Gygax's Game Of Life: Dungeons & Dragons & Probability


Gygax (left) at the 1970 GenCon in Lake Geneva, WI. Gygax founded the tabletop game gathering, which is now one of the largest gaming conventions on the planet. Source: WIRED.com

When Gary Gygax (1938-2008) quit his day job as an insurance claims underwriter to pursue game design in the early 1970s, he understood this risk perhaps more than most. Gygax, a high school dropout, had made his living calculating premiums based on factors spanning his clients’ age, race, occupation, medical history, annual income and the chance for long-term disability. These factors all combined to generate one individualized mathematical outcome to best anticipate the risk of future events. It was good training for the work that would eventually bring him fame: the founding of TSR publishing, and the invention of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game with his collaborator, Dave Arneson.

In his insurance days, Gygax nurtured a not-so-secret double life as a passionate wargamer in rural Wisconsin. Before his creation of Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop gaming was a recreational military-history exercise, practiced in small communities around the country. Players controlled blocks of 20 soldiers at a time as they reenacted decisive battles. Maps and protractors in hand, wargamers painstakingly maneuvered their miniature squadrons through terrain, settling skirmishes with six-sided dice. Gygax was eager to innovate this style of gaming, taking it beyond purely martial subjects to new, speculative worlds largely influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy writers.

Gygax emerged with the First Edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The game was rebuked by history buffs, but embraced by a new community: lovers of science fiction and fantasy, eager to shape stories in imaginative universes bound by clear and detailed laws of physics. Any action is possible, but every action has a consequence. In explaining D&D to new players, many dungeon-masters propose the following scenario: “You walk up to a door. What do you do?” The answer? You can do anything you want – sing at it, carve your initials, cast a spell, paint it red – but every choice will be accompanied by a roll of the dice, determining the result. (You’d best hope there aren’t any sleeping demons behind there, once you start making all that racket.)

Gary Gygax’s world of wargamers, and then roleplayers, was majority male. As D&D grew in popularity through the 1980s, the stereotypical player was an awkward teenage boy, something of a social outcast, forming community with other fans of math, science, and genre fiction. Such gatherings made some in the mainstream nervous, and D&D players were often painted in the media as undesirable at best, and Satanists, at worst.

Gygax, a biological determinist, spoke of his work as being created for a male audience. “Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn't that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who's tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.” But times change, and the intervening decades have proved Gygax wrong – today, more women and girls than ever before self-define as geeks, and are pushing traditional fantasy communities to shed old misogynist storylines and assumptions. Roleplaying has moved into the mainstream as Hollywood mines geek culture for material. The success of movies like Scott Pilgrim, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the reboot of Star Trek, and anything from Frank Miller, Marvel, and DC.have fueled not just ticket sales, but large scale comic-cons and fantasy-cons around the country.

Playwright Qui Nguyen positions the characters in She Kills Monsters at exactly this intersection. As was true in D&D’s early days, the game provides a place for outcasts and people on the margins to tell their own stories, and shape their own destinies. But these days, the margins are, thankfully, becoming more inclusive.


The Huntington