Book Review: Empire of the Imagination


I don’t know if you know this, but I like tabletop RPGs. I really like tabletop RPGs. So, when I learned of the massive amount of scholarship going around RPGs and the history thereof, I got really excited. Though not the first book on the topic that I picked up (that being Of Dice And Men, which I reviewed in the fourth issue of my fanzine) this is one of the first, and one that warrants some discussion.

Empire of the Imagination is a biography of E. Gary Gygax – co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons along with Dave Arneson. There are two competing documentaries on Gary in the works, but as none of those have been completed yet, this is our first real look at Gary as a person and his life story.

I’m not going to recap the book itself, but instead get into the presentation. The book is set up in a series of chunks, going through Gary’s life from his childhood in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where TSR was founded and GenCon was originally based, to his death. In-between sections, there are interludes semi-fictionalizing aspects of Gary’s life in the style of a fantasy epic – which are in turn covered in more serious and grounded detail in the following section.

Having never had the opportunity to meet Gary, the book gave a very good portrait of Gygax as a person and as a creator, keeping the focus entirely on Gary. When it comes to Gary’s creative output, the book focuses on his time at TSR, both in terms of game books, novels (the Gord the Rogue series), and attempts to get a Dungeons & Dragons film started, to be directed by John Boorman and starring Orson Welles.

In particular, the book gives a whole bunch of attention to the books Gary read that lead him to create D&D. Also, the book gets into the early sessions Gary ran as he was creating the game, with the sessions in the Castle Greyhawk campaign, both for some of what would become the first employees of TSR, as well as some of Gary’s kids.

However, after Gary’s forced departure from the company he founded, the biography moves more into more broad strokes. It gives me the impression that author Michael Witwer felt that the part readers care the most about is the material leading up to D&D, and Gary’s ouster from TSR, and nobody cares after that.  That’s kind of frustrating for me, because that is the part I want to hear about the most, because aside from the games Gary ran for his friends and family before D&D became popular, that’s the part that’s told the least.

I did enjoy this book, and I’d definitely say that this was a story that bore telling, but there were little chunks of it that I wish got more attention.

Empire of Imagination is available in Kindle, hardcover, paperback, and audiobook editions from Amazon.com.

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