Empire of Imagination & Of Dice And Men: Book Reviews

The roleplaying hobby has been with us long enough now that we have begun to lose some of its pioneers, which turns its history into both legend and legacy. It’s no wonder that there have been a number of books documenting its fascinating progression, particularly of its first dozen or so years around the 70s.

Naturally, it is impossible to discuss the early years of roleplaying without mentioning Dungeons & Dragons, and it is equally impossible not to mention the influence of its co-creator E. Gary Gygax. The creation of D&D, its background in miniature gaming, the politics of TSR’s rise and fall, and the importance of the game today are all moments that shaped or reflected the history of the wider hobby.

Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer (subtitled Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons) claims as of 2015 to be the first biography of Gygax. Witwer gives a largely sympathetic look at the man in rapid-fire chapters that barely spend very long on a scene.

And scenes they are, as Witwer attempts to present these vignettes by dramatising them, inserting dialogue reasonably inferred from actual sourced quotes, giving a sense of story to one of today’s icons of modern storytelling. However, Witwer is no dramaturge, and the scenes come off as stilted and incomplete, despite his best intentions.

It doesn’t help that Gary’s life as a history isn’t particularly thrilling, but there is a story here, and that story has to do with the founding of D&D and TSR, and of Gygax’s feuds with first Arneson, then the Blumes, and finally Lorraine Williams. This is the most exciting section of the book, and it is teased at the start, but it doesn’t have the impact needed to become engaging.

Witwer is best when he sticks to the facts, and when he drops the storytelling facade in the last couple of chapters he shines. Though he might handle Gygax with some generosity (particularly in regard to his loved ones) his research is excellent, and the appendices are worthy resources. Photographs in the central pages are a treat.

As a history it is quite interesting, but hampered by ham-fisted script writing. It does however give a human face to the history of roleplaying, which is perhaps what it needs to be an engaging narrative.

David M. Ewalt seems to agree with that sentiment, but in Of Dice And Men the human face he chooses to accompany the tale is his own (in the guise of Modern Everygamer). In this account, Ewalt chronicles his own history of playing D&D with that of the game itself, regularly interjecting with fictionalised anecdotes from his gaming experience.

Ewalt’s personal story is targeted toward readers inexperienced with the hobby and his explanations of gaming concepts, rules and norms can be a bit of a chore for those already familiar (I was very tempted to skip through the majority of chapter one). Despite this, he soon picks up when discussing the main topic, and his snappy presentation of the history of gaming is very enjoyable.

It’s admirable, in fact, giving a crash course on chess and wargaming, and his own personal experiences work well here. He jumps into the pivotal years of D&D/TSR/Gygax with gusto and an even hand; Gygax isn’t presented as a saint, Arneson isn’t unduly sidelined, Williams isn’t completely an ogre. The Blume brothers seem to be everyone’s choice of villain, offering few redeeming features regardless of who tells the tale. Like Witwer, he is very well researched, and I’d argue that he offers a more complete history. He certainly goes further into depth than Witwer, despite only using a third of the word count and is much more compelling because of it.

After largely exhausting the best of the history, Ewalt gives us a look at his personal experience gaming (including a chapter on larping), attending conventions, and finally running his own game and taking on the role of DM. As passable as most of this is, the best is his insightful accounts of attending games run by D&D legends Dave Mentzer and “Ernie” Gygax (eldest son of the now deceased co-creator). Ewalt’s resulting delight and disappointment show a sincere affection for the game and its rocky history, as does his chat with Dave Megarry.

Both authors are clearly passionate gamers and thorough historians, well versed in their subjects. At their best they are highly approachable and occasionally revelatory. But, like a DM with encyclopedic rules knowledge and limited roleplaying skills, the technical details can’t save an unengaging delivery.

Or if you prefer, it’s like playing a really good module under two different DMs, and you can tell that neither did it justice.

Just between you and me, Ewalt was probably the better of the two.

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