Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson, RIP

Today brings us the sad news that Dave Arneson has passed away of cancer. I had personally never heard of the man before now, but he was a co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which of course provided the foundation for the many fine RPGs that I've enjoyed in video game form. Indeed, a terrible loss for us all. At this moment, it reminds me of another man's story about a different recently departed D&D co-creator, which, at the risk of sounding tactless, I shall now relate.

It was the tale of two men. The subject was Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, who passed away just over a year ago. But the star was a co-worker of mine at the time. For confidentiality's sake, let us refer to him simply as "Johnson," which is not his real name.

Johnson was already an entrenched vet of the industry when I arrived on the scene. In his over ten years experience, he had been on, around, and all over stones of every imaginable shape, size, and color. Although he was a field grader, same as me, the only ones in the lab who had been around longer were all supervisors. As such, he enjoyed a certain level of security and comfort with his own eccentricities that might have damned a man of lesser stature. During lunch, he could usually be found in the break room with his friends, a small clique of rotund fortysomethings who were at least ten years his junior. Together, they would play Magic: The Gathering, meet for Star Wars book club, or pass around the latest chapter of his in-progress fantasy novel.

Now, this should not be news to anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention, but I am rather a geek myself, so I hardly have the right to judge others. Even so, Johnson and his crew took it to a level I didn't know existed. I mean, Star Wars book club?! No, I'm not kidding. I was always careful to steer clear of Johnson's pack, because, to be honest, I found their energy intimidating. During work hours, however, I had to sit practically back-to-back with this guy, and while my always-on headphones spared me any direct interaction with him, my iPod could not altogether drown him out as he cracked racy gay jokes--calculated reminders to the rest of us that he preferred the company of men. Johnson was the only person in the lab who could get away with such sexually charged jokes, but I, in turn, might have been the only one who could walk away without offering a courtesy laugh.

One day, a regular Magic: The Gathering sparring partner of his sidled up to his desk to excitedly share the tragic news that Gary Gygax had passed away. Due to my proximity and the messenger's loudness, I could not avoid listening in. (In fact, I had already overheard the guy telling a different friend several rows away.)

"I actually met him once at a convention," the fellow bragged. "He was actually a really cool, normal guy--really easy to talk to."

Johnson leaned back and heaved a heavy sigh. "Then you must have met him in his later years."

"Oh? You met him?"

Johnson nodded. "Unfortunately."

He then proceeded to describe with affected weariness his many tabletop run-ins with Dungeon Master Gygax, remembering the man, not by how he died, but as he lived--an arrogant self-deifying prick. Johnson detailed his history as a contemporary of the late Gygax--a fellow pioneer even, who had come from the same place and walked the same persecuted roads. Gygax, his ego apparently massive to begin with, ran games with an iron fist, and it was inevitable that these two role-playing giants would butt heads over polyhedral dice and illustrated rulebooks. But as Gygax rose to superstardom, his old pal/rival could no longer get in any face time even at conventions. So as far as Johnson was concerned, Gygax had been dead a long time.

By this time, I had already conceded defeat, but hearing this story was almost more than I could handle. There are men who play D&D, and to them, it's just a game. But Johnson witnessed its birth, lived the drama behind it, knew the man who made it--knew him well enough to hate his guts. Johnson, undisputed king of geeks.

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