Honoring the Man Who Started Everything

As co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons (with Dave Arneson), co-owner of D&D publisher TSR, designer of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and founder of Dragon magazine and Gen Con, E. Gary Gygax was the visionary archmage of fantasy roleplaying games. As roleplaying’s public face, Gygax had guest-starred on Futurama, Sync magazine named him the #1 Nerd of All Time, and cyanobacteria strain UTCC393 had been christened Arthronema gygaxiana. Gygax, designer of the original 1978 killer dungeon, Tomb of Horrors, symbolized the grand old style, the incunabular era when fighters faced three cloud giants in a ten-by-ten room. His death in March 2008 prompted worldwide notice and, for generations of roleplayers, genuine grief.


Fans marked the great gamer’s passing in many ways, such as the touching D&D Online memorial service and the giant 20-sided die in MIT’s Killian Court. From that first sad moment in March, with the news still cold in their hearts, some wondered about a memorial. “I thought for a second about suggesting a memorial dungeon, or a memorial adventure, or whatever, but the entire industry is his memorial,” said Darren MacLennan, a moderator at RPG.net. “You could still do it, but it would just be another brick in the wall of the building that he built.” An industry mailing list discussed how Gen Con might mark Gygax’s passing; the consensus verdict was to say, “Look around.”

No single observance or entity would have conveyed the significance of Gygax’s gift. Fans of tabletop gaming’s Old School Revival believe even modern roleplaying itself falls short. They honor Gygax by recapturing the bygone spirit of the late 1970s, when the world was new and Gary shaped the field month by month. In the event, though, Gen Con 2008 remembered its founder in several ways, including a moment of silence, a marathon “Tower of Gygax” dungeon crawl and a Grand Gygaxian Dice Collection, contained in a giant D20 and auctioned for charity. A small plaque commemorated “the first DM, [who] taught us to roll the dice.”

Meanwhile, Gygax’s family is preparing a physical memorial, a monument in his longtime home of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. When news got out in 2009, exuberant fans on gaming forums offered many helpful suggestions:

It should be made of white metal and about an inch high –

– a bespectacled, bearded, slightly pudgy Gary holding aloft an enormous d20 on his back, like Atlas with the world –

– with a hand out, offering a set of polyhedral dice –

– a level 30 wizard, and his staff should have a white crystal that when it gets dark, a light inside glows. There should also be a tray in the shape of an open dicebag where we can leave offerings to the great one –

– a giant dragon, Gygax riding on his back, with a giant mace in one hand and a two-hander in the other, with a huge shield on his back, casting spells and bearing the Epic ruleset –

– ripping one of the beholder’s eye tentacles out – WITH HIS TEETH! –

– big gems for eyes. But if you try and steal them, he animates and attacks you –

– on a plaque underneath it says “YOU’RE WELCOME, BLIZZARD!” –

– a small concealed hatch at the base with a dark hole behind it. Deep in the hole there should be a glued-down pile of coins and a guillotine trap –

– the grounds must be paved in either a square grid or in hexes –

– nearby we need a white gazebo.

One idea, most praised of them all, envisioned a simple statue of Gygax seated behind a Dungeon Master’s screen at an actual table, where gamers could sit and play beside the man himself.

Don’t get your hopes up, though. The memorial, whatever it is, seems destined to be – listen, now, to the shade of Gary sighing – tasteful.

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There are actually two different monument efforts, run by two separate, fractious groups of Gygax heirs. The Gygax Family Memorial was founded by the five children Gary had with his first wife, Mary Jo: Ernie, Elise, Heidi, Cindy and Luke. (You can remember their names and birth order if you know Gygax’s campaign world, Greyhawk, and the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu.) The Family Memorial runs GaryCon, a small nonprofit gaming convention held in Lake Geneva for the last two years. At GaryCon I in March 2009, the family displayed its proposed Gygax memorial concept – a sleeping dragon on a pedestal – by sculptor Keith Christensen.


The other group, the Gygax Memorial Fund, is run by Gary’s second wife, Gail. She has proposed a bronze bust atop a castle turret, to be placed on Lake Geneva’s Library Park lakefront, where Gygax had often spent hours reading and writing. (Gary and Gail’s son, Alex, is not involved with either group.)

Unfortunately, these groups get along about as well as the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. The Family Memorial has publicly disavowed any association with the Memorial Fund. (Stop rolling your eyes. What, you’ve never fought with your family?)

Fans have so far avoided taking sides. The Unofficial Gary Gygax Statue Facebook fan page, which garnered 2,500 followers in its first week, has attracted posts from both memorial groups. In February, Gail Gygax reported that the Lake Geneva town council was revising its Parks Policy approval process. “Once this is completed, I can apply for a site. I will have a better handle on timing, etc. I will ask for Library Park first, then Donnan Park by the White River. I will get a spot, of that I am sure.” Heidi Gygax, Gary’s middle daughter, wrote, “If this does not go through for any reason, his children will do whatever we can to get an alternative and fitting memorial in place for our father. We miss him terribly, yet are so proud of him and his works, and so touched by the outpouring of support from so many people!”

Currently, the Gygaxian progeny are deferring to their stepmother’s efforts to secure a site. If she succeeds, they plan to contribute GaryCon funds for the memorial. Bill Cousino, a former bartender and firefighter, is married to Elise Gygax-Cousino, who in 1972 helped playtest the very first D&D game ever. In a March 2010 interview with Derek “Geekpreacher” White at GaryCon II, Cousino spoke for the Gygax Family group:

“The memorial – that’s – it’s touchy, but […] the family would like to see a statue or a memorial for Gary Gygax here in Lake Geneva. And so the family is working on putting that there. There’s two different ideas, but we have all come to a consensus that we’re gonna have the – the Gygax Memorial Fund is going to be the one that is doing the monument. If in case that doesn’t transpire, Gygax Family Memorial is going to continue on the project that we started last year with the monument that my brother [Keith Christensen] created and that was introduced at GaryCon I.

“The city of Lake Geneva has agreed that yes, we can put a monument here in Lake Geneva. At no time has it been allowed to be in Library Park – from Day 1, that has never been an option. We were told that at the Parks committee, and also from the aldermen and the Taggart family […] who donated the property. So there will be a monument one day in Lake Geneva, just – we’re not sure how that’s gonna happen.”


One or another memorial proposal may yet make progress among the aldermen – at least if Cousino succeeds in his bid to occupy Lake Geneva’s District 1 seat.

Regardless of which group builds it, how much infighting delays it, or how grossly its stolid tastefulness contrasts with its impish subject, the Gygax monument will bring popular acclaim. For pilgrim gamers across the world, the statue will become a destination, and probably a shrine. With his death, Gygax once again shaped the roleplaying field by becoming its first and best-beloved nerd-saint.

Before 2008, some roleplaying designers judged Gygax’s career faintly disappointing. Though they respected him for his pioneering innovations, organizational skill in launching Gen Con and other institutions, and generous help to newcomers, some judged his work – particularly his post-D&D RPGs, all failures – as clunky, incoherent, overwritten and obsolete. As a businessman, Gygax was demonstrably inept; in his personal life, he handled his early success unwisely.

But with his death – with the obituaries on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal – with the outpouring of emotion from hundreds of thousands of people whose lives he had profoundly benefited – Gygax’s true magic grew wholly clear. Skepticism, suddenly feeble and petty, faded with the awareness that we shall not see his like again. When Wired senior editor Adam Rogers can write in the New York Times, “We live in Gary Gygax’s world” and “Today millions of people are slaves to Gary Gygax,” can you possibly quibble over, say, negative ascending Armor Class? Hey, hotshot, who’s gonna build a statue for you?

The parting of a creative field’s pioneer is, for the survivors, a rite of passage. Forging the new, relaying the torch – all the commencement-speech clichés look forward. But even in their passing, the early giants remain important – though they play, so to speak, a new role. The pioneers become symbols, touchstones – points of shared reference that define a culture’s history and unite its members. That symbolism becomes a lasting memorial. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

“I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else.” – Gary Gygax

Writer and game designer Allen Varney has written over 70 articles for The Escapist. “I met Gary only once,” he says, “though I got to interview him twice by email, and he kindly provided a blurb for one of my books. It was always a pleasure.”

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