James M Ward: Meeting Gary Gygax and Learning D&D

Thank you all for the very kind welcome onto the EN World pages. A writer always glories in the kind words of his readers. Also I want you to know I will be very responsive to the interests of the EN World group. From the notes already left for me [in the first article, Who In The World is James M, Ward?] I can see you want to hear about the design of Deities & Demigods and Gamma World. I promise that will happen in the months to come.



ward_gygax.jpg

Jim Ward (right) gaming with Gary Gygax (left) on Gary's front porch. Image from Goodman Games.

The time is July of 1974 and I am fresh out of college with a teaching degree in History and English. Every Tuesday I would go to the Lake Geneva Smoke Shop because they would get in new novels. In those days they charged $.95 so even on a substitute teacher's salary I could afford a few.

On that Tuesday the store had quite a few new books from different series I liked to read. There was an L. Sprague DeCamp Conan novel; a Michael Moorcock Elric book; I think there was a Robert Heinlein in the batch. Anyway, as I picked up the seventh novel, a rough looking dude was grabbing books as well. As I selected the last book of the seven he took a copy of the same book.

We looked at each other and smiled. He had sort of a biker air about him. He was wearing an old pair of jeans and a ratty blue-jean jacket. As we looked at each other's stack of books we realized we had picked the exact same novels. We got quite a laugh out of that.

Then we got into a discussion on the merits of Robert E. Howard or L. Sprague DeCamp's version of Conan. During that discussion he hit me with the fact that he had a game where I could play Conan fighting against the priests of Set. Gary had set the hook and I was being pulled in like a ten pound trout. He gave me his phone number and told me the game was every Saturday.

I came to Gary's house and was introduced to the family. They were extremely friendly. I'm embarrassed to say that I thought Mary, Gary's wife, was his daughter she looked so young and fresh. On his side porch were a few young folks including Ernie, his son in eighth grade. Brian Blume was his business partner who had given him the $5,000.00 dollars to make the first 1,000 brown box sets. Brian offered to sell me a box for $10.00 but I didn't have any cash on me at the time. It wasn't until a few months later that I could scrape together the ten to own my set.

All of the other player's on the porch were third and fourth level as they had been playing for months. Brian helped me roll up a character. With a 17 in intelligence and a 16 in wisdom I was told the natural choice was to be a wizard, which was fine by me.

I'm ashamed, 45 years later, to admit that it took me literally months to figure out the dice and when to roll them. In those days you rolled a six-sider and on a four, five, or six you added ten points to a twenty sided die with two sets of 1-10 for numbers. I kept reading the wrong side of the four-sider. I was never sure when to roll the eight or twelve-sided dice. I was a dice rolling mess. However, Gary and his group were always very supportive. Eventually I figured things out.

I am a person who lives by the written word, but there are no words for the amazing skill of Gary Gygax as he wove the story for the group that day, or any other game day. He brought all five senses into his story telling and I had no problem imagining myself walking from Greyhawk city into Greyhawk dungeon with the rest of the crew.

That first game I had the choice between a light spell or a sleep spell and I took the light spell. I brought my equipment from the merchant's quarter of Greyhawk city. I bought lots of throwing daggers and several quarts of lamp oil. I was thinking flaming bottles of oil, even in that stage of my development. The adventure was magical.

Into the dungeon we boldly walked. The others were old hands and had hand drawn maps of several levels. Mapping looked like a lot of fun. Brian Blume taught me how to trail map so I was recording our turnings as Gary called out the distances. We went into a new section of the dungeon and suddenly everyone in the group was tense and I had no idea why.

“You come upon three doors and each one is a bit strange,” Gary described. “The left one has the picture of an island in the middle of the door (it was the Isle of the Ape in playtest). The middle door has the picture of a walrus on a beach. The right one has a picture of an odd looking humanoid with a strange cap and in its hand is a strange crossbow pistol.”

I wasn't about to say anything. The group chose the door with the island image. We walked through and found ourselves at night with an ocean breeze coming from the west. We moved by moon light and decided not to mark our presence with a torch or lantern. Gary perfectly described the hilly area. We came to a village with no one moving about. I couldn't see anything in the window of the large hut I was looking at so I cast my light spell into the hut. BIG MISTAKE! It seems I woke up ten warrior natives. The magic spooked them and they grabbed their spears and ran for the door.

My group made nasty grunts about the new guy and throwing spells, and we ran into the night for our lives. In seconds spears were hurtling past us. Before I could even think about ducking or diving, Gary informed me that two spears pierced by back and killed me. My D&D career was cut brutally short. Others were cut down in the night and each of the other players looked daggers at me as their characters were killed.

I went home extremely happy, even in death. I couldn't wait to get back the next Saturday and roll up a new character. When I got over there next week I was over joyed to hear that Ernie had used the last wish on a three wish ring to bring the dead of our group back alive and safe and sound. Lidabmob, the Wizard, was back in business.

by
James M. Ward
 
Jim Ward

Comments

dave2008

Hero
Thank you for sharing! I look forward to reading more of your stories and insight in the foundation on the game.
 

dnd4vr

Adventurer
I kept reading the wrong side of the four-sider. I was never sure when to roll the eight or twelve-sided dice. I was a dice rolling mess. However, Gary and his group were always very supportive. Eventually I figured things out.
Yes, thanks very much for sharing! I once wrote to Gary when I was maybe 10 or 11. He was kind enough to write back a short letter. I wish I still had the thing but it was long to a messy boy's bedroom monster and the quest to recover it failed completely. :( Perhaps someday it will appear in a box of lost attic or basement treasures... One can only hope.

It is funny you mention the d4. The instructions said to read the number on the bottom of the die, so I kept turning it over and looking at the bottom. The problem, of course, was there was always 3 numbers on the bottom side! How confusing to a kid!! We thought maybe you were supposed to add them together or something? So, our magic-users always had great hit points (6-9 per level!) and did awesome damage with the dagger. LOL!

Eventually, I figured it out that the bottom number on each side showing was the same... I felt silly, but just loved the game more for it. :)
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
All of the other player's on the porch were third and fourth level as they had been playing for months.
Ahh....that's something I miss from the old days.

Brian helped me roll up a character. With a 17 in intelligence and a 16 in wisdom I was told the natural choice was to be a wizard, which was fine by me.
Ok, I miss that part of it less, but it still makes me smile.

Before I could even think about ducking or diving, Gary informed me that two spears pierced by back and killed me. My D&D career was cut brutally short. Others were cut down in the night and each of the other players looked daggers at me as their characters were killed.
Ha! Oh, the memories....
 

Toriel

Explorer
Very fun and cool story. Feels like we're sitting together beside a fireplace in cozy armchairs. Looking forward to the next installment. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
It is funny you mention the d4. The instructions said to read the number on the bottom of the die, so I kept turning it over and looking at the bottom.
Yeah, I recall that problem too. The infamous D4.... The dice that were in the old Red Box (Erol Otus cover, thankyouvermuch) were really crazy super cheap plastic, too. Those would wear down to nubs. At some point I lost all my dice and had to replace them so those are long gone.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
“The left one has the picture of an island in the middle of the door (it was the Isle of the Ape in playtest). The middle door has the picture of a walrus on a beach. The right one has a picture of an odd looking humanoid with a strange cap and in its hand is a strange crossbow pistol.”

Hmmm... the three doors...

* Isle of the Ape
* Dungeonland?
* Barrier Peaks???
 

ParanoydStyle

Peace Among Worlds
Mr. Ward (Drawmiji), thank you for sharing your memories with us. I just want to express my profound gratitude for your contributions to Expedition To The Barrier Peaks (which most likely inspired a generation of genre-bending) and for Metamorphosis Alpha in particular. While Gamma World is the more talked about game usually, as someone who has primarily played (and designed, and published) science fiction rather than fantasy RPGs, M.A. holds a very special place in my heart as what I recognize (wearing my amateur game historian hat) as the first real, fully fledged, science-fiction TTRPG ever created. Also, congratulations on getting your party killed.
 

guachi

Villager
If you aren't confused and terrified on your first time playing D&D, something went wrong.

As we can see here, everything went right for your first time playing.
 

Toriel

Explorer
Yeah, I recall that problem too. The infamous D4.... The dice that were in the old Red Box (Erol Otus cover, thankyouvermuch) were really crazy super cheap plastic, too. Those would wear down to nubs. At some point I lost all my dice and had to replace them so those are long gone.
I still have the dice from both the basic and expert set boxes. The D20 from the basic set is almost completely spherical; it rolls for a very long time before settling on a number.
 

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