To say what I need to say
But I'm quite sure that you'll tell me
Just how I should feel today
- "Blue Monday" New Order
With the passage of Gary Gygax, a collective heaving of breast could be felt across the thin silver astral cord connecting us together, bridging the gap of our collective antisocial angst. My inbox and AIM rang, two asynchronous bells, throughout the day.
"Did you hear? The DM is dead," they implored. One after another after another. Skype pinged. The phone rang. The red circle around the webcam lit up over and over and over again. Everyone shocked into silence. And I understand. I feel my own pain. A certain hollowness. An age. A sense of dying cell by cell. But that's not what makes me sad. What makes me sad is how little I cared yesterday.
Yes, D&D was important to me. It still is. My early teens were rescued by those three little books in the cardboard case. A tremendous amount of who I am now traces root and vine back to the source of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
But here's the sad sad truth - if you had asked me yesterday what Gary Gygax had done since the '80s, I would have been hard pressed. The name "Gygax" will always ring in my head like a church bell. But his contribution to my soul was 30 years ago. Like so many artists, his effect on my life was not direct, it was through his work. And like so many artists, he was a one trick pony.
Lest you think this sacrilege, allow me to enumerate some notable one trick ponies I hold tight in my personal pantheon:
- Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land)
- George Lucas (Star Wars. The original one. Not all that other crap you heathens)
- Earl Mac Rauch (Buckaroo Banzai)
- Jesus Christ ("Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?")
Yes, each and every one of this rag-tag crew did more than one thing, had more than one moment in the sun. But their intersection with my life can be narrowed down to a critical juncture - that moment in time when the message intersected with my need to hear it. But it is the message that has always resonated more strongly than the messenger, and how quick I am to dismiss the messenger once the message is received.
Gary Gygax was not a shrinking violet. In the years since his universally acknowledged contribution to geek-lives everywhere (as opposed to say, his far more important contributions to his own family and community), how many self-professed gamers can tell me what Mr. G was up to? I can, but I'm not proud of it.
I was roaming the floor at GenCon, looking to cover the announcement of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. I made a few phone calls to Wizards of the Coast PR people. I was passed over to Troll Lord, who was producing Mr. G's latest works. After hours of combing the show floor, I found him, sitting in a chair, seemingly unnoticed, behind a 3' by 6' standard issue convention table. He was signing a D20 role-playing supplement.
I picked one up and paid my $20 to the 19-year-old making change.
The stubbly youth handed the book to Mr. G. He did not look well. He was clearly old and tired. He signed my book. I shook his hand. I mumbled an incoherent "thank you for all you've done." He may have said "your welcome." I am sure he smiled.
And I skulked off, saddened. Sad because I was walking away from a man who in my youth I had revered with quasi-religious fervor to whom I had nothing to say. Sad because I could not match the image in my head of a demi-god upon Lake Geneva to the all-too-human elderly gentleman who was clearly just trying to make a living and stay in the game. Sad because, ultimately, the song had mattered more to me than the singer.
Gary Gygax, at the age of 39, had an inestimable impact on my life. He transformed the way I saw the world. He gave me hope, solace, and salvation. But Gary Gygax at the age of 69 had no more impact on my life than my ten year old self had on the 39 year olds who surrounded me at parent-teacher conferences and in the aisles of hardware stores.
For all the grandeur of our self-perception and hubris of our aspiration, we of the geekosphere do not live in the harsh green limelight of Hollywood. We still live, after all this time, in a fringe world of obscure referential commentary and a sincere lack of self-confidence. Those we hold as the heroes and creators of our worlds are no less human, no more self-assured than we are. I believe they are, just as I am, longing to make a difference, to know that they matter, and to know they are part of something larger than themselves.
So here is my vow. I will never again wait 30 years to say thank you.