Remembering a Visit with the Dungeon Master

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Writer David Kushner remembers the late Gary Gygax, co-creator the role-playing and fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. Kushner visited Gygax at his home last summer and joined in a game with the master himself.


Gary Gygax was a master among dungeon masters. Gygax helped create "Dungeons & Dragons," the role-playing game that had millions of American teenagers donning capes and huddling in their neighbors' rec rooms to battle wizards and orcs.

"D&D" spawned a vast subculture, complete with books, props and the all-important many-sided dice. The dungeon master in the game is essentially God. He creates a realm that the other players explore and devises challenges that everyone else has to face. It's more about imagination than winning or losing.

By the time Gary Gygax died earlier this month at 69, the world he helped create influenced countless computer games and movies.

Writer David Kushner visited Gygax at his home last summer and joined in a game of "D&D" presided over by Gygax himself.

Mr. DAVID KUSHNER (Writer): You arrive at a yellow Victorian house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A heavyset man with a gray ponytail and thick glasses that magnify his eyes invites you inside to play a game. Slowly he produces a cardboard tube and removes a large piece of graph paper from it.

It is a hand-drawn map of his own design. There are green swirls representing trees and tiny black squares for buildings. Gygax spreads the map on the table and produces a huge polyhedral dye that's as dark as onyx. He sparks up a Black and Mild cigar. His wife isn't looking so he cracks open a second bottle of Guinness. Then he begins.

You leave the caravan and come to a village, he says. You can stay here and see what's around. Who wants to go where? As the campaign progresses, Gygax veers from the scenario into a series of digressions. When our group enters a pub, he recites lines from Monty Python. As we learn of nearby river caves that may house treacherous beasts, he describes a dream he had in which an African elephant was chasing him around his backyard.

This is what Gygax thinks his legacy should be: people playing games together in the flesh, even in a digital age. I think they've done a world of good for people, socially, mentally, educationally, he told me earlier. I only regret that I wasn't more outspoken in my beliefs.

While it may surprise the religious groups who had long rallied against him, the "Dungeon" master found God. After a stroke, he began to pray frequently that he would regain movement of his arm and leg. He became convinced that the universe had been mapped out in advance by some celestial designer. There's got to be a creating hand behind everything, he told me.

As Thomas Aquinas said, out of nothing, nothing comes. He told a story about a spiritual insight he had while gaming. At the end of the round, the game master told Gygax you've come to a wall. This wall is the end; it's death. What do you do? Gygax looked his friend in the eye and said, I'd jump over it. When you come to the end and you can't go any further, you've got to go over the wall, got to see what's there.

SHAPIRO: Writer David Kushner. He covers digital culture for Rolling Stone, Wired and other publications.

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