Monday, March 5, 2018

We're Living in Gary's World Now

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the death of E. Gary Gygax, the mad genius who codified an idea developed by Dave Arneson, who decided to create a modification of a pseudo-medieval fantasy wargame by Gary Gygax (confused yet?), a modification in which players took on the roles of individuals rather than military units. The resultant game, published in 1974, was dubbed Dungeons and Dragons. The best short summary of the game was written by blogger Jeff Rients: "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."

Gary Gygax's genius was coming up with a bunch of mathematical formulae, inherited from the tradition of miniature wargaming, to use as parameters for the various 'denizens' of an imaginary world. The players' characters, their allies, their foes, and the miscellaneous non-player characters of the game, were rated numerically- for instance, a character physical and mental attributes were expressed as a range of numbers from three to eighteen, calculated by rolling three six-sided dice which results in a bell curve. The success of a character's actions is determined by rolling additional dice in the hope of hitting a target number. Early on, funny dice based on Platonic solids were used to generate the random numbers used for task resolution. Even later, the pentagonal trapezohedron was added to the dice bag, but there are some who claim that that merely leads to madness and death.

Gary was largely responsible for creating a shared methodology and a common vocabulary for elaborate games of 'make believe'. His was the framework by which disparate individuals could pool their imaginations to create a shared illusion, what Tolkien would call a sub-creation. Luckily for him, his work followed quickly on the heels of the first Tolkien fantasy boom, which began with Ballantine Books publication of the first authorized edition LotR in the 1960s. Gygax himself seemed to be more of an Abraham Merritt fan than a Tolkien fan, but players of the game wanted to pretend to be elves and hobbits so the game catered to that demographic- resulting in legal action. The game's audience was pretty much stuck in the Tolkien paradigm, even though an occasional non-Tolkienian laser gun would occasionally show up. The funny thing about D&D is that it pretty much ate up fantasy literature, transforming the original Tolkien-style tropes into D&D tropes which then became conflated with Tolkienian tropes, a sort of Ouroboros of fantasy that, ironically, left little room for the Eddisons of this world. The genre seems to be slowly lifting itself from the elfy stuff, but it was the dominant form of fantasy for decades.

Gary himself was more simpatico with the pulp fantasy tradition, which he immortalized in the famous Appendix N from his 1979 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (rumor has it that the 'advanced' edition was rolled out in order to squeeze Dave Arneson out of the game- showing that Gary had the capability of being as ruthless as any powergamer). Again, to my ears, the High Gygaxian of Gary's best-known works most closely echoes A. Merritt, with flashes of Jack Vance. Glories abound in the holy trinity of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books... as adolescents, we were exposed to such wonderful sentences as:

Assassins are evil in alignment (perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life forms for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal).

Gary's most purple passage was actually about purple hues, his description of the subterranean Vault of the Drow:

The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite -- which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.

'The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.

Better break out that unabridged dictionary, kid! My high school Latin teacher (2 years Latin, 4 years Spanish, bay-bee!) told us that studying Latin pretty much guaranteed an extra 200 points on the verbal portion of the SAT, and I'd wager that being conversant in High Gygaxian was good for another 200 points. Yeah, we were nerding out on ten-dollar vocabulary words and on-the-fly mathematical calculations while we were playing... better add another 200 to the math score. Thanks, Gary!

The peak of the D&D fad was the early 80s, when the game was featured in blockbuster movies and set off a major component of the satanic panic. The game was even covered in a 60 Minutes episode:

The real irony here is that Gary himself was a church-going man.

Hard to believe while watching the bizarre panic of the 1980s, but we are living in Gary's world- the nerds won. A perusal of the top grossing films of all time shows a list heavily weighted toward matters fantastical. D&D isms such as the alignment chart have entered into the public lexicon, and the computer gaming industry is largely based on such gaming parameters as 'hit points' and 'experience' points. Even 'serious' media personalities can talk about the game in public:

Even given the current anti-intellectual climate that seems to prevail, the nerds won. D&D is a current cultural touchstone, with Ready Player One being a smash hit (I haven't read it, but I tend to believe its detractors). Stranger Things is steeped in D&D lore. Gary's been gone ten years, but he's still with us- the memes he released into the world have embedded themselves in the culture. It's not everyday that you hear someone use terms such as 'puissant' or 'milieu'... It's not often that someone starts a conversation about polearms... but Gary's out there all the same, playing in our heads, the ultimate adventure sites. It's appropriate that a nerd movie won the Oscar for best picture on the anniversary.

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