Wednesday, March 5, 2008

D & D & me

Gary Gygax is dead. Dig out your twelve-sided die and throw a roll in his honor.

Perhaps more than any other single person, we can credit Gygax as the revolutionary genius who liberated our daydreams, imaginations, and sense of wonder from the tyranny of copyright and the narrative Stonehenge of the idea of the author. A DIY dime-store deconstructionist who, with no more than a stubby pencil, white paper and a bag of dice, created an essentially simple system of play that empowered the transformation of each person's interior life into a never-ending narrative that plays out against the back of our foreheads more richly than any cinematic splendor.

Sometimes, of course, aided by 35mm hand-painted orcs and chaotic good half-elf warrior monks being tempted by a bluish flesh-toned succubus in the heart of a styrofoam dungeon labyrinth spread out across the dining table. Preferably from Ral Partha.

As a child of the Corn Belt, it gives me immense pleasure that this revolution of the mindscape was launched from a town in Wisconsin. Perhaps one has to have endured the topographic minimalism of more than a few Midwestern winters to appreciate what a victory it represented of imagination over consensus reality, to turn the confines of some old house with the wind chill battering the windows into an infinite world of mystery and adventure beyond the skills of any lone novelist.

I recall my own introduction to these secret realms as an adolescent boy in 1970s Des Moines. The woods behind my house led down to the floodplain of the Raccoon River and the old main street of West Des Moines, a galley of 19th century railroad town commercial storefronts now occupied by eclectic purveyors of specialty goods for which there was no real market. Not just the usual antique malls, but things like a model railroading emporium full of magnificent dioramas and a theatrical supply shop where 11-year-olds could buy awesomely horrific vinyl B-movie monster masks and 14-year-olds could buy fake beards and spirit gum in outrageously self-parodic efforts to look old enough to buy 3.2 beer.

Off to the side of one of these streets, through a little door and up a long dark flight of battered stairs nominally repaired with bent tin strips was a place called The Time Machine. It was operated by a magnificent fellow named Ivor Rogers, a prematurely Gandalfian college theater professor with a silver Van Dyke who filled out his old suits with big laughs and Porthosian vigor. Ivor sold three categories of stuff in the shop: comic books new and used, science fiction new and used (all the Kenneth Robeson-meets-James Bama you could fit in a room), and role playing games. For many of us, he showed us where to find the keys to our maturing imaginations.

Oftentimes when you arrived at The Time Machine, Ivor and one or more of his equally fascinating buddies would be playing a campaign on Ivor's desk, laughing in their Saturday afternoon noon zone of time suspended. Any open-minded visitors were gregariously invited along, and I ended up spending my Saturday nights in middle school spelunking rich dungeons with a more colorful collection of geeks than a city of Midwestern actuaries should have ever been able to sustain.

Ivor died before Gary Gygax, and his wondrous business and others like them that flourished in the cultural interregnum of the 70s died before the 80s were out.

A few years back I wrote an odd little story that does some of the work of expressing the feeling of the gifts these musty wizards produced from their government surplus file cabinets.

A Brief History of Negative Space

Part I

The campaign began on a cold Saturday morning in 1973 over grilled cheese sandwiches and dark coffee in the breakfast nook of a furnished apartment on Brattleboro Avenue, near the old university. As elusive phalanxes of snow battered the storm windows, a hundred phantom divisions waged weeks of low-tech nuclear combat across the tabletop plains of Bavaria and Czechoslovakia. From the kitchen window where they sat, the generals could see a small black dog staring at them knowingly from the alley.

Two hours and fifteen minutes into the game, upon the expiration of his seventh turn, Ted removed his glasses to wipe them slowly with the worn cotton of his flannel shirt. The world went out of focus, followed by Ted's mind. Passing over the northeastern reaches of the Alps while one of his light artillery battalions marched like a diesel-powered Hannibal through a pass between Salzburg and Berchtesgarden, Ted considered his insular apartment as an unlikely analog to the "Eagle's Nest" of A.H.

The apartment was a map room, a metaphoric repository, the attic outpost from which Ted charted the coastlines of his reality. It was the laboratory in which he executed the project whose manifesto he had abstracted over a year earlier:

To establish the tangibility of negative space through cartographic delineation of its contours. Negative space: the Gnostic vacuum left uncovered by the busy fossils of human expression. The infinite universe of thoughts not yet articulated, things not yet said. The space between musical notes, the void between cinematic frames.

Brought back by the insistent klang of the radiator and the murmured Wagnerian hum of his companion, Ted looked across the table. Phil was slowly twirling a pencil in his beard. Occasionally he would scrawl a calculation on the back of his notebook, postulating scenarios to reverse the precarious status of the 12th New Rhodesian heavy infantry entrenched west of Pilzen.

Rattled by Ted's abstracted glare, Phil shifted his regard to the medallion hanging from his opponent's neck, a cryptic mandala of ambiguous origins. Perhaps, Phil considered, this head shop artifact was the talisman that had enabled Ted's remarkable escape from the oppressive reality of the Department and its psychic environs.

As Phil scrutinized Ted's enigmatic demeanor, the Argentine marines penetrated the Occidental forces' southwestern emplacements around Ravensburg. The Canadian and Icelandic airborne divisions broke out across the Bavarian lowlands, swiftly taking Augsburg, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Ulm. Reinforced by neutron megatanks, they punched on toward the regional capital. But Phil's ingenious counterpunch to the west out of Innsbruck/Landshut cut off Ted's offensive vanguard (in less than two weeks—six movement turns, one strategic turn, about half an hour real time). Their nuclear batteries exhausted, the armies reached a stalemate amid the irradiated lakes south of Munich.


Leaving the board for the first time in three and a half hours, Ted got up to prepare a fresh pot of coffee. Standing at the small gas oven, he wandered into a movie still taped to the refrigerator and listened to the silent roar of the starship as it hurtled past a black sun.

The campaigns Ted waged across the kitchen table on Saturdays, and across his frontal lobe as he walked down Cottage Grove to the lunch counter for his daily meal, were not governed by "strategy," but by pure abstraction—the elaborate interplay of invisible armies of conception. The zones of battle arrayed around the breakfast nook in eight large leafs were devoid of boundaries, regulated by constantly evolving rules, host to campaigns without end whose purpose was not tactical but existential victory: to decode the hieroglyphic universes buried in the furrowed brow of the general.

Thus, Ted concluded, all games are solitaire. The real challenge became to develop a system of solitaire wherein he could both create a new cosmos and then explore it with his fictive minions as if it were entirely novel and uncharted. He wrestled with the problem for some time, unable to bear the aggravations of other people's dungeons. He tried the solitaire kits prepared by various professional game designers, and fiddled with his own prefabricated systems in which different rolls of the polyhedric dice led to different permutations of the world.

In time, those methods merged. Ted was able to establish a methodology of wargaming wherein the world created itself as the character/army roamed it. When the elfin monk Imrael trekked the broad circumference of the planet Qul, infinite hexagons of alien geography generated themselves before him as he re-imagined the continent. Subterranean catacombs staffed with uninvented monsters and littered with the flotsam of a million fantasy novels drew themselves out on reams of graph paper, as Imrael projected a fantastic construction crew of the mind before him. The self-perpetuating cities of the western coast populated their streets with extensive neighborhoods of non-player characters; each defined his or her own characteristics. As he looked around the room, Ted watched the planets materialize along innumerable vanishing points.


While the percolator bubbled, Phil lit a cigarette and took mental notes on the tandem blunders that had brought him so close to tactical oblivion.

Over coffee and a cleared game board, he and Ted broke silence to discuss possible topographical variations that would heighten the game's interest. They agreed on the establishment of new protocols to alter the landscape according to battle damage. In the future, Ted's hovercraft would land on beaches of glass.


Twilight asserted itself in time. The generals packed their cardboard armies away in neat stacks secured by orthodontic rubber bands, found their parkas, and traversed the deserted campus to catch an installment of the ongoing science fiction film festival. A double feature: Message from Tomorrow (malaise-ridden radio operator Tommy Kirk discovers troubling transmissions on an illegal wavelength) and Plutopia (a withered Keir Dullea as the lone occupant of an automated outpost on the ninth planet, biding the interminable years unto death after the homeworld has been decimated).

As lonely spacecraft rocketed lethargically toward the farthest star, Ted fingered his mutton chops ponderously and marked out the routes in colored chalk against the inside of his forehead.


Later, Ted stood at the front window and watched Phil pull away in his grey Volkswagen. Midnight ice revealed hexes newly manifested over the cracked asphalt. The familiar mongrel trotted across them, briefly illuminated by the headlights.

Exhausted, Ted sat in the armchair and drew on an elaborate homemade bong. Moog notes wandered out of the hi-fi and skipped slowly over the carpet, drowning the electric hum of the battered black-and-white Philco across the room. The otherwise soundless television was tuned to an apocalyptic late movie on translator channel 47. Plaster-of-Paris skyscrapers crumbled under a tidal wave compelled by lost gravity.

More here.

P.S. -- For the best tribute to Gary Gygax ever written, check out Paul La Farge's 2006 piece from the Believer, in which he and a buddy travel to Lake Geneva and manage to persuade the somewhat cranky master to lead them on a campaign.

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