I’m an old gamer…but I’m no grognard.
“Grognard” is a French word meaning “old soldier,” and the term was once used to describe gamers who remembered the pre-Dungeons & Dragons days. Me? No, not me. I got roped into gaming through D&D, so I can claim no prior first-hand knowledge. However, I do have a connection to the old grognards that sounds almost gangster…my godfather.
I started gaming in 1980, and Dungeons and Dragons was my “gateway drug.” My family had just moved to a new town (Kettering, Ohio,) and D&D was at the height of its faddish popularity. Basically, I learned the game as a way to make new friends.Thus, at age thirteen, I rolled up my first character and have been gaming ever since. Much later, at age twenty-three, I was attending an Episcopal church just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Having not been baptized as a child, I decided to do so as an adult and one of the members of the vestry stepped forward to be my godfather. That vestry member was Tim Kask, grognard extraordinaire and the first full-time employee of Gary Gygax’s TSR Games.
Tim Kask was a great guy in a lot of ways, and we discussed his history with TSR a few times. He’d just returned from Vietnam when he was offered a job at a little gaming start-up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He was there when the company started to soar and even saw it through its first brush with negative publicity (Media claims of connections between D&D and devil worship). However, once the company got big and the infighting began, Tim said, “adios” and went on to other things.
I haven’t seen Tim for years, but, in a way, I ran into him recently…between the pages of Michael Witwer’s book Empire of Imagination. Witwer’s book is a biography of Gary Gygax with emphasis on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and TSR Games, and, to be frank, it’s a fascinating read.
The creative process takes many forms: music, painting, writing, and yes…game design. Credit where it’s due, Gary Gygax had a genius idea and worked hard to make it a reality. Today, concepts like “leveling up” and “experience points” are part of every computer game, but these are mere imitations of the unique system originally designed by Gygax.
Think about it, the world had never seen a game like D&D before; a non-competitive, game with storytelling, combat, and customizable character generation. Witwer’s book describes how Gygax tried to sell his idea to Avalon Hill and other gaming companies but found no market there. His idea was just too weird to the old grognards. It was as a last resort that Gygax formed his own gaming company, and TSR was born.
As Witwer’s book describes, Gygax was much more of an artistic creator than a businessman. By the time my godfather was hired, TSR’s office was a mess that required herculean labor to clean up. I am well pleased that Witwer gives much praise for the good work Tim Kask did to get the company off to a good start. However, this also illustrates a problem that is all too common for creative people.
The kind of creativity that can change the world must exist within the world. Artists, writers, and other dreamers are often ill-suited to bring their visions to public’s attention…let alone make enough money to live off their ideas. They can call themselves extremely lucky to encounter a Tim Kask, who can get things organized for them. But Tim Kasks are not that common in the world. Thus, we have the cliche of the “starving artist,” whose creations languish and are eventually abandoned for lack of an audience. The artist then gives up and finds a “real job” and our world is all the poorer as a result.
Gary Gygax was lucky in that his dream found a businessman and then an audience. Within the pages of Empire of Imagination, his successes and failures can serve as a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for the rest of us and can light our way as we travel the cavernous dungeons of commerce waving our little banners of creativity.
Personally, I owe a lot to Gary Gygax and Tim Kask for the gifts they shared with a much younger Clayton Callahan (directly and indirectly). I also owe a” thank you” to Michael Witwer for doing all the research that went into his excellent book, Empire of Imagination.