REVIEW: Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer

At some point, someone is going to publish a history of Dungeons & Dragons that does not simply stop at the point when E. Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR. At some point, someone is going to write a history of Dungeons & Dragons that engages with the creative process and tries to understand why the game assumed the shape it did.

We have not yet reached that point.

In fairness to Michael Witwer, Empire of Imagination is not intended as a history of D&D but as a biography of E. Gary Gygax. It just happens that the book has relatively little interest in what happened before and after he worked at TSR.

Empire of Imagination begins with a series of very brief chapters skimming over Gygax’s youth. They are short because they appear to be loosely fictionalised retellings of anecdotes that Gygax shared with interviewers down through the years. Though hardly objectionable, these early chapters are so thin as to be almost perfunctory and the refusal to look much beyond Gygax’s ex cathedra pronouncements suggests a real lack of curiosity on Witwer’s part. I could understand glossing over Gygax’s youth in a book about RPGs in general or Dungeons & Dragons in particular but it is unfortunate that Witwer chose not to write a bit about the context and institutions that made Gygax the man he was. For example, Witwer does talk a bit about Gygax’s relationship with his father but there is no mention either of his mother or of the fact that he grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness.

Things do start to pick up once Gygax gets married. The absolute highpoint of the book’s opening chapters is the scene in which an adolescent Gygax gets the horn looking at a flame-haired female warrior on the cover of a dime store SFF magazine only for Witwer to cut straight to the scene in which a dumpy crewcut Gygax meets his ludicrously glamorous flame-haired first wife Mary Jo.

Mary Jo is an interesting figure in the story of Gygax’s life as Witwer suggests that she might well have been responsible for a lot of Gygax’s early drive and ambition. Indeed, Gygax was a high school drop-out who joined the marines out of sheer desperation only to spend a few years working in insurance until a colleague got promoted and shit-canned Gygax as his first managerial action. Aside from laying the foundations for later chapters devoted to Gygax’s cataclysmic career as a corporate CEO, the scenes in which Mary Jo turns up to yell at an indolently drifting Gygax suggest a really interesting home dynamic with which Witwer pointedly refuses to engage. Indeed, Mary Jo disappears from the picture as soon as TSR is founded only to resurface around the time of the divorce at which point she is unambiguously labelled a drunk while Gygax’s infamous chang habit gets downplayed despite the fact that it explains a lot about his disastrous attempts to run the company.

While Mary Jo may have been responsible for Gygax’s ambition, the book does spend some time establishing Gygax as a mover and a shaker in 1970s war-gaming as his engagement with the postal Diplomacy scene as well as his involvement in the creation of Gencon allowed him to establish an extensive social network including Dave Arneson.

While Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men presents Arneson as a guy who was just too undisciplined to work in corporate game publishing, Witwer’s portrait is considerably more flattering for its nuances. As in Of Dice and Men, Arneson is presented as a guy with big ideas and no follow-through as relayed through the same unattributed anecdotes about Arneson disappearing into his office for months on end and then re-emerging with a handful of incomprehensible paragraphs that Gygax was forced to translate into something resembling a game. However, Witwer builds on Ewalt’s account by stressing the disjointed nature of Arneson and Gygax’s creative partnership. For example, early drafts of what was then entitled “The Fantasy Game” were hampered not only by Arneson’s inability to write but also the expense of long-distance phone-calls. With both written and vocal communication all but impossible, how did the first draft of D&D ever come together?

One important thing to bear in mind when considering the Arneson/Gygax partnership is that Arneson’s exact role in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons is still unclear. For decades, the only people who spoke on these matters were Gygax and his entourage meaning that the received history of D&D was one that stressed the centrality of Gygax in every creative decision. This version of history continued to be repeated well into the 1990s by which time TSR had lost multiple lawsuits over their attempts to deny Arneson royalties and write him out of gaming history. It is really only in the last couple of decades that Arneson has come to be accepted as the game’s original co-creator but the exact nature of that partnership may never be fully uncovered. I can certainly see how Arneson struggling to write rules would result in his being written out of history simply because all of the text came from Gygax’s typewriter rather than Arneson’s. I can also see how one could drift from ‘Arneson did not write the rules’ to ‘Gygax wrote the rules’ to ‘Gygax created D&D’ but I think that Gygax’s failure to move on creatively from D&D hints at a somewhat different dynamic whereby Arneson had all the big ideas only for Gygax to transcribe them onto paper.

This is the type of thing I was complaining about when I mentioned this book’s failure to engage with the creative process at the top of the review: If Gygax and Arneson were indeed working on subtly different games then what were the differences between those games? In what ways did early editions of D&D resemble and differ from the proto-D&Ds that both men were working on? Other historians have noted that D&D might well have been shaped by the fact that Gygax’s playtesters were his own pre-teen children but what difference could that possibly have made in practice? Also frustrating is Witwer’s refusal to acknowledge any debt that D&D might have owed to other games. For example, we know that Gygax worked on variants of the board game Diplomacy and that play-by-mail Diplomacy was a venue in which people would ‘inhabit’ the role of their characters. We also know that one of the major things that Arneson brought to the table was the idea that, as well as using combat rules to resolve conflicts, war game characters might be able to sneak or talk their way out of trouble. Though seemingly implemented without mechanical support, this willingness to see beyond the rules as written played a huge role in forging the kind of social contract that allowed people to get their heads around the shift from wargame to RPG.

Though undoubtedly better than Ewalt, Witwer’s reluctance to engage with the creative process involved in coming up with D&D is one of the major drawbacks of these kinds of books. It’s a bit like buying an autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and having his creative process boiled down to a story about him coming across a load of sunflowers and then running into his local café, demanding a glass of pastis and going ‘Guys… I’ve had an idea’. I mean sure… that probably did happen at some point, but what is the point of writing the biography of an artist if you’re not actually going to talk about the culture in which they were working or what made their art so significant?

There’s a particularly frustrating bit when Gygax reads the first reviews of Dungeons & Dragons only for the reviewers to say that it’s a great idea that deserves a better creative mind than that of E. Gary Gygax. Witwer presents this episode from Gygax’s point of view and the ensuing temper tantrum lays the foundation for Gygax’s fabled litigiousness and his attempts to corner the market on RPGs by bullying other game designers. Had Witwer taken a step back from ‘haters gonna hate’, he would have had the opportunity to do a side-bar on how both D&D and Gygax were perceived by other gamers at the time of D&D’s release. This would not only have given us some insight into how D&D caught on, but also on the climate in which Gygax was operating at the time.

This lack of interest in the culture surrounding D&D extends into a certain amount of sloppiness regarding the treatment of D&D itself. As with Ewalt’s book, Witwer suggests that Gygax wrote every D&D book single-handed and there’s no reference to the shift in attitudes that moved D&D away from the DIY ethos of first edition towards the more closed and controlling approach built into AD&D. In fact, AD&D barely gets a mention at all and AD&D Second Edition is referred to only as Zeb Cook’s “Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition”, an unsuccessful product produced while Gary was off snorting coke and chasing girls in Hollywood.

It is fascinating how little Witwer engages with Gygax’s output once the first edition of D&D starts flying out the doors. There’s little mention of the adventures Gygax wrote, no mention of the  subtly different re-editions produced under Gygax’s watch and no mention at all of how Gygax actually spent his time when he divorced Mary Jo and fucked off to Hollywood.

This lack of interest in Gygax’s actual output is also evident from the way that Witwer deals with all of the novels and games that Gygax tried to produce after he left TSR. Sure, all of these things get mentioned but only in the context of the lawsuits surrounding them. In Witwer’s mind, Gygax seems to vault straight from creative powerhouse to venerated icon with little or no mention of the creative decline or the decades of misbehaviour that happened in between. Indeed, nobody remembers Gygax’s novels and the Mythus and Danjerous Journeys stuff he produced after TSR were not just unsuccessful but seen at the time as desperate, outdated, and overly complex rubbish pumped out by someone who was long past their creative peak.

While it would be unfair to say that Empire of Imagination is hagiographic, Witwer’s reluctance to engage with the nuance of his subject-matter means that his treatment of Gygax remains frustratingly shallow. Having struggled to explain how Gygax made himself a success, Witwer struggles again to account for his decline. Indeed, having now read several books about the early years of D&D, the one thing to leap out at me is the way that Gygax systematically mistreated people in a way that was not only unjust but ultimately ruinous for him in the long-term. For example, when Gary finally gets his head together and decides to wrestle control of TSR from his long-term partners, he assembles a list of all the ways in which his partners had been misusing corporate funds. His presentation proves so devastating that he manages to take full control of the company only for another partner to turn up with an equally damning list of all the ways in which Gygax had been treating TSR as his private piggy bank. He then immediately gets fired as CEO and forced out of the company because the guys he just publicly humiliated turn up and vote to hand the company to a woman he had also repeatedly bad-mouthed and humiliated.

There are then a handful of chapters devoted to Gary’s various attempts to build new gaming companies only for these attempts to be undermined by the policy of vexatious litigation that Gary himself pioneered when he was in charge of TSR. Similarly depressing is the way that Gary tries to rebuild a company by getting the old gang back together except that repeatedly trying to screw Dave Arneson out of his royalties meant that he was never going to get back together with his original creative partner. While time and cocaine are equally ruinous to creative minds, it is fascinating that Gygax’s attempts to write new RPGs without Dave Arnseson resulted only in more D&D. If Gygax was (as institutional accounts and TSR legal documents would have it) solely responsible for creating a whole new form of media, why were his later games so lacking in imagination? What happened during the two decades that separated the first edition of D&D and the only edition of Danjerous Journeys?

Empire of Imagination is not a bad book, it’s just frustratingly thin. Hamstrung not only by Witwer’s reluctance to engage with the meat of what his subject was up to, but also by his real reluctance to move beyond the image that Gygax built for himself towards the end of his life. E. Gary Gygax is one of the single most influential people in the history of geek culture but that influence came at the expense of people, institutions, and games that deserved so much more than he was able to give them. Far from a benevolent icon with a D20 in his pocket and magic objects for all, Gygax was an addict and a small business tyrant who destroyed not only his marriage and friendships but also his company and his game. We can acknowledge his triumphs as well as his failures but a full understanding of the former can only come from honest engagement with the latter. Gygax deserves a better biography and so does D&D.

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