If Students' Tails Are Dragon and Their Minds in the Dungeon Lately, Blame Gamesman Gary Gygax

updated 01/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1980 01:00AM

Ever wanted to catch a dragon by the tail? Leap wide moats to save a damsel in distress? Clank down at the Round Table for a tankard of mead with the knights? Fantasy freaks have their chance with the irresistible game called Dungeons & Dragons. Ever since D&D was dreamed up, stores have been waging a losing crusade to keep it in stock. It makes Monopoly seem crass, chess two-dimensional and the latest electronic brain-testers coldly mechanical. For D&D's 41-year-old inventor, an ex-shoe repairman named Gary Gygax, it's all been cushy Camelot.

The game's estimated half-million addicts include third-graders and Sun City dwellers, but where D&D is stopping everything else these days is on college campuses. At UCLA and Texas, players don medieval attire and arm themselves with lances and halberds made of rattan; at Cal Tech the game site may be the eerie steam tunnels beneath the campus. Last August when Michigan State student James Egbert vanished for several weeks, friends feared he was acting out a subterranean D&D vision. He was found several weeks later but has refused to say whether the game had anything to do with his disappearance.

Off campus, D&D is usually staged around a table. Players start with a 48-page rule book and polysided dice (the basic set costs a mere $10, but hundreds more can be blown on strategy manuals and paraphernalia). At least three people are needed, one of whom is known as the Dungeon Master. It is the godlike DM who conjures the dungeon map and controls the flow of the game. The other players roll the dice and, depending on their totals, are assigned varying ratings for intelligence, charisma, dexterity and so forth. Next comes role-playing. Adopting a mythic-sounding name (for instance, Garmuse or Elrohan), a player heavy with intelligence might choose to be a wizard. Dexterity is essential for a cutpurse. Since it's non-sexist, a woman can declare herself a knight.

This motley crowd then sets off on an imaginary odyssey through a hazardous terrain created by the DM. ("Most Dungeon Masters are frustrated authors and actors," says Charles Morehouse, a veteran DM who is a sophomore at U of Chicago.) Along the way, players encounter obstacles like harpies, monsters or even possibly the Gray Ooze.

The ultimate success of the trip depends on a player's assigned attributes, native intuition and the wildly arbitrary judgment of the DM. A character can be killed in a skirmish and be out of the game—or live to play on for days and even semesters. When all the characters are dead, the game is over, though in advanced permutations there is the possibility of resurrection.

The cerebral journey, which is mind-boggling to less committed game players, has its roots in Gygax's fanciful childhood. His father, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony, loved to read to his son from Jack and Jill magazine and Grimms' Fairy Tales. As an adolescent, Gary moved on to war games, military miniatures and sci-fi. Studying soon seemed humdrum, and he quit high school after two years (he resumed his education later and now has five semesters of college).

In 1958 Gygax married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Powell. Five children and eight years as an insurance underwriter later, he set up a shoe repair business in Lake Geneva, Wis. His soul wasn't in it, however, and in 1971 Gygax and a friend co-authored Chain Mail, a guide to miniatures and fantasy games. From there, it was a mere lucky dice throw to the invention of D&D in 1974.

Today Gygax manufactures his game (with the help of 50 employees) in a converted hotel bar and bowling alley in Lake Geneva. Sales doubled last year, and the business now grosses $2.5 million, which has enabled the Gygax family to move into a 14-room colonial on 23 acres. It's no castle, mind you. But Mary Gygax (who doesn't play D&D because it's "too boring") is satisfied. Says she with a sigh: "It's just like a fairy tale."

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