Friday, March 14, 2008

Gary Gygax and me

I wanted to say something about Gary Gygax, because I owe him a great deal. I know far more about Dungeons and Dragons than is reasonable for someone who has never actually played it, save through computer game adaptations like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Tabletop roleplaying games aren’t my thing; I’m too shy and too uncomfortable in groups for it. (Yes, that’s right: I’m too nerdy and socially awkward to play Dungeons and Dragons. God have mercy on me.) As far as I can recall, my first exposure to role-playing games was in the mid to late 80’s, when I would hang out with some older kids on my block who played it.

Gygax’s legacy first seriously touched my life in 1989 or 1990, though I wouldn’t realize it until years later. I was a video game fan, and Nintendo Power magazine was advertising a promotion in which every subscription came with a free copy of a game called Dragon Warrior. (This was when they still insisted on calling games “GamePaks,” which stuck me as very silly even at the age of nine.) I’m not sure how it made financial sense to give away a $40 game to sell $15 magazine subscriptions, but apparently it did. I didn’t know what Dragon Warrior was, but my greedy, calculating young heart couldn’t say no to a deal like that. I mailed in my $15, and a few weeks later the game and my first issue of the magazine arrived.

I had never played anything like it before. Fighting enemies was turn-based. Everything seemed to revolve around numbers- character stats, enemy stats, weapon and armor attributes, calculating what to spend your scarce money on to give you a better chance of surviving. My friends were alternately baffled and bored to tears by it.

It was the greatest game I had ever played.

I had (and have) very poor fine motor control. I liked video games, but I was all but hopeless at most of them. Suddenly, there was a game that did not require reflexes and dexterity I didn’t have, and actually favored my preference for strategy and careful planning. A short while later, I discovered the first Final Fantasy for the NES as well, and I realized I had found my gaming niche. RPGs and strategy games have been my video games of choice ever since.

That first Dragon Warrior seems a bit creaky now, of course. The combat was very simplistic, and the story was scarcely more involved than Super Mario Brothers. But when I was a little kid, it was magic. That game opened up whole imaginative worlds for me, and did so in a time when the real world that I had to live in was the last place I wanted to be.

Dragon Warrior was largely based on previous computer role-playing games like Wizardry and Ultima, which were based on still older games, which were based on the original tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. So, there’s a direct line of descent from Gygax to many of my favorite games today, and I owe him a great deal. Rest in peace.

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