In 1998 I interviewed Gary Gygax for a mainstream men's magazine called Icon. I pitched the story to them with a high-minded query letter about his importance and the importance of RPGs, yadda yadda, but they flat out said they wanted me to make fun of him. I figured maybe I could get away with a little gentle mocking but slip in something more substantial. Plus I was desperate for money, so I couldn't say no.
I've lost the article, but the magazine didn't snark-icize my story too much. What sticks in my craw a lot more was that the ass clowns never paid me. A lot of freelancers even teamed up to sue their asses because they hadn't been paid either, but the thing folded and I don't think anyone got their money.
When I called Gygax for our scheduled interview time, his line was busy for a long time. I finally sent him an e-mail, and he called me right back, explaining that he'd been playing two games of chess and one game of Diplomacy simultaneously online.
He was very nice during the interview, and was cool when I said the magazine wanted to be a little cheeky about his nerdy legacy.
How'd you get interested in fantasy?
Gygax: When I grew up my father would tell me bedtime stories about magical rings and giants, things like that. My mother read to me a lot too out of Jack and Jill magazine. And the Teeny Weenies in the Chicago Tribune. Those little people who live in the refrigerator.
And we had a set of books called Book Trails. There were a lot of faerie stories in there that I liked. And I discovered pulp magazines in about 1950. I had also found a Conan story before that too. So from age 12 on I became a real fan of science fiction and fantasy and horror.
Where did the name itself come from: Dungeons and Dragons?
GG: Well, my usual way of naming things was to make a couple of columns and see if one or several names, words from those column go together.
For example, I was the founder of a group called the International Center of Wargaming back in the 1960s, and I ran a group, a special interest group called the Castle and Crusades Society, so I said, hmm, castle and crusades. So amongst the things there were dungeons and dragons. And I put the word around, and my little daughter said, “Oh daddy, I like Dungeons and Dragons," and I said, "Me too." I liked the alliteration.
Back in the day, how did you answer the charges that D&D promoted Satanism and was the cause of teen suicides?
GG: Well, after I got off the floor from rolling around with laughter, I said there is absolutely no proximate cause between aberrant behavior and the playing of role playing games, Dungeons & Dragons included.
And in fact there were some studies done that show that people who were involved in role playing had to be somewhere between 100 and 400 times less likely to be involved in violent anti-social behavior, including suicide.
Part of the controversy was that people were supposedly wielding swords in sewer systems and taking things a little too seriously. Did you condone that sort of behavior?
GG: Well, are you familiar with the Society for Creative Anachronism? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. One thing that I point out to a number of people is the psychologist Robert Lindner, who wrote the book, The 15-minute Hour, which was a collection of case studies, and one of the stories was called “The Jet Propelled Couch."
Its point was when two or more people share a fantasy, unless you’re both a little aberrant, you can’t lose touch with reality. And the larger the group, the more quickly reality reasserts itself. So there’s a lot of live action role playing going on right now, mainly with Vampire the Masquerade, and I think it’s perfectly fine.
It’s a little silly to me, but I’m not 15 or 20 anymore.
Were you marketing specifically to the maladjusted, though? I remember an ad in a comic book which featured a loner saying something like “Who needs friends, I’ve got my D&D?"
GG: (laughs) Gee, I don’t remember that ad but I think there might very well have been one. Well, sure, you’ve heard the Weezer song, right?
“In the garage, where I belong, no one hears me sing this song. Got my Dungeon Masters Guide, got my 12-sided die."
Right, escapism. For better or for worse, that's part of the D&D legacy.
GG: Outside of the mindless sitcoms that the networks thrive on, people able to think generally consider most entertainment is escape in one form or another.
And the capacity to relate to the worlds that role playing offers is generally most easily accessed by those with a higher cognitive skill, shall we say. And that aren’t so afraid that somebody might notice that they are not conforming to the national standards, shall we say.
What about the strains of sex and violence throughout D&D? The fantasy women in the chain mail bikinis.
GG: It’s the same in comic books and on the front of the lurid covers of the old pulp magazines. Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.
Woman cope instead of men just going forward and slashing.
GG: Right. Men are the hunters and gatherers, and when a man is looking straight ahead that’s all they see. So that’s naturally what is involved in role playing and from the fantasy story roots. It’s pretty much a he-man kind of a thing.
Do you think the card games like Magic cut it? Do they provide as rich an experience?
GG: Well, no, because it’s mano et mano, more or less. You’re going just head to head against an opponent, to thrash them. And that’s the experience of chess, or a wargame, or whatever it is, where role playing is a group experience of basically a peer group. It’s a whole different type of camaraderie that is quite different.
Is that the appeal of role playing games?
GG: Sure, I think it’s the socialization, the group cooperation. When you’re playing Magic, you really don’t leave this world and enter another. You see that tabletop real well, sort of like playing chess. I've never imagined I’m the black or white king.
Was anyone who was involved in the creation of D&D taking drugs?
GG: You know, I wrote the whole schtick. Nobody argues with the fact that I’m the sole author, although there’s a co-creator. And believe me, it is not anything that one can do when one is in an altered state of perception.
Although sometimes the games get a little wild: One fellow and I were co-DMing one time and we were sharing a little bottle of Southern Comfort. It got pretty wild! (laughs) You really don’t want to do that because you have to keep a pretty alert mental state or you will be out quickly. There is, granted, a lot of junk food consumed. (laughs)
On Thursdays after the gaming session is over, I hate to clean up the Skittles wrappers and Coke cans. Grrr, pick up after yourself you lazy lumps!