(Source: arstechnica.com)

Almost 10 years ago, journalist David Kushner had a chance to interview Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two creators of Dungeons & Dragons, before they died. Kushner’s reporting became a story for Wired, and now he’s expanded the scope of his tale into a graphic novel. Rise of the Dungeon Master (Amazon UK / Amazon US), beautifully illustrated by Koren Shadmi, is both a moving portrait of two creative outsiders and a chronicle of how a new kind of storytelling changed pop culture forever.

Kushner recounts the story of Gygax and Arneson in the second person, addressing the reader as if Kushner were the dungeon master. “You” are young Gygax, the child of immigrants growing up in the midwest, seeking escape from ordinary life by exploring the wilderness, hunting, and eventually learning to break into an old, abandoned asylum. The narrative technique sounds gimmicky, but it works: you’re sucked into the story and into immediate sympathy with Gygax as he traces his fascination with adventure games back to his childhood, when he climbed around in the maze of tunnels below the creepy asylum’s rotting rooms.

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

  • Nation Books

Further Reading

The hottest new board games from Gen Con 2016Gygax wasn’t your typical nerd of the 1950s and ’60s. He was interested in outdoor adventures and military strategy, which eventually drew him to the obscure art of paper-and-pencil wargames, invented by H.G. Wells in the 19th century. And he was a major social node, always making plans and pulling more friends into his games. Before he created D&D, Gygax founded legendary gamer convention Gen Con, which is still going strong today. It makes sense that this is the guy who started a cultural movement that eventually inspired the first video games and rejuvenated the fantasy genre for a new generation.

At the same time, Kushner is careful to show us Gygax’s flaws. Obsessive and detail-oriented, Gygax was the perfect guy to create rulebooks, but he was also a control freak who tried to run everything, even when he was far outside his area of expertise. This flaw ran through his life like a faultline, wrecking friendships and ruining his business deals.

Some of the most interesting parts of the graphic novel come when Kushner introduces Dave Arneson, the man whose long legal battle with Gygax finally resulted in getting co-credit as the inventor of D&D. The two men met at the second annual Gen Con, which was basically Arneson’s dream event. Like Gygax, he was fascinated by military history and spent all his time converting his buddies to the sport you can only play with paper, pencils, and dice.

Arneson seized upon Gygax’s proto-D&D fantasy game Chainmail with incredible enthusiasm and modded it with his friends back home. These mods eventually became many of the defining features of D&D: he set games in self-contained dungeons and set himself up as the “dungeon master,” fleshing out a previously minor “referee” role. Most important, Arneson and his pals hit on the idea that the game shouldn’t end when the dungeon has been explored. They created character sheets, with traits and alignment, that allowed players to level up and play another dungeon.

When Arneson showed Gygax his work, D&D was finally born. Gygax codified the rules and invented the iconic 20-sided dice. But while Gygax concentrated on growing a small company to sell D&D modules, Arneson drifted away. Both men loved to play, but Arneson just wasn’t interested in the business side of things. In Rise of the Dungeon Master, we follow the two men through their lives, as Gygax deals with success and Arneson settles into a comfortable life as a teacher.

Gygax encounters a string of problems, mostly due to mismanagement. But through it all, he continues to hunger for good games and attract good friends. Kushner captures what made Gygax and Arneson such pioneers: they weren’t content to tell stories on their own; they wanted to collaborate and build something new with each game. Understanding the beginnings of gaming culture makes it clear that role-playing games weren’t invented by and for loners. Gaming was conceived as a profoundly social activity, shaped by the idea that every story has many authors.

With his gentle, nostalgic introduction to the people who made games as we know them, Kushner reminds us that storytelling itself has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past half-century. The gaming system that Gygax and Arneson invented after one memorable Gen Con has come to define this era’s most popular form of entertainment. Now it’s impossible to imagine the world without it.

Listing image by Nation Books

More Info: arstechnica.com

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