Many have written about the effect that the works of Gary Gygax had on their lives. Cartoons like xkcd and Order of the Stick have expressed the feeling of the gaming community very clearly, more so than most texts I’ve seen. Steve Jackson’s words on the subject set me to thinking: what did Gygax bring to the hobby? I know what insight the boxed Basic Set gave to me:
Formal systems describe worlds, characters, and stories.
That idea has shaped the last twenty years of my life. When I was about nine, I spent days with the character and dungeon generation tables rolling up burrows full of orcs and ghouls, unsorted heaps of glittering shinies and their magical adornments, and the heroes who could conquer them. I wrote programs in BASIC to explore the spaces described by those tables. I linked those together, stacking them one upon the other until a few keypresses could generate a dungeon, a party, send the party through the dungeon, and repeat until the characters leveled and leveled and died.
When I saw the term Context Free Grammar a few years later, I knew CS was the field for me. Here, again, recursive application of formal systems spin out whole worlds, full of all the glory and horror we bring to them from our own.
For that insight, for the connection between formal systems and the act of Creation, I am thankful.