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The Gygax Biography

30 Dec

I knew Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, by Michael Witwer, would be a must-have as soon as I saw it in Barnes & Noble. I put it on my Christmas wish list—and my family came through!

The book is the well-told tale of Gary Gygax’s life, from his Chicago boyhood, through his rise and fall with TSR and the most innovative game design of all time, to his final acknowledgement by the mainstream as a visionary entertainer. He did have a great vision for interactive story telling that had never been presented in such a way before, but as far as business sense…not so much.

If we were to craft a novel in the mold of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and include The Gary Gygax Story, that chapter could be called ‘The Dungeon Master’s Tale’. In fact, Witwer uses a device that I thought was imaginative, but irritated many reviewers at Goodreads. Witwer organizes his book into sections called ‘Levels’. Each chapter is then a ‘+’ in the Level. Each level is introduced with a role playing narrative with a dungeon master and a player named Egary…obviously Gygax. Level One introduces us to Page Egary, and then each chapter is +1, +2, +3 and so forth until Egary Levels Up to Squire, then Sir, then Lord Egary. I liked it. I thought it caught the D&D flavor perfectly.

Another aspect that bothered some other reviewers but that I thought made it a stronger book was the apparently free use of quotes and narratives. Empire of Imagination is not structured or styled as an academic treatise. It was obviously written to be read by laypeople. Your average every day reader likes reading narrative and dialogue, not pages upon pages of exposition. Witwer provides narrative and dialogue, almost to the point of damaging his credibility. At several points as I was reading, even I found myself asking “He put this in quotes. How could Witwer have known what was actually said here?” Without fail, there would be a superscript at the end of the passage, directing me to an end-note that would say something like “this scene is based upon details from an interview with Ernie Gygax…”, or “quoted from a Gary interview…” with a well referenced source. I think Witwer does a great job of blending a fiction writing style with a well-documented biography. It should be heavily sourced…this book began as Witwer’s master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.

Empire of Imagination is obviously Gary-centric in its telling. Witwer does point out Gary’s flaws that led to the road he traveled up and down with TSR, but it still winds up being kind of a one sided story. I really would like to hear more from the foibles in the story, especially Dave Arneson, and Brian and Kevin Blume, to understand the complete story. I think there is more to the D&D story to tell.

In all, I loved this book and would recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about The Dungeon Master’s Tale.

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