I don't know why the hell I even bother–who am I kidding?–but I truly tried to be journalistically objective when I reported the death of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax on The A.V. Club's Newswire earlier this week. I had every reason to be subjective, though: I grew up on D&D;, and the game had a serious and lasting impact on my life.
Okay, a serious and lasting impact on my lack of a life.
When it comes to D&D;, "not having a life" isn't just some passé putdown. I was 11 or so when I got into the game, and I quite truthfully did not have a life–at least not the life of your typical, healthy, outgoing, American alpha-male-in-training. Sure, I went outside and rode my bike; that is, with Van Halen or Duran Duran on my Walkman, totally lost in my own head. I loved chess–the strategy, the medieval motif, the fact that it was wimp-friendly. Other than that, I mostly stayed in my room and read books. My family lived on the southwest coast of Florida at the time, and you can't imagine a more dull, soulless, paved-over sandpit of depression. And yet, the pavement in that part of Florida is studded with seashells, and I walked around with the weird, almost eerie sensation that the ocean flowed a mere ten feet beneath my sneakers. Beyond the blocks of prefab ranch houses, vast savannas of grass and palms were cut by jagged canals, and abandoned construction sites gave up big slabs of Styrofoam that made perfect rafts. Just yards down the street from my house, the brittle, sandy blacktop erupted in a sea of waist-high weeds that no car could hope to conquer.
When you're a kid, you find magic wherever you can.
Around that time, a friend in my sixth-grade gifted class–yes, my preteen life really was some sad, relatively drab mix of Stand By Me and Head Of The Class–told me about a game called Dungeons & Dragons. He showed me his Basic D&D; boxed set, a dumbed-down, introductory version of the game. I was already in love with science-fiction and fantasy novels, and D&D;'s amalgam of Tolkien and Lovecraft–although I didn't recognize it as such then–put butterflies in my stomach. I begged my mom to buy me the Basic set, and I took off the shrinkwrap as if peeling back the skin of some alien being. The dice in the Basic box weren't the crystalline, multihued ones most people are familiar with, but a handful of clay-gray polyhedrons whose engraved numerals had to be colored in with white crayon (the crayon was thoughtfully included in the box). I quickly lost myself in the game's complex, almost arcane system of rules and started creating my first character. I can't remember his race or class, but it's probably safe to assume he was either an elf or a halfling, and probably a thief. I'm sure some trailblazing psychologist has already thought of using a person's D&D; character as an indicator of his or her self-image; in my case, I was a small kid who preferred to stay quiet and be invisible, and who loved to keep secrets.
This brings up the paradox of D&D;, one that would pop up in my teenage years as I tried to stay involved with the game: It requires a bunch of withdrawn kids to break out of their shells and actually interact with others. Granted, not all D&D; players are ectomorphic little weenies like I was–but that didn't change the fact that organizing a group of five to eight kids on a weekly basis was beyond my and my friends' social powers. (This dynamic, of course, would change radically with the advent of Internet gaming, but I was already in a band and getting laid by then.) What I wound up doing through junior high and high school was some sick kind of simulation: After having ditched Basic for the lurid hardcovers and accelerated complexity of Advanced D&D;, I sat in my room all by my lonesome and created character after character, adventure after adventure. I filled up notepads of graph paper with maps of tombs and castles. I started drawing, too, and made elaborate portraits of my pantheon of heroes. But mostly I studied: I memorized every damn square inch of The Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide and The Monster Manual, every creature and table and statistic. Yeah, even the credits–and one name in those credits loomed as large as Tiamat or Bahamut: Gary Gygax.
I'm really not exaggerating when I say that the name Gary Gygax evoked as much mystery and wonder to me as a kid as did Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury. Gygax: Hell, phonetically it even sounds like one of the man's own archetypal creations. Back then, of course, there was no way to find out anything about Gygax as a person; he was just a name. But every word and image of Dungeons & Dragons resounded mythically in my head throughout the '80s, and that's when the game was at its pop-cultural zenith: I remember watching reruns of Mazes And Monsters–the 1982 TV movie that, along with thousands of hysterical parents and crusading mental-health professionals, tried to link role-playing games like D&D; to teen suicide and Satanism–and hoping like hell my mom wouldn't throw away my stacks of maps, guides, drawings, and character sheets. (Luckily, my mom is one hell of a hippie-era libertine with a fundamental appreciation of kids being weird.) I also watched with both excitement and outrage as Dungeons & Dragons was softened up for a mid-'80s, Saturday-morning cartoon. D&D;, something that seemed as dark to me as, I dunno, KISS and Alice Cooper, had all of sudden become cute, candy-colored, and cuddly. (Is this what punks at the time felt like when they saw their subculture caricatured on CHiPs and Quincy?)
Sadly, I learned far more about this mythical Gygax being after he died on Tuesday than I ever did when I was steeped almost daily in his game. Turns out, he was a sweet, geeky guy who loved playing chess and reading Bradbury. He also had enough of a sense of humor to make fun of himself and his staggering legacy on an episode of Futurama. News of his passing hit me harder than I might have guessed; for some reason, it's these seemingly small losses that affect me more the older I get. There's a scarcely known English punk band from the early '90s called Mega City Four–a tuneful little underdog of a group I adored at the time and would rediscover every couple of years–whose leader Darren "Wiz" Brown died suddenly at the end of 2006. MC4 wouldn't have ever made the list of my top 20 bands, yet when I heard of his death I couldn't stop listening to his songs and crying all damn day. Like Gygax, Wiz appeared in every respect to be a shy, earnest nerd who somehow mustered the guts and ambition to gather people to him, to make his name–in however humble a way–known to the world.
During an intensely dumb drinking session early last year, some friends of mine and I randomly decided to start a D&D; campaign. We were all gung-ho at first; we went out and bought the slick, sophisticated-looking, 3.5 editions of the all the rulebooks and started rolling up characters. None of us had touched D&D; in years, but we dutifully got together, oh, three times over the course of the following six months to play. It was even worse than when I was a kid–but instead of being trembling little wallflowers, we were all way too busy with jobs and bands and significant others to make even a monthly game work. Honestly, it kind of upset me. I know I should be happy to have long ago outgrown the more crippling fringes of social awkwardness. At the same time, I seriously wish I still had nothing in the world to do but utterly lose myself in a strange, terrifying, perilous, magical realm of my own making. That is to say, mine and Gary's.