Empire of the Imagination by Michael Witwer (Book Review)

Gary Gygax played a huge role in gaming history and his contribution is still felt to this day across many tables and platforms. Find out more about this rarely spoken of legend and read what we think of the book.

Written by: Michael K Grymm

“I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else”.

Gary Gyax,

Author, Game Designer & Legend

Unlike many of the contributors and bloggers online today who write at length on the subject of tabletop RPGs from a long history of gaming I came late to the party so to speak (forgive the pun). Though I was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons through the cartoon that was airing on KTV2 in the early 90’s, which introduced me to basic lore and class concepts of the game despite it being severely watered down I got the idea of what fantasy as genre was.

Being a young boy in that era, growing up with tapes of Conan the Barbarian, The Hobbit animated film and the Heroic Legend of Arslan my mind already had awesome imagery populating the depths of my imagination. Heroic swordsmen dueling for the honor of their people and mages casting powerful magic against unholy demons were but a few of the cool scenarios I already had in my head running to a metal soundtrack.

            The cartoon was campy even for me as a child but I loved the idea of a group of friends coming together to defeat evil, if only around a table in a ‘let’s play pretend’ fashion. Being born and raised in Kuwait until I was 13 getting your hands on the game was next to impossible as most content in the country is still censored and certain board games, books and movies were not available. This would not be the case for videos games and movies as much because piracy was a big thing in the Middle East but nobody was pirating D&D to my knowledge.

The first copy I ever saw of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide were when a new American family moved into the building and one of their kids played 3.5 with their friends back home. Sadly we never got around to playing but I remember being fascinated by the class options while also being intimidated by all the charts and numbers. It was not until my mid teens where I would get a firmer grasp on what RPG systems would become thanks to computer and video games having the global impact they did in the mid 90s to mid 00’s. I can still remember playing Blizzard’ Diablo on the Sony Playstation and later Diablo II on PC before getting hooked on Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 1 & 2 for the PS 2. The Dungeons & Dragons novels and the Dragonlance books would allow me to quest further into imaginary realms with heroes and villains doing epic magical battle and added more material for our talks in the playground. These ingredients would be the fabric of day dreams and short stories my brother and I would write in our primary school education, some would even win my brother his first writing awards. Fantasy will continue to be a big part of our pastime and content we enjoy even now as adults and Gary Gygax played a part in it much like he did for millions of others.

            All these great memories and feelings of nostalgia can in a large part be contributed to work of 2 men, Gary Gygax and David Arneson. Two avid, imaginative and almost obsessed creative giants whose talents we lost far too soon. This article will focus more on Gygax, the man who would co-found Tactical Simulation Rules in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin with a few friends and change the nature and shape of gaming and entertainment forever by publishing the still popular and relevant Dungeons & Dragons tabletop rpg system.

            I first heard about this book the first year it was published but only got it to read it the following year. Myself being a huge fan of history in general I find that I too love learning about the history of authors and the games that made my childhood so interesting and colorful. This autobiography chronicling the life of a man who I feel generations owe a lot to first emerged as the thesis for author’s Master Thesis at the University of Chicago.

            The author, Michael Witwer has been in writing professionally for most of his post graduate life but also is an accomplished stage performer with a history in community service and healthcare. Michael also has a blog and has appeared on several blogs and videocasts where he not only talks about the process of writing Empire of Imagination but also the stories surrounding that time and what could not make the book. I suggest checking out his appearance on Matt Chat to find out more about our author and get some other tasty pieces of information.

            I pushed play on this audio book knowing more than the average nerd about the origins of D&D and it’s creators. Having read whatever I could find online as well as the documentary ‘Secrets of Blackmoor: The True History of Dungeons & Dragons’, the review, which will be published on Nerd Dimension next week. Familiar with Gary’s troubled past at TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) and the legal feud between himself and Dave Arneson was also something that I hoped would be cleared up through the passages of Empire of Imagination. The author did his homework and attempted his best to deliver a man’s life story with great care to his legacy while also staying the course on keeping it balanced and true to events that surrounded this overlooked legend. This was no easy task when you consider that the author had a subject that had already passed by the time he started his research and had to find contacts and sources who could still testify to the events and Gary’s character. Some of the key actors in the drama would obviously avoid making comment, namely the conniving Blume brothers who this writer feels personally and directly contributed to many of the financial headaches of TSR prior to Lorraine Williams’ arrival at the company.

            Empire of the Imagination is a collection of authentic accounts in which the reader is taken through the life and times of a simple man, not a hero fighting in a war against a maniacal tyrant nor a political leader who captivated the hearts and minds of millions. Gary Gygax for the most part was a storyteller and gamer in a time where neither would get you far in life. The man spent half of his life working a 9 – 5 struggling to get by to feed his family of 4, which would continue to grow but it is this very struggle and his optimistic attitude that endears him to the reader. Witwer would write about the highs and the lows and the moments that molded Gary in his youth to his actions and digressions in adulthood. This expose of sorts brought home to me the nature of this man and how he truly cared about gamers and the game when RPGs, videogames and publishers looked at the genre as a whole as a fad and a niche that would eventually fizzle out. He started conventions and collaborated with people via snail mail and long distance phone calls just to enhance the experience for not just his players but also all players.

            Hearing about how Gary and his war gamer buddies went from reenacting historic military battles to designing an entirely new way to play and create a format of entertainment is inspirational and warms your heart to those independent creators out there today doing the same thing. You can identify with the working class man still devoted to his passion and seeing it come to fruition left me with a good feeling.

            This book is a must read for anybody who is a fan of the RPGs and classic Dungeons & Dragons as much as it is for the novice player just entering the universe that is RPGs. The story is gripping from beginning to end and you will feel for not only Gary but also for those around him while learning what it took to keep the game going for as long as he did. His determination and drive and eternal boyish nature would allow him to repeatedly pick himself up from any thing from financial ruin which would cripple anyone else to the emotional desolation of two divorces this small and great man would rise and be responsible for how we spend countless hours of our lives today. The book is well worth the purchase and I warmly recommend it to anybody who is thinking of getting to rpgs and not just a MUST read for writer and creators already in the industry.

I will have to give this book an 8 out of 10 and is worth having as I myself have revisited it 3 times until now and every time I pick up something new.

Author: Mykal K Grymm

I love reading and writing, enjoy RPGs of all forms and am a huge sci fi and fantasy fiction fan. Working on A Nerd Dimension & the podcast hoping to be able to get more people interested in my hobbies and passions and bridge the gap for those seeking to enter the culture.

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