[Review] Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Writing a biography has to be tough, especially when the subject is one that is both beloved and polarizing, and when the fires of their life are still smoldering and time has not yet had time to let emotions cool off. For that alone I give Witwer props in embarking on a biography of Gary Gygax. That said and out of the way, let’s look at the book.

Empire of Imagination is not quite a biography, but more a biofic: it takes episodes from Gygax’s life and dramatizes them into short scenes that include both quoted bits of dialogue, and made-up dialogue meant to fit the known facts of the scene. The result is not quite a novel, not quite a biography, but more like a theme-park ride through animatronic vignettes of the life of Gary Gygax from his early childhood in Chicago, his time in Lake Geneva, the creation, development, rise, and fall of Dungeons & Dragons/TSR, and the denouement of his life. At the end you get a sense that you know more about the man than you did at the start, but in a superficial kind of way.

Nevertheless it is a good book to get an overview of the life of the man acknowledged as the father of roleplaying games, and while Witwer doesn’t delve too deep into any aspect of his life, he does a decent job of presenting Gygax warts and all. Witwer’s account of the history of D&D and TSR is, by definition, wholly Gygax-centered, but it still chronicles the story of this seminal moment in Gygax’s life, the reason why this book exists at all.

Though I personally would have preferred a different style than the “biofic” one Witwer used, I enjoyed reading Empire of Imagination, and learning more about the man who was instrumental in launching a new genre of games which has meant so much to me in my life. Witwer does succeed in portraying a larger-than-life man who was both gifted and flawed, a man of great successes and great failures, a man who through a combination of skill and luck was at the right place and time to become an icon.