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

andargor

Rule Lawyer Groupie
Welcome!

Although I've been playing since 1977, I've never had the honor of meeting Gary. Of course, I was 10 at the time... But I did get the chance to exchange with him here before his passing, at least.
 

SuddenImpact

Villager
Thank you Jim for sharing this story. I have a list of about 14,200 articles I want to read stored in OneNote and when I saw this article today, it moved to the top of the list!
And I loved every minute I spent reading it!
 

jortaggio

Villager
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. :)
I spent my first few months as a new and self-taught DM/player turning the d4 over to see which number was NOT on the bottom. Eventually, I encountered another player who explained to me that it was easier to read the number appearing on the bottom edges. Luckily, we didn't need the d4 all that often...
 

Zander

Villager
What a great piece! Thank you, Mr Ward, both for this and all you have done for the world of RPGaming. You're a luminary!

I am very much looking forwards to your inside line on Deities & Demigods. I bought the re-titled Legends & Lore in 1985, but a few years later in the '90s, I bought two second-hand copies of the DDG with the Cthulhu and Melnibonéan mythoi. Luckily for me, my mother was a craft bookbinder (now retired) and was able to restore them to almost perfect condition. They remain among my most treasured RPG collectables.
 
Absolutely priceless story! You know, I'd gladly pay to read such articles. I'd prefer a printed book of them, but even on Patreon by-the-story would work for me. Unless you have an aversion to money. These are the kind of tales only you can tell, sir. I crave to hear first hand accounts of the early days of the best game ever. Thank you for everything you have done to make the game what it is.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Absolutely priceless story! You know, I'd gladly pay to read such articles. I'd prefer a printed book of them, but even on Patreon by-the-story would work for me. Unless you have an aversion to money. These are the kind of tales only you can tell, sir. I crave to hear first hand accounts of the early days of the best game ever. Thank you for everything you have done to make the game what it is.
He’s being paid for them, don’t worry! :)

If you want to contribute though, please be sure to support the EN World Patreon! That’s how we pay folks like James Ward! I’d love to pay more awesome industry legends for columns like this.

https://www.patreon.com/enworld
 

vtaltos

Explorer
This had me wondering if there exists any video or audio of Gary DMing a D&D game. I think that would be fascinating.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
This had me wondering if there exists any video or audio of Gary DMing a D&D game. I think that would be fascinating.
I'm hoping that the forthcoming documentary, The Dreams from Gary's Basement contain footage of Gary running games, but I have no idea if it will.

What I have found is:

Gary running a game of White Box D&D: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ5SoBJ8EWY

But that's only 36 seconds with lots of background noise. Also filmed later in life. Would be interesting to find footage from the earliest days.

There is also a D&D Online game that Gary Narrates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jL04oSktUxA
 
Done! Great suggestion. Brings my total to 2 automatic and 1 by-the-piece. Tiny level, to be sure, but every drop helps fill the cup.
 

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