When Someone Great is Gone

After last night’s Dwimmermount session at the Brooklyn Strategist, we were doing a post-mortem about how it had been awesome when we were using miniatures on the section of the dungeon that I’d fully laid out with Master Maze, but as soon as we ran out of pieces to build new areas explored in play we started getting confused about who was doing what where. The solution is straightforward – Stefan will come back from Prague and we’ll borrow more of his personal collection; also he is a skilled enough builder to take apart one part of the layout and use it to create a new area at the speed of exploration, so either he’ll be there to help out or someone else will contribute (or learn) that skill. But being of a theoretical bent, we kept chewing over why the problem arose at all.

I usually run without minis and have no problem creating a mental picture of the scene. Why then did the transition from an area we could see with minis to one where we’d use our imagination throw us off? A B-Strat regular who was having a smoke nearby said that this is why, as a book jacket designer, he hates being told to put a face on the cover. “Faces are specific,” he said. “As soon as you see one, you lose the ability to visualize the character any other way.”

So maybe why we don’t post music videos more often is that as roleplayers the words make pictures in our heads that the visuals contradict. Like, I love the image of the absent silhouette but I never envisioned this song as being about a lover. It makes sense; actual dialogue as my son and I are riding in the car en route to the So Cal Mini Con during the summer I was obsessed with “California Gurls:”

KATY: sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle

SON: What does that mean?

DAD: Well, you know how you have to eat your popsicle fast in the summer because the hot sun melts it?

SON: I think it’s private parts.

DAD: OK, you got me. All pop songs are about private parts.

But I always thought “Something Great” is about the death of a mentor, and the reason I’m thinking about it now is that its personal meaning for me is tied up with Gary Gygax. Maybe it’s the timing of when the song came out and Gary’s passing four years ago today. Maybe it’s lines like this:

I miss the way we used to argue,
Locked, in your basement.

In that I hear my nostalgia-for-things-I-never-knew for the days when arguing about wargames over a sand table was an imaginary haven from the real war in another country. In my mind that time seems to have a purity and innocence that ended after D&D’s success cracked this world open. The war outside was over, to be replaced by dirty civil wars within TSR that were soon to be mirrored by the culture wars in which D&D was the devil. That’s the era I remember, in which the AD&D books seemed already artifacts of a magical time long past.

The video does this well as the shadow moves through the aisles between crates of records and adventure modules. Pulling out any one of them would teach me about how it felt to be alive in a time of magic, and that time had to be now because I was holding some of it in my hand. But I had the sense that the wizards who could teach me how to perform that magic on command were gone, even when I was young and this wasn’t really true.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the formation of TSR. I feel I’m old enough and have shared enough of the same experiences that I can put myself into the shoes of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Don Kaye: as an idealist and a hobbyist and a gamer, as a publisher alternately elated or terrified by success, as a father and as someone who would have invested my life insurance into my friends’ dreams if Kickstarter didn’t avert that particular tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, just saying that having played in a sandbox filled with toddlers I have a little more insight when I roleplay a giant.

So maybe that’s why I hear “Someone Great” as being about the drafts going back and forth that aren’t yet D&D, the pressure to publish because Gary has kids to feed and the tension over whether Dave has creative control and can take his what must seem to Gary like a young man’s idea that there is all the time in the world to get it right :

There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming, 
Till the day it stops

You have to know that I idolized my friends’ big brothers, and that the two things they introduced me to were D&D and the Beatles, to understand why I take what’s basically a lost-love song, “Paint it Black” with less masochism or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with less mist in your eyes, as being about TSR’s lost opportunities. For me D&D books and Beatles records were secrets of the world before I was born, beams of dazzling dusty radiance the older kids sometimes let slip between their fingers but I could soak up anytime I wanted by opening the covers. AD&D was that Book of Gold, sure, but so was Hawkmoon with its “terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan” Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga and The Einstein Intersection where Delany’s characters “treat the rise and fall of the Beatles the way we treat the rise and fall of Achilles”. (The fact that both of these are basically Gamma World under the skin rather than D&D explains a lot about me and my romance of lost greatness too.)

My omen that John Lennon had been killed was when, exploring a deserted beach, I saw that someone had written STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER in giant letters on the sand. After a long time alone bemused by this, I came home to the news. All the wonder and dread of that writing in the sand collapsed into a specific sadness: now I will never see the Beatles reunite and play live in concert. I guess I was as self-centered in 2008 as I was in 1980, because I had basically the same reaction to the news of Gary’s death.

Here’s Gygax, speaking to Lawrence Shick in 1991 for Law’s Heroic Worlds:

There is no question that the D&D game was the first of its kind, and from its success there sprang a whole industry… I did the AD&D system to go beyond that. Right now I’m working on something new to contribute to Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming. All of that, however, owes the Original D&D game far more than credit for “inspiration”. The D&D game was and remains the start of role-playing games. Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don’t plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he’ll decide to combine talents again. Who knows?

This is as bittersweet with lost possibility, as rich with bruised tenderness, as the point where Lennon and McCartney are hanging out together in New York in 1976 watching Saturday Night Live (there is something sad about a rock star even in life). The two men have been making nice in the press for once about what was good about the thing they built together, and now Lorne Michaels is holding up a check for $3,000 and offering it to the Beatles if they’ll reunite and play a show there and then.

$3K in 1974 dollars seems to me about right for the budget to do the first print run of D&D. What was Gygax doing that night in 1976? Was he watching Saturday Night Live and if so what did it mean to him? Was he a Beatles fan too who hoped or dreamed or somehow knew that there was a possibility John and Paul would really hop a cab together and make it happen? Did he think about calling up Dave: “hey, is your TV on?”

Probably not. At the time it was just a joke that’s only imbued with significance in hindsight, right?

 I wish that we could talk about it,
But there, that’s the problem.

8 Responses to “When Someone Great is Gone”

  1. March 5, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Nicely elegaic. Death makes orphans of us all, and even hobbies can live on, fatherless.

    I imagine that Gygax and Arneson, like all of us, lived with many regrets. I don’t know whether the rift between them was a significant one of those, but as someone very far away it’s a sad story.

  2. March 5, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    I’m not a child of divorce, which is the metaphor I reach for in thinking about fans’ relationship to Gygax and Arneson. I did lose my father in ’00 – he drowned while we were snorkeling at a beach in Hawaii, and my brother and sister and then-fiancee and I weren’t able resuscitate him.

    The regrets and sadness I’m thinking about here are, as you say, elegiac and far-away compared to either of those. One interesting thing to me in writing this was seeing how even as a kid with no real experience of loss I kind of savored the melancholy of contemplating things departed and paths not taken. If nostalgia is part of the OSR, for me it’s part of how I actually rolled back in the day as well. Does it make sense to call a ten-year-old nostalgic, I dunno.

  3. 3 richardjohnguy
    March 6, 2012 at 10:50 am

    For me, growing up in England, AD&D in the early 80s was already elegiac and nostalgic for “the real game” – that faint hallucination of the Proper Campaign they were running up at Lake Geneva when people really Got It and it probably wasn’t even called D&D. And I rather think fantasy as a genre is nostalgic, or it speaks of a pain for things remembered which never existed, which some folks denigrate but I think is fundamental to imagination.

    And for me 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is all about Thompson’s insistent flute-line on the guitar, which is at once recognisably hillbilly rail-riding blues and the sailor’s hornpipe and the whole history of working class mythmaking reaching back to the first time someone was forced off the land and made to chop wood and carry water for someone else and they said no I’ll go walkabout instead – so it hooks onto a line of continuity that runs right up to the present and is firmly anchored in lost memories of some golden age when you got to make it up for yourself and an intention to somehow make it back to that time.

    In other words, I think you’ve captured something romantic and important here, though I can’t quite say what it is.

  4. March 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Yeah, Romantic for sure. Richard Thompson for me nowadays is about my first wife; she lost her dad young but was also a poet, and it’s hard to say what her her attraction to lost memories of days gone by and the myth of Richard & Linda had to do with either of those or the breakup of our marriage.

    Interesting that Lake Geneva had that heat-mirage shimmer for you too. What was your take on the Beatles – was some of their legend for me the extra shimmer across the pond, whereas y’all were heading towards a Sex Pistols “fook the fookin’ Beatles” already?

  5. 5 richardjohnguy
    March 6, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    I was 5 the first time punk died (or maybe “abandoned sincerity”), so the Beatles were my mum’s band, while I was all Eurhythmics and Toyah and Elvis Costello and Queen. Still, they weren’t really gone, even though they were no longer going to be making records: you’d hear them at nursery school (up to Yellow Submarine (portable holes!) – a dividing line I didn’t understand at the time), Paul was still very much in the spotlight… clearly they were already legendary but their legend hadn’t yet developed its fixed meaning, perhaps.

    I feel extremely peculiar about all the Thatcher stuff that’s going on now – that’s not history, dammit! I lived through that! We’re still seeing its after-effects! Yeah, I know: I’m history too.

  6. March 6, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Seeing how old Paul looks in the recent Grammy Award posters made me wonder about how much older he is than me at 41, and the answer is “you’re both part of history”. When I am 106 at the American tricentennial, what difference will it make that Sir Paul is 134? We will both be rare old birds born in the 20th Century. Gregory Benford’s “Doing Lennon” uses cryonics to make its imposter protagonist still young, but I look forward to a future of passing myself off as a Beatle through sheer decrepitude.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2012

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