By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
E. Gary Gygax, 69, who co-created the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons and inspired the $1.5 billion fantasy game industry, died of an abdominal aneurysm March 4 at his home in Lake Geneva, Wis.
Mr. Gygax, a high school dropout who was fascinated by the Dark Ages, and Dave Aronson created the heroic quest game with $1,000 in capital in 1974. Their game invited players to invent imaginary characters, such as dwarfs, elves, knights and wizards, and set off on adventures with a roll of the polyhedral dice. The game's multiple rule books and character studies gave its obsessed fans thousands of pages of instructions to consider.
"I don't think I've really grokked it yet," Mike Mearls, the lead developer of the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, told Wired blogger Lore Sjoberg, referring to Mr. Gygax's death. "He was like the cool uncle that every gamer had. He shaped an entire generation of gamers."
It took 11 months for Dungeons & Dragons to sell its first 1,000 copies, but the game took off and became a cultural phenomenon among college and high school males in the 1970s and 1980s. No publisher would touch the game when Mr. Gygax and Aronson were ready for market, so they assembled copies themselves. Sales were $8.5 million by 1980 and more than $14 million by 1981.
Other game designers began creating copycat versions; D&D eventually inspired a whole genre of computer games, influencing everything from immersive computer CD-ROMs to Magic: The Gathering.
"People said, 'What kind of game is this?' You don't play against anybody. Nobody wins. It doesn't end. This is craziness!'' Mr. Gygax told the New York Times in 1983.
He told Gamespy.com that games are "an interesting diversion from everyday life."
"Games give you a chance to excel, and if you're playing in good company you don't even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game," Mr. Gygax said.
Some parents and religious fundamentalists objected to the dark, magical nature of Dungeons & Dragons, and after two youngsters committed suicide while reportedly under its influence, Mr. Gygax found himself defending the game and the whole industry on "60 Minutes." The controversy passed, however. Within a few years, a D&D cartoon was created and broadcast on Saturday mornings.
Mr. Gygax lost control of the game in 1985, and his former company, TSR, sued him over his subsequent game, Dangerous Journeys. TSR eventually sold D&D to Wizards of the Coast, publisher of Magic: The Gathering. That company in turn sold it to Hasbro.
Mr. Gygax turned to writing fantasy novels, most of them based on game scenarios, including the Greyhawk series and, in collaboration with Flint Dille, the Sagard the Barbarian series. Mr. Gygax returned to writing role-play games in 1999 with Lejendary Adventure.
Mr. Gygax also founded the world's largest annual gaming convention, Gen Con, which started in 1968.
Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago and moved to Lake Geneva at the age of 8. His father, a Swiss immigrant who played violin in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, read fantasy books to his only son and hooked him on the genre.
Although he dropped out of high school, Mr. Gygax took anthropology classes at the University of Chicago. He was working as an insurance underwriter in the 1960s when he began playing war-themed board games.
When the games got boring for him and his friends, Mr. Gygax added fantasy characters. That was such a hit that he published the innovations as the game Chainmail. To free up time to work on a game with more fantasy, he left the insurance business and became a shoe repairman.
His first marriage ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Gail Carpenter Gygax of Lake Geneva; two sons from his first marriage; and four children from his second marriage.