Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D (Book Review)
Earnest “Gary” Gygax. To geeks, his name is one to be heralded. He was the father of the role-playing genre, creating one of the most beloved and widely played games of all time – Dungeons and Dragons, better known as D&D.
Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D, by David Kushner and illustrated by Koren Shadmi, is a graphic novel that tells the story of Gary Gygax from what led him to the creation of D&D in 1974, to Gygax’s death in 2008. The book was published in 2017, being spiritually similar to Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee (2015), yet telling someone else’s story. It is an unpretentious book, telling the story from Gary’s perspective.
Trying Something Different
Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D does something different and, to be honest, it does something different fairly well. This is the story that geeks are familiar with worldwide, the tale of Gary and the universes he created. The illustrations by Koren Shadmi are absolutely superb. That being said, the whole book can sometimes be a little polarising. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and there is very little in between.
What is more, Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D is told in second person, with the reader taking part (for the majority of the book) as the role of Gary Gygax. It works well in some areas, and less well in others. I have to admit really enjoyed how it mimicked a game of Dungeons and Dragons, throwing the reader into a similar perspective of a gamer. It is clever and does help bring the reader in.
That being said, as a concept (I have to admit), it is something that can grow old, especially as, when there are pages describing general life context, you are suddenly greeted with the second person again. This can jar. That being said, you have to take your hat off to the book for trying something different.
Not Just About Gary
Rise of the Dungeon Master is not a book that is just about Gary Gygax. I could get grandiose here and say that “it is about all of nerd kind”. Realistically, however, there is a far more pragmatic explanation. Rise of the Dungeon Master also spends a large amount of time focusing on Dave Arneson as well. Where this is welcome, there are other key players in Gygax’s life that do get mentioned in passing but with no additional time dedicated to exploring why they are such an influential part of the D&D story, as well as Gygax’s own life.
This includes his wives (Mary Jo and Gail), neither of which are mentioned in the book. Don Kaye is only given a brief introduction, Kevin and Brian Blume, and Lorraine Williams. Each is given a maximum of four panels in which they appear, and then they are never mentioned again.
This is because Rise of the Dungeon Master, where original in its art form of a graphic novel, is also highly selective due to the restrictions that artform presents. Each page only has around 10 lines of text due to the need for images. This means the text has to be highly selective, and can only tell a condensed version of the story.
Engagement Through The Medium
The fact the book is a graphic novel, however, presents an interesting set of circumstances. What the art form allows the book to do is hyperbolise the truth, showing Gary as the hero he was to so many nerds. What this means is the graphic novel version of this story is such that it is:
- Incredibly accessible to anyone who is not familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, or the story before.
- A fantastic homage to Gary Gygax.
These both mean the book is accessible, telling the basic facts behind the story without getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty detail.
A Homage to The King of the Geeks
What Rise of the Dungeon Master is, ultimately speaking, is not a biography of Gary Gygax. Instead, what it persists to be is a homage to the man that is striking and enjoyable. It does justice to him as a hero, showing the way he created D&D, who his allies were, and just what Gary means to the world.
That being said, the whole book is painted (or drawn even) with rose-tinted glasses. Where you get aspects of Gary’s life, it misses out on a lot of the controversy in favour of showing the lighter side of Gygax. Yes, he was a hero to many of us; however, he was also human, fallible, and a personal man as well as a king of the geeks. This book, Rise of the Dungeon Master, shows a remarkably two-dimensional view of Gygax, showing him as a creator but not as a human.
Rise of the Dungeon Master vs Empire of the Imagination
Of course, there is more than one book about Gygax’s life, and so this review should really end on a comparison with Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer.
So, first thing is first, Rise of the Dunegon Master is a graphic novel in the second person, whereas Empire of the Imagination is a more traditional style biography written in third person.
There was always a criticism of Empire of the Imagination that it too looked at Gary Gygax through rose tinted glasses. Where it was not perfect, and does have its flaws, it also tells more of a story. Since it is not restricted by the graphic novel format, Empire of the Imagination can also deliver more emotion behind everything it says. To this day, Empire of the Imagination still has one of the best endings to any biography I have ever read, pulling on the heartstrings and making you really feel for Gary Gygax.
In comparison, Rise of the Dungeon Master is a much lighter version of the story. It picks and chooses the parts it wants to tell, pulling together a story that feels concise and complete from start to end. Only a couple of parts of it feel rushed; however, if this were not a graphic novel then it would be possible for those parts to be explored in more detail.
Ultimately, Rise of the Dungeon Master is a beautiful homage to Gary Gygax. It pictures him as the hero he truly was, whilst also acting as a fantastic introduction to those new to D&D. The artwork is simply stunning. That being said, it isn’t really comparable to a standard biography when it comes to content. The graphic novel format forces the novel to glance over key aspects, whilst focusing on that which keeps the story spicy and enjoyable.
Instead, Rise of the Dungeon Master focuses on accessibility. It makes a game designer’s biography interesting for all to read. It may be light, but it is mighty in more than one way. It is light, it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it can be read in around an hour.
I don’t usually do star ratings when I write gaming reviews, however, since I am on Goodreads and since I have to give it a rating on there, I thought I would share with you what I gave it.
So, what do you think? Have you read Rise of the Dungeon Master? Is this the kind of book you would like to read? Let me know in the comments below.
This is pretty neat. I love graphic novels for the sole reason it forces writers to be succinct and really think about their words. I’ve found only a few can really do it well enough for me to not only enjoy their writing but be envious at the same time.
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I know what you mean. I grew up on graphic novels. They’re a great medium – that being said, I am not 100% sure they work for all types of story. I think the medium needs to fit the tale being told, and where it generally works telling the story of Gary Gygax, it may not work with other biographies.
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This is one I’d love to read, and probably will at some point.
I grew up hating Gary Gygax! Playing a few of the adventures he wrote, Temple of Elemental Evil comes to mind, I used to detest the way he sprung deadly things upon you from nowhere, killing off characters you’d lovingly nursed through the levels.
But, if it weren’t for him, where would we be now?
Great review! I will most definitely check this book out. Gygax was always one of those legendary D&D figures that created a world for our young imaginations. Thanks for the review and bringing this book to my attention.
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No worries Steven – I hope you enjoy the book.
I enjoyed both Amazing Fantastic Incredible, and Empire of the Imagination, so I’d probably give this one a whirl too. Wish it was available through Comixology.
The shortcomings of this graphic novel, sounds to me like faults with the writer/artist. I’ve read Cerebus, Watchmen, From Hell, and other stories that manage to handle very large and deep stories through the graphic novel medium. There is no reason why a biography couldn’t be handled well in the medium. A great artist in particular, can elicit more emotion in one panel than you can capture in a page of text. It’s why people go to museums and look at paintings.
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To be fair, I think the artist does a great job with this book – that is one area where it does excel.
You raise some great points about the medium. I think with graphic novels, fiction ones, the narrative can be as long as it needs to be, whereas with a biography the author is effectively editing a life story. This does mean cutting bits out, and I think that’s a shortcoming of the medium for a biography as ultimately it will never be the best way to convey large amounts of factual information compared to a more traditional book. A traditional book can be more prosaic because it doesn’t need to be artistic, if that makes sense?
I take it you’re an Alan Moore fan then? 🙂
You should read Cerebus if you haven’t, the illustrations are often intermixed with long bits of text. 😉
Granted, it was not my favorite thing at the time, because I just wanted to read a fun comic, but it is an example of what one could do with a graphic novel.
I think there are plusses and minuses to both mediums. Really good graphic novels have evoked stronger emotions in me. Really good books tend to make me think of very long adventures and lots of information. The Cerebus graphic novels, again, very long, and a lot to chew on.
Alan Moore, is good, and certainly one of the best comics writers that have come along. I would take note of anything he has written, but don’t necessarily feel compelled to run out and buy it. My favorite writers these days are Bill Willingham and Ed Brubaker. I don’t think most would say they are literary giants like Alan Moore, but I find their work enjoyable.
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Agreed there – to everything you’ve said. I’ve not knowing read anything from Bill Willingham or Ed Brubaker – but I will be sure to look them up. Same for Cerebus 🙂
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Cerebus is tough. Started out as a funny animal/parody of Conan. Then launched into full blown political satire, philosophies of male/female relations, religion, etc. One of the longest and frankly craziest self-published independent comics. Bill Willingham wrote Fables for DC, probably one of his best works. Brubaker writes a lot of crime stories, most well known for his run on Captain America. If you saw the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier, that was based on Brubaker’s stories.