Book Review: “Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons” by Michael Witwer

A little while ago I did a bit of exploration of books that exist due to board games and, to be frank, I was amazed to see that there were so many. Audible, my preferred medium of choice at the moment (so I can listen to books in the car), has a whole array of fantastic books, each narrated phenomenally well. These range from books on Magic the Gathering (read my review of a Magic strategy book here), to fiction from the Forgotten Realms, to the delight I am going to review today.

This book, Empire of the Imagination by Michael Witwer is a rare find and one that deserves a review. It is incredibly accessible, narrated superbly by Sam Witwer (presumably related), perfectly capturing the feeling of what it must have been like seeing the creation of the game that changed the genre we all love.

The Premise of Empire of the Imagination

Empire of the Imagination is a creatively written biography of Gary Gygax, from his birth to his death. It covers the rise, and fall, and rise, and fall, and rise again of Earnest Gary Gygax (his full name) through his school years, years at TSR, and his life afterwards. It ends looking at his legacy, and the roleplaying world as it is today.

What Empire of the Imagination is, is a story of is growth. It closely follows Gary and explores some of the processes behind his greatest creations. The book closely looks at the formation of his company, and (some might argue most importantly) how Dungeons & Dragons, his greatest creation, was conceived.

Where the book is clever is it tells the story of the rollercoaster ride that was Gary Gygax’s life after the creation of Dungeons and Dragons. It launched him into stardom, crowning him firmly as “king of the geeks”, whilst also exploring some of the darker side of that stardom. It was not a smooth ride, exploring a lot along the way, from bad business decisions to personal problems with his wife. He lost a lot throughout the journey, but Gary Gygax ultimately gained more in regard to what he gave the world.

Empire of the Imagination is a well written, and well told, story that really answers what it was like to be Gary Gygax in the first real age of the modern tabletop roleplaying game.

Opinion

I am sure that you don’t need to be told I absolutely love this book. Empire of the Imagination is a well-written account of the life of Gary Gygax; however, it differs somewhat from the traditional biographical story telling. Empire of the Imagination is told in a creative manner fitting to the core material.

The creative manner, I would guess, is something that readers/listeners would either love or hate. Where it is not always obvious, sometimes it is hard to see how details of a conversation were recorded. Likewise, it is hard to see how Gary Gygax’s exact actions were recorded at moments where he was alone – sentences like “Gary typed a few words and took another puff of his cigarette” (I paraphrase but along those lines) – it would be hard to know if that were the case and this may have some readers up in arms.

That being said, I for one really enjoyed it. It comes into its own as a style, being engaging towards the start of the book, but really heartbreaking towards the end. Using the imagination to describe actions in a book called “Empire of the Imagination” is also something which, in my eyes, can be forgiven.

The book is well paced, with no slow moments, meaning that the 7 hours it takes to read/listen to (again, I went audio book) really fly by. Empire of the Imagination has no moments that drag, and instead, it is a succinct series of events, told over the shoulder of Gary Gygax.

My one criticism of the book, if I had to make one, is that it is unashamedly pro-Gary. I am not a huge reader of biographies; however, at points, I have to admit that the writing appeared to choose to portray things in a slightly more favourable light than what actually happened. It also breezes over some key aspects of his life, the more unfavourable aspects, in order to focus on other things. This is fine, so long as the book is never taken as scripture. Instead, at certain points, it can be important to take it with a pinch of salt, understanding that the odd bit may have been embellished.

Generally speaking though, Empire of the Imagination is beautifully written. It is poetic in parts, with real heart behind it. It is evident that Michael Witwer has a huge respect for the Gygax legacy, and that comes across in the writing.

It is also clear that Sam Witwer, the narrator of the audio book, also loves the games Gygax created. He reads it with enthusiasm and with vigor.

What Empire of the Imagination offers is more than a beautiful eulogy to the father of the Role Playing Game. In fact, it is not really a book about Gary Gygax at all (say what?). Empire of the Imagination is an origin story, but not of a singular man. It is the story of a whole subculture, through trials and tribulations, to raise geeks on a pedestal – saying “Look at us world! We are here and we are proud!”

Verdict

In my last book review I tried a format to simplify book reviews to three separate questions. Let’s try that again:

  1. Do I regret spending money (an Audible credit) on the audio book? I had several happy hours listening to this book. It is well written and I ended up giving it five stars out of five. No, I do not regret purchasing it.
  2. Did I come out the other side feeling like it had bettered my experience of the game? Yes. I came out the other side of this book with a renewed respect for D&D. I had always respected it, but understanding the human side of the story, the creation of the game, added extra value. This man, this King of the Geeks, loved a game and he shared it with the world.
  3. Would I recommend the book? Whole heartedly. It is available on Kindle, in paperback, hardback, and audio book. I would recommend it in whichever medium you perfer.

It’s very simple really. If you love biographies or life stories then you should probably read this book as you may enjoy it. If, however, you are a geek and a gamer then you should definitely buy it – what are you doing here? Go to Amazon and order it already!

One thought on “Book Review: “Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons” by Michael Witwer

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  1. Sounds interesting. As someone who has lived his whole life as a gamer, yet only touching occasionally on D&D, I know very little about Gygax. If I ever sign up for Audible, I’ll probably grab this one. Once the weather clears and I start hiking to work instead of driving or busing (or cycling), I plan to go through some more of the Audiobooks I’ve accumulated.

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