Review: Empire of Imagination

Nice homage to the cover of
“Unearthed Arcana”

Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination (coming October 6, but available for pre-order at Amazon) is a biography of Gary Gygax, an individual who will need no introduction to my readers.

Witwer’s book covers similar ground to other books published over the last couple of years, such as Playing at the World, Designers & Dragons, and Of Dice and Men, but does so with a particular emphasis on Gygax himself, including a lot of non-game-related information not covered in most other works. That said, there’s not much relating directly to D&D or TSR that you won’t find in those other books.

Witwer’s style is light and easy to read. I found his accounts of events compelling, and actively looked forward to picking the book up again each time.

Although the sub-title of the book, “Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons” does telegraph that the period up to the mid-1980’s will receive the most coverage, I found this to be the greatest deficiency in the book. What we have is not a biography of Gary Gygax, but only the first half of one. Everything past 1987 or so is mentioned almost as an afterthought, covering thirty years in thirty pages. Suddenly Gygax has a second wife, of whom we have not previously heard. His later work with other companies such as Troll Lord Games is given but a single sentence, and no word is given at all to his rapprochement with the publishers of D&D (by that time Wizards of the Coast) and his renewed series of articles in Dragon magazine.

I think a more balanced look at the whole of Gygax’s life and career would have been both more interesting and valuable than yet another look at the intricate details of 1970-75. It should be taken as a compliment that the only major deficiency I find in Empire of Imagination is that it’s not long enough. I could easily have read another hundred pages that went into an equal amount of detail on the post-TSR years of Gygax’s life.

Note: I requested, and was sent, an advance review copy of this book by the publisher.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

4 thoughts on “Review: Empire of Imagination

  1. Thanks for the review. The other part of Gary's later life that deserves attention in a bio is his enthusiastic interaction with fans on the internet, including thousands of posts across various message boards (over 3,600 posts on Dragonsfoot alone).

  2. Absolutely. The book gives that whole thing a sentence or two.

    But I still say it's well worth reading. Lots of stuff in there I never knew, mostly about Gary's personal life in the early years. The flaws I see are flaws of omission, that don't speak ill of the material that is there.

  3. I have just read – and mostly enjoyed – the book.

    But I did find one thing very puzzling.

    What was perhaps the most prolific and successful period of Gary's writing, during which he produced the AD&D Players Handbook, the Giant modules, and the Drow modules, and the DMG, is basically ignored. There's a jump from the production of the last D&D supplement (Gods Demi Gods and Heroes) to the Arneson lawsuit after AD&D comes out. But the creation of AD&D and the six classic modules are ignored.

    What was the reason for the gap in coverage? What I'd have liked to have seen is some discussion of the creative process. How were these works planned? How did Gary come up with the giant-drow series? What was his work process like? Did he sequester himself in his office at TSR, write them at home, work closely with a committee of other staffers or larger alone? Did the writing flow well, or was it full of stress? Was he happy with the result, or feel there was more to be done?
    Especially as AD&D's genesis is arguably the first true "solo" Gygax roleplaying project, and was not really covered by other sources like Playing at the World.

    Now, it may be that primary source materials are lacking for this, but surely there are surviving TSR staff who were there at the birth of D&D, children of Gary to interview regarding his state of mind during the creation process, and one imagines also that a fair bit of discovery also took place during the various legal maneuverings around AD&D. It just seems odd that this burst of creative energy that produced these eight or nine seminal works is given such short shrift, when I would have thought it would have been a high point in his life at the time…

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