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Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons
By Michael Witwer
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Make no mistake, Michael Witwer's Empire of Imagination is a fascinating book, merely from it being the first-ever full biography of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons and inventor of the very concept of "roleplaying games." And it's an unexpected story, too, far from the "accidentally hit it big then had it all snatched away" tale that my friends and I knew as teen D&D players in the 1970s and '80s; in fact, even by the 1960s, Gygax was nationally known as one of the most inventive innovators among the miniatures-based historical-reenactment board games that eventually produced D&D's fan base, with D&D itself being the result of years of hard work and incremental changes through rigorous play-testing (including Gygax already running several national gaming conventions before ever releasing D&D), and with the company's eventual dissolution into a corporate pawn largely being the result of the founders' own mismanagement, flame-war-like personal distrust of each other (exacerbated by the sheer number of autistic personalities among the company's upper staff), and the excesses that came with suddenly rich nerds meeting the '70s counterculture. (In fact, one of the most shamefully delightful parts of this book is the chapter covering Gygax's move to Los Angeles to head up TSR's new Hollywood division, where according to Witwer he bought a mansion in Beverly Hills, regularly partook of cocaine, and did voluntary work for beauty pageants so he could hang out with starlets.)
It's a complicated and riveting story that just keeps giving, all the way up to Gygax's death in the early 2000s, that I'm glad I finally had a chance to understand in detail; so what a shame, then, that the novice journalist Witwer (this is his first book, based on a master's thesis he did in college) decided to write the whole thing in the style of narrative fiction, taking all the true facts then writing it out as if it was a novel we were following along with, ascribing actions and dialogue to the real people involved that may or may not have ever happened, and that turns the entire manuscript into this schmaltzy mess that is difficult to get through. (So for one good example, instead of simply stating, "Gygax and his childhood friends used to enjoy exploring the abandoned health spas from Lake Geneva's Victorian glory years," Witwer writes an entire chapter actually examining this exploration as if it were a cheesy short story, adding lines like, "Gary thought to retort, but he could see by Don's expression that he would have to lead this operation" that Witwer couldn't possibly know whether actually happened or not.) The cumulative effect is to effectively ruin whatever enjoyment could've come from a straightforward telling of Gygax's story, a story that's already so complicated and interesting that no embellishments like these are needed; and it's almost a crime that this has to be enjoyed despite the way the author wrote it instead of because of the way he did. It's still worth picking up, not just for gamers but those interested in 1980s popular culture; just be warned that reading it is going to be a frustrating experience.
Out of 10: 7.9