Empire of Imagination Review

It’s no secret that tabletop role-playing games are a niche hobby, but I for one can’t imagine the world in which I don’t play them. My involvement in the hobby started during the Spring of 2009, a little before the passing of Dave Arneson and a little after the death of Gary Gygax. Little did I know how profound of an effect on my life the duo would have posthumously.

Empire of Imagination, by Michael Witwer, is a biography of Gary Gygax and ultimately an account of the origins of Dungeons & Dragons. Witwer has written a compelling account of Gygax’s childhood, meteoric rise to an unexpectedly rock and roll lifestyle, and fall from grace through corporate politics at TSR. I received the book as a present sometime last winter but felt compelled to write this review this week as I went to Lake Geneva to see some small pieces of D&D history for myself.

Rags to Riches to Rags to Riches

If you’ve seen or heard stories such as The Social Network, you will recognize a lot of the structure to the story of Gygax. A lifelong gamer, Gary Gygax builds a cohort of friends and a fledgling company, Tactical Studies Rules, and uses his newfound wealth in a hedonistic blur, severing ties to these friends and ultimately resulting in his removal from TSR’s board of directors. Generally speaking, I find nonfiction stories to be arranged to fit into this pattern for the purposes of a dynamic story. While it makes for entertaining storytelling, it does leave me to take Witwer’s account with a grain of saltĀ and advise you to do the same.

A Long Way Home, but Life Goes On

A plaque outside the Riviera, one of many surrounding a fountain.

One of the most interesting aspects of my trip to Lake Geneva was that there were no indications of Gary Gygax’s presence. Other than a plaque paid for by fans and family at the fountain on the lakefront, everything else has moved on. The Sheridan Springs TSR headquarters is now a plastics manufacturer. The Grey House (where TSR first operated) and Gary’s house (where the words “Dungeons and Dragons” were first spoken) now look like they hold new residents. Lake Geneva’s Horticultural Hall (where GenCon was first held) was preparing for a wedding later that day. Even Gary’s Last House looked like just about every other house around it(out of the interest of Gail Gygax’s privacy, I won’t be uploading photos of that house).

The Grey House, the building where Tactical Studies Rules first operated.
Gary’s house, where he hosted many of his gaming friends far too late in the night. It was here that his daughter, Cindy, first weighed in that she liked the name “Dungeons & Dragons” the best.
Myself standing in front of Horticultural Hall, the site of the original Gen Con. It’s hard to imagine this cozy little building filled with tactical wargamers.

Conclusions

Like other reviews will tell you, Empire of Imagination is not a traditional biography. It tells the story of Gary Gygax in a way which aims to entertain as well as inform, and does so very well. If you’re looking for the story of one of the men who sparked the last 44 years of tabletop role-playing games, you’ll find Empire of Imagination to be an exciting and interesting read. Typically I find myself more interested in works of fiction, but Michael Witwer has done a great job telling us Gary’s story, and I would certainly recommend giving it a read.

As for my trip to Lake Geneva, I think the best way to describe it would be bittersweet. The Gary Gygax Memorial, whose funding was supposed to come from the sales of reprinted AD&D books, has yet to materialize, and the town of Lake Geneva hasn’t embraced Gary as a part of its history. I enjoyed the almost secretive layer of history to Lake Geneva, how I saw buildings with stories unknown to the locals who pass them every day. Maybe in 6 years, when Dungeons & Dragons reaches its fiftieth birthday, Lake Geneva will finally acknowledge that piece of gaming history, but until then, maybe we tabletop gamers can be the few nuts who will consider rolling a twenty-sided die on the face of a memorial plaque.

For what it’s worth, at least I didn’t roll a 1!

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