For some people, it’s Jerusalem. For others, Mecca. For me and my role-playing kin, it’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin thanks to the lifework of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Returning to the fold after 20 years of pretending I wasn’t a nerd, a reunion at the GaryCon memorial game convention with the three best friends I’ve ever known was a full-on bucket list experience.
Over a year ago, I came across Michael Witwer’s “Empire of Imagination,” a brief, engaging biography of Gygax. While I hadn’t played D&D in over 20 years since graduating from high school, I remembered his name on those old tomes and realized I knew nothing about him. His turned out to be an engaging and quintessentially American rags-to-riches success story whether you care about the game or not. Its tragic aspects stirred me the most, from the early death of his best friend and business partner, to his wife divorcing him for working too much and finally his famous creation being wrested from him through corporate intrigue.
Gary was a nerd’s nerd, claiming to have read every piece of pulp fiction and fantasy published prior to D&D in 1974. Growing up in Lake Geneva (LG) during the 40’s and 50’s, he was obsessed with games of every sort. Dropping out of high school as a bit of a cigarette-smoking greaser, he proceeded to marry the prettiest girl in town, got a job selling insurance and fathered five children over the space of ten years.
Throughout the 60’s, and much to his wife’s consternation, Gary devoted virtually all his spare time to wargames, his basement becoming the gravitational center of a regional association. His organizing passion for the hobby led to the first game conventions, his GenCon eventually becoming the largest tabletop-game con in North America today, long ago outgrowing its LG origins. A collaborator and networker, he would produce the game Chainmail, “rules for medieval miniatures” in 1971 as an important precursor to D&D.
With most of his sober-minded associates focused on historically accurate battle simulations, many scoffed at his inclusion of fantasy elements like elves, dragons, magic and more in the Chainmail rulebook. One University of Minnesota student named Dave Arneson did not. He expanded upon these fantasy elements, with the innovative twist of giving players not whole divisions or armies to play, but individual characters with differing motives and abilities. These characters accrued riches and powers if they survived the scenarios presented by Dave, eventually braving the dark, monster-filled dungeons under his Castle Blackmoor.
Arneson’s friends couldn’t get enough of Blackmoor and word spread. Gygax invited him to LG in order to try the new game and was instantly impressed. However, Arneson’s rules were only half-formed, existing primarily in his own mind and a pile of disorganized notes. Gary’s experience, energy and connections led to a partnership between the two, but Gygax would be the one to do most of the actual work of codifying, writing and testing the new game throughout 1973. Unable to find a publisher willing to take a chance on the new concept, he realized they would have to do it themselves.
Being young and broke, Arneson settled for a royalty agreement while Gary convinced his best friend Don Kaye to match his own $1000 for partnership in a new game company. Still they could not afford an initial print run until they reluctantly brought on a third partner in Brian Blume and incorporated as Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). The first D&D boxed sets were received in January of 1974 with initial sales slow but steady. By the end of the year a second print run was ordered, but tragedy struck in the untimely death of Don Kaye at age 38 from a heart attack.
While personally devastating for Gary, the immediate problem was that while Kaye’s wife wanted nothing to do with the business, Gary did not yet have the funds to buy out her one third share of the young company. The solution presented was for Brian Blume’s brother Kevin to buy Kaye’s share, and while Gary had reservations, he was without options. They did so, and over the course of the coming years, the Blume brothers would ultimately flex their majority ownership to steer the company in a direction that Gygax was powerless to stop.
Throughout the 70’s, D&D continued to see strong growth, but the real turning point was in 1979 thanks to the “Steam Tunnels Incident” where a gifted 16 year old student disappeared from Michigan State University. The private investigator hired by his parents spread a story to the media that he might have come to harm through playing D&D. The search went on for weeks until he called from Louisiana but the “damage” had been done to the game’s reputation, the publicity resulting in a massive increase in sales. Hysteria continued into the 80’s with a “Satanic Panic” whereby numerous foul deeds, including murder and suicide were falsely attributed to D&D by distraught parents and preachers.
It was sometime in 1983, at age eight that my father said, “I don’t want to catch you playing this Dungeons and Dragons game I’m hearing about.” Having never heard of it before, it was only a matter of weeks before I was able to join a game played by neighboring teens. I vividly remember how my first character was quickly killed by a ball and chain wielding giant in a musty underground dungeon. My imagination was triggered and I was enthralled, continuing to play the game in one form or another for the next ten years.
Meanwhile, Gygax was enjoying his newfound wealth in the 80’s, buying a ranch and breeding horses to keep his wife happy for a time. It didn’t last long, as she soon filed for divorce. Gary was in a constant power struggle with the Blume brothers, who by 1985 had run the company deep into debt. Before long, a conniving third party bought out the Blumes, ensuring Gary would never own the company he’d sacrificed everything for. Powerless to do anything about it, he sold his one-third share of TSR and departed the company. It was his death in 2008 that triggered a wave of remembrance and inspired a memorial game convention in his name, GaryCon.
Having completed this breezy read, I couldn’t put my finger on why his story moved me so damn much. I remembered my love for the game and the great times with old friends, but there was something more. His was the story of one swinging for the fences in life, a creative, driven outcast I could relate to who exemplified the hopeful theory that we’re all one good idea away from success if we stay true to our passion. There was no denying Gary’s prodigious work habits, but there was a cost, too. Did Gary neglect his family? I would never ask his children that, but his wife left him at the height of his powers and was vocal in her disgust for “that damn game.” The vaunted American work ethic cuts both ways and one’s feelings about that seem to say something about one’s politics and outlook.
To find answers and scratch this nagging itch, I resolved to go to Garycon in Lake Geneva, held in his memory each March. I presented the idea to my three best friends from high school that hadn’t been reunited in over 20 years and to my pleasant surprise, all quickly agreed. They’d all left Alaska long ago, shortly after graduating from Chugiak in 1993, leaving me to wonder how I was the only one to stay. I’d seen Jake and Dan separately over the years but had lost track completely of Adam after high school. No matter, we were getting the band back together after all these years to once again roll dice and stuff ourselves with pizza, Doritos and cola while laughing uncontrollably. This time there would be beer, and whisky for the cola.
Garycon is held at the Grand Geneva Resort just outside of LG, formerly a Playboy Club built in 1968 for vacationing Chicago money. They were already booked by the time we got serious, so I secured lodging downtown, directly next door to the small 330 Center Street house where the Gygax family lived in the 70’s when D&D was created. A pleasant Chicago family owned both houses now and was willing to let us play a game within its hallowed historical walls at some point during the four day weekend, so we gladly paid a little extra to ensure our stay was memorable.
While the convention started on a Thursday, those arriving on Wednesday could find special access and warm hospitality by attending the “Frankenparty” thrown by Frank Mentzer, Gary’s right-hand man in the early 80’s, and his beautiful wife Debbie, an accomplished baker. Dan and I did just that after volunteering to pick up a friend of Frank’s in Milwaukee and, in turn, were regaled with stories from the golden age of TSR. Frank still has Gary’s heavy old desk and boxes to the ceiling of treasured out-of-print product. Frank is a genial white-bearded host and is most known for writing the famous “red box” basic D&D rules that served as an introduction to the game for untold thousands during the company’s zenith in the mid 80’s.
The next morning Dan and I braved the Chicago rush hour and retrieved Jake and Adam from O’Hare, arriving at the Grand Geneva in time to get our ID badges and join our first game of Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) with Brendan “Beastman” LaSalle. We followed Dan’s lead as the rest of us knew little of the newer DCC game. I’d heard of LaSalle, but had no idea how infectious his energy and enthusiasm would be. Standing the whole time, he was essentially a gifted comic narrator or “Judge” to whom we responded as our band of zero-level misfit characters strained to survive an interdimensional journey. We committed the cardinal sin of old-school gaming by splitting up the party, but thanks to some incredibly bad dice rolls for Beastman’s monsters, we avoided a Total Party Kill and mostly survived to tell the tale. DCC turns out to be mostly about laughing in the face of death, which we did, heartily and repeatedly.
I then sat in on a Gygax family seminar with a panel of his adult children sharing stories and memories from their youth. The recurring theme was their poverty prior to D&D, but most of their stories I’d already heard by doing my homework before arriving. I asked about their memories of their father’s friend and partner, Don Kaye as I continued to think of how differently things might have turned out had he not died in 75’. Even Ernie, the eldest, could only remember that Don’s wife simply wanted nothing to do with TSR after his death, pointedly dropping off the numerous boxes of product at the Gygax house soon after. I followed up with a question about Gary’s standing in LG, wondering why there was no monument to a man who’d spent his entire life in the town, spawned an industry, employed hundreds, made many millions of dollars and was attracting thousands of visitors to LG still, almost a decade after his death. They shrugged, saying the town fathers had just never seen anything special in D&D or TSR. There was a single small plaque set into the tiles of town square that noted his passing, but even that had to be paid for by his family, friends and fans.
My old friends and I played several different games over the coming days, but my attention was constantly strained with the desire to talk with so many people that I’d read about before showing up. People like Mike Carr, Larry Elmore, and Paul Stormberg surprised me with their kindness and generosity of attention and time for all my questions. Gary’s D&D story is a rabbit-hole without end, and if there is a lesson learned, it’s that the moment in time is gone, and like all history, approximated only in part by any retelling.
As it turns out, time accelerates during game cons and as the weekend started to slip away, I let it go and focused on my old Chugiak friends. Nothing was more important than reconnecting with these guys after so long. It was time alone at our rental, away from the convention, just the four of us playing our old games late into the night that was the real highlight of the weekend. To laugh again, and so hard, in the same easy way we used to, was tonic for my soul. The time slipped through our fingers completely and before we knew it, the weekend was over, just like half of our lives. With a heavy heart, Dan and I took Jake and Adam back to O’Hare Sunday night and said our goodbyes, the two of us returning to LG for one more day of extracurricular seeking.
It was on Monday, after everyone had left town that Dan and I got our audience with Gygax. Ernie that is, Gary’s eldest son at 57, veteran of probably more D&D than anyone alive, certainly at least out of the mouth of his father. He didn’t want to play any more D&D after that long weekend, but did invite Dan and me over to his place where he welcomed us to look through his collection of games, figurines and fantasy novels. We thumbed reverently through his dad’s copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, talked about his own turbulent past and smoked a little bud while peppering him with questions. I wanted to connect in some genuine way, to touch the mystery of his family’s story but it eluded me, the right question just out of reach. I didn’t know what I wanted to know as I wasn’t interviewing him and didn’t plan on this article. There was a gulf of experience between us and he didn’t suffer fools gladly so I clammed up. I could tell Gary had been hard on him growing up, and with his weight and health problems, couldn’t help but feel for him. He clearly loved his dog KC, and shared pictures of his previous pets as well.
After playing some board games with Ernie, his buddy Scott and the venerable Tom Wham, Dan and I called it a night and a week, thanking them for the hospitality. Driving back to our place, we noticed how quiet LG had gotten, apparently its natural winter state without a thousand game fanatics roaming the town. I was sad it was over, as I could have stayed there all winter in a dungeon-crawl daze. Of course I enjoyed getting back together with my old friends, but especially appreciated Dan’s belief in my vision, first to show, last to leave. Love you, buddy.
What was I looking for in prying deeper into Gary’s history? Clues and lessons for my own life to be sure, but there was something gnawing at me about his body of work. He gave it his all but it cost him everything. I thought of my own 10-year run with the game and how important it used to be to me, about how right it felt to be back. How did it get left behind? What would my younger self see in me now, hiding my light under a bushel and losing passion at midlife? I’d lost my way and missed that feeling of sustained excitement since I’d turned my back on fantasy to face reality and fit in. So what if I’m a nerd? It’s time to put in work and I figure this article is a good start and a good way of tying up some loose ends.
I’ve got plenty of adventure left in me.