D&D Creator and Gamer Gary Gygax

Michael O. Varhola

I met Gary Gygax for the first time at the short-lived but ambitious Alti-Egos Con in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Easter weekend of 2000, eight years before he died and when he was 61 years old. During that weekend, I had the pleasure of chatting with him a number of times and learning about some of the things that motivated him to create Dungeons & Dragons, the first, debatably the greatest, and certainly the most well-known role-playing game in the world. 

Gary was the son of a Swiss immigrant with the surname Gygax (which Gary emphasized to me was properly pronounced “Zhee-gax”), a violinist who had come to the United States in the 1880s and was 57 when Gary was born in 1938. Through his mother he was descended from the early Colonial Burdick family, which came from Europe to Rhode Island in the 1640s. His maternal ancestors eventually migrated to upstate New York and then Wisconsin, where they settled in 1836. Many of them fought thereafter for the Union in the Civil War. Gary was born in Chicago, grew up during World War II, and was the seventh generation of the family to live in the vicinity of Lake Geneva, namesake of the Gen Con game convention.

In the time I spent with Gary both during the weekend and over the quick years that followed, I found him not just to be as creative, imaginative, and quirky as one might expect, but to also be both very generous of spirit on the one hand and strangely irascible on the other. He was Gary Gygax. I will let him tell you more about himself in his own words. 

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d-Infinity: When did you start playing games and which of them influenced you in your ultimate decision to create the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game?

Gary Gygax: Well, I learned to play cards when I was five. And I played chess — badly, as I do now — at age six. I was just fascinated with games.

And fantasy is something that I was quite taken with also as a little boy. My father started telling me bedtime stories; many of them he would make up, about a magic ring, a wish ring, a magic cloak of invisibility. He was an excellent storyteller. And I have some cousins, older than I, who would say, “It’s just a shame your father never wrote those stories down!” Because he had the most marvelous stories. So, I think maybe some of my fantastic imagination, as it were, definitely came from my father.

My mother would read me Grimm’s fairy tales, Andrew Lang, Jack and Jill magazine, stories about Baba Yaga and her hut on chicken legs. So, when I couldn’t cozen somebody into telling me a story, or reading a story to me, I’d say, “I’ve got to learn to read …” I remember a set of books called “Book Trails,” which went from young children’s stories through probably high school, a set of eight or 12 books, I don’t remember. But they had pictures of pirates, and the prince trying to climb the glass mountain, and all those things. God, I liked that stuff!

One Christmas, I got a Flash Gordon city with little spaceships and rubber-band guns to knock the guys over. Science fiction is clearly future fantasy, and particularly Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers … And I just took to that and my little toy soldiers.

Someone asked me, “Do you do any live-action role-playing?” I said, “Gee, I haven’t since I used to play cowboys and Indians!” That’s absolutely live-action role-playing. You just didn’t have the structure, the rules, and that’s the big difference.

When I was nine, the cousin of my friend John Rasch lived next door, and his name was Jim Rasch. Jim got rheumatic fever and was confined to the house and had to rest a lot. And we’d say, “Hey, Jim, would you make us some identification, we’re going to be playing detectives.” So, he took over and he actually became a game master. This was while I was nine, so it would have to be 1947.

It was the genesis of the role-playing game but I didn’t know it then. We would call them “realistic games,” because he would play roles. He would be the bank teller if we were robbing a bank, be a cop, whatever ... He really set the stage but we got to choose what it was.

d-Infinity: Did you use any sorts of props in these games? 

Gary Gygax: Yes, we had props that were unbelievable! Jim had dashboards for a Piper Cub and a Grumman Widgeon. And the neat part was that when you would step on the rudder pedals, the dashboard would tilt.

Bob Sanger had a jigsaw, and so we had darn good copies in wood of pistols — mostly automatics, we used capguns for revolvers — rifles, knives, anything we could cut on a jigsaw. We used to play things like “Casey the Crime Photographer.” Jim was interested in cameras and had a bunch of old cameras, so we had real cameras. In 1938, there was a turkey auction somewhere around Lake Geneva, and at it Jim had gotten all of these “worth $1” bills, and written on them in India ink, you know, $1, $5. So, we had bills up to $50,000! We had old jewelry if we were doing a gem heist. It was just great.

And the saloon was in the basement, along with the automobile dashboard and the two airplane instrument panels. And down there, there were a couple of nail kegs and a crude little wooden table, and we had a bottle of water and shot glasses — that was the saloon when we were playing cowboys. And the cowboy guns were easy.

The worst part about it was, of course, was that Jim, like many a game master today, was always trying to kill off the kids, because he could then send them home. So, the “realistic role-playing” was, if you got killed or sent to jail, you had to go home. There were no rules saying you couldn’t do something, but if you drew a gun foolishly, it was “That’s it, BANG, you’re shot, you’re dead!” “Oh, no, I don’t want to go!” “Shut up and go home.”

d-Infinity: So then D&D was an outgrowth of your interest in fantasy, folklore, and mythology and this early live-action role-playing game?

Gary Gygax: Yes. And in the ’60s I was also very active in board wargaming, and founded the International Federation of Wargaming with two other chaps. And then I got into military miniatures more and more, thanks to Don Featherstone over in the United Kingdom.

d-Infinity: What sorts of board wargames were you mostly interested in?

Gary Gygax: Oh, I played all of them! I started with Gettysburg, the first one, with the squares. And then I picked up Chancellorsville, and then I picked up D-Day, and then I picked up Stalingrad, and Waterloo. … We even had Tactics II.

And then we started our own group within the IFW, the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. And I co-wrote the Tractics World War II miniatures rules with Mike Reese and Leon Tucker. I was the editor at Guidon Games in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it did Ironclad, which Don Lowry wrote.

d-InfinityHow were you earning a living throughout this period?

Gary Gygax: Well, up until 1970 I was an insurance underwriter. I was an unusual risk underwriter and I did group life, group health, longterm disability, I worked with a lot of Lloyds things … But I was bored stiff. So, when I found out that I wasn’t going to be able to dream up new insurance policies and so forth, I said “I’ve got to get out of here!”

Lee Tucker, who was a member of the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association and co-author of Tractics, would come over at lunch and we would play games up in our lunchroom. He was teaching statistical analysis at one of the schools there. I was working on some chess variants and things like that, and the more I said, “Gee, I could do a good book on chess variants, but there are so many books on chess variants and no one buys them anyway.” 

In 1970, I was working for Fireman’s Fund America Insurance Companies. There were two people up for the head of this department and I was one of them. Another guy won and he canned my butt right away. (They were moving up to San Francisco.) He said, “You’re out! You could have had this job, but you just didn’t show enough enthusiasm.” And I said, “I’ve been waiting for this moment! The only reason I stayed on was because my wife said, ‘Wait until they fire you!’”

It was 1970. It’s easy to remember, because my son Luke was born in November 1970. So, the upshot is, I got fired two days before he was born. I said to my ex-wife, “Now I’m going to do it, I don’t care what you say to me, I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to be a game designer. I’m going to write books and design games.”

d-InfinitySo getting fired from your day job is what allowed you to begin pursuing game design professionally?

Gary Gygax: Yes. I went to work for Guidon Games as their editor. They knew who I was and had seen my game designs. I made royalties and 60 cents a page for typing … I starved. I couldn’t make a living at it. So, I also bought some shoe-repair equipment, put it in the basement so I could work at home, had somebody teach me how to do it; the guy who’d sold it to me spent three weeks with me,then said “You’re pretty good, go for it.” So, I was running a shoe repair business out of my basement and whenever I wasn’t having to repair a shoe I could be writing up game stuff.

But, even before this had happened, of course, I had started the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association … You know, I had a sand table in my basement, which had to come out when the shoe repair equipment went in. So, on that sand table, we’d also put a flat board across it if we wanted … I didn’t like the Column, Line, and Square Napoleonic rules that much, but we would play some of it. And then Rick Crane did a set of rules called Tricolor that we used and I was the original editor of that; that was done under Guidon Games originally. And I selected that; that was one of my jobs; I said, “Yes, this is a set of good Napoleonic rules, I really like it, we’ll play it.”

So, Guidon originally did Tractics, they did Tricolor, they did my game Alexander the Great, with the little elephants and chariots, which eventually Avalon Hill picked up. And it’s probably impossible to find now, but I did one called Classic Warfare, which was the ancient period 1500 B.C. to A.D. 500. And I said I felt pretty good, even though there were mistakes, about packing it into one rulebook. Then I wrote medieval rules with Chainmail.

So, I was already writing games, and I was designing add-ons for Avalon Hill Games. They had a game called Stock Market I think, and I did their solo version for them. I playtested Jim Dunnigan’s Italy game against what they came out with. I liked Dunnigan’s better. So, I was a big name, I knew every board wargamer who was around then ... I knew almost all the board wargame and military miniatures game designers back in around ’70. But then I was sort of drummed out of the ranks because of fantasy.

d-Infinity: And that followed publication of Chainmail?

Gary Gygax: Right. Jeff Perrin in ’67, or ’68 I think, brought over some Elastolin plastic 40mm Medieval and Renaissance miniatures and I got hooked on them. And he brought over a set of rules that was good for 1:20, but I wrote 1:1 and jousting rules. But everybody was getting tired of playing and didn’t want to play anymore; ancients, they didn’t want to play anymore, Medieval they didn’t want to play anymore, World War II they didn’t want to play anymore. So, I created fantasy stuff to throw in there.

I had written Chainmail, which was originally done without a fantasy supplement, and was first published as the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association Medieval miniatures rules in the “Domesday Book,” which was the newsletter of the Castle and Crusade Society, which I was running, around ’68. Then I beefed up the rules and in ’69 and ’70 and everybody in the world was playing and loved them! I made a dragon from a stegosaurus. I found some cheap dime-store Indians that were about 60mm and said, “These are trolls,” and painted them up. I used little sets of plastic monsters and made up names for them, “This is a Rust Monster, this is a Bulette.” The little rubbery things, one looked sort of like water and was a Water Elemental, or a fire elemental, and so forth.

Everybody just loved it. We would have six or eight people in a good military miniatures game, but for this I’d get the basement packed, couldn’t get everybody around the table.

So when Don Lowry (head of Guidon Games) decided to move to Belfast, Maine, and wanted me to come and work for him there, I said, “No way! I don’t want to do that. That’s a good place to retire, but I don’t think you’re going to do a lot of business there,” because he was running a magazine and a hobby shop. “You should stay.” He’d been in Evansville, Indiana. But they went out there. I stayed and was still his editor and I did that kind of work.

“You definitely want to do Chainmail, the fantasy, because this is hot,” I told him. “It would definitely sell a couple of hundred copies at a show.” So 1971 was the first edition of Chainmail. You know miniatures players — there are a lot of things they don’t write down, and it had a lot of unspoken role-playing rules. If this is your command figure, it’s you, and it it’s killed you’re out of the game. Often when we were playing man-to-man, even with military miniatures, we would say, “This is your command figure, you get three hits, and then he’s dead, and here is your sub-commander …” Heroes in the fantasy supplement took four hits to kill, superheroes eight hits, wizards took two hits to kill.

The next big leap was your commander being only you and not leading an army, and starting out as a schlump (laughs), a one-hit-die character.

And the rest, as they say, is history! That combination of a military miniatures game combined with fantasy elements evolved into Dungeons & Dragons, the father of all role-playing games and still being played in all its incarnations four decades after its creation.