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 – Shadowplague (Comic Book Review) IDW

IDW pairing with TV writer John Rogers and what we thought of it. At a time when D&D was loosing fans because of 4th Edition did they get this right?

It is no mystery that most of us at Nerd Dimension are RPG Players who have played or still continue to play Dungeons & Dragons. It is synonymous with nerds, adventure and chances are that most of the people you know have heard about it or know something about it.  In the dark era in which Wizards of the Coast got greedy and foolish by releasing what is still dubbed the worst version Dungeons & Dragons. In this time IDW had the license agreement with WOTC to publish D&D comics. IDW had already obtained licenses were already coming off successes with popular TV franchises which they turned into comics with 24, CSI and Star Trek. The publisher also would give readers also print comics for popular gaming titles (Silent, Castlevania and Metal Gear Solid) and IDW continue to cater to their readers so D&D would make perfect sense.

I had already read two volumes of classic D&D comics (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) published by the giant DC comics and was curious to see how the newer material would read. Having also real several novels including The Crystal Shard & Homeland I went in knowing a lot about D&D and the lore.

The duo that put together Shadowplague were screenwriter John Rogers (The Core and Leverage) and seasoned artist Andrea Di Vito ( Marvel’s Annihilation), peaking my interest as I had not heard of Rogers prior to this book and actually thought it could be a idea getting someone from TV for the writing. Later I would see he worked on Catwoman.I feel I need not add insult to injury but this guy did go on to do bigger and better things. John Rogers would write for the Young Justice, Librarians and the Teen Titans all shows which I enjoyed so he was up two in my grade book.

shadowplague

I loved the art on the cover, the characters well drawn and it looked a lot fresher than the older issues I had read before. A big step up but then again I was reading content from the late 80’s & early 90’s.  The writing in Shadowplague is not the best but it is well written with the average reader in mind. I could see how the writers work in television helped him in making the story a little more engaging to those who would come in as novices. Not too many people will understand the difference between a spell and a cantrip and like most of us in high school we hated reading old English. The writer here managed to meet you halfway so that the dialogue feels modern but not too modern that it works against the feel of the setting. I like the coloring and the shading in the panels, especially how some of the characters get those extra details in the right places. I do however miss the rugged look of the older comics but the visually the comic is up to standards and I cannot complain nor praise it.

The plot is not the most original but then again what do you expect buying a Dungeons & Dragons comic? I did like that this was not a comic version of other stories but more a continued comic book series. The characters and story did not have to measure up against previous bestsellers and both the artist and the writer could add more of themselves to the creation of the book. The story revolves around a party that have just joined forces out of common interests and we read the unfolding of the stories. Some have intriguing conflicts that push them further forward whereas others are more stereotypical in a fantasy sense, meaning the elf and dwarf are not that keen on each others company. Through the story it does feel like D&D in the sense that the characters classes do get to play to their strengths in the story and the story, though dry does get you the last page.

I still prefer the older version of the comics but that is my opinion. I feel they were more original with some of the storytelling and think that Shadowplague is a light entry. I saw that quite a few people gave this book a favorable review but I will have to be the outlier…again. The writing and page count left me with things to desire, more chapters and a better conclusion for the price I paid. The book I bought online through amazon did not last two readings before falling out from the spine. I feel they could have been a little more creative with the characters and perhaps added more so that I would feel tempted to fork over more money for the next book. The way things stand now I will not be purchasing the remaining books as I have got into their more recent D&D Publications which you can bet we will talk and write about in posts to come.

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

In closing, if you can source this book or the whole run for cheap then by all  means pull out the plastic and make your bid. I could recommend this comic to someone thinking of getting into D&D and it is a good, light introduction without being too heavy. I talked with some younger readers who said it was fun to see the different races and got curious about the tabletop and video games after reading so in that sense the book does serve a purpose.  For more information on the pair behind the book they did an interview with Newsrama in 2010 we invite you to read.

Thank you for reading, please leave a comment even if it is to contradict my opinion, rate even if it is 3 out of 5  and most importantly subscribe/follow our pages on FACEBOOK + MIXCLOUD as to stay up to date on content and contests. We are always interested in your feedback and welcome your submissions and entries. To hear more on the book the in audio format visit The Nerd Dimension episode in the link.