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Dungeons and Dragons changed my life -- thanks, Gygax

This is where it all began.
This is where it all began.

Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.

One Christmas, either 1981 or 1982 -- it's hard to be sure now, thirty-plus years later -- I received a gift that would change me forever. It came in a cardboard box with a lurid cover painting underneath the words Dungeons & Dragons. To an objective observer, there wasn't much inside -- just a pair of slim booklets and a handful of weird, polyhedral dice. But to me, and thousands of other kids like me, there was so much more inside -- a limitless world of high fantasy that would occupy my imagination for the better part of the next decade, and beyond.

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This Saturday, July 27, Gary Gygax, the creator of that game and the father of the role-playing game, would have been 75 years old. When I opened that box all those years ago, only a bare handful of people had ever heard the term "role-playing game," much less had any idea what it meant. By the time he died in 2008, games like World of Warcraft, built on the concepts he created, were among the biggest entertainment franchises in the world. Not a bad legacy for a high-school dropout and one-time insurance underwriter.

I don't remember how I heard of Dungeons & Dragons, but I do remember that from the moment I became aware of it, I was pretty much obsessed. By that age -- eight or nine -- I already loved games, a passion I'd picked up from my maternal grandmother. Board games, card games, video games, even stuff like word searches, it didn't matter. I couldn't get enough. I also loved anything science fiction or fantasy, a passion my father had instilled in me by the time I could walk. In Dungeons & Dragons I'd discovered a near-perfect combination of two of my favorite things into one fantastic package.

Once I had the game, the obsession only deepened. With most games, I'd open them, read the rules and be playing within twenty minutes. It didn't take me long to figure out Dungeons & Dragons was different, or rather, it took me quite a long time to figure out what the hell it even was. There was no board, but there were maps and character sheets and lots of weird-ass dice. And rules on top of rules. Wrapping my head around the concept of a game with no winners, no losers and no concrete, finite goals took some time. But my love of games and fantasy kept me working at it, and before long I was running sessions with my brother and anyone else I could wrangle. Once I had saved enough allowance I added the Expert set, with more monsters, more weapons, more everything. A few months later we moved, and my dad bought me the entire three-volume hardcover set of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of "sorry we had to move during the school year" consolation prize. By that point, Dungeons & Dragons was not just my favorite game, but almost the only game I played that wasn't a video game. Everything else just seemed so simple and limited in comparison to the game's imagination-driven treks through haunted castles, eldritch tombs and monster-filled dungeons.

In part because the supplements that gave new adventures were expensive, and in part because the rules expressly encouraged you to do so, I spent hours devising my own adventures. I filled endless notebooks with characters and scenarios. Within a few years I graduated to other role-playing games, like Traveller and Star Frontiers and Champions, but Dungeons & Dragons was still my favorite. Eventually I graduated to full-blown world-building, devising elaborate histories for imaginary realms and populating them with powerful wizards and fearless heroes and as many weird, fucked-up creatures as I could come up with. I even designed a few of my own games, since it wasn't always possible to find games set in the kinds of worlds I wanted to play in. Until high school -- when girls, music and getting high took priority -- there was no single activity that occupied as much of my time as role-playing games. Even then, when I could find a group of willing gamers, I was always happy to run a campaign for a few weeks in whatever game they wanted to play.

That's a lot of memories for $30
That's a lot of memories for $30

Eventually life crowded role-playing games out and I moved on to other pastimes. Last year, out of the blue, I was struck with the weird urge to look back into it and I picked up those three Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardbacks on eBay for about $30. Paging through them again, I was transported back to my adolescence -- Proust had his madeleines, I have the Dungeon Masters Guide -- and I realized that I had spent many dozens, maybe even several hundreds of hours with these books over the years, making them by far the most-read books of my life.

It made me realize how big of an impact Gygax had made on me -- directly and indirectly, I don't think there's a single creator in any medium who's had anywhere near as much influence on me. I spent decades playing his games and games that simply would not have existed if it weren't for him. I haven't rolled a twenty-sided die in almost two decades, but just a few months ago I played Skyrim, a video game that owes everything from its concept and setting to most of its mechanics to his work. And perhaps most important, his games encouraged, almost required me to express my own creativity. Other creators introduced me to fantastic worlds and told me tales of high adventure. Gygax showed me how to create them. There's no way I can ever repay that kind of debt, but this Saturday, I'll break out the Players Handbook and some dice and roll up a few characters, in honor of his birthday. It's the least I can do for the man who changed my life.