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Book Review – Empire of Imagination


A reference to Unearthed Arcana, for those unaware.

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer is one of those biographies/histories where the author dramatizes it. Meaning there’s dialog and inner monologues that the author is taking a few liberties with, similar to Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. That may bother some people, including me, but for once I actually found it helpful in relating to the subject matter.

The book is a history of Dungeons & Dragons but it’s a history we see as we follow one man, D&D’s creator, Gary Gygax. There’s very little jumping around and visiting other people involved, this story is firmly about Gygax and his how is life affected and was affected by D&D.

Having read a few books on the subject, my favorite so far being Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, there wasn’t a whole lot of new information to gain about the game itself. But I didn’t realize how little I knew about Gygax himself. A self-made high school dropout, creative and self-destructive and gamer to a fault. It’s strangely fascinating to read about Gygax’s personality and how it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including his wife and kids. It’s also shows how much of the company and game relied on friends, family and the gaming community.

And yet, with all of his flaws, the man created one of the greatest games of all time and then kept creating, kept the community of tabletop players alive through a home-town convention and never stopped playing games during his free time. While nothing after D&D ever gained the same popularity, there’s something to be said for the amount of material Gygax created in his life. He reminded me a bit of Stan Lee in that regard, having created an amazing and loved universe at the early stages of his career and then never being able to top after. Life Stan Lee, it wasn’t the material he created after that made him a star, it was him just being who he was. Gygax lived a rock star life for a while and the geek community helped make him feel like one.

Another great read on the subject.

A lot of the book talks about how much Gygax influenced the world and it’s hard to argue. The path of D&D to computers, to MMORPGs, to LARP to Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel, it’s all easy to see. Near the end of the book, Witwer talks about how Gygax is geek royalty, maybe even King of the Geeks. Considering that D&D has been going since the 70s, he might be right.

As someone who’s life has been heavily affected by Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop games in general, the history of the medium feels strangely personal (there’s a reason this blog is called Natural 20). I wasn’t playing in the 80s, but reading about the groups that formed, I felt like I could have been. There’s always something geek-romantic about friends around a table in a basement roleplaying. Well, maybe it’s only that way for me, but I love reading about that stuff.

If you’re remotely interested about the history of D&D, Gary Gygax or the hobby of roleplaying, this is a great read. Combined with Of Dice and Men, digging through the past has never been easier or more entertaining. I will say both books share a flaw in that neither really dig into the history of TSR after it’s removed from Gygax’s control. Empire of Imagination does a better job, but seems like the company was so destructive that you could get another book out of it’s time in the 90s, before it was bought by Wizards of the Coast.

I guess I’ll have to start reading Designers & Dragons next.