Gail Gygax and I were sitting in the living room of a lace-trimmed, flower-filled bed and breakfast in Lake Geneva, in the US state of Wisconsin, when she told me about the time she discovered what she believed was a plot to kill her.
It was a fall day in 2013, and it had been five years since her husband Gary, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, had died. Since then, Gail had gotten help around the house from a neighbour, Brian Terry. A stocky, 62-year-old bartender, Terry came around to do things that needed doing, like mowing the lawn or helping her pack and ship the antiques she finds around Lake Geneva and sells online. That day, Terry was crossing Gail’s picket-fenced lawn when his feet caught a barely-visible string of fishing line, set a foot above the ground, wrapped several times around two sticks stuck deep in the dirt. Both of them agreed it was a trap.
“My home has been invaded,” Gail Gygax wrote last year in a widely-circulated Facebook post. “There was a trip wire by my back step to kill me and I know what is missing from our home.”
Gail Gygax in December, 2018. (Photo: Cecilia D’Anastasio/Kotaku)
In December of last year, Gail Gygax contacted Kotaku through her agent. She wanted to tell us about all of the many dangers—both physical and psychological—she says she’s been dealing with since the death of her husband Gary Gygax, who is widely considered to be the father of the tabletop role-playing game, in 2008. Break-ins. Death threats. Estranged children. Visitations from her late husband’s spirit. Predatory businesspeople. And lawsuits—five of them in total, with one brought by Hollywood producer Tom DeSanto for $30 million (£23 million). Eleven years after the death of Gary Gygax, there are still battles over who will control his legacy—the rights to his name, his biography, his memorial, his intellectual property, and the future of countless other priceless artefacts, among them Gary Gygax’s original dungeon, the maps to an 11-level magical castle where he prototyped a fantasy role-playing game that 8 million people play every year.
“Did my life change? Yeah, it changed a whole lot,” Gail said. At 63 years old, Gail’s words had an edge to them, the sound of someone poised to defend herself out of habit. She wore a black silk Free People kimono embroidered with pink flowers. Her dangling black chandelier earrings waved as she shook her head. “Did I expect people to be calling me bad names and treating me with disrespect? No, it totally blindsided me. Because I think I’m doing the best thing for my husband’s memory. And I still am.” As pressure mounts from all sides, Gail has sacrificed much of herself in defending that memory. And as her claim to its real-world expressions is questioned by increasingly powerful parties, she continues forward like a shark that has to keep swimming to avoid drowning.
Wisconsin in the winter is greige, like the colour an estate agent might ask you to paint your house so a new family can imagine their own life there. In summertime, wealthy Chicagoans boat across the lake and graze the town’s many antique stores, but today, in the cold, the roads of Lake Geneva were empty except for families in puffy jackets and patterned leggings crossing the street, either side of which had a candy store. A man at a sports bar drinks a PBR alone at 11:30 am. Gail, who told me she prefers not to bring new acquaintances to her home, drove me down the street in her cluttered, dusty Volvo, heading for the bed and breakfast.
At 2:30 pm, Gail pours herself a glass of wine. “I took care of him until the day he died,” she says.
The death of Ernest Gary Gygax at 69 from an inoperable aortic aneurysm on 4 March 2008 was one of the first things Gail wanted to talk about when we first spoke on the phone, weeks prior to this meeting. “He wanted to die at home,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to watch someone die in front of you and take care of them?” By the end, Gail said, Gary didn’t want her going outside. The couple didn’t have enough money for a nurse.
On the morning of 4 March, Gail said she and Alex were sleeping on the couch. At 6 am, the time when Gary always roused himself from sleep, Gail said that both she and her son were dreaming the same dream: that Gary was in the room telling them to wake up. He had passed away just hours earlier. Gail says she did not call any of Gary’s other children to tell them the news. She said she didn’t have their phone numbers. (None of Gary Gygax’s five children from his previous marriage—Elise, Ernest, Luke, Cindy, and Heidi—nor Gary and Gail’s son Alex wished to speak with Kotaku for this story.)
“The day Gary died is when it all started,” she said.
Across the globe, Gary Gygax was eulogised everywhere from the New York Times to the Guardian, and in essays by pop fantasy titans like Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman. In his obituaries, Gygax was celebrated as the world’s first and greatest dungeon master, the father of role-playing and founder of a tradition that would feed the rise of blockbuster role-playing video game series like Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft and Skyrim. Players of the massively multiplayer RPG Eve Online held a Viking-style funeral for Gygax, naming a ship after him and exploding it in space.
That was the outside world, though. In the still snowglobe of Lake Geneva, a small gathering of Gary’s closest friends, family, role-playing collaborators, and business partners collected in a sombre beige room. The funeral was a small coming-together of the role-playing luminaries that Gary Gygax had created and collected over the years. Admirer after admirer approached the podium with teary-eyed stories of Gary’s generosity and buffoonery. The tabletop role-playing website ENWorld.com sent a banner with hundreds of fans’ names along with a bevy of floral arrangements. Gary’s son Luke, an officer in the California Army National Guard, eulogised his father in uniform. At the end of his speech, he saluted a painting of Gary, grey-bearded and smiling benevolently in a chequered sweater. At the wake, held at the American Legion Hall, friends, family and fans ran round upon round of tabletop games all day in Gary’s memory.
Gail was not feeling celebratory. A nervousness had been insinuating itself. Gary’s children, she feared, would blame her for not taking care of him well enough. They’d blame her for not communicating well enough. Fantasies of future confrontations overwhelmed her. She feared a fight would break out at her husband’s funeral. To insulate herself, Gail said, she hired an undercover, off-duty cop to accompany her to the funeral.
As the ceremonies concluded, Gail said, she could not find the book where guests wrote messages to Gary. “They stole his funeral book,” said Gail, not saying who “they” were. “Then it just kept going.” Gail said she has now been battling the ambiguous “they” for 11 years in an effort to protect Gary’s legacy from the people she believes are trying to steal it. Some of these the threats she’s fighting seem to be spectres. Others, like Tom DeSanto’s $30 million lawsuit, are very real.
Gail and Gary Gygax. (Photo: Courtesy of Gail Gygax)
Growing up Southern Baptist in Mayfield, in the US state of Kentucky, Gail Gygax, née Carpenter, learned to never take anything sitting down.“My mum raised us by herself. My dad did not help us. Money was tight. Living was very tight, let’s just put it that way,” she said. “We learned that you have to take care of yourself.”
Graduating from a large Kentucky university with a degree in accounting, Gail’s first job was in the office of an auto repair shop nearby the school. It wasn’t her initial goal. After university, she said, she wanted “to have enough [business] background so I’ll know enough and find someone I want to be in business with.” Gail laughed as she recalled the repair shop’s sketchy M.O. The mechanics, she said, would bring in cars from all over the country, roll their speedometers back, and ship them out again. An offer to become the media director of an advertising firm brought Gail and her then-husband to Illinois, but when the marriage petered out, she moved into an apartment with her sister in nearby Lake Geneva.
One of her new friends there mentioned that she was working for a funny new company called TSR, or Tactical Studies Rules, that made something called Dungeons & Dragons. All Gail knew about TSR at the time was that “everybody in town thought everybody out there was weird.”
At 28 years old, Gail, who wore her hair short and had a penchant for ‘80s-style business attire, had found herself working for another car dealership, and she fiercely wanted a more fast-paced, going-somewhere job. She was lucky enough to apply for one of the few jobs for which TSR didn’t already have an internal candidate. As an administrative assistant to TSR’s chief financial officer, Gail would read every licensing contract that passed through the building and take meetings for her boss. All that time, she heard about TSR’s cofounder, the man himself, Gary Gygax. “Everybody loves Gary,” she remembers her boss saying. “Just wait until you meet him.”
Gail didn’t meet Gary for a while, but she remembers when she first caught a glimpse of him. It was the early ‘80s and Gary had just arrived back from a summer business trip in Los Angeles. Gail caught a glimpse of him strutting through the office in a black mink hat and clothes he’d picked up on Rodeo Drive. He had “a tremendous presence,” she said, “like some god walking on water.”
Gary Gygax’s hair was long. His beard was full. He wore wooden beads around his neck and was fond of Conan the Barbarian, a pulpy fantasy series seasoned with buxom damsels in distress and hardened warriors who would rescue them from peril. In 1970, he lost his job at a life insurance company, so Gary spent long hours in his basement, cobbling shoes for extra money, and pushing miniature warmen around grids in war games like Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg or Fight in the Skies at home in Lake Geneva, where he lived with his redheaded townie wife Mary Jo and their five children. Gary created a fantasy wargame called Chainmail in 1971, which some of his biographers have said formed the foundation for Dungeons & Dragons. At the same time, Gary was a prolific contributor to wargaming periodicals and play-by-mail games, which endeared him to a Minnesota man named Dave Arneson.
It was the ‘70s, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books had boomed in sales, incubated in part by the decade’s heavy psychedelia. High culture fertilised the soil for high fantasy, and players of wargames that were based on real-world military battles were starting to think about applying those rule sets to unreal worlds.
Arneson, a Minnesota security guard, was part of a tight-knit wargaming group that, like a modern-day tech incubator, innovated new wargames and styles of play in neighbourhood basements and around kitchen tables. Arneson’s Blackmoor, a Lord of the Rings-style dungeon exploration game, was birthed from those creative embers. Arneson went to Gygax’s house in 1972 to meet his fellow wargaming head and run a game of Blackmoor for him. Following that visit, he mailed 18 pages of notes, the rough ruleset for the game, to Lake Geneva. Inspired, Gary typed out something now referred to as The Fantasy Game. Gary’s son Ernie and daughter Elise scrawled out attributes and ability points on note cards. Those stats guided them through battles against a scorpion nest, some kobolds, and a giant centipede, all as part of the larger fantasy campaign. When word of The Fantasy Game got out, locals began joining the adventuring party. It was set in Gary’s original dungeon, Castle Greyhawk, ruled over by Zagyg, Gary’s alter ego.
While portions of Gary’s home campaign, set in Greyhawk, have been published for decades, however, no version of “Castle Greyhawk” faithful to Gary’s original design was published until close to Gary’s death. Its published name was Castle Zagyg. The original home campaign is in Gail’s possession.
“Zagyg does have elements that date to the very earliest stages of role-playing,” said Frank Mentzer, a game designer who worked at TSR. Arneson, he said, was the one who contributed cooperative role-playing as a game mechanic. “For the first time in human history, we have the embracing of the concept that man can entertain himself without having to defeat another,” Mentzer said. “You can cooperate, and enjoy the fruits of your cooperative efforts, without having a loser. This is a quantum leap in the soul.”
Gail Gygax no longer lives in the home in which Gary created his games. The home is currently owned by a woman who gamely allows Gygax acolytes entry once a year or so, for old times’ sake. It was Paul Stormberg, a role-playing game archivist, who brought me to what he called “the Center Street home,” showing me around the quaint, white outside as if we were on a tour of the cave where man invented fire. Stormberg lifted up a rusted boat that was covering the door that led from the yard down into the cellar. “At the bottom of this is a door that says ‘Entrance: War Games room,’” he whispered. “This is where D&D was created.”
Stormberg, a former archaeologist with circular glasses, clean-cut blonde hair, and an excitable disposition, sees the 1973 birth of Dungeons & Dragons as nothing less than a major moment in human history. “For two millennia, no new games had ever been created,” he said. “Human beings had only created six types of tabletop games. Dice games, plot games, card games, board games, miniature games and pen and paper games like Hang Man.”
“A seventh game was created by humanity. A seventh game! That didn’t exist before! And it was created by two guys who lived in the United States in my lifetime! It’s just a game, right, but millennia have gone by without a new type of tabletop game being created. This is the event horizon. We’re right here on the event horizon. We can’t see it. We’re not far enough away from it to understand how it has changed the world.”
Gygax and Arneson knew they had something potentially earth-shattering with their game, but the traditional wargaming publishers like Avalon Hill weren’t biting. So Gygax and some friends formed their own publisher, TSR, in 1973, and released Dungeons & Dragons, credited on the box to “Gygax and Arneson,” the next year. After a short period of uncertainty, TSR grew rapidly, doubling its staff around 1976. Gary was the editor, president, and CEO. D&D was selling, but still, compensation was an issue. Early employees received payment in the form of stock options, royalty agreements and, sometimes, on a whim, a conventional paycheck. By 1979, D&D was grossing about $2 million (£1.5 million) annually for TSR, which was run out of a gaudy former hotel in downtown Lake Geneva.
One Saturday evening, Gail’s friend, a former Playboy bunny, invited her to a dinner party at Stone Manor, a historic lakefront mansion that had recently been converted into condos. Gail drove over in her sister’s blue Volkswagen bug. As she parked, she caught sight of Gary Gygax taking out the garbage. They had never formally met. Gail stood outside, searching for an entrance into the building, when Gary asked if she was going to the party. That night, Gary, who was separated from his wife and in the process of a divorce, asked her out, but only months later did they finally go to dinner, a fish fry—alongside Gary’s daughter Elise and his grandson, for his second birthday. In Gail’s recollection, she was was not well-received by Gary’s family.
“I think Gary was lonely,” Gail said. “He was going through a divorce. He had a lot of pressure on him between company finances, developing the gaming products, and going to meetings in Los Angeles.” Gail started accompanying Gary on his biweekly trips to Los Angeles, splurging on lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, shopping on Rodeo Drive, zipping around in a blue Cadillac Seville convertible chauffeured by Gary’s bodyguard.
“Gary was cool,” said Gail. “He was very sophisticated. He would get into a room and talk to anybody about anything. He wasn’t introverted like a lot of gamers. He wasn’t that way.” At home, they shared the cooking and cleaning duties. Gail mowed the lawn while Gary did the dishes. Gail grilled while Gary made soups. He’d throw every scrap of leftovers into a massive casserole. In the mornings, Gary would smoke unfiltered Camels on the porch. In the evenings, he would read the Bible. In the summer, the porch was constantly alive with open-door parties while the cellar rang with laughter from D&D games. Gary invited everybody who showed an interest, including neighbourhood kids, obsessive fans who mailed him every week, and gamers that he met at conventions across the Midwest.
Gail and Gary Gygax. (Photo: Courtesy of Gail Gygax)
Gail wasn’t much of a player, she said, preferring to “be the person behind the scenes and support him in whatever he needs,” she said. She rarely went down into the War Games room. “I just didn’t think his fans would want ‘the girlfriend’ in there,” she said. “It was just good bonding time for him, his sons and his fans. I would be in the kitchen cooking meals for them.” She had the business-partnership marriage she’d been looking for, and took her bookkeeping duties seriously. Meanwhile, she was doing the paperwork to finalise Gary’s divorce from his first wife.
“I’ve always felt that one of Gail’s major interests was in taking care of Gary,” said Frank Mentzer, the former TSR game designer. “Many times over, I saw Gail acting, working, thinking in terms of protecting Gary.” But Gail’s motivation was not simple love, he said. “Part of this was due, of course, to the well-known history of the game, the company, where people turned on Gary from the inside. People who were friends would turn around with their hands out.” Gary was a trusting man who surrounded himself with an entourage of gamers who, he believed, shared his uncontainable love for the art of fantasy. Gary would open the cellar door to anyone who wanted to come in. Gail was the one who put herself between Gary and the business of fantasy when, she believed, that love became a means to an end for Gary’s associates.
Dungeons & Dragons’ early years on the market were not without their own controversy. After he left the company in 1976, Dave Arneson’s name was removed from TSR’s 1977 Monster Manual and 1978 Player’s Handbook. These were part of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s second iteration. In 1979, Arneson sued Gygax and TSR for royalties. And by 1985, he would sue again. At that time, TSR was about $1.5 million (£1.15 million) in debt, according to the book Empire of the Imagination. That year, a TSR executive named Lorraine Williams bought out the shares held by Gygax’s partners and became the majority shareholder in a hostile takeover. Gary Gygax was forced to resign.
Years of legal troubles followed. Gary had lost the rights to D&D, his very famous brainchild, and the empire of fantasy it fuelled. Soon, Williams would be threatening several legal actions to make sure Gary’s new fantasy novels, adventure modules or role-playing games relied on no material he’d generated while he was at TSR.
Gail busied herself helping Gary protect his assets, like the Dangerous Journeys role-playing game that TSR didn’t want to hit the market. Gail spent countless hours organising Gary’s assets and ideas into folders for these cases’ discovery processes. Gary had never learned to drive, so Gail allowed him to stay home and write while she went and got a real estate license. For five years in a row, Gary was audited by the state of Wisconsin, she said, and she had to pull the numbers together for three of those years. Looking at the numbers, Gail wasn’t even sure she wanted to legally bind herself to Gary, even after having a child with him.
In the late ‘80s, Gail created a company called Trigee that would hold the license for all of Gary’s future creations, at least temporarily, and, eventually, be responsible for Gary’s substantial legal debt. Gail said she couldn’t trust anyone else to caretake his writing after all that had happened. On top of her real estate business, she started buying and selling antiques to make ends meet. The couple was borrowing against Gary’s life insurance. In 1987, Gail and Gary married. Three years later, Gary wrote a will that named Gail as the primary beneficiary to all of his physical and intellectual property.
“When I married him, he was broke,” Gail said. “A lot of people think I married him when he had a lot of money. Not only was he broke, he was in debt, millions of dollars. I knew that because I have a degree in accounting. I could do the maths.”
Over the years, the former archaeologist Paul Stormberg had built up a friendship with Gary and the rest of the demigods of the role-playing world online, and then eventually at conventions and wargaming parties. As this first crew of RPG players and makers began to pass away, Stormberg’s career gradually transitioned, he said, from digging up artefacts to helping sell estates and auctioning notable role-playing ephemera. When a role-playing titan dies, or wants to make some extra cash, he preserves, archives, and auctions off their collection through his company, The Collector’s Trove. TSR artist David Sutherland’s sketches of the Tekumel fantasy warriors went for $3,152 (£2,411); a box of miscellaneous adventure manuscripts, correspondence, and design materials from obscure RPG designer Stephen Marsh went for $8,000 (£6,118).
One evening, Stormberg said, he and Gary were chatting on wicker chairs at one of Gail’s porch parties when the topic turned to what would happen after Gary’s death. On that night, Stormberg said, Gary asked him to leverage his collection to support Gail and Alex.
“People have actually told her, ‘That’s not what Gary would have wanted,’” said Stormberg. “Pardon my French, but how the flock did they know what Gary wanted? Guess who was there when he died? Gail was. It wasn’t his fans. It was Gail.”
Paul Stormberg displaying original “character sheets” from the Dungeons & Dragons prototype. (Photo: Cecilia D’Anastasio/Kotaku)
Since then, Gail and an exclusive band of accomplices, including Stormberg, have acted as custodians of Gary Gygax’s estate. When Gary passed, Gail was left with his collection of some 15,000 items—board games, novels, short stories, games, and all the miscellany expected of a prolific creator. Currently, they fill a 12-by-12 storage unit, floor-to-ceiling. Stored elsewhere, somewhere even more secure, is Gary’s original Castle Greyhawk, the first dungeon he ever designed.
This is Gail’s world, the ruins of 50 years of Gary’s creative endeavours, which she navigates alongside a decreasing number of allies whom she trusts. She guards this world fiercely. In her mind, there are people waiting eagerly outside, plotting to capitalise on the physical archives of Gary Gygax’s legacy.
After the guest book went missing at Gary’s funeral, Gail estimates she’s lost a lot more things. Several copies of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, the name Gary gave his first dungeon after TSR got the rights to the name “Castle Greyhawk.” Manuscripts. Gary’s tobacco pipe. All eight copies of the Tomb of Horrors, a rare 1978 adventure module that costs $60 (£46) on the open market. A painting called “Gateway to Adventure” she believes is worth $50,000 (£38,239).
In February 2012, Gail called the police, telling them that her late husband was the developer of Dungeons & Dragons, and that she believed her son Alex’s friend had stolen manuscripts from the house. In the same call, Gail said she had manuscripts of Castle Greyhawk, D&D modules, a book of D&D spells, and other items in a safe deposit box, and that every time she checked the safe deposit box, the stack of papers became thinner. (In a more recent conversation, Gail said the manuscripts were stolen entirely from her home after she took them out of the deposit box.)
In response, the police also brought Gail’s son Alex into the police station. He denied his friend had taken, or would take, anything. The police interrogated the friend, who, according to the incident report, “didn’t know what a manuscript was.”
“Alexander stated that since his father passed away, his mother has had a hard time,” the report said. “Alexander stated that his mother is stressed ... Alexander stated that the house is full of clutter. Officer Keller asked Alexander if the manuscripts could possibly have been misplaced inside the residence. Alexander stated that it is possible, but that when he had asked his mother to go through the house and look for them, she stated she did not want to because it was too late and the items were gone.”
Gail urged the police to continue looking for the manuscripts. One week later, an officer paid a visit to Lake Geneva Games, the local hobby shop that runs D&D campaigns. The police wanted to see if the manuscripts had passed through there. They had not, an employee said. Several weeks after that, according to the police report, Gail said she still had not checked the safe deposit box to see whether the manuscripts were missing.
“The police reports are negligent in describing everything that happened,” Gail told me last year. “They deal with drunks in this town. They don’t deal with theft.”
Since Gary’s death in 2008, Gail has made over 40 calls to the Lake Geneva police department pertaining to such things as alleged break-ins, slashed tyres, and threats made over the internet. Once, when Gail was in the hospital recovering from kidney failure, her sister Dianne stayed at her home and swore she saw somebody parking in front of the house several nights in a row smoking a cigarette. “I became very paranoid myself,” said Dianne. “I got the same feeling she must feel at times.”
Gail acts as steward over an enormous landscape of Gary’s creations, and after he passed, Gail realised how many people were attempting to lay claim to its various territories. Gary was known to be magnanimous, constantly pausing his work to respond to fans in emails, letters, forum posts, even phone calls. His border policy was open. A born collaborator, Gary gave great portions of his mind to others for the keeping, and happily expanded on the infrastructure of their ideas.
As Gary’s spirit was absorbed into the ether—or, more specifically, was branded into a Goliath-esque commercial product by Wizards of the Coast, which absorbed TSR in 1997—Gail is still mired to the ground, where Gary’s unfinished affairs and battles simmer on. There are conflicting views on the reality of those battles, but in the reality of Gail’s emotional landscape, they are real and ever-present.
“Gail was his silent partner,” said Stormberg. “But when it came to business, Gail was his main partner. She talked business, he talked creative, he engaged with fans. So now he’s gone—that charismatic, magnetic guy is not there. But what do the fans remember? They only remember how available, how loving, how attentive Gary was to them.”
Soon after Gary passed, Gail was approached by Gary’s fans, collaborators, former business partners and hangers-on about what to do with his legacy. According to her sister Dianne Curtis, someone even handed Gail a business card at Gary’s funeral. “The vultures were surfacing,” she said. Fans wanted to do biopics, but few of their ideas were to her liking. There were calls for various creations to be published, but Gail wanted to thoroughly research the best way to develop them. Gail said that two days after Gary’s funeral, Gary’s former agent in Los Angeles flew out to Lake Geneva and asked Gail in person to let him represent Gary’s bio material. Gail said she’d never liked him and didn’t trust him. “He kept writing me threatening letters saying he said he should be the agent selling Gary’s biopic because he’d known Gary for so long.” She said an attorney ended up charging her $14,000 (£10,707) to clear the matter up.
At that time, a revised edition of Castle Greyhawk was getting released bit by bit under the Castle Zagyg name, along with other properties like the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds, Lejendary Adventures and Gord the Rogue. Gail decided to shut down the release schedule, despite the rave reviews from fans. Furious message board posts followed. One accused Gail of “holding those rights so tightly that they can’t breathe.” In another, titled “I have a strange feeling about Gail Gygax,” the poster described how he’d read several interviews with Gary—and even done one himself in his “proudest accomplishment in my game journalism career”—yet had never “noticed any mention or simple hint (besides Gail being a confidant, of course) of any role of hers whatsoever in Gary’s many creations and enterprises.”
I asked Gail why she’d halted publishing. “It has to be done the right way,” she said, “and I wasn’t ready for it to come out. It’s a part of me now because it was a part of Gary.”
“A lot of times, when you don’t own the property, you don’t understand why somebody’s doing something,” she said. “Especially when it’s your finances.”
Soon after the publishing controversy, Gail made moves to erect a memorial for Gary in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the place where he’d grown up, established TSR, and co-created Dungeons & Dragons. But she wasn’t the first person to approach Lake Geneva’s city parks council and propose a memorial statue to Gary. It was his daughter, Elise. One day in the summer of 2009, Elise shared Gary’s long, storied history into a microphone, a little nervous tremor in her voice, before introducing the Gygax Family Memorial, a nonprofit she’d established along with her brother Luke. “What we’d like to present to the committee is a monument to be placed in Library Park for the creative contributions my father gave to the world, a place for his admirers to pay tribute to him,” she said.
Gail seemed a bit offended by the proposal, as she says she had discussed the project with Gary while he was living. She believed it was her right as Gary’s widow to spearhead any such initiative, and Elise apparently backed off. Gail’s project, with the similar name of the Gygax Memorial Fund, got a lot of press. To raise funds, she sold some of Gary’s creations at auction. She made T-shirts. She sold the rights to put inscriptions on the paving bricks that would surround the statue.
Artist Larry Elmore’s proposed design for the Gygax Memorial Statue. (Image: Larry Elmore/ENWorld.org)
The statue itself was envisioned as a dramatic, medieval-style design involving stairs leading up to a castle embellished with crossed swords and polearms. Gary’s head, rendered in bronze, would sit at the top while, in front, a dragon lay in wait. Under the whole thing would be a mechanism for gamers to leave dice. An art critic might refer to it as “busy.” It was designed by the artist who created another pop-culture tribute, the “Bronze Fonz” statue in Milwaukee.
Gail’s memorial project remained a mystery as the years stretched on without any results. “It’s strange how Gail and her legal team can be so involved in protecting the Gygax name when it’s used by family but there has been little if any recent movement on the side of the Gygax Memorial Fund,” read one forum post. Others dissected the fund’s tax returns line by line, running analyses on how much time Gail and her co-organisers physically spent on the memorial. A government tax filing for the memorial fund, which is a nonprofit, claims there was $212,000 (£162,133) in it at the end of 2017. Yet eight years after fundraising began, there is no memorial to speak of, and the memorial’s website is offline.
It was Paul Stormberg, who had brought me to the house where Dungeons & Dragons was created, who took me to where the Gygax memorial was supposed to stand. He walked me over to a large patch of grass behind the hotel I was staying in, intersected by an icy river. We were standing on a cement pathway about fifty yards away from the street. It was a utilitarian, muddy side yard. “This is the spot,” he said. “What can you tell me about this place?”
I thought for a moment, looking around. “There’s been no foot traffic,” I said. “Exactly,” he responded. “Also, this is a wetland. It floods.”
This is not what Gail had envisioned for her grand memorial statue. In 2010, Gail had approached Lake Geneva’s board of park commissioners that a bust of Gary be placed in Library Park, the place where, as a high school student, he would cut class to read books and smoke cigarettes. It would be right on the shoreline and in plain sight. The park council responded that they weren’t sure they wanted to obstruct Chicago tourists’ view of the lake, Gail says, despite the fact that a statue to Chicago Tribune comic strip hero Andy Gump has sat on the edge of the lake since 1943. Gail and the commission temporarily settled on placing it in the patch of grass that Paul showed me. What the park commission hadn’t considered, however, is that a statue situated in a wetland might sink, and would be expensive to maintain. Gail said she is waiting for more favourable conditions, and remains fixated on the place where she believes Gary wanted his statue. Once, when she was at the hospital battling kidney failure, she said she saw Gary’s spirit come to her, to tell her not to die because she hadn’t finished his statue.
Paul Stormberg at the proposed site for Gary Gygax’s memorial. (Photo: Author)
“I don’t want him looking at the back of an ugly building,” Gail said. “I think a visionary should be facing the lake. And Gary was a visionary.” Gail compared the statue’s long gestation process to that of the memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr., which took two decades. The Lake Geneva Board of Park Commissioners did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The move contributed to the bubbling-over tensions between Gail and Gary’s children. As time passed, a headstone appeared on Gary’s burial site that read “Beloved father and grandfather.” That stung Gail, she said. Gary’s kids had also begun to memorialise their father’s life in other ways. After one of the attendees at Gary’s wake in 2008 suggested that they make the gathering of his friends and family an annual affair, Luke and Elise founded Gary Con, a celebration of his father’s life and work, the next year. Since then, Gary’s children, former collaborators, and over 2,000 fans while away a weekend every year at the Grand Geneva Resort, playing games, attending panels, buying art, and wearing Hawaiian shirts, Gary’s traditional convention attire.
Gail used to attend the show, but stopped in 2016. She said that a man named Erik Tenkar, who runs a blog about old-school role-playing games, had in private conversations joked that Gail would try to trademark the word “cunt,” and that he would burn the rubber bricks she’d use for her memorial. In his public blogs, he had meticulously documented, and often criticised, Gail’s every public move on behalf of Gary’s legacy. Gail said she planned on attending the VIP dinner at Gary Con until Luke told her that she would not be comfortable there since Tenkar would be in attendance.
Later, on his blog, Tenkar wrote in an open letter to Gail that “the attendies [sic] of Gary Con are pretty negative about your presence.” I reached out to Tenkar to ask about his views. He declined to be interviewed for this story, then posted our entire email exchange on his blog. When Kotaku sent another email to Tenkar for fact-checking, he did not respond, but posted that email on his blog, too. Tenkar continues to attend Gary Con, and Gail said she is still afraid to be around him.
While Gail initially had a good relationship with Frank Mentzer, the former D&D designer, that, too, has deteriorated. She says that Mentzer tried to publish one of her unpublished manuscripts, and when she told him not to, he countered by saying that she owed him for a pricey storage bill. Mentzer agrees that his relationship with Gail is acrimonious, but denied this. He says he used to collect TSR’s trash, including old manuscripts, none of which were Gary’s, and only billed her for photocopying fees incurred when sending her the documents she requested. Mentzer is a controversial figure in Gygaxland, too; last month his Gary Con “guest of honour” status was removed by Luke Gygax, who said in a statement that Mentzer had a history of “harassing behaviour” and “threatening communications.”
Around 2012, Gail also found herself battling a man named Jayson Elliot, who, along with Luke and Ernie Gygax, was in the process of launching a role-playing game fan magazine called Gygax. It would include the original editor of the official Dungeons & Dragons magazine, Tim Kask, along with contributions from well-regarded D&D illustrators. Gail filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the Gygax name on 4 March 2013, one month after Gygax magazine’s first issue, exactly five years after Gary passed. Elliot filed against her. That triggered a lawsuit.
Gygax magazine, issues one through three. (Image: TSR Games)
“Why would you give someone outside the family control over the Gygax name?” Gail said. For two and a half years, Gail said, she “protected the Gygax name” in a Washington, DC court. Elliot was eventually forced to shut down shop. He and Gail settled. Luke and Ernie withdrew from the company.
Elliot’s retelling of the situation is a little different. “I talked with Gail early on and told her we were doing this and tried to see if she’d be interested in being a part of it,” he said over the phone last month. “We never really got anywhere with it.” The magazine was meant to “pay homage to a great man we grew up with,” he said. “The fact that we were making a magazine called Gygax magazine didn’t mean we were ever trying to control Gary Gygax’s name in any way whatsoever.”
“Her number one goal was to protect Gary, and as a secondary goal, to help him succeed if she could,” said Frank Mentzer of Gail. “I don’t think Gail ever had a lot of experience at driving Gary. It was always following and protecting Gary. With no Gary to drive, when he passed that March, first the shock, and then the realisation she didn’t know what to do, and she had to make the calls. She’s faced with a situation that so many people had burned Gary, people who she thought were friends, she didn’t know who to trust.”
By 2017, Gail’s calls to the police had slowed to a trickle. She asked for the police to come by once that year when she heard banging in the alleyway where her air conditioner was. In the morning, she said her air conditioner had fallen down and was lying on a rock, potentially indicating something had been tampered with. Later that year, she heard her car alarm go off in the middle of the night and called the police about a possible breaking and entering situation. “Unable to locate anyone or anything suspicious,” the police report read.
For 11 years, Gail searched for the right homes for Gary’s memories to rest and thrive in the sunlight of his still-fierce fandom. The right home would be big, money-making, and stewarded by a true fan and acolyte. This is what led her into talks with Hollywood producer Tom DeSanto, whose films, including X-Men and Transformers, have grossed over $5 billion (£3.8 billion). DeSanto owns a collection of 40,000 comics and regularly attends Comic-Con San Diego, where he blends right in. He has described himself in an interview about Comic-Con as “purely a fanboy,” a relatable nerd who stumbled into action-movie fame. Seconds after calling himself as a “fanboy,” he name-drops his friend, Guillermo del Toro.
DeSanto has a history of picking through dusty attic boxes of childhood toys, looking for properties to revive. When something moves him, he might make motions to develop it. DeSanto, who has played D&D since he was 11, had been talking to Gail Gygax for eight years, a relationship that he described through his lawyer as a “friendship.” In 2016, they made a deal, which is currently the subject of a $30 million lawsuit.
According to a civil complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by Tom DeSanto against Gail Gygax, the pair “formed a partnership” in which Gail had DeSanto “take responsibility” to develop “the intellectual property rights that she claimed to have inherited from her late husband, Gary Gygax. . . including the right to use his name and likeness.” The complaint says Gail told DeSanto, whom it describes as “one of the most successful producers in Hollywood,” that she was retiring. DeSanto claims that Gail gave him “the exclusive right to develop and exploit the Gygax IP in all media, including film, TV, video games, merchandising and licensing, either by himself or through third parties.” Variety covered the signing of the deal, reporting that DeSanto would become the “guardian of the library.” The article quotes Gail saying, “Gary always envisioned his works becoming reality in film/television and beyond ... Tom’s track record speaks for itself, but I was impressed with Tom’s enthusiasm for Gary and as a longtime RPG gamer. Tom DeSanto is the perfect storyteller to bring Gary’s works to life. He is a true fan.”
Tom DeSanto at a Hollywood, California event in January, 2019. (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)
Two years after Gygax and DeSanto struck a deal, DeSanto was suing for breach of contract. DeSanto says he spent “thousands of hours” and “substantial sums of money” trying to develop the Gygax IP. Speaking through his lawyer, DeSanto did not elaborate on what exactly he was working on outside of sorting through what Gail does and does not own of Gary’s estate, although the complaint mentions a biopic. Over email, DeSanto’s lawyer sent the following statement to Kotaku.
“My client was left no choice but to file a lawsuit seeking to enforce the rights promised him in the Gygax IP. Tom has developed and produced some of the biggest franchises in movie history, and he is clearly in the best position of anyone to develop and exploit the very rich library of material left behind by Gary Gygax. That is the very reason why Ms. Gygax entrusted it to Tom. We are more than certain in our legal position and, in the end, everyone stands to benefit from enforcement of the agreement, including and especially Gail Gygax and her family.”
What triggered the lawsuit appears relatively benign at first, just another balloon in the parade of lawsuits that Gary’s legacy has drawn. It was a deal that Gail had made, along with her son Alex and archivist Paul Stormberg, to produce a video game based on Gary’s Castle Greyhawk, later named Zagyg, with a company called Fig, which runs a crowdfunding platform for indie games. DeSanto, who was not involved, said this was part of an effort to “freeze” him out. In a response to DeSanto’s lawsuit, Gail contested that she and DeSanto had ever entered into a partnership and, on top of that, contests that their contract gave DeSanto rights to Gary’s “entire library.” Further, she says, DeSanto made up her entire Variety quote.
It’s unclear whether Gail meant to give DeSanto the full rights to control what happens to her late husband’s creations and name. Should DeSanto prevail in court, it would add to the heaviness of the legend story Gail carries on her shoulders—one more stone of animosity and betrayal to weigh her down, one more piece of evidence that “they” are out for Castle Greyhawk, the Gygax name, and the great Gary Gygax mythos. This is the tidy tale, the one that makes sense in the the linear storyline of victimhood.
DeSanto’s lawsuit could have even larger implications for Gail, ones that don’t fit in that linear storyline. Beneath its allegations of breach of contract and fiduciary duty, DeSanto’s suit claims that Gail does not, in fact, own the rights to Gary’s legacy as freely and clearly as she claims.
In May 2017, DeSanto’s suit reads, he learned that Gary Gygax had a second will. He wrote it shortly before his death. That will, according to the complaint, merely gives Gail a life estate to some of Gary’s IP—the parts his children couldn’t claim. That would mean that, when Gail dies, DeSanto would no longer have the rights to develop Gygax properties, making their contract worthless.
Gail agrees that this will exists, but denies that it is valid. She says it was not signed correctly, adding nobody had ever contacted her about the will’s validity before DeSanto.
Gail said she is now writing her own biography of Gary, one that takes place in Castle Greyhawk deep through the dungeon’s alternate reality. Like the location of her proposed memorial statue, this, too, is a project that she said the spirit of Gary suggested to her in a dream, telling her to write a special insight into his family history, things he’d said just to her. It’s a children’s story, one that begins: “A mother reading to her son / A father telling bedtime stories / And the gift of a book from a stranger.”
In December, Lake Geneva’s shoreline is bordered by a massive, spindly ice castle, created by local artists. A massive frozen maze of spires and icicles, it winds around and around the icy beach. Crawlspace tunnels, fountains, and slides entertain children as they explore these snow-covered towers stretching to the sky.
Near the castle is a water fountain, drained and covered over for the winter, surrounded by engraved paving stones. Here, there is the town’s only public memorial to Gary Gygax, placed by Gary’s children, years after Elise approached the Lake Geneva Park Commission about her own idea for a memorial statue. Surrounded by other inscribed bricks is one that reads “In Loving Memory of E. Gary Gygax, Creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Donated by His Family, Friends and Fans.” Amidst these words is an illustration of a 20-sided die, and atop it, a sleeping dragon, curled around it as if guarding a treasure.
Featured image: Illustration: Angelica Alzona