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Thursday, March 13, 2008

And Gary Gygax makes three.

Darkly, a friend of mine began to speculate what significant figure would most likely be dead to complete a trifecta for me personally and offered a short least of likely names. Gary Gygax, the co-developer of the original Dungeons and Dragons was on the list.

I had been exposed to roll playing in my first college years, thanks to my younger brother who was always more in tune to the world than I was. As a new Christian, I didn't quite know what to make of it. My brother and I did a few newbie dungeon crawls together. I DM'd a trip through one of the hells for his character, which in my scenario functioned more like Dante's inferno and less like the sort of place evil creatures look forward to vacationing in. I also explained to my brother a scenario based on the argument for God from the reality of evil, given by CS Lewis in "Mere Christianity" under the description of being a criticism of (moral) dualism. Basically, the alignment compass of D&D (Law - Chaos, Good - Evil) suggested an objective standard beyond the points of the compass for basing judgements of good vs Evil and lawful versus chaotic, otherwise such distinctions could not be made. So I designed a trap room such that if characters were caught in the room, the whole room would progressively teleport into an apocalyptic future, with the characters experiencing each of the outer planes condensing against the outside of the walls according to there relative locations on the alignment compass and the respective sounds and climate conditions being sense by the occupants of the room. At the end of this tour, the room would open again, and the characters would essentially walk out into the face of a final tribunal of judgment by That by Which Sets the Ultimate Standard. My brother actually thought this was interesting and told me he incorporated such a room in a dungeon he DM'd for others. I asked him what the players thought of it. "They didn't much care for it," he said.

My brother actually did more to collect D&D stuff than play it. I also let it go in college, not because it had demons and magic in it, but that I was concerned mostly about the time consumption about it. I did have a friend in my Christian College dorm who was devoted to it and even had developed a magnificent campaign setting. He also experienced much friction with his mother over this. But one day -- he told me -- that he was with his date and had an experience of oppressiveness that prevented him from enjoying himself. They went back to his home and he told his mother what was going on and how it felt. His mother immediately blamed his role playing game hobby. He told me that at first he denied this as usual but this time he felt that she was right. So he burned all his D&D stuff (except his campaign notes which he felt were a major creative investment on his part) and gave the game up.

Latter in the military, I met a couple of people who told me they played D&D and reported bizarre experiences with the game. One said that he started playing good characters until he discovered it was more fun for him to play evil characters. Soon playing evil characters was not enough for him and later he became a Satanist and showed me his copy of LeVey's Satanic Bible. but this seemed to be a clear case of someone finding himself through the game as if the game were a personality test -- not really a surprise. Another guy told me that he was a DM in his unit and ran a regular game. Once two guys who played in his campaign were fighting in the barracks and no one seemed to get them apart. He ordered them to stop in his DM posture and they suddenly quit. He certainly felt that he was exercising an unusual type of authority that looked very cult-like.

These stories did not impress me though they were interesting. However, I didn't seriously deal with the game again until after I was forty. I was in grad school for philosophy and miserable because (1) I was a believer in a secular department, (2) my background and interests in philosophy were not along the same lines as the department, (3) I could not discern when my department disdained my work for the quality of work from when it was because it was out of accord with the departments outlook, and (4) the situation with my peers had significantly eroded my faith so that I was wrestling with doubt and skepticism, but I was not ready to give up. At any rate, I had no connection with my colleagues and professors. (Total Truth: I walked away from my Ph.D. attempt.)

My friend from the department was having an after hours in his apartment with several other grad students and young profs from our department. While they were there, someone mentioned D&D. It turned out that most all of them went through a D&D phase in there development. My friend still had his books from his D&D days and had actually started an on the spot campaign. Later, he told me about this and asked me if I wanted to join up with them.

If he had asked me this years ago I would have hesitated. But at that time I thought I was mature enough to simply enjoy it as a pastime for the reasons it originally attracted me -- the creativity, the social element, the research, etc. -- and so I said, "Yes" quite handily. That turned out to provide something I could not get otherwise, a level ground on which to connect with the key people in my department where the perception of regard was mutual, something I really needed. It was also a connection is which the plausibility structure of the fictional world was acceptable to Non-Christians but friendly to Christians -- a world of magic and the supernatural. It created a forum in which to introduce Christian themes at their best without explicit associations -- something which was also important to me.

It also pointed to a space in shared public thought where I could follow a familiar path back to faith, namely the road that CS Lewis described his own conversion as a conversion first in his imagination. Roleplaying games became resource for spiritual/intellectual recuperation. CS Lewis describes in one place about romantic movements that the fascination with the road signs eventually gives way to a desire to just get to the destination to which they refer. But if you've lost your sense of your destination you might find it again by going back and examining the signs again until that passion rekindles. RPGs provided the signs to examine. Finally. RPGs do not demand one to be a top quality author to participate so they were egalitarian in an important way.

But my friend was also helpful in helping me to see that there was an adolescent approach to gaming and a second order adolescence, one that is not immediately self-gratifying but which is self-conscious, one that allows you to laugh at yourself and criticize yourself. That showed that there was a certain healthy detachment possible that made RPGs available to adults. And finally, that RPGs are something traditionable, especially since they had become 'traditioned' by the 90's. By traditioned, I mean that they had a track record of experiences that was able to demonstrate a tried and true character. And the tap root of that tradition was the work of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and friends which in turn was based on research both into medieval history and classical tactical games. This was evident in the then recent release of "HackMaster", a version of AD&D that attempted to be a self-conscious reappropriation of classic D&D. HackMaster ostensible is meant to appeal to munchkins -- people who abuse the rules for the sake of a low view of the rewards of role playing -- but in fact was an admission that we all wanted to be munchikins -- something very Thurberian.

RPGs and RPG theory have become my hobby and to a certain extent my vehicle for pre-evangelism to a watching world. And my preferred systems are those that tie back into the work of Gary Gygax.

This weekend, I will be at Arcon VII, the gaming convention of the Storyteller's Guild at SUNY Oswego. I am attempting to run a one-shot adventure combining the Basic HackMaster rules with Gary's original "Oriental Adventures" book. Since HackMaster already incorporates much of the mechanics and spirit of OA, it should be a happy marriage. I even called the game "Katana Sensei".

Good-bye, Gary. I came to love you late.