In a previous blog entry, I noted that, once a month, I frequent the route from Madison down to Lake Geneva and on to Chicago and back. Today, on the way back from Chi-town, I was well ahead of schedule. I was driving along, thinking about my oldest son coming back from school next week on Christmas break and planning, in my head, a little AD&D session wherein he and a couple of his brothers and maybe a friend or two will take the role of a party of Svirfneblin investigating an Underdark ziggurat recently vacated by a lich (way too powerful for the party I've envisaged - of course, other denizens have taken up residence since the lich was vanquished. Real-estate in the Underdark has a quick turnover rate).
In that state of mind, what would be more natural than stopping in Lake Geneva for a drive-through. You know you'd do it, too, if you had the time!
This time, however, I decided to go a different route than my usual downtown foray. This time, I turned left!
I figured that I could eventually hit Lakeshore Blvd, the main snake around the lake. And, eventually, I did - more on that later. But before I got my bearings straight, I stumbled upon (well, almost drove over) Lake Geneva Games. "How cool is that?" thought I. "I'll stop in and see what's happening." So I did.
In all honesty, I was disappointed. There was a small group of teenagers playing Magic the Gathering and a store-tender that gave me that "You don't belong here" look. Nothing wrong with that, per se. I had a tie on, what should I expect? The shop was small. Much smaller than I would have expected from the birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the real estate seemed to be taken up by miniatures for Warhammer 40K, though their selection was not nearly as impressive as the Games Workshop store in the mall down in Schaumburg, IL. So I really just peeked in and left.
Now, I've been gaming since 1977 when Bill Walters, a friend of my dad's (he might have been on the same flight or worked in the same building as my dad, I don't know) introduced me to Ogre and GEV when I lived in Italy (where my dad worked for the 6917 ESG). Two years later, while living in Minnesota, my mom bought me the AD&D Players Handbook for Christmas. Thanks, Mom! Many of my teenage years were burned away playing D&D with friends. So Lake Geneva was always a sort of Mecca for me when I was younger, though I didn't make the pilgrimage until we moved to Madison, back in '96.
After my disappointment with the gaming store, I decided to continue my drive around Geneva Lake. I didn't make it all the way around. I had time to burn, but not that much time! Still, as I drove part-way around the lake, I noticed a few things that might have sparked the imagination of a young Gary Gygax and possibly served as inspiration for his (and Dave Arneson's) creative minds.
First of all, the topography around Lake Geneva is different than that of the surrounding area. It's more hilly, and the lake itself seems to foster some sort of micro-climate. I'm no scientist, but it feels different around the lake then it does beyond the hills that surround the lake. I get the feeling that Geneva Lake (the lake) and Lake Geneva (the town) had to have somehow served as inspiration for the Greyhawk setting and, specifically, Nyr Dyv and its environs.
Then there's the architecture. It's eclectic, to say the least. The large, fortress-like mansions on the lake shore could very well have spurred a young man's imagination. And on the south shore of the lake are an inordinately high percentage of homes modeled after English thatched roof houses, as well as a number of places that mimic Swiss alpine sensibilities. I'm not sure that all of these existed before D&D, or if wealthy geeks had them built that way, but if even half of them were standing there in Gygax's younger years, they could not have been ignored.
I also noticed that there were several abandoned houses in the area. Big abandoned houses. Houses that could hold a catacomb underneath, or a lich within its walls. Even the trees were a bit mysterious. I can see why the Treant was one of the earliest D&D creatures in the original game, and it wasn't just because of Tolkien's influence.
Lake Geneva is a tourist town. There are always far too many people there for such a little town. The streets are always packed with people, the traffic sucks (who's idea was it to shut off all the stoplights in town the past couple of weeks, anyway?), and the bars are hoppin'. There are a lot of interesting people there, and a few strange ones (me, for instance) to boot. It's the kind of town that breeds adventure.
I came back home feeling satisfied that I had discovered the open secret of D&D: No matter where you are, no matter what your circumstances, chances are pretty good that your imagination, prompted, at times, by little things in your surroundings, can be expansive enough to carry you beyond the confines of your town, your county, your state, your country, even your world. You don't even need a good game shop. A few good friends, a set of dice, and a rulebook or two - or maybe none at all - are all it takes to enjoy the wonders of the fantastical and to set off on adventures that are far more rewarding than any you'll find in this droll world. D&D didn't necessarily need Lake Geneva, but it didn't hurt. And the fact that Gygax and Arneson's creation became so much more than a localized phenomenon, a worldwide movement, won't stop me from enjoying access to the cradle of roleplaying games just down the road.
PS: If you'd like to know the sordid history of the corporate side of TSR and Gary Gygax, you could do worse than to read this old article from The Believer.
PPS: There's a drive on to build a statue of Gary Gygax on the shore of Geneva Lake. Information here.