Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"But that's against the rules, Gary."
"Then the rules need to be changed."
Ah, the heady days of youth, heading down to the local Games Workshop to pick up a selection of psychedelically coloured, improbably shaped dice. If you're of a certain age, you'll probably remember the fevered excitement when books like the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual actually came out. If you weren't too busy playing Manic Miner, that is...
Still, at the time, before the Marvel and DC encyclopaedias came along, that monster mash of a tome, plus the core AD&D rulebooks themselves, the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide, made for the ultimate rainy-day read, and, if you and your mates could agree who would put the not-inconsiderable effort in to be the Dungeon Master, actually do some role-playing.
I was more of a Golden Heroes fan myself, an RPG that perhaps not unsurprisingly allowed you to be superheroes. Or indeed villains if the fancy took you. But, like many, I did also succumb to the lure of the twenty-sided icosahedron and spent some time dungeoneering. Mainly at school where I couldn't play computer games, it has to be said, but still, I was well aware of the name Gary Gygax, and appreciated his efforts in endeavouring to stimulate my teenage imagination almost as much as Sir Clive Sinclair...
Gygax's childhood and own formative years certainly make for a fascinating read. He loved listening to his father's made-up fantasy stories and his mother reading the likes of Tom Sawyer to him. As a schoolboy he much preferred venturing into the labyrinth of tunnels underneath an old nearby sanatorium and exploring the abandoned insane asylum near a spooky lake than actually attending lessons, including a few narrow escapes dodging oddball locals who used to hang out there for presumably more nefarious reasons. Consequently, no one was entirely surprised when he dropped out of high school. A series of dead-end jobs followed, before a chance discovery of war gaming completely turned his life around.
There are some fascinating nuggets in this work which I was unaware of, such as the origin of modern war gaming is attributed to one Herbert George Wells. Good old H.G. actually published a non-fiction book entitled Little Wars, which described how he and his friend commandeered his son's toy soldiers and created a game of their own, taking turns to tactically move their troops on imaginary battlefields. Wells then drew up a set of detailed rules so his readers could play such games for themselves. Shortly after he moved to Chicago aged 18, Gygax chanced upon a copy of Wells' book, and thus his life's obsession began.
It wasn't, however, until over a decade of ever more elaborate war gaming, with an ever-increasing circle of friends and acquaintances, including postally, that the inspiration for D&D struck, courtesy of a particular medieval war game and a life-long love of the likes of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian books.
Trying out his new mash-up game, which he'd titled Chainmail, amongst his hardcore war gaming friends, the magical, fantastical elements were met with staunch resistance, even disgust. It wasn't until Gygax met a young man called Dave Arneson another year later that things really took off.
Arneson then went away and added many of the true cornerstone concepts of D&D, such as the dungeons themselves, neatly constraining the environment for what is a virtually limitless, free-form improvisational game, plus the idea that the game never really ends, with players instead gaining experience, before undertaking the next challenge, and the next, and so on.
Gygax instantly saw the commercial potential of this variant version of Chainmail and immediately set about codifying his own large set of rules to cover as many eventualities as possible. Setting up a company called TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) to manufacture and distribute the game after little success touting it to the established game manufacturing companies, it promptly overran the imagination of the public and the subsequent sales went stratospheric. Arnseson, meanwhile, so instrumental in the creation of the game, was never asked to join the fledging company...
Gygax, frankly, during the rise and rise of TSR, comes across much like the master huckster himself, Stan Lee, with his obsession for minutiae, micro management of absolutely everything, plus a total inability to give Dave Arneson the credit, or cash, he so clearly deserved. Eventually, begrudgingly, when lawyers got involved, Gygax did the 'decent' thing, with Arneson getting the long overdue well earned credit as co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and a valuable 10% of royalties on sales.
Arneson, who like Gygax, features heavily as a talking head in this work, seemed pretty sanguine about it all, in retrospect at least. Though at the time, crafty moves like Gygax retitling Dungeons & Dragons as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, purely to claim Arneson was no longer entitled to his 10% royalty cheques, probably tested his temper, and sanity.
We then get the inevitable fall of the TSR empire, Gygax's own tempestuous departure and his subsequent various endeavours, some more successful than others. Still, it's an impressive legacy Gygax left, one which modern gaming, both online as well as offline, has heavily built on.
Still, despite enjoying it, I found this work a little bit perfunctory and dry in the narration, and I don't think the grey-tone, art style helps in that respect, either. There's pure Gygax gold I expected to be in there which sadly isn't, such as his apparently successful personal wooing of no less a talent than Orson Welles to star in a planned D&D movie (can you imagine?!) which was shelved as the scale of the financial troubles at TSR became all too apparent.
Compared to Box Brown's TETRIS, which is an utterly forensic, meticulously designed and brilliantly illustrated in-depth examination of that blockbuster classic plus the crazy characters and total chaos behind it, this feels, well, a touch by the numbers. Dare I say it, even lacking in imagination, which for a book based on the game that touted the very use of said quality and all about the man whom single-handedly (according to him heh heh) revolutionised gaming, is a bit disappointing.