Close to Home … An Autobiographical Review of
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons
There is no such thing as an unbiased review, but in this instance my prejudices go beyond the norm. I love Michael Witwer’s biography of the late Gary Gygax, but I’m also connected to the material far more than the average reader—perhaps even more than my fellow D&D nerds or even my peers in the hobby games industry. I warn you now this article is likely obnoxious with name-dropping and humblebragging about personal connections, but these things are also why I can’t be objectively critical.
This book was read for me by Sam Witwer—brother of the author—in the form of an audiobook. And Sam’s voice is familiar, both from his many television and voiceover roles I’ve enjoyed and his stint as a guest at Origins while I helped organize the convention. As he and I chatted about our love of gaming, I learned that his brother was about to release a biography of Gary Gygax—co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Sam also told me that the brothers make an annual trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a week of fun in the very place roleplaying games were first conceived.
Just the mention of Lake Geneva gives me a little jab of homesickness. I lived there for a decade, some of the happiest years of my life. I first visited in 1995, barely twenty years old, and fell in love. Lake Geneva is a vacation destination for well-to-do Chicagoans (FIBs if you’re a native), having the charm of a lakeside small town but bloated with bars, restaurants, and shopping beyond what might support the native population of a few thousand people. Just outside of town are the endless flat cornfields that dominate much of Illinois and southern Wisconsin. So when the book opened with a painful day in Gary’s life and a walking tour of Lake Geneva, it wasn’t just the author’s description that painted the picture for me. Lake Geneva is my adopted home, and the melancholy scene reminded me of my final walk there as a resident before my painful and necessary move back to north Georgia. As Gary passed by Horticultural Hall—the original venue of Gen Con—my mind’s eye could see the two-story white house with tall front porch pillars next door, where I happily lived and worked for years.
Biography purists may take issue with the author’s approach in this book. Rather than a traditional scholarly narrative, Witwer chooses fictionalized vignettes informed and inspired by his extensive research. These scenes offer glimpses into important moments in Gary’s life. (I’m going to keep calling him Gary even though he and I only met a few times, but he didn’t want to be called “Mr. Gygax” even after that first timid handshake when I was twenty years old.) If you’re troubled by the author detailing his subject’s exact dialogue, thoughts, and emotions, the book might get on your nerves. It also doesn’t offer a smooth narrative of Gary’s entire life, but rather jumps forward significantly between vignettes and uses flashback and inference to connect the dots. Me? I think the author understands both his subject and his primary audience. This is a story and it reads like one. While the Gary conjured by this tome might not be an exact match to the one known best by his family and friends, it’s close enough for me.
Out of respect for those who were present at the time of these events, I feel it is important to reiterate that great lengths were taken to be as factually accurate as possible, but I also believe the dramatic aspect of the narrative is fully in line with detailing a remarkable life such as Gary’s.
This reimagined Gary Gygax also appears on the cover, delightfully pandering to its target audience of old-school gamers by riffing on the original cover of AD&D 1st Edition’s Unearthed Arcana—by none other than Jeff Easley, cover artist of many a D&D rulebook and some of my own published works. Lots of easter eggs orbit the wizard of words and his IBM Selectric typewriter—from beer to buttermilk, chess and cigarettes, crumpled papers and a human skull. The cluttered scene makes me feel a little better about the state of my desk.
For those wanting dirt on Gary or at least some of the juiciest details of the man’s extremely interesting life, they’ll be left disappointed. This biography doesn’t ignore Gary’s faults or vices, but they are mentioned without much detail. The man drank and smoked, indulged in marijuana and developed a cocaine habit—easy to imagine for a guy who was living in L.A. and working with the entertainment industry in the 1980s. Gary had affairs that contributed to his eventual divorce and in one jump his assistant is suddenly his second wife. The details are respectfully omitted and I’m okay with that, because ultimately this book is about how his life influenced his creations and how those creations looped around and changed Gary’s own life. A big bone of contention for some D&D fans is the nature of Gary’s collaboration with Dave Arneson on the original game—some people making an unflattering comparison with the relationship between Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This book unapologetically comes out as pro-Gygax, and from Gary’s perspective one can understand how things unfolded as the events are told in this book. It’s always important to remember there is always more than one side to a story, however, and close looks at our heroes often reveal uncomfortable blemishes.
Gary as presented in this book is a man I understand, and his passions and interests along with his rise and fall and reinventing of his life and place in the world all feel very familiar to me. I’ve gone through my own struggles along many of the same paths, except Gary blazed the trail I’ve followed, with many others having gone before me.
Empire of Imagination is the story of a man whose passion for games and storytelling draw him away from “normal” life and responsibilities until he stumbles his way into creation, success, and recognition he never would have predicted. Then by accident, mistakes, and misplaced trust he is cut off from the company he built and the game he created and is forced to start over, gradually coming to understand that his love of his family, friends, and games are the core of his life and he can find joy in them and the pride in works both big and small.
Damn that all feels uncomfortably familiar.
The funhouse mirror of this tale isn’t just in theme and setting, however. I started playing D&D at age seven, and the next year my father went to our local game shop and picked up the now-iconic “Red Box,” the D&D Basic set featuring the art of Larry Elmore.
I never would have guessed in 1983 that I would have either a working relationship or friendship with the artist, that I would get to write art orders for Elmore covers or smoke cigars with him outside of a pizzeria in northern Italy.
The Red Box was the start of my many years as a D&D and TSR fanboy, one who ordered from the Mail Order Hobby Shop (P.O. 756 in Lake Geneva), subscribed to Dragon Magazine, and couldn’t wait to unleash a new module or supplement on my unsuspecting game group. In the early 1990s I used a dial-up modem to connect my computer to online services (this was before the Internet was a thing), and my ridiculous enthusiasm landed me as a Role Playing Game Association (RPGA) club president, editor of an online newsletter, and staff member of the TSR Online Roundtable on GEnie—sort of an online intern. Part of my duties included moderating weekly online chats with various authors and game designers, which acquainted me with many of the names I had previously only seen on the covers of saddle-stitched adventure modules and boxed sets.
I grinned ear-to-ear when Witwer’s biography mentioned TSR publishing Metamorphosis Alpha in 1976, leaving me proud not only to know and work with game design legend Jim Ward, but I got to write for and publish one of the few pieces of intellectual property that stayed with its creator and isn’t currently owned by Hasbro. I smiled at mentions of Jeff Grubb’s Marvel Super Heroes game, still one of my favorite rules sets for comic-book action. When David “Zeb” Cook got a nod in Gary’s biography, I recalled my chance to play with him at a long-ago Gen Con—a crazy RPG session that ended with my character dressed as Big Bird and strapped to a bi-plane that crashed into a mansion owned by a notorious mob boss.
I could go on, but I’ve probably caused too many eyes to roll. The point is I’m close to Gary on a Six-Degrees flowchart, and that Empire of Imagination offered me quite the revelation: Without Gary Gygax I literally would not be who I am today. In a world without Gary I wouldn’t have the game that stoked my creative drive and love of fantasy, would never have even visited the lakeside town where I left my heart seven years ago, and wouldn’t have met countless people who’ve had an incredible impact on my life. If there was no Gary Gygax there would not be a Jamie Chambers, and for that you can thank him or blame him—take your pick!
Gary had been out of the spotlight for many years before his death, so some were surprised that his passing made headlines around the world. Not me, as I stood in ground zero of the impact Gary made in the world, and it radiated out into every form of entertainment from books to movies to video games and the cultural takeover of geeks in today’s world. The true revenge of the nerds was a slow-burning cultural revolution that Gary started by bringing a game to so many creative and influential minds. I was invited to his wake, nicknamed “GaryCon” at the time and gave rise to an annual convention that celebrates the man’s life and achievements. (I hope to see some of you there in March!) I can imagine Gary smiling at the sight of folks young and old playing his games and telling crazy stories, including the family he adored, both a fitting tribute and a fine tradition.
You have my high recommendation for Empire of Imagination, with the understanding that the story of Gary’s life is so deeply personal to me that your own mileage will vary. But I can promise that in its pages you will meet an interesting man who brought something special to the world, and like me you will likely be very sad he’s no longer with us.
Thank you, Gary, for your life and passion and work that made my own possible. Game on.
Shameless Self-Advertising Below
I wrote an RPG updating a classic! Check it out:
I’m using sex to sell. This is the part below the actual content where I hypocritically and shamelessly plug my own stuff!
Wanna play a fast, easy-to-learn card game involving tentacles, shotguns, and unfathomable horror? Who doesn’t? Check out Building An Elder God, a card game of Lovecraftian Construction. Visit our online store right here!
Or perhaps you’d like a heartwarming children’s tale. If so, look elsewhere. But if you’d like a twisted, Lovecraftian take on classic children’s literature look no further than The Very Hungry Cthulhupillar—available in eBook/PDF form right here, right now!