“The Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons” by Michael Witwer

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

“The Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons” by Michael WitwerEmpire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer
Published: 2015 by Bloomsbury USA
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 302
Format: ARC
Source: the publisher
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Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons is a stylized biography of the man behind the popular roleplaying game known as DND.  (You can blame him when I decline Thursday night happy hours because my hipster cleric is trying to save the princess, rescue townsfolk, and convert all the ogres of Rokugan.)

Despite having played Dungeons & Dragons for several years now, my knowledge of Gygax’s life was sorely lacking.  Empire of Imagination tells the story behind the story, and the story behind all of the stories that players create on a daily basis.

Ernest Gary Gygax was born to an working class immigrant family in Chicago, but grew up in the idyllic small town of Lake Geneva.  Empire of Imagination begins with Gary’s childhood adventures, inspired by Robert E. Howard and similar authors of pulp fiction, and then progresses to his marriage, early career, and burgeoning role in the gaming community.  He was an artist and a dreamer rather than a businessman, which led to troubled relationships and financial woes even as his games rose in popularity.  This nature was both a bug and a feature, leading to both is greatest creations and his biggest failures.

The book opens as Gary is about to lose control of TSR, the company he founded to produce Dungeons & Dragons.  Then it flashes back to the main body of the story.  Between each chapter, there’s a stylized section that’s narrated as if it were part of a game of DnD, as the DM (here, a metaphor for God, fate, or what have you) throws new obstacles into Sir Egary’s path.  Sir Egary reacts and casts his dice, paralleling the way that Gary navigates the troubles found in his own life.  I love it when authors do creative things with literary form, especially in nonfiction, and so I found this structure intriguing, if not a little cliche.  *rolls d20 to determine what aspect of the book to talk about next*

Even though this biography is stylized and told through vignettes based upon source material, the characters don’t jump off the page and aren’t fully fleshed out.  It sticks very clearly to what happens, not necessarily the whys and the hows of interpersonal relationships.  The book hints, but it doesn’t take the extra step and dive deep.  For example, the book largely glosses over Gary’s marital troubles, stating the bare minimum to convey the big changes in their relationship rather than extrapolating upon the progression of the relationship’s deterioration.  Gary’s wife didn’t feel like a complete character, and didn’t seem to have agency until the couple split.  I felt as if some of the stylization made the book feel like a weak novel rather than a strong biography, but was able to forgive it because I do welcome experimental writing.

Even though I felt like the interpersonal relationships in the book were not fully explored or developed, Witwer has a knack for understanding and conveying corporate shenanigans that’s easy to understand even for audiences who aren’t so heavily involved in the business world (much like Gary himself).

Overall, I’m glad that I read Empire of Imagination, and would recommend it to anyone who wanted to learn more about Gygax’s life. It’s not the greatest biography I’ve ever read, but it’s an insight into the creator of DnD, and for that I will gladly forgive its flaws.

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2 comments

  1. I do need to remember to get around to reading this.

    Other books with related subjects:

    Playing at the World by Jon Peterson – This is a truly massive volume that traces through the origins of D&D, and covers up to about the printing of the AD&D Players Manual. There’s large chapters in the middle that try to tease out the influences behind the main history, which not everyone enjoys, but I really liked.

    Designers & Dragons by Shannon Appelcline – Recently re-released in four volumes, this is a history of the entire RPG industry. The TSR chapter is available as a free sample, and is excellent.

    Confessions of an 84 Year Old Teenager by Tom Shaw – Autobiography of the man who ran Avalon Hill for much of its life. I haven’t read it (yet), and it would all be on the boardgaming side, but if you want a wider appreciation of what was going on at the time, this should help.