When I think about the influences in my life that have made me who I am today, I easily point to my family, a few very close friends, later on my wife, and most recently my children. But the one I never really talk about is Gary Gygax. I never met the man, but his creation - Dungeons and Dragons - may have had the most profound impact on my life. That game provided me with a outlet for my creativity, expanded my vocabulary and my math knowledge, gave me skills to be a leader later in life, and actually helped determine my moral compass. That's a helluva lot for a game that nerdy kids play instead of running around outside in the sunshine.
When you play D&D, you make up stories collaboratively with a group of people. All the writing I've ever done and all the acting I've ever done... it can all be traced back to sitting around a table covered with books and little lead figurines while rolling funny shaped dice and scribbling notes about hit points and armor classes. I was often the dungeon master, which meant I had to create whole fantastic worlds and a complex narrative that the other players would follow. Also, when you're the Dungeon Master, you play all the other individuals in the game - from the bloodthirsty orcs to the crazy shopkeeper to the old gruff barkeep. Talk about preparation for a theatre career!
As a nine year old, I learned words like alignment (we pronounced it as "alige-ment" in those early days), chaotic, constitution, dexterity, charisma. I had to do complex math in order to determine whether someone was hit by a sword or just took a glancing blow off their chainmail. We had to figure out how to read charts, graphs, maps. I learned so much from that game.
I got to pretend to be a leader in the game which taught me how to be a leader in real life. That has certainly served me well in the years since.
And finally, I know a lot of people played D&D just for the chance to pretend to kill monsters. But it was so much more than that for my friends and me. We became these characters. Whether it was the noble knight who would sacrifice himself for his comrades or the sneaky thief who was only out for himself, we got to try on these roles and experience what it was like to make those choices. It was an easy choice for me - give me the hero any day. And later on, as my college friends know all too well, it was give me the flawed hero who more realistically reflected who we truly are.
D&D in many ways made me who I am today. Yesterday, the man who created D&D, Gary Gygax died. And I was hit with a wave of sadness for a man I'd never met. I wish now I had traveled to his house and knocked on his door like so many fans have over the years. Word has it, he'd invite you in to play a game or two. 'Cause that's the kind of guy he was.