Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Empire of Imagination

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer
4.0 out of 5 stars A fitting tribute to a complicated legacy, March 2, 2016
I first met Gary Gygax at I-CON in the early 90s. His work on Dungeons & Dragons had changed my life. I was so eager to meet him that I had purchased two of his books, Role-Playing Mastery and Master of the Game, in anticipation of getting him to sign them. I was in for a shock.

What I didn't know when I met Gygax was that he had left the company he founded, TSR, in a bitter dispute. It was quite a surprise to the audience when Gygax angrily refused to answer questions about the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I walked away from the encounter with my books unsigned (I was afraid to approach him out of offending him). Thanks to Michael Witwer's Empire of the Imagination, I finally have some closure.

In Empire of the Imagination we see Gygax in his early days as a humble insurance underwriter and passionate gamer and experience his transition to the spiritual leader of a new form of gaming. Gygax experienced several trials in his life, including the death of his friend Don Kaye, his dispute with D&D co-creator Dave Arneson and later TSR president Lorraine Williams, the death of his mother and his difficult divorce. After his divorce, Gygax switched to a hard-partying lifestyle that Witwer implies may have contributed to his ouster from the company. And yet, those efforts yielded the D&D cartoon that we know and love.

In short, Gygax was a human being: passionate, messy, and flawed. Speaking of flaws, Empire of Imagination doesn't delve deep enough. Gygax was a Jehovah's Witness but we're don't get much speculation as to how it influenced D&D -- given that religion was not included in the original Dungeons & Dragons game, it seems likely Gygax's faith had something to do with that decision. The mention of a cocaine habit and wild parties in Hollywood are mentioned only in passing -- I suspect that in order to get access to the Gygax family, there were probably some topics off limits.

It's unfortunate that I only saw a glimpse of Gyax during a tough time. I came to know him better on ENWorld and reconciled my past with his present when I began writing my own history of gaming. Gygax passed before I was able to interview him.

What I didn't realize was just how much of a group effort D&D really was. I had the opportunity to thank the man responsible for the first version of D&D I was exposed to, the Basic version, when I handed my finished book over to Frank Mentzer years later. Despite the focus on Gygax, Witwer's book makes it clear that D&D was truly a group effort. Gygax was to role-playing games what Stan Lee is to comic books: an elder statesman who is part-spokesman/part-raconteur for the hobby he loves so dearly. It's a fitting tribute to a complicated legacy.