace, Gary Gygax. You were a mess but damn, do we owe you.