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.

Dungeons & Dragons : Shadows Over Mystarra – Coop Arcade fun for 4 (Xbox, PC)

I can recall first the first time I watched the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in the early 90’s and loved the idea of heroes adventuring in a fantasy world. Not comprehending the complexities of tabletop RPGs I just loved the stories and that was enough. Then I remember going to the arcades with my brother and we loved playing coop games like Metal Slug and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which even allowed for up to 4 players. I would read about Dungeons & Dragons Tower of Doom that was released in 1993/94 for the legendary CPS-2 machine by Capcom, a developer and publisher all kids we all too familiar with. Tower of Doom would not be the first D&D game released by Capcom with TSR after signing their deal in 1990 which resulted shortly after in the porting of Eye of the Beholder to the SNES.

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The artwork in the magazine was evocative and the cover featured the standard party with the Dwarf, Cleric, Warrior and Elf. At the time races were classes as they were using the AD&D Rules Cyclopedia rules when designing the game which also made it unlike any other side scrolling beat em up game. Not only had they gotten the rights from TSR for the system but they also were using a popular setting from the AD&D books. At the time fans of D&D had gold box computer games and other iterations of their favorite tabletop game ported to the PC but nothing that looked as good as what Capcom released and no game allowed for up to 4 players couch coop! The game would eventually see it packed with the sequel Shadows of Mystarra (Dungeons & Dragons Collection 1999) for the failed Sega Saturn console but only Japan with the removal of 4 player capabilities.

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The things that made this a different gaming experience for arcade goers was that it allowed players to do more than just simple attacks, infact Capcom wanted to remain true to the abilities existing fans of the tabeltop game loved so much.  Capcom would enlist the talents of video game and anime concept illustrator Kinu Nishimura (Street Fighter games and Capcom Vs SNK) while leaving the writing duties to Alex Jiminez who did great in translating the feel and narrative of Dungeons & Dragons to a more mainstream audience. Players would be able to select abilities and feats while picking up items and loot which was stowed in their inventory. Prior to this inventory functionality and the differentiation of what each character to do made this a gamechanger in the early 90’s, the last era of arcades still being relavent in gaming culture globally.

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The game had miles of depth on the competition at the time, it was hard to complete and it played different depending on the choices the players made in game. A store and and the addition of a block function helped players survive a few more kobolds. D&D fans coming to arcade would be pscyhed when they saw the inclusion of their favorite spells including, magic missile, fireball, cloudkill and invisibility along with the same limitations from the book meant their exzisting knowledge would allow for them to get the game from the first quarter. Levelling up and loss of gold and points when dying made it a game where you had to think more than your would for other beat em ups like Fatal Fury or the Simpsons. The replayability of Tower of Doom and its difficulty had us dumping money into the cabinets and for those who got to see the ending at the 7th level we were amped after seeing the cliffhanger ending which hinted at a sequel.

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Shadows over Mystarra would be the second Dungeons & Dragons game released for arcades in 1996, adding more to the game and expanding the choices for playable classes. The thief and magic user class were added to the joy of many D&D players. Each class had alternate costumes so two players could play as the same class if they wanted to and believe me have two casters is nothing to sneeze at in this game. Capcom also jammed in more combos for the fighting classes and threw in more spells along with diverging paths for specific classes and alternate endings added more replayability to that game that already did it right the first time around.  By far the 4 possible endings for each class is something I think no game has done since.

 

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Now that we have laid on the praise real thick with our nostalgia goggles on it is time to get into what we don’t like about the games. Seeing as the games were originally designed for the arcades it was common practise for developers for have money grab levels and cheap bosses who were so hard that you would HAVE to have a fair amount of coinage to survive. Pay to pay at it’s finest but this is truly visible when fighting the Red Dragon in the first game where you do not even see his health bar after a barrage of hits connect and his insta-death fire breath killed many one second into the encounter. Also, there were glitches in the sequeal where you could cheat through entering certain words when given the choice of naming your character along with a few other glitches which could give you powerful items helped some cheaters get their names on the highscore charts. Other than that my gripe is more with Capcom than it is with TSR which was going through hell in the 90s.

Imagine if Capcom did not sacrifice the 4 player option for the Saturn, better yet try picture them releasing these game on the Sony Playstation as a bundle in 1996? I could not find any explaination as to why Capcom would not pursue it further, one of the reasons could be that D&D did not catch on as fast or grow as much as it did in the west. Alex Jiminez who wrote the scenario for Capcom said the Japanese staff were not understanding the concept or much of the mechanics behind D&D. The heads in Tokyo even were debating whether the game should have a Western or Eastern theme prior to Alex’s arrival.

Let us recall that RPG fans in the early 90s had slim pickings for games especially when discussing consoles with Diablo 1 coming to the Playstation in 1998 with only a two player option, beating Capcom by a year for their collection which was exclusive to Japan. Baldurs Gate would not hit PCs until 1998 meaning Capcom had more than enough time to capitalize on a severely under served genre with most of the titles remaining exclusive to PC platforms. Waiting as long as 2013 to repackage and release the collection globally on most platforms seemed like a long wait and I’m pretty sure if they had ported it to the Playstation, PS2, Dreamcast, or Xbox they could have gotten some more sales and perhaps rekindled the interest of Wizards of the Coast in a time where consoles were not even a thought for developers. Proof of this is that we had to wait until 2001 before console gamers would recieve the critically acclaimed ‘Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance’.

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REMINDER: The titles listed were gamechangers and all came towards the end of the 90s, not to say there were not games on the PC and Playstation that did not have Dungeons & Dragons licensing but these products fell short of the mark when it came to graphics, replayability and never made the arcade. With the exception of Eye of the Beholder which was well reviewed no D&D computer game would make a splash prior to Baldurs Gate in 1998.

Hoping you enjoyed reading this post and we cannot recommend this enough if you have 15$ lying around give the game a shot as it is packed with nostalgia while also providing hour of fun in a familiar setting.  I give this collection 9 out of 10. 

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What are TRPGs and why do we quest? Why we think you might like them too.

By Mykal K Grimm

If you are new to role playing games then I hope this piece will shed some light on the hobby and help further your interest in this truly enjoyable form of social entertainment. Table Top Role Playing Games are not like other games the majority of your friends might play when they hangout in their free time as it has a heavy reliance on the players imagination and it is narrative driven, a story is unfolding throughout play and you can change the course of events by decisions taken by the player. The dice have more than 6 sides or less depending on which ones are needed to be rolled and the game is not competitive in the sense that there is a winner and looser at the end. The game also lasts longer than most traditional board or card games and is played in a way that most people have not encountered as it is vastly different to Uno, Chess or Poker. We will go deeper into the mechanics at another time but it is a very different game that offers a truly unique and fun experience for the players and game masters. I will do my best to help explain what it is we do around the table and why I enjoy it and think more people would if they tried to play TRPGs.

Role Playing Games are games in which the player takes on the role of a character of a certain class and race in often a fictional setting where they are given a quest to resolve. When generating this character you roll or calculate Points for your ability score and distribute them among your skills and attributes which is done during the character creation phase. Different classes possess different talents and abilities as do races which can include dim light vision if you were an Elf or resistance to poison if you were an Orc shaman. Classes can range from the combat focused Fighter to the versatile Wizard and Elves, Dwarves and Halflings are but some of the playable races and classes in some of these systems.  These tabletop games are not merely restricted to medieval fantasy settings but those are the ones I prefer and will use them for most of my examples.

Games can be set in any era, in any environment and classes and powers vary from system to system as do the rules of play.  Mutants and Masterminds is an RPG system which sees you take on the role of a super hero or villain and battle it out Marvel style while Call of Cthulhu has the players play as Investigators trying to solve a murder before dying or loosing their collective s##t in the process. Some RPGs require a  gaming surface and miniature figurines for staging combat, others may use index cards to tell a story while some do not require anything but a piece of paper and is entirely spoken. RPGs come in many forms , levels of complexity and have actually been around since the 70’s with  Dungeons & Dragons being the first leading name in the industry and remains so until today.

Gary Gyax and Dave Arneson were enthusiastic war gamers who wanted to create a game in which you controlled a single soldier opposed to an entire unit or platoon. They would eventually brainstorm a very basic Dungeons & Dragons system and later Gary Gygax would publish it through his company TSR. D&D would change the face of gaming forever as many video game developers would use the character stats from their game to develop and design their own games with them serving as a template. In time their brand would have bestsellers popularizing the genre of fantasy further and familiarizing the reader with their RPG settings and lore. They would push the envelope for the entire industry while creating it at the same time. Fantasy was the first setting but later they would release futuristic science fiction settings in Gamma World  and other books including D20 Modern where players could use SMGs and helicopters. The whole idea was to give players a chance to enter their imaginations and with their guidelines play out epic adventures all from the safety of their own home and in the company of their friends.

Me and my guild first really got into RPGing because we all enjoyed similar things and for most of us, none of us had a chance to really play an TRPG. We would come together and after long discussions about D&D we decided to give it a shot and start playing. At first most of us were brand new to Dungeons & Dragons TRPG games but we enjoyed reading the books, seeing the great artwork. We did start with a more complex system (3.5 Edition which later evolved into Pathfinder) that did have many stats, numbers, reading and may not have been the best choice for newbies in hindsight. The learning curve is not as steep as it may appear at first glance but it does require reading the material in order to have a basic grasp of how it the game is played. Coming to the gaming table without reading anything is a mistake. With the resources available online today a new player can get a decent idea of what the game is about and a basic comprehension of stages of play and how a turn goes. We ourselves plan to put out tutorial videos down the line.

In the beginning your eyes will be overwhelmed with many of the Character sheets but after a few gaming sessions you will know what to look for and where what goes. With every session we ran we would feel more comfortable with the rules, questions would get addressed and answered and the deeper we delved into this imaginary world. My first character was Marcus Marvella, a Half Elf Ranger with a cliche backstory and I remember how much I like attributes of the class. My brother player a more advanced class of a War Mage, Boris of the Bash Bros was a Human Barbarian and Medeni played a dwarven cleric. All of us enjoyed figuring out which skills and weapons to use depending on the situation they found themselves. We learned very fast that there was a big coop component to playing the game, communication and teamwork is the only way to survive an attack or escape a potentially fatal argument. We also grew closer as friends and before long we are snapping D&D puns and jokes and it was something we all would continue to look forward to until this day.

When you quest you are playing a character other than yourself in a fictional setting where you are not bound by our current reality and norms. Want to slay dragons and rescue the princess, you can do it from the safety of your home with your friends as your allies. Ever wanted to be part of a story as it was written? Solve mysteries in a Victorian city or escape the Death Star with you friends, yes and yes guys. Questing is always going to have more options than any video game because there is no limit to your imagination. Many have described the RPG experience as the players are characters in movie and are playing it out as the Game Master is the director responsible for crafting the obstacles and supporting cast. I cannot describe the laughs had at the table and the tension when the Health Points were low and nobody had any potions and our Cleric was out of heals! The immersion is a big part of why I enjoy playing and running the game. No one session is the same and if done right a session involves just as much role playing as combat encounters.

The community of tabletop RPG players is diverse and the passion for the hobby is very real. There are dozens of groups and pages on social media and websites (cough) including Nerd Dimension who seek to make this hobby more accessible and make it easier for those wishing to pursue it as a hobby. RPGing can be a truly liberating experience, being able to break away from the problems in the real world and it can also be very social if you schedule games with new players once in a while. I hope that this post can help motivate readers to consider playing or maybe return to it now as there are so much more options now. Reach out to members in local gaming groups or go to game shops and see if there other players who need an extra player. The experience can be rewarding and it is better than solitary gaming in my opinion. At the end of every session I feel I did not waste my time, I was socializing while playing a game by telling a story. I do not have the same feeling after playing 4 hours of a PC game or console and my eyes get tired.

If you love playing RPG PC or video games, this is something you should at least look into to get some insight into how your pass time originated. I have noticed it seems harsher for video game players crossing over but there are systems that let you do awesome stuff in the early levels so don’t worry about being bored.

If you love fantasy fiction then I cannot recommend this enough for it is the closest I have gotten to playing a character from one of my favorite novels and immersing myself into a setting. It could also serve as a helpful tool to flush out your own settings and characters if you group are open to trying it out.

If you are looking for something different that could sharpen your writing, voice acting or social skills in general than this is something that could be beneficial to you.

 

Game Systems I can recommend for new players:

GURPS : A very basic system which is good for a first session as there is less attributes and a basic rule system. A great way to introduce basic character creation and principles of play found in the more complex systems especially for younger players. There are many itirations of the system with loads of settings to choose from and is the cheapest to get price ways compared to the bigger systems.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition): A step up in complexity but still easier than the later editions and other RPGs on the market. Despite having more rules than GURPS the AD&D system allows for more options in play and character creation. Good starting point if you have a group thinking of playing D&D the amount of materials and campaigns online to me make this the most fun to run and play for new players from teens to adults. Our very own DM Pat still runs the system until this day and you can catch him on Roll20 running sessions.

Shadowrun: A science-fiction / cyber punkish game which is more focused on skills opposed to class for solving problems and resolving combat. It is a more modern setting and is rich in theme and flavor and serves an interesting alternative to players not looking for Swords and Sorcery. The weapons and races are just as diverse as you can find in most fantasy and the twist of entery this ‘Matrix’ like cyber dimension makes for a unique experience. You have hackers to tanks and working together while one of your runners is disabling a security program is pretty cool. If you want to get a feel for the general idea of the game you can get the Shadowrun PC games for fair prices on GOG and I recommend them.

Call of Cthulhu: A horror science-fiction RPG based on the HP Lovecraft’s Mythos in which you investigate mysterious events and have to maintain your sanity and safety as the Ancient Ones hurl every demonic thing it can at your party. The basic role playing rules make it easy to get into for new players and the horror setting will have players on the edge of their seats until the very end where everyone dies…because it is very very very hard to survive in COC. A must play for all horror and Lovecraft fans thinking of entering the RPG realm.

Star Wars Roleplaying Game: What more can I say. This game was designed to be easy for those taking their first steps into roleplaying games and the theme is there in buckets. It is new and you can buy beginner boxes for cheap and I think this goes over well with younger players the most. Unleash the force with your buddies while recapturing some of the magic of the movies.

Vampire: The Masquerade :  A system unlike the others which is more story orientated opposed to combat. The system has a strong community and following is designed with those looking for more storytelling in the game and the setting and theme of vampires is very well done. Take on the curse of the night in the form of unique vampires as you and your party have to decide how to operate in this hidden world. There is a great PC game developed by Troika of this system which I recommend.

There is something for everybody in the world of tabletop RPGs and maybe this post helps somebody choose to give them a shot. Until your eyes gaze upon my humble writing once more please let us know what you think of our content in the comments section below. If you like what you read so far we welcome you to subscribe and follow our social media pages and podcast.

*Nerd Dimension also have started recruiting members and players for our Sci Fi Fantasy Club in Kungsbacka, all you need is the app Meet Up to find and get in touch with the group.