The Enduring Adventure of Dungeons & Dragons

By Jim McClure

The fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is famous to millions of people around the world, having spawned everything from a hugely successful series of novels to a 1980s cartoon series to two full-length movies. Today, as more and more people discover the joy of playing D&D, it has claimed a nearly unrivaled spot in the modern pop-culture pantheon.

Yet many people are still surprised to learn that the game’s origins lie right here in Lake Geneva, where late resident Gary Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson first published a revolutionary new game in 1974 that allowed players to create their own complex storylines — a world full of wizards and heroes, soldiers and sorcerers, kings and castles. And dungeons. And dragons.

THE ORIGINAL DUNGEON MASTERS

Gygax was a self-described nerd, who developed his game after spending hundreds of hours playing (and later writing) tabletop war strategy games. Gygax and Arneson’s creative breakthrough in inventing Dungeons & Dragons was to allow players to select a character at the start of each game (called a “campaign” in the game’s lingo), and then play the game as that character: the first-ever role-playing game.

By inventing this new type of game, Gygax bridged a gap in the market: the pencil-and-paper mapping and tabletop gaming common in the war games he loved, and more traditional dice-throwing board games of chance. But the added

element of character role play is what really distinguished D&D from other forms of gaming, and started a cultural revolution. “Role-playing games have been a significant part of popular culture since the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons,” explains educator and entertainer Dr. Steven Brown, an avid D&D player.

Gygax published the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in January of 1974 using capital from a handful of local investors, and it quickly became a hit in the niche world of gaming, where it benefited from placement in specialty game shops and an active word-of- mouth network. As the popularity of D&D spread, it turned out that Gygax’s innovation had universal appeal beyond the niche gaming community. By 1981, it was a certified pop culture phenomenon, with more than 30 million players worldwide.

Today that number is more than 50 million players worldwide. This surge in playership reflects trends in gaming generally. “Role-playing is a hugely popular pastime [today], and features various subgenres, such as live-action role-playing; massive, multiplayer, online role-playing; text-based online gaming forums; videogames; and tabletop board game role-playing [like D&D],” Brown says.

Last spring, Smithsonian Magazine declared that Dungeons & Dragons “may be in a new golden age,” just as a new movie hit theaters — Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, starring Hollywood powerhouse Chris Pine. Netflix’s smash hit series, Stranger Things, is set in a small town in Indiana in the 1980s, and follows the treacherous journey of four young D&D players as their real life begins to share increasing similarities to their game life. And the game has been mentioned in countless other TV shows, including South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community, The Big Bang Theory, The Goldbergs and Futurama, where an animated Gygax even appeared as a character on one episode.

ADVENTURING PARTIES

Further evidence of the enduring popularity of Dungeons & Dragons can be seen at Gen Con, the massive Dungeons & Dragons-themed gaming convention held in Indianapolis each spring. Today, it is the largest gaming convention in North America, but Gygax actually started the event in 1967 before he even published D&D, holding the first-ever “Geneva Convention” (a play on words related to the war games he played) in his basement before moving it to Lake Geneva’s Horticultural Hall for many years. The annual event has since exploded in popularity — last year, more than 70,000 people attended Gen Con 2023 at the Indiana Convention Center, setting an attendance record.

Closer to home, gamers honor Gygax’s memory at Gary Con, another Dungeons & Dragons-themed convention held at Lake Geneva’s Grand Geneva Resort & Spa each spring. The event focuses on the game’s history, its early development and its founder, Gygax, catering the lineup of activities for those players who consider themselves particularly devoted fans.

Gygax was a living legend in his lifetime, but an accessible one. “Gary stories” are part of the lore of the
subculture, and part of the fun of Gary Con. “Any gamer from that [early] era knows that D&D originated in Lake Geneva,” explains Annemarie Schmid, member of the Brown Ullstrup Foundation theater troupe and an
early D&D player. “The pinnacle of nerd-dom was to game with the master himself — Gary Gygax. And I can say that I have.”

“I’m a Dungeons & Dragons nerd and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” she confesses. “My husband, Mike, is also a D&D nerd, but he lords it over me that he learned first-edition rules, while I was obviously a neophyte having started with second edition.”

Gary Con, now in its 16th year, even attracts celebrities who love the game: actors Vince Vaughn and Joe Manganiello and musician Tom Morello have attended in the past, not as panelists but as fans of the game and general attendees.

HONORING A BIRTHRIGHT

As the massively popular game celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, fans and locals alike agree that there’s room for improvement in connecting the history of Dungeons & Dragons with the history of the town where it was invented. Enter: The Gygax Memorial Fund. This nonprofit organization, founded more than 15 years ago by Gygax’s widow, Gail, has been working in recent months to commemorate and acknowledge the importance of Gygax and the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons to the local community.

To this end, the organization successfully petitioned the Lake Geneva City Council to declare July 27, 2023 as “Gary Gygax Day” in honor of Gygax’s birthday. Other achievements followed. So far, the group has: placed an “Adventurer’s Map” statue at 330 Center St. (Gygax’s former home, where he was living when the game was invented); placed a “Gen Con Founder’s Stone” at the entrance to Horticultural Hall; dedicated the Gary Gygax Appendix N Alcove at the Lake Geneva Public Library; and dedicated a park bench in Lake Geneva’s Library Park to Gygax’s memory. At the Geneva Lake Museum, a new permanent exhibit entitled “The Wizard of Lake Geneva” chronicles the game’s invention here. And fundraising for a statue of Gygax seated at a game table at the west end of Library Park is currently under way.

In addition to this, the Dungeon Hobby Shop Museum opened in 2021 in the same space that originally housed the first headquarters of TSR, Inc., the company that Gygax founded to produce and distribute Dungeons & Dragons in 1976. The museum, curated by former TSR employee Jeff Leason, features artifacts from the company’s early days, including an original wood- box version of the game from the initial run of 1,000 that Gygax produced in 1974 (another of which is on display at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture). The Dungeon Hobby Shop Museum also hosts regular game nights.

This fall, the Gygax Memorial Fund will honor the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons at a festival called “Dragon Days” in Lake Geneva from Sept. 27-29. Plans for the citywide festival include a fantasy Renaissance faire, a costume contest, a hay bale dungeon maze, face painting, circus performers, Medieval music, demonstrations of Medieval craftsmanship, fantasy book signings and walking tours of Lake Geneva’s historic D&D sites, among other activities.

TAVERN SIDE QUEST

In November of 2019, local entrepreneur Daniel Cowell made headlines when he revealed the early concepts for an ambitious, Dungeons & Dragons-themed entertainment venue he called The Griffin & Gargoyle. This future restaurant and entertainment experience would include a 350-seat immersive restaurant and a retail space in Lake Geneva.

“Inspiration for the project came out of my friendship with Harold Johnson, owner of the [now- shuttered] Breadloaf Bookstore [in Lake Geneva],” Cowell explains.

“Harold was the editor on the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, and through my friendship with him, I came to know the amazing community of [D&D employee] alumni who so instrumentally helped to shape the face of gaming.”

Out of that vision, Cowell’s idea for The Griffin & Gargoyle was born. So far, Cowell has acquired rights to 26 acres of commercial property near the Emagine Theater Complex, but is still seeking funding to make the dream a reality.

Cowell believes firmly that Dungeons & Dragons persists in popularity because role-play gaming fulfills a basic human need. “It allows us to explore facets of our personalities that may be outside the norm of our day-to-day lives,” he explains. “I’ve seen the shy become outspoken and brave, I’ve seen the brash become quiet and wise, I’ve seen the magic transformation of someone exploring their identity outside of the gender norms … it’s an amazing gift, and it is my fervent desire to create an institution that can serve as a gateway to introduce the magic of collaborative storytelling to the community at large.”

PRESTIGE CLASS

And what of the exciting future including and beyond this summer’s 50th anniversary revelry? According to Cowell, “There are so many amazing stakeholders working to help define Lake Geneva as the go-to destination for fantasy enthusiasts.”

Today, more than 50 years after it was born in Lake Geneva, Dungeons & Dragons remains as relevant as ever, and the game’s devoted fans include many celebrities. Stars with household names who have publicly declared allegiance to Dungeons & Dragons include CNN’s Anderson Cooper, comedy host Stephen Colbert, actor Vin Diesel, director John Favreau and a host of others.

Hollywood film actor Tony Mockus, Jr. (Backdraft, Major League) has local ties and first started enjoying the role-playing game in high school. “It’s a world that you create and make your own…” he explains, likening the role- playing in Dungeons & Dragons to an actor playing a part. “An actor starts with envisioning the backstory for his or her role based on the script, not unlike one follows the [D&D] rules as to how the actor and action play out. And against that rich tapestry comes the fun in acting out a role … on stage, screen or in a game.”

Brown agrees that the ongoing appeal of Dungeons & Dragons is rooted in the way the game captures players’ imaginations. “In today’s fast-paced world of AI, the game world itself changes so dramatically and quickly from game to game… With [D&D], players can immerse themselves in any imaginary environment of their choice.”

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