Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
I’ve started 2020 as I mean to go on: as a big ole nerd. And what better way to begin than with a biography of the uber-nerd: the one who popularised a specific type of fantasy role-playing game, which would move beyond basements into the halls of power?
No better, I guess.
Empire of Imagination, as its subtitle suggests, is a biography of Gary Gygax, the husky gentleman whose interest in gaming led to the creation of D&D, TSR and any other number of acronyms. He’s instrumental in making gaming/pop-culture conferences popular, and essentially is a big dork who made good. (Well, if you include “running companies into the ground” and “blasting a bunch of coke in Hollywood” as “good”. I mean, they’re certainly marks of something.)
The writing in the work is pretty solid, and it tells the Gygax story in an appealing, easy way. It reads like a novel, rather than a biography, and is heftily-resourced, with plenty of source details, as well as descriptions of all of the subject’s published work and the like. There’s scene-setting insertions of DM-narrated action to shift focus to different parts of Gygax’s life, and on the whole it flows pretty well, describing how the game was birthed, rose to prominence, and weathered the storms of parental concern and satanist finger-pointing.
(Speaking of which, Jack Chick’s version of D&D looks RAD. I hope I become a priestess soon. I don’t think his intention was to raise my enthusiasm like this, though.)
I’m probably different to the reader envisioned by the author. Rather than a dyed-in-the-wool D&D nerd, I’m someone who came to the hobby relatively late – only last year, in fact. And as such, some of the overly-reverential nature of the text seems a bit much at times. But to be fair, Gygax’s work did set the scene for a lot of the gaming present, especially in the computer world, so it would be churlish to refuse to acknowledge his shadow. I mean, he was on Futurama with Al Gore, after all.
The key thing that comes out of this book – other than Gygax’s terrible driving – is the importance of society, and of friendship. Though he was often seen by others as lesser, or a dreamer, Gygax’s plans all revolved around interaction, about bringing people together under a tent of story, and making them part of it. The book leans hard on the way that D&D (and other such games) make people who might never have had anything in common link up in the name of narrative.
I guess that is something to be pretty proud of. Like Witwer, I’m in no doubt that this is a net good. If you’re a d20 dork, or a complete newbie, there’ll be something in here to interest, because the book isn’t just about stats and kobolds – it’s about heart.
(My Goodreads profile is here.)