His People Were Weird and had Stars in their Beards: Gary Gygax R.I.P

[Ciaran Daly, reporting]

As some of you may have heard, Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, lost his last Hit Point/failed his Saving Throw vs Death a few days ago at his home in Wisconsin. Geeks everywhere observed a moment of silence. I really wasn’t expecting to hear that much about it, but then bam!–there it was on the front page of CNN.com. Hell, the guy is getting more ink then William F. Buckley at this point, which got me thinking: Could the hobby myself and my troubled loner/nerd buddies used in high school to Save Us From Girls really have had that much of an impact?

I mean, you didn’t exactly brag about your weekly D&D session in mixed company back then. Hell, I’m not bragging about mine now (and for your information it’s GURPS we play, you twenty sided die chucking Philistines – a real nerd’s game). As the old saying goes, all the world’s lonely think their loneliness is unique. Most of us played the game in a Secret Pit of Shame (that’s the rents’ basement, for those of you watching at home). Getting an invite to that secret club was pretty hard. You couldn’t ask just any outcast – high school was harsh enough for most of us without risking the added ostracism of the dreaded “D&D Nerd” tag. And you never knew which parent or teacher might have got the loony idea that instead of drinking too much Mountain Dew and laughing at Andrew because his character was eaten by a Tyrannosaurus while he was in the bathroom (“Rough break Andy!” “You FUCKERS!”), you were in fact summoning Beelzebub using your dog-eared copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and maybe a Ouija Board for backup.

It turns out a hell of a lot more people must have been doing this thing than we thought. Fast forward from Gygax’ invention of the game with co-author Dave Arneson in 1974, and Dungeons & Dragons and its offshoots are a multibillion dollar industry. Ok, the movies were unbelievably bad. Not even fun bad (rent-a-Brit gravitas of Jeremy Irons notwithstanding). And don’t get me started about the cartoon. But the LoTR movies were brilliant (Legolas’ extreme sports moments aside). If not for Gygax, I’d bet the farm they wouldn’t have happened. And tell the truth, ye geeks of America (nay, the world!) – if you had known the future would be a place where you could have your very own lovingly rendered 3d Level 70 Blood Elf Paladin capable of busting into the actual dance routine from Napoleon Dynamite at any moment – you would have cursed your own mothers for having you too soon (I may own a copy of World of Warcraft. Ok, it may be the Collector’s Edition – don’t look at me that way: it came with an art book, a soundtrack CD and a virtual pet baby netherdrake. Having read what I just wrote, I may have to shoot myself).

It’s a strange, beautiful new world we live in where a guy can have his career launched instead of buried for playing Aragorn. Saying the name “Aragorn” aloud when I was in high school was like walking down the hall with a sign that said “wedgie me, and hard”. Hobbits were girl repellant. Years later, the month Fellowship of the Ring came out on DVD, I watched it on a lucky first date with a smoldering redhead that ended with Viggo’s life-size cardboard cutout gazing sternly down upon the bed of sin. That’s a far cry from the mix of pride and dread I felt when one of my best friends signed my yearbook in Elvish (“Have thee a bitchin Summer, dude!”). Mark Hamill? He’s crying in his apartment right now over all this, don’t think he isn’t.

And before you start with your smug comments, more than a few indie rockers of my acquaintance know from a polyhedral die. I’ll out you fuckers in a second, don’t think I won’t. Quake in your skinny jeans, furtive hipster RPGers: your $50 haircuts and vinyl collections cannot hide you now. Of course, while the skinny jeans set might not always cop to it, the sound guys, bartenders and doormen of the world have no such misplaced scruples. I just finished playing a show at the Triple Rock with Great Lakes Myth Society–a band that name checks the ur-Jethro Tull, British band Fairport Convention, as an influence – and by the time we were done loading out I knew which server half the staff at the Triple Rock played WoW on (Horde side, before you ask: and don’t act surprised).

But really, if the outpouring of love for Gygax this week (I mean, uberhip indie web comic Achewood even got in on it) is an indication of anything, it’s that perhaps all this shame, faux or not, is misplaced. This crap is a huge part of popular culture now, and it’s a fun part of it. And it’s older than you think. How many times have you sung along to Robert Plant wailing “in the darkest depths of Mordor”? And was it ironic every time? If so, I’m a little sorry for you. You don’t think Marc Bolan is maybe tossing a polyhedron somewhere while he’s riding his white swan? Ok, maybe not, but if you can’t imagine it you’ve never had the universe reclining in your hair my friend. D&D and psych rock go together like warlocks and Flying Vs. So conquer your fear. Get together with your friends. Put on some Wolves in the Throne Room or Mastodon and roll up an imaginary sword-swinging barbarian (or barbarianette) and name him Crud. Or Thud. Or whatever. Let’s not be humanocentric, roll up a goblin. Bring a six pack – you’re old enough to drink and do dungeons at the same time.

You can even bring girls.