Since the publication of Designers & Dragons (2014), the roleplaying history field has continued to expand, with the newest entrant being Empire of Imagination (2015), a biography of Gary Gygax by Michael Witwer. It was published last Fall by Bloomsbury Publishing, making it one of the most mass-market roleplaying histories to date.

Empire of Imagination isn’t just a biography. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it a biopic, because that’s the tack it takes. Rather than being a dry history book, Witwer’s Empire of Imagination instead offers a more theatrical view of Gygax’s life. Each chapter is a dramatized scene, from Gygax’s childhood to his final days. Clearly, this requires the creative invention of settings and dialogue, but that’s based not just on existing interviews, but also on Witwer’s fresh discussions with numerous principals — including people that have not been traditionally interviewed, such as Mary Jo Gygax (Gary’s first wife) and Elise Gygax (one of his daughters).

Some people might not like the style. It certainly takes history in a different direction from Jon Peterson’s very dry and academic Playing at the World (2012), but it’s a style that offers its own advantages.

The Contents of the Book

Empire of Imagination is divided into 44 chapters, spread across 9 sections (“levels”). Broadly they cover the following topics:

  • Part 1: Gygax’s childhood
  • Part 2: Gygax’s professional career
  • Part 3: Gen Con & Chainmail
  • Part 4: The creation of D&D
  • Part 5: The rising days of TSR
  • Part 6: The declining days of Gygax at TSR
  • Part 7: New Infinities & GDW
  • Part 8: Gygax’s last days
  • Part 9: Gygax’s legacy

This listing reveals two of the strengths of the book.

First, Empire of Imagination touches upon Gygax’s personal life in a way that none of the previous history books have. This shows up in part in the first two sections, which reveal considerable information about Gygax’s life before D&D It’s the most comprehensive look at Gygax’s early life that I know of. However, even in the other sections, Witwer maintains a very personal focus on Gygax. A lot of this focusis thanks to details; Witwer scoured interviews (and talked with people anew) to discover the texture of Gygax’s life, giving it more verisimilitude. I feel like I know more about Gygax as a man, and about how that influenced Gygax as a designer and manager.

Second, Empire of Imagination has a real continuity. It puts everything in order and runs through it from beginning to end. You’ll find much of the material in sections 3-5 in Playing at the World, usually at greater length. Similarly, much of the material in sections 3-9 shows up in my own Designers & Dragons, but it’s spread across several histories (TSR in the ’70s, New Infinities in the ’80s, Hekaforge in the ’90s, and Troll Lord Games in the ’00s). Here you get it all as a coherent story, from start to end.

If that suggests there’s not necessarily a lot of new information in Empire of Imagination, I think that’s accurate — with the exception of the more personal material. The one other exception is in section 5, which delves a bit further into Gygax’s time in Hollywood and what came afterward than some other sources. So, if you’re already read Playing at the World and all four volumes of Designers & Dragons front to back, you may not find a lot to surprise you in Empire of Imagination … but you also might not be the primary audience for the book.

As for the primary audience, that might be someone who appreciates readability: Witwer excels at telling this story by creating a light narrative.

The Sources of the Book

Michael Witwer lists plenty of sources at the end of his book, including primary sources, secondary sources, and even original interviews.

However my one issue with the book rises from the sources: I can hear Gary Gygax’s voice too strongly in the results. Maybe that’s appropriate for a biography about the man, but the dismissal of Dave Arneson’s work, the demonization of the Blumes, the claim that AD&D second edition wasn’t a success, and a few smaller issues strike me as biased toward Gygax’s point of view.

Mind you, I can assert how difficult it is to untangle these fogged, personal memories from decades ago. I faced the same problem while working on Designers & Dragons, and some of these very issues were the hardest to nail down. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if I demonize the Blumes too much, though I certainly tried to be balanced. In any case, I often said I didn’t know which story was right. I wish Empire of Imagination would have done that more often (though it would have been hard given the narrative structure).

Don’t let me suggest that everything is from Gygax’s point of view. It’s clear that interviews with Mary Jo Gygax and with Gary’s children (and with other folks at TSR) provided some of the narrative — including perspectives that don’t always present Gygax in the best light. Of course there could be bias there too, but it’s good to see the alternate viewpoints.

In Toto

Though I do have some qualms with the bias of some sources, and though I do think that Empire of Imagination doesn’t dive very deep, I still think it’s a strong book for a specific audience — for folks taking a more casual look at roleplaying history or for people more interested in Gary Gygax specifically.

And that’s the word on the newest entrant to our little family of niche histories.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #9 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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