Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D: Rise of the Dungeon Master

Written by David Kushner and illustrated by Koren Shadmi

New York: Nation Books, 2017. ISBN: 9781568585598

From humble beginnings in basements and community centres, table-top roleplaying games have become a cornerstone of geek culture. Fantasy roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons, devised by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 and now in its fifth edition, is one of the most recognisable and identifiable aspects of this culture, often referenced in mainstream pop culture, thanks to television shows such as Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), Community (2009 – 2015) and, more recently, Stranger Things (2016-2017). Indeed, Dungeons and Dragons is a cultural commodity that commands considerable Geek ‘capital’. Though it is still by no means a common pastime, the game has, as Michael Witwer argues, helped establish our dominant cultural moment: “We live in an era when it is chic to be geek.” Kushner and Shadmi’s graphic novel, Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D, published earlier this year, celebrates Dungeons and Dragons in this context, exploring its origins in the Indiana wargaming scene of the 1970s, through to its success as a global cultural product today.

Shadmi and Kushner return readers to Gygax’s childhood and formative years, imaginatively suggesting the inception of Dungeons and Dragons in the mind of a small-town boy from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The novel traces in detail the development of the game, emphasizing the role played by Dave Arneson in building the concept of the ‘Game Master’ and developing the game’s capacity for character progression and extended storytelling. Shadmi and Kushner chart the growing popularity of D&D through U.S. colleges and hobby shops, showing how it became a multi-million-dollar profitable concern. More than this, though, they celebrate D&D as a ludic and narrative innovation, arguing that its influence on gaming, on technology, and on popular culture more generally is greater than has been acknowledged.

Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D is a book for fans eager to celebrate one of geek culture’s most cherished activities, but it is also a guide to the uninitiated. The appeal of the book, apart from its well-researched history, is its celebration of the rise of D&D, of the game’s ever-growing visibility and popularity. In some areas of geek culture there lingers what Sarah Thornton has aptly identified as a disdain for the ‘gushing up’ of subcultural products to the mainstream, a kind of snobbery that aims to retain distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the subculture and the mainstream (See Thornton, 1995). Not so in Kushner and Shadmi’s inclusive work. They are joyful at the variety of ways that the field of roleplaying games continues to explode and have no hesitation, for example, in revealing that the 5th Edition D&D Core Rulebook became a number one bestseller on Amazon in 2014. Crucially, Kushner and Shadmi reserve some criticism for the way Gygax and his company (Tactical Studies Rules) were initially zealous over the protection of intellectual property. In Kushner and Shadmi’s account, the rise of the internet and online roleplaying games, of open source channels for the distribution of rules, and the collaborative ways in which the game has developed in more recent years is key to its success and influence. Thus, they chart D&D from its inception as the innovation of one man (Gary Gygax) to a complex and collaborative cultural product, which continually grows out of the playful interactions between writers, Game Masters and players. Kushner and Shadmi also attest to the massive influence D&D has exerted on the development of video games. In one panel, they make the bold claim that ‘if there had never been D&D, computer games would be more like simple arcade games’ (83). Though they might overstate their case, Kushner and Shadmi provide a refreshing alternative to technophilic accounts of gaming present in some areas of games studies. Though technology has provided the means for some innovation, it is in the arena of ‘analogue’ gaming that the ludic and narrative capacities of games can be most fully exploited. Indeed, recent video games such as Bloodborne (Sony, 2015) or Until Dawn (Sony, 2015) praised for innovations in narrative complexity, are simply playing catch up with tabletop roleplaying games.

In terms of style, Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D is understated, operating mostly in a realist visual mode. Written as though a ‘Game Master’ were addressing a player, many panels adopt a point-of-view perspective to place the reader in the role of one of the key players in the story of D&D. The detailed panels allow for a subtle depiction of interpersonal relationships, and of the tensions between Gygax and his various collaborators. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine has written about how roleplaying games produce complex social worlds and how gaming groups constitute intricate subcultures (Fine 1983), and it is this intricate social world that Kushner and Shadmi invest with life in their novel.  They offer a celebratory and detailed exploration of the birth, development and influence of D&D, but they are not blind to the tensions and complexities therein. Honouring its creator, Kushner and Shadmi provide a moving testament to the creative power of D&D in producing imaginative and transformative fictional worlds.

References

Fine, Gary Alan (1983), Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press.

Thornton, Sarah (1995), Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Polity Press.

Witwer, Michael (2015), Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, Bloomsbury.


Chloé Germaine Buckley