Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

by shazbazzar

Mike Witwer, the Last Gen-Xer, recounts the birth of modern gaming in his biography of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax.

The Last Gen-Xer attributes the legendary Gary Gygax with ushering the modern age of gaming with the creation of Dungeons & Dragons over forty years ago in his dramatic biography, Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer.

Empire of Imagination Cover

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

Telling the story of “a small-town ‘bad boy’ who clearly marched to the beat of his own drummer and appeared to have no future,” author Michael Witwer brilliantly scores the life and times of the person widely credited with inventing the role-playing game.  In Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Witwer spins the yarn for readers, knitting the birth of Dungeons & Dragons to the life of Gary Gygax, from his youth through adulthood. The resultant biography reads like a narrative tale yet still rings true to the reader as he is swallowed whole into the analytical and imaginative mind of this storyteller who tells the story of the storyteller who created the ultimate game of storytelling.

The Book

Empire of Imagination was released in hardcover form in October 2015. This three-hundred-page book spans the life of Gary Gygax as it specifically relates to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. The life events that Witwer has thoughtfully selected to include are not limited to the era immediately surrounding Gygax’s role in gaming, but also those which show the character, motivations, and circumstances that culminate in the conception, birth, and growth of Dungeons & Dragons. As such, the book does not claim nor pretend to be a complete and definitive biography of Gary Gygax, the man, but chronicles events as they unfold in his life that relate to the creation of the game that spawned the role-playing genre of gaming. From his childhood experiences to challenges in his adulthood, Gygax is revealed to be an intelligent dreamer with his head in the clouds as well as a diligent craftsman dedicated to his work.  Though these character qualities are often presumed to be mutually exclusive, Gary effectively combined both in order to  successfully nurture the ideas of fellow gamers, collaborators, and friends to maturity through his unending pursuit towards perfection in the development of the game.  Crediting co-creatives like Dave Arneson and Jeff Perren as well as business partners like Don Kaye and Brian Blume, Witwer unapologetically names Gygax as the essential key that both assembled the component parts and drove the process to completion and towards perfection.  The evidence presented through a combination of well-researched and documented facts with a storyteller’s flare for communicating his discoveries to his readers conveys the author’s evident belief that Dungeons & Dragons, as well as many of the aspects of modern gaming now taken for granted, may never have occurred had it not been for the unique persona of Gary Gygax.

The author accomplishes his task with the style appropriate to his subject matter.  Framing his story through the narrative of Gary’s surprise removal as president and CEO of TSR, Inc., Michael Witwer takes readers down “Memory Lane” with Gary Gygax from the prologue through the dark days when the creation was taken away from the creator.  Throughout the book, Witwer cleverly describes the major events leading up to the birth of Dungeons & Dragons as well as the triumphs and trials of growing this “Empire of Imagination” through “Levels” that delineate the various stages of Gygax’s life in a mock game of D&D with player character “Egary”.  These levels are followed by chapters which detail the real-life events that are allegorized in these role-playing vignettes.  So well conceived are these interludes, that readers are forced to realize the hidden truth behind role-playing games themselves: although players are enabled to take on fantasy personas while playing these games, behind these fictional characters are real aspects of players’ personalities.  Through this creative method of recounting the life of Gary Gygax, Witwer also reveals (whether intentionally or unwittingly) the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games.

As an added bonus to the material presented in Witwer’s dynamic narrative, there are pictures, graphics, appendices, chapter notes, and a bibliography that equip interested readers to dive deeper into the life of Gary Gygax. A timeline detailing key events of Gary’s life as well as an exhaustive list of his life’s work in the gaming community are documented at the end of the book. For those who are interested in further pursuing information about Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons, a bibliography provides numerous sources used in the author’s research of his subject. Sources are detailed in the endnotes for each chapter, allowing readers to understand how Witwer derived the well-woven story of the mind and motivation of Gygax.

Those familiar with Dungeons & Dragons will immediately note that the cover is derived from Gary Gygax’s official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book, Unearthed Arcana. With Gary taking center stage as the wizard from the original cover from 1985, Jeff Easley reimagined his earlier artwork in a style that elicits an exciting sense of nostalgia among gamers.  Combined with endpaper art by Stephen D. Sullivan inside the front and back covers reminiscent of dungeon maps from D&D modules, Witwer’s inspiring account of Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons is nearly perfectly packaged—had the book been printed according to the same dimensions as the AD&D manuals, it would have been perfect (if it sells well enough, perhaps we could get a special edition for our shelves).

The Audiobook

Many may be familiar with the author’s last name because of popular actor, Sam Witwer. Recognized onscreen for his roles in Being Human and Battlestar Galactica, Sam is widely known as the voice of Starkiller in The Force Unleashed, Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, as well as lending his voice to Kyle Newman’s audio dramas, Smuggler’s Gambit and Smuggler’s Bounty.  Sam, who just happens to be the older brother of the author, narrated the audiobook version (you can get this audiobook free by trying audible.com through this link). Drawing on his decades of experience as Dungeon Master for his brother and friends, Sam brings Michael’s book to life as he expressively reads the text. In the role-playing vignettes, RPGamers easily imagine themselves at the table with Sir Egary and the Dungeon Master. As Gary’s story unfolds in chapter after chapter, Sam’s vocalization embodies the emotional aspects of every event chronicled throughout the book: Gary’s frustrations can be felt in Sam’s sighs while his grin can nearly be seen as we witness the better days in Gygax’s life. The Brothers Witwer complement each other as the author’s words vividly resurrect the life and times of Gary Gygax and the narrator’s voice breathes life into the words on the page. Hopefully, this first excursion into the audiobook genre will not be the last for Sam Witwer.

The Author

Michael Witwer began this book as his master’s thesis while studying at the University of Chicago.  Eventually, he recognized that his effort might be of interest to a larger audience and chose to expand it into Empire of Imagination.  Michael humorously considers himself “The Last Gen-Xer”, having been born at the tail end of Generation X and sharing the same interests and experiences as other children of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  A fan of Star Wars, TRON, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, and the animated Spider-Man series from the late ‘60s, Witwer’s love for science fiction and fantasy enables him to speak with the voice of the geek-to-pop culture generation that permeates the 40-something crowd and has gained tremendous popularity among other age groups over the past decade.

Michael continues to play role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, though far more infrequently than he could as a child.  Every year, his gaming group (moderated by his brother) gathers to play the various versions of the game with the same fervor as children playing make-believe in the worlds of their mind.  In fact, his own children are already expressing interest in their father’s games, looking forward to the day when they, too, can tell their own characters’ stories in fantastic realms filled with dragons and danger.

Critical Hit Empire of Imagination

Overall, Empire of Imagination entices players of Dungeons & Dragons who want to know more about the creation of this game and inspires readers to believe in their dreams, seize opportunities, and overcome obstacles with diligence and fortitude as they live their lives to the fullest.  Upon first reading, it’s a page-turning quick read — as words flow freely from the page to the mind’s eye.  Reading it again, however, provides a deeper appreciation, not simply for Gary Gygax, but for the curious magic that has motivated millions to play D&D and the many role-playing games that have arisen over the past four decades.

For more information about Empire of Imagination, discussions about role-playing games, and interviews with Michael Witwer, check out these episodes of TechnoRetro Dads:

Empire of Imagination TechnoRetro Dads & Michael Witwer

Empire of Imagination Advanced TechnoRetro Dads & Michael Witwer

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