E. Gary Gygax, who co-created the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons and inspired the $1.5 billion fantasy game industry, died of an abdominal aneurysm Tuesday at his home in Lake Geneva, Wis. He was 69.
Gygax, a high school dropout who was fascinated by the Dark Ages, and Dave Aronson created the heroic quest game with $1,000 in capital in 1974. Their game invited players to invent imaginary characters, such as dwarfs, elves, knights and wizards, and set off on adventures with a roll of the polyhedral dice. The game’s multiple rule books and character studies gave its obsessed fans thousands of pages of instructions to consider.
“I don’t think I’ve really grokked it yet,” Mike Mearls, the lead developer of the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, told Wired blogger Lore Sjoberg, referring to Gygax’s death. “He was like the cool uncle that every gamer had. He shaped an entire generation of gamers.”
It took 11 months for Dungeons & Dragons to sell its first 1,000 copies, but the game took off and became a cultural phenomenon among college and high school males in the 1970s and 1980s. No publisher would touch the game when Gygax and Aronson were ready for market, so they assembled copies themselves. Sales were $8.5 million by 1980 and more than $14 million by 1981.
Other game designers began creating copycat versions; D&D eventually inspired a whole genre of computer games, influencing everything from immersive computer CD-ROMs to “Magic: The Gathering.”
“People said, ‘What kind of game is this?’ You don’t play against anybody. Nobody wins. It doesn’t end. This is craziness!” Gygax told the New York Times in 1983.
Some parents and religious fundamentalists objected to the dark, magical nature of Dungeons & Dragons, and after two youngsters committed suicide while reportedly under its influence, Gygax found himself defending the game and the whole industry on “60 Minutes.” The controversy passed, however. Within a few years, a D&D cartoon was created and broadcast on Saturday mornings.
Gygax lost control of the game in 1985, and his former company, TSR, sued him over his subsequent game, Dangerous Journeys. TSR eventually sold D&D to Wizards of the Coast, publisher of “Magic: The Gathering.” That company in turn sold it to Hasbro.
Gygax turned to writing fantasy novels, most of them based on games scenarios, including the Greyhawk series and, in collaboration with Flint Dille, the Sagard the Barbarian series.
Gygax also founded the world’s largest annual gaming convention, Gen Con, which started in 1968.