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Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of D&D
Author: Michael Witwer
“Here, for the first time, is a comprehensive biography of the mythic icon among geek and gaming culture, Gary Gygax – and the complete story behind the invention of Dungeons & Dragons.
The godfather of all fantasy adventure games, Gary Gygax, has a life story that has only been told in bits and pieces. Michael Witwer has written a dynamic, dramatized biography of Gygax from his childhood in Lake Geneva to his untimely death in 2008. Gygax’s magnum opus, Dungeons & Dragons, would explode in popularity throughout the 1970s and ’80s and irreversibly alter the world of gaming. D&D is the best-known, best-selling role-playing game of all time, and it boasts an elite class of alumni – Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, and Junot Diaz all have spoken openly about their experience with the game as teenagers, and some credit it as a workshop where their nascent imaginations were fostered.
Gygax’s involvement in the industry lasted long after his dramatic and involuntary departure from D&D’s parent company, TSR, and his footprint can be seen in the genre he is largely responsible for creating. But as Witwer shows, perhaps the most compelling facet of his life and work was his unwavering commitment to the power of creativity in the face of myriad sources of adversity – cultural, economic, and personal. Through his creation of the role-playing genre, Gygax gave generations of gamers the tools to invent characters and entire worlds in their minds. Told in narrative-driven and dramatic fashion, Witwer has written an engaging chronicle of the life and legacy of this emperor of imagination.”
I thought I knew about the history of D&D.
I’ve tried to start this review several times from several angles; my feelings about biographies, my history of gaming, my own experiences with the industry, and how gaming has both changed and influenced my life. The problem is, every one of my personal opinions and experiences cannot make a good introduction to this review because this book is about the man who was instrumental in bringing me the hobby that I love so much. Any one of my anecdotes about how gaming changed my life, no matter how huge and explosive it was, would pale into insignificance compared to the life, history and involvement of Gary Gygax; the man who was the game.
I first became aware of Empire of Imagination earlier this year and my excitement for the book’s publication was inflated by an interview with the book’s author, Michael Witwer. I felt I already knew a lot about the history of gaming, especially TSR, through other excellent books but what I wanted was something more personal, a more closer-to-the-heart account of what happened. So, when I found out that not only would we be finding out about the man himself but also the tumultuous beginnings of the D&D brand, I was left salivating with expectation.
The 320-page hardback book, with a lavish Jeff Easley front cover that emulates the AD&D manual ‘Unearthed Arcana’, landed on my desk on Thursday. By Friday I had cleared my reading schedule to sit down and read. By Sunday morning I had finished the book. Gary Gygax went on a long, treacherous and challenging journey in both his personal and business life and, after reading Michael Witwer’s book, I feel as though I’ve been on a part of that journey, too.
The book begins with a pivotal moment in his life – the moment he was ousted from TSR in 1985. This was something that I, and no doubt many gamers, already knew, but then we go back and begin the long journey to this point with details of Gary’s childhood life, from a neighbourhood scuffle in the summer of 1948 onwards. These different chapters of his life (referred to as ‘Levels’, which is an excellent reference to the D&D game but also makes sense as Gary grows, experiences more and more and matures as a man, father and grandfather) are opened with short scripted roleplaying sessions, with an unnamed Dungeon Master guiding a player, Egary, through a long campaign on a quest to find the Key of Revelation. It’s a lovely, affectionate addition to the book and after reading it fully I’m sure that Gary Gygax would have had something of a good chortle to himself at the references.
The writing style itself jumps between plain, explanatory narrative to dramatisation. Dramatising events can be something I find contentious, because how could the incident be even remotely correct? How do we know what people were thinking, what their motivations were? However, Michael Witwer does an excellent job making sure that the drama in the book doesn’t overshadow the facts that he has gathered from his long, rigorous research, including interviews with many friends, colleagues, business partners and family. He even states in his opening Author’s Note; “In many cases, scenes and dialogue have been re-created, combined, and in some instances imagined to best support the known documentary record”. You can’t say fairer than that. He isn’t trying to say that the dramatisations are accurate, but an effective way of communicating what happened. The rest of the narrative, between these moments of semi-fiction, reads as an account of the incidents from as many different angles as he could gather. If there are areas of contention, or conflicting stories, he addresses them both.
So, did I really have a problem with the dramatised aspects of the story and did they ruin my perhaps unrealistic expectations of being told an accurate story? Well, yes and no. While there will always be a part of me that thinks ‘How could you know that?”, the long list of people that Michael Witwer acknowledges in the book, all the friends, family and associates that knew Gary Gygax over the years and spoke to the author, and who no doubt shared their personal stories, makes me certain that the story is as accurate as it can be, as accurate as Michael can make it. With every quote and reference there is always a note as to where he gathered the information so every point is covered by his investigations, and that gives me the root in fact that I required. The book has truly been well researched.
The writing is informative and doesn’t feel like a dry wall of text. He tries to get across the feelings and emotions of certain moments but doesn’t push it, but many times you don’t need to be told how people felt or what feelings were running high – just by reading what happened is enough to leave you feeling somewhat exasperated and more than once I shook my head and mumbled ‘Why did they let that happen?’. I have the power of hindsight, which makes it all the more frustrating as you read what happens leading up to the key moments in Gary’s life, and you see the seeds of destruction planted many, many years before. From bad business decisions, to key people bought in who would change things for the worst, from misrepresentation in the media to the breakdown of friendships, it’s all here.
It was his post-TSR days where I also learned a lot, finding out what he got up to after he was ousted. This was a part of Gary’s life that I never truly followed as he was always the ‘D&D Guy’ to me, but learning more about his work on Dangerous Dimensions and Lejendary Journeys was informative and enlightening. On top of all this we understand the legacy he left behind, the ongoing influences that he and his game still have to this day. He truly did change people’s lives, across the world.
And I can agree with that, because I was one of those people.
So, essentially, what we have is a the story of a man who grew up with a fiery imagination and managed to communicate his dreams to the masses; but the details – the relationships, friendships, loves and betrayals – make for a compelling and sometimes bittersweet story of a man beloved by millions.
The book left me feeling warm and yet somewhat sad, but it was definitely a most satisfying read. It also made me want to call up some of my old gaming friends, from way back in the 1980s, and get an old-school D&D game on the go. At the end of it all – after all the work, strife, arguments, law suits, and personal hardships – Gary Gygax just loved to play games. And I feel that playing those games, and keeping the tabletop fires burning, is the best way to honour him.
I thought I knew about the history of D&D. As it turns out… I really didn’t.
Most highly recommended.