Leslie's Reviews > Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer
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it was ok
bookshelves: 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, Gygax put himself through the mill right beside his beloved game, all the way to the table.

Let's get this out of the way, first and foremost. I love Dungeons and Dragons. I have played three editions over the past ten or so years, and have since delved into other various role-playing systems. But you always remember your first Doctor [Eccleston], and Dungeons and Dragons will always hold a large, icosahedronal space in my heart. (Yes, I'm not ashamed to admit it. I looked up that word and probably still bastardized the poor thing.) So, I love the game, I like biographies, and I was rather interested in learning more about the origins of both game and creator. Win, win, win.

Sadly, no. While the book is informative, the structure is poor. A framing device of a game session in play, presented script-style felt distracting and tangential, at best. Gygax's early years take up a good 70 pages of about 245, presented in episodic vignettes that struggle to feel cohesive. Most of the chapters of the book fit into the 3-5 page range, making it feel piecemeal. It was almost as though I was reading a collection of independently-written short essays cobbled* together into a biographical...something.

Take a look at that last word, there. That's what this book is. It's something. It has essays, stories, vignettes, lists, all the wordy-bits that could make it something else, but what? Gygax was not a well-known man the way another biographical subject might have been. The stories presented from his youth could not provide much more than what we were given - that is no fault of the author. But the whole presentation was a bit of a mess. The book opens with Gygax getting the boot from TSR. Then it works its way through a brief walking-tour of memories. Then it starts, all over again, from the beginning. Each chapter could be a different introduction to the same book, just one that chose to start at a different time. On top of that, even in the later chapters, you were always given a sort of dramatic tagline, a hook to keep you reading. A sort of "little did he know" moment.

I don't know about you, but feeling like someone is trying to sell me on continuing to read a book that I am already dozens of pages into wears on my nerves. I'm still not really certain what I was reading, anyway. It wanted to be a dramatization, but it fell into the rut of lists and info dumps. It wanted to be a biography, but it was speckled with figurative language and embellishment. It wanted to be fun and interesting in content and structure, but it tripped over the timeline and distracted from its own progress. It wanted to tell the story of a struggling genius burdened with the untold weight of creativity, but it was telling the story of a struggling man who could not find a healthy balance between work and play and responsibilities slowly tearing his life apart.

It wanted to be a loving homage to a man who gave a lot of people something to love and share. Well, here, perhaps, it succeeded. The author clearly loves the gaming world created by Gygax and his fellow enthusiasts back in the day. Great attention was paid to gather information and disperse it, but in being a loving homage to a great creator, it sidesteps some of the aspects that could show him as less than a good man. Rather than a real biography, it feels a bit like a fluff-piece that is written more as advertising than informing. The glasses are perhaps not rose-tinted, the charm spell not cast at a high level, but there is certainly an air of prestidigitation tidying things up a little too casually.**

But I suppose I had some warning that it was not going to be a traditional biography. Perhaps it was my fault for not taking the Author's Note seriously. I don't know. It was a rough read, and I'm glad that I learned more about the history of one of my hobbies. There is good information to be found, some fun factoids to share. I am, however, also glad to just get back to the game.



*It's (not) funny, because he worked as a cobbler.
**You didn't think I'd make it all the way through without being a nerd at you, did you? Gee, I hope not.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
2018 – Finished Reading
April 24, 2018 – Shelved
April 24, 2018 – Shelved as: library
June 29, 2018 – Shelved as: di-d

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Jason D. Sorry you didn't enjoy it as much as I did!


Leslie That's the way the book bounces, honestly. I'm sorry I didn't enjoy it, as well.


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