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Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,000 Ratings  ·  216 Reviews
The life story of Gary Gygax, godfather of all fantasy adventure games, has been told only in bits and pieces. Michael Witwer has written a dynamic, dramatized biography of Gygax from his childhood in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to his untimely death in 2008.

Gygax's magnum opus, Dungeons & Dragons, would explode in popularity throughout the 1970s and '80s and irreversibly a
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published October 6th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA
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Sean Gibson
May 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
The surest way to ensure a miniscule audience is to lead with the fact that you’re writing something related to Dungeons & Dragons.

I can’t imagine this imaginative biography of D&D creator Gary Gygax, which takes considerable (albeit informed) creative liberties to flesh out the entirety of his life through imagined dialogue and inner monologues, found a massive audience upon release, even though Gygax is revered as a deity in certain nerdy circles. Now, if Witwer had led with the bit ab
May 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Gary Gygax changed the world.

Michael Witwer’s FREAKIN AWESOME biography of Gygax and the creation of Dungeons and Dragons is to old gamer nerds like me what a book about Abner Doubleday is to baseball fans or a book about Robert Johnson is to blues aficionados.

It is a study of origins.

And just as there was some kind of ball before Doubleday and there was delta music prior to Crossroads, there were board and strategy games before Gygax’s paradigm shift. But Gygax dragged it kicking and screaming
Hal Johnson
Empire of the Imagination isn’t really a biography in any traditional sense. If I liked it better I’d call it an experimental biography; but I did not like it, so it looks to me more like a category error. Rather than a biography, it’s a series of fictionalized vignettes about events in Gary Gygax’s life, loosely connected by nods at context. One chapter (for example) dramatizes over the course of three pages Gygax agonizing over what to do with his life, climaxing with him deciding to join the ...more
Nov 06, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, history
It is very clear that Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons is heavily colored by a Lake Geneva-centric perspective. That makes sense. It is, after all, a biography of E. Gary Gygax. At times, the book was a marvelous source of anecdotal insight to the early days of Dungeons & Dragons while, at other times, it seemed rather sophomoric in style. I was particularly unamused by the conceit of beginning each chapter with a supposed Dungeon Master refereeing a ...more
Dec 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, writers
Despite his large contribution to popular culture, “Gary Gygax” is not a well recognized name. I, myself, didn’t know it, but was attracted to this book from having lived 20 miles from Lake Geneva during the time a lot of this took place.

The short chapters, some foreshadowed by a Dungeons and Dragons excerpt, and author Michael Witmer’s style make this a fast reading book. In one long or a few short sittings you can learn about a lot about the creative and business life Gary Gygax (his personal
Shannon Appelcline
Witwer's biopic of Gary Gygax covers new ground by revealing Gygax as a person, while twining that together with his better known history as the creator of D&D and the founder of TSR. As a roleplaying historian myself, I found the biographic background particularly interesting (though I was familiar with most of what followed).

In general, Witwer's book offers three advantages over other takes on roleplaying history. First, it provides details; Witwer scoured interviews (and talked with peop
Jan 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: High rollers
Recommended to Alan by: Joe
I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was in college. A lot—though, y'know, not as much as some people; I don't think I could ever have seriously called myself a gamer. This was all back in the early 1980s, just a few years after Ernest (Gary) Gygax's company TSR had released its much-expanded and updated rulebooks for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), the version we actually played. My then-girlfriend brought me into the group who had commandeered the long folding table in h ...more
Mar 15, 2016 rated it liked it
I liked it, but kinda/sorta.

I liked the delving down into D&D's birth and evolution, and contrary to some, I liked the chapter intro snippets that establish a little flavour. The downside is, D&D is fantasy and this is a biography of sorts, of Gygax, of Arneson, of TSR, of rpgs in general, but once the realities of lawyers, lawsuits, drugs and so on intrude, sure, it's average biography, but I wanted to just waft on sugar coating.

By adding the hard edge of uglier truths, the biographer
Nov 21, 2015 rated it it was ok
Just started. Page 7:
"Ironcially [sic], it was Tom's pen sketch of a werewolf [used in the first edition of D&D]."

Ok, really? We can't even run a spell check on a published book? What's even worse is that this is not ironic. Perhaps it is ironc, which is some new term which represents something other than irony.

Just for reference (from google): Ironic = happening in the opposite way to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this. His friend drawing a picture of a mo
Sep 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
Difficult to rate. Objectively, it wasn't a very good biography. It suffered from the author's efforts to create the feel of a biopic, with "scenes" from Gygax's life imagined by the author. It also left out a lot of key facts and felt somewhat disorganized, even though it was mostly chronological. There was a lot of good information, however, and I toyed with a 3 star review. It is a solid 2.5/5 in part because I find the subject matter interesting.

The other criticism I have is that this book
Jan 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
As an avid fan of Dungeons & Dragons and RPGs in general, I've always been interested in the history of this particular hobby. And while I've read books on the origins of the game itself (Of Dice and Men), this is the first time I've seen an in-depth biography of the man who started it all.

In-depth is certainly the right term here, as we see a cross section of Gygax's entire life, from childhood to his death in 2008. There were a lot of ups and downs at work here, both in his personal and pr
John Adkins
Jun 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle, net-galley, 2015
This is a fantastic book that tells the story of E. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons and by extension the entire role playing genre. The biography is extremely well researched through extensive interviews with Gygax's family and coworkers. In places dialogue is constructed based upon interviewer's recollections and Gygax's writings but in all such cases the areas of extrapolation are clearly identified in the copious notes provided. If like me you grew up playing the game or if yo ...more
Oct 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A collection of scenes from the life and business of E. Gary Gygax. Not a true biography - whole incidents take place between the scenes, and are not explained. More a history of Gary leading to a history of Dungeons and Dragons. There were a few anecdotes I hadn't read, and I was surprised just how instrumental he was in starting and then building GenCon.

A solid 2.4 stars, but rounded up on the Gem Appreciation table to a 3.
Mattia Ravasi
Jun 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
Video review:

The semi-fictionalization of most chapters serves neither a contextualizing nor entertaining purpose, and the book lacks in so much I wanted to know about Gygax's life as a creator (and abunds in details of his life inside courts). Mind, there are some good parts and it's very well researched (though there are some ghastly a-scientifical claims here and there), but if you're a D&D nostalgic who's on the fence about reading this, re-read E
Grace Troxel
This review originally appeared on my blog, Books Without Any Pictures:

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons is a stylized biography of the man behind the popular roleplaying game known as DND. (You can blame him when I decline Thursday night happy hours because my hipster cleric is trying to save the princess, rescue townsfolk, and convert all the ogres of Rokugan.)

Despite having played Dungeons & Dragons for severa
Jason Pettus

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

Make no mistake, Michael Witwer's Empire of Imagination is a fascinating book, merely from it being the first-ever full biography of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons and inventor of the very concept of "roleplaying games." And it's an unexpected story, too, far from the "accidentally hit it bi
Aug 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Old-school gamers, fantasy fans, game historians
Recommended to Michael by: Serendipity
This book is certainly not going to be for everyone, but I will admit to enjoying it a great deal myself. The fact of the matter is that its subject is probably too obscure to justify a book-length treatment, and that this treatment is handled in a manner that will inevitably turn off many readers. But, for those of us that “were there,” playing D&D in the heyday of Gygax’s control over TSR, it is a fascinating read.

I “met” Gary Gygax in August of 1985, when I attended Gen Con in Milwaukee
Aug 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An unvarnished telling of the life of Gary Gygax, Empire of Imagination is well written and easy reading. Witwer thoroughly documents his sources, which is helpful for further research by the reader, but more importantly it provides substantion for the multiple 'pseudo-fictional' parts of the narrative where Witwer chooses to imagine the words and thoughts of Gygax and others based on conversations/interviews that often occurred many years after the events depicted.

I have not played D&D for
Oct 31, 2015 rated it liked it
I wanted to rate this higher but inane syrupy and cringeable mock gameplay for each section was too dreadful to warrant more stars.

I had high hopes for this book and it didn't quite deliver. It gives a cursory going over of Gygax's life and what lead to the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and the forming of TSR. Sadly it never gets deeper than that. There is no deep discussion of how much was Gygax's work and how much was Dave Arnason. There is no recounting of how his 2nd wife became his wife
Nov 18, 2015 rated it liked it
As an avid D&D player since 1980, this book was wonderful to learn the how and why of certain things which were never clear, like WHY AD&D was invented with D&D already existing. Or why 2nd edition came out or why Gary Gygax left TSR. Good stuff herein.

But two things trouble me. First, the book's staccato tone (chapters rarely go over 4 pages) gave Gary's life a really broken up feel.

And secondly, despite the author's attempts to paint Gary in a positive light, it definitely seems
Oct 25, 2015 rated it liked it
I would only recommend this book for folks who were directly influenced by Gygax, folks who grew up playing roleplaying games and other such nerdery. To be honest, the story isn't super riveting - it's just one dude's life. But I still felt a weird affinity for it and enjoyed it more than I really thought I would, to be honest.

One thing I liked: How in the very first D&D campaign, you are seeing players get up to the ridiculousness that came to define it. Coming up with silly names, usually
Phil Mechanic
An account of an interesting man and an interesting life, but lacks any real depth or detail and reads as little more than a series of anecdotes. Suggestions of a wild life in Hollywood are glossed over, and no real detailed analysis of who Gary Gygax really was.
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: library, di-d
Out of a love of gaming and adventure, Gary Gygax built a dream of books, dice, and friends. It began with chess against his grandfather, and it flourished with tabletop war games. He could not have known at the time the phenomenon that Dungeons and Dragons would become, but he was determined to make his dream a reality. In spite of intentions, creativity is never painless, and priorities can be difficult to balance. Through financial and familial struggles, sometimes flying and often falling, G ...more
Jonathan Hicks
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I thought I knew about the history of D&D.

I've tried to start this review several times from several angles; my feelings about biographies, my history of gaming, my own experiences with the industry, and how gaming has both changed and influenced my life. The problem is, every one of my personal opinions and experiences cannot make a good introduction to this review because this book is about the man who was instrumental in bringing me the hobby that I love so much. Any one of my anecdotes a
Oct 11, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
For the most part, this book was entertaining and informative, which is what you hope for with this kind of pop culture bio. The author was clearly a fan of the game and very much pro-Gygax.

My main issue was with the prose, which came off as a little repetitive (especially in terms of recapping what had come before) and often syrupy. The breaking point, for me, was toward the end with an overwrought scene involving the grim reaper. I completely understand the need to "dramatize" real events and
Lucas Mota
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Esta é a biografia de Gary Gygax, criador do RPG e autor do título mais famoso deste hobby: Dungeons & Dragons.
É uma biografia excelente. Muito bem pesquisada. Na maior parte do tempo aposta naquilo que realmente interessa. O desafio de um biógrafo é saber equilibrar passagens da vida pessoal com a vida profissional do biografado.
Aqui há alguns excessos. No começo, a vida pessoal é mostrada mais do que o necessário. Não há uma invasão de privacidade ou sensacionalismo presentes no texto, ape
May 26, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great on details and biographical notes, though a bit more of a hagiography than an objective bio.

Too many things just seem to happen to Gygax rather than delving deep into details and particulars of Gygax's actions or others; this may stem from the author's personal interviews and whom he chose to interview. Still, there's a lot of particulars glossed over while presenting things as simple fact that were hardly that (from my understanding and 3rd-hand knowledge).

My worries of authorial bias a
Jeff Mcleod
May 04, 2018 rated it liked it
The book that wouldn't end.

It's a fun telling of Gary Gygax's story, and it opened my eyes to many aspects of his life that I was completely unaware of . . . but the four chapters that make up the end of the book (Level 9) really drag it down. I did enjoy the section that detailed how the game of D&D has changed since Gary's death--and where it is successfully sitting nowadays, but it's all a bit much when it really feels like the book was over many many pages earlier.

Although the author is
Miles Sterrett
Aug 03, 2017 rated it liked it
I need to say a few words about my stars on this one. It was a 3, in that I enjoyed it, certainly, but it didn't blow me away; it's not something I'll seek to read again, and it's not a book I'll go out of my way to recommend.

That said, if you're interested in role-playing games, and the history of role-playing games, I think this is a pretty interesting perspective. It's centered on Gary Gygax, and makes some lofty claims about his importance to the world of RPGs and beyond. It's not without so
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fantasy, history
Why is this not a movie?!?
OK. I'm a big-ol geek and am predisposed, AND am currently dealing with grief about losing my own gamer father, but that said I was blown away by both the drama of D&D's origin story and in the blending of facts with narrative perspective that Witwer brought to the telling. The DM interludes, the interconnected callbacks, the object memory and sensory descriptions of Lake Geneva that anchored it all, as well as the portends & drama & betrayals & death i
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Michael Witwer is a lifelong gamer and gaming enthusiast. He holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, where this book first emerged as the subject of his master's thesis. He is also a film and theater actor and marketing professional, and is the brother of actor Sam Witwer, who originally introduced him to Dungeons & Dragons. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with ...more
“Hadn't Gary Gygax simply invented a game, and an esoteric one at that? It was hardly a footnote in the increasingly fast and complex information age that we live in. What was all the fuzz about? The reason for all the fuzz among those who understood his work was simple. Gary Gygax and his seminal game creation, Dungeons & Dragons, had influenced and transformed the world in extraordinary ways. Yet, much of his contribution would also go largely unrecognised by the general public. Although it is debatable whether D&D ever became a thoroughly mainstream activity, as a 1983 New York Times article had speculated, referring to it as the great game of the 1980's, D&D and its RPG derivatives are beloved by a relatively small but dedicated group of individuals affectionately known as 'geeks'. Although the term 'geek' is not exclusive to role-playing gamers, the activities of this particular audience have often been viewed as the most archetypal form of 'geekiness'. Labels aside, what is notable is that the activities of this RGP audience were highly correlated with interests in other activities such as early computers, digital technologies, visual effects, and the performing arts. In this way, these geeks, though relatively small in number, became in many instances the leaders and masters of this era. With the advent of the digital age, geeks worldwide found opportunity and recognition never previously available to their predecessors. Icons and innovators such as George R. R. Martin, Mike Myers, Richard Garriott, Vin Diesel, Tim Duncan, Anderson Cooper, David X. Cohen, John Carmak, Tim Harford, Moby, and the late Robin Williams, to name just a few, were all avid role-playing gamers in their younger years. The list of those who include D&D as a regular activity while growing up is both extensive and impressive.” 0 likes
“One display of particular interest to Gary featured a medieval castle and associated miniature soldiers used for a game called The Siege of Bodenburg. At the time, traditional board wargamers and miniatures battle players were still two distinct audiences. Wargame publishers, such as Avalon Hill, hadn’t thought to use miniatures in its battle simulations, instead relying on hex maps and cardboard counters. Bodenburg seemed to have an appeal for diverse factions of gamers, and it sparked Gary’s interest in miniatures gaming in the medieval setting, an interest that would inevitably lead to his greatest creation. Not” 0 likes
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