Celebrating Gary Gygax’s birthday with the wayback machine

PlayersHandbook8CoverI very clearly remember the day I got to speak to Gary Gygax.

It was the summer of 2000, and I was a business reporter for The Associated Press in Seattle. My primary coverage areas were Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing (with Starbucks and RealNetworks in there as well), and I was waiting for a press conference to start on the Microsoft campus.

Phone rings: It’s Gary. I had reached out to him as part of a story I was doing on Wizards of the Coast’s new d20 “open-source” gaming initiative — you can read it here. The story was a bit of a passion project for me, and I took a lot of pleasure in visiting Wizards’ headquarters and talking with the team behind 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. And of course, in the interest of balance, I felt compelled to reach out to folks at Steve Jackson Games, White Wolf…and the man who created it all.

Just then, a Microsoft P.R. person tried to herd me into the auditorium. “Mike, we’re starting in five minutes.”

I put my hand over my cell phone receiver. “One second. I got Gary Gygax on the line.”

The guy stopped and smiled. “That’s cool!”

Yes. Yes, it is very, very cool. 

I did a lot of really neat stories during my time in Seattle. I interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jeff Bezos a number of times. I did a phone interview with Steve Jobs. I had coffee with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. (It was a rare single-source coffee in a French press and, yes, it was fabulous.) I watched from Amazon headquarters as they demolished the old Kingdome.

But interviewing Gary Gygax — and Steve Jackson as well! — remains a fun highlight of my journalistic career.

I was perhaps seven years old when I got my first copies of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books — all three, in fact. I would sit out on the porch with my friends and DM my way through all kinds of adventures; given that I was seven, these largely entailed entering a room, fighting monsters and winning treasures. No real narrative thread, but hey, it was fun.

From there, it was a short hop to other games over the years: the old James Bond 007 RPG, Top SecretTwilight 2000Star TrekGURPS, the old d6 Star WarsCall of CthulhuThe Price of FreedomWarhammer Fantasy Roleplaying GameTorgChillPendragon, Nephilim, Castle Falkenstein…you name it, I probably tried it.  I really liked the White Wolf stuff, especially Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. 

I haven’t seriously played in twenty-plus years, I have to say, though I still bought books for a while. As the industry grew, I became enamored of how deep and rich the settings had become, how nuanced characters could be. Yes, there may have been fanfic. Shut up. (In fact, I got to write some Pathfinder fiction last year and I have a short story in a game-related anthology coming out this year. So the fanfic wasn’t for naught.)

Needless to say, exploring these worlds and building characters was part of my training for eventually becoming a novelist, alongside the day-to-day demands of journalism. And it was nice that, for one story at least, all this stuff converged.

I remember Steve Jackson being slightly dismissive of the d20 initiative; while GURPS wasn’t open-source, it was certainly the first Generic Universal Role-Playing System, which was something Wizards hoped d20 would become. And as noted in the story (and man, the typo in that story is killing me), Steve was looking forward to a new wave of 3rd Edition players looking to GURPS for more complexity and fun after they ran through D&D.

White Wolf was likewise playing it cool. Tim Avers basically compared D&D to a kid’s game, with While Wolf waiting patiently for players to grow up. White Wolf was at its peak at the time, or perhaps just a touch on the other side of it, and was still the shop to go to for brooding, angsty RPGing. From a business perspective, it made sense. Let Wizards take the risk.

So what did Gary think about all this? That was the question I wanted to ask. D&D was his baby after all, and while Gary went on to do a number of other cool things — he was working on Lejendary Adventure at the time, and later did some stuff with the d20 system as well — no other game made by anybody had the same cachet as D&D.

Still, his legendary geek status was not in question, and he seemed pretty philosophical about the direction D&D was headed. “Anything that expands the audience is great,” he told me in the only quote that made it into the story. (I could’ve written something three times as long, but I think my editor would’ve assigned me to night shifts in retaliation.)

As an aside, he wondered if the new rules would be too complex for younger players, but kind of shrugged it off as Wizards’ problem, not his. Gary was just happy to be creating games, playing games and kind of being the industry’s founding father. He was excited about Lejendary Adventure at the time and talked it up quite a bit.

And then I had to get to my press conference, so I thanked him profusely for his time. And I happy to say I took a moment to thank him for D&D, and for all the other games it spawned, and for contributing to my happy childhood. He took it with good grace and thanked me as well.

Sixteen years after that conversation, plus four novels and a bunch of short stories to my name, I have even more to thank him for. So…thanks, Gary. Happy birthday. May your spirit roam the nicer corners of the Outer Planes.

#SFWApro

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