Having played Dungeons & Dragons for years, I was thrilled to hear that a new book about (and the only biography of) its creator Gary Gygax is on the way. Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons was written by Michael Witwer and will drop on October 6. Witwer is a lifelong gamer, who was introduced to D&D by his brother Sam Witwer (Being Human, Star Wars: The Clone Wars). He holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, where his book, Empire of Imagination, first emerged as the subject of his master’s thesis. He’s an actor and a marketing professional and an incredibly nice guy. His knowledge of Gary Gygax and D&D is incredible. After the interview, he shared an extra tidbit, telling me that Gygax had a couple of childhood experiences that he believe to be paranormal, which were very influential in his life. If you’re a gamer, you’re going to want to read what he has to say.
For more information, visit his website at www.empireofimagination.com. You can pre-order [easyazon_link identifier=”1632862794″ locale=”US” tag=”legoflei07-20″]Empire of Imagination[/easyazon_link] right here!
Legion of Leia: So how did you get into D&D? Did I read correctly that Sam got you into it?
Michael Witwer: Absolutely. So this is something that is sort of known, but sometimes, there’s some sort of misconception that, how geeky is this guy? And the answer is that he’s as geeky as they come. He’s the one who got us into all of this, whether it was D&D or Battlestar Galactica, or Star Trek or Star Wars, or any of this stuff. It’s really, in my particular sphere of friends, called the Council, internally. And it’s actually a reference to the Star Wars Jedi Council. He’s really the instigator of all that. He was, for whatever reason, really attracted to that, so… My experience with D&D started in the mid-80s — I was just a little kid. What happened was that friends of ours, who are members of the council, had a bunch of D&D books. And this was at the time when the game was still controversial and everyone was still worried about devil worship. So this local kid that lived nearby was selling his D&D books, though not for those reasons. He was the oldest brother of some dear friends of ours, and he was growing out of D&D. But he had these great old D&D books. So Sam, my brother, bought these, and we started playing. And, you know, I’m just a little kid, but I just have the best memories of playing all the original circa 1980 adventures. So I was probably five or six years old, and that’s really how we got started, because Sam bought these books from this local kid and just got obsessed with them. And Sam was always the Dungeonmaster, and to this day continues to be our game master/Dungeonmaster, depending on what game we’re playing. And he was just really into it and he got really excited about doing it. It makes sense, looking back, with his acting and everything, that Dungeonmaster was really kind of perfect for him. And for the rest of us, it was a tremendous creative outlet, an opportunity for us to share our imaginations, which as kids was great for us. So we started playing this in the mid80s when I was just a little kid and for us, that grew into playing the Star Wars role playing game. We basically transitioned from a lot of D&D gaming to the original Star Wars role playing game, and from there we transitioned, even though we still played the game for years and years and years. And we still played D&D intermittently, though it was no longer a full time game like it once was.
Legion of Leia: Tell us a little bit about Gary.
Michael Witwer: It’s generally little known that this big phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons and getting into the bigger and far more reaching scale of role playing games and big board games and MMOs is a huge phenomenon out there within the mainstream/pop culture phenomenon. And it all started out in the Midwest in this little town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Lake Geneva is about an hour and a half north of Chicago, and it’s a little resort community. It’s kind of a rustic fishing community. It’s also kind of a home place for wealthy regional executives. So it’s really interesting there for a number of reasons, one of which is that you’ve got these huge Victorian and stone mansions on what is otherwise this rustic fishing lake. So Gary was born in Chicago in 1938, and he had a relatively normal childhood in many respects. It was always about imagination and pretend games, but normal in the respect that a lot of kids do this type of thing. For some reason, Gary at some point took it to the next level. There’s a lot of reasons about this that I discuss in the book, but he grew up reading sorcery fantasy, you know, a lot of Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, this kind of stuff, and his favorite was Robert E. Howard. So he was really inspired by these pulp magazines, and he combined it at some point in his life with his passion for board gaming. And what ended up happening is that these various pieces began to come together to comprise all the mechanics that make up a role playing game together. But Gary himself and this is what I want to say about him when I took on this project, and this is really the most relevant thing to bring up, I guess, is that I was shocked that a biography of Gary hadn’t been written. The long and short of it with me is that I was working on a Master’s thesis, one entirely separate of this, and I was kind of muddling through this very esoteric Mayan urban planning thing, and it wasn’t going very well, to be honest. And a few things happened that made me think about Gary. I ended up talking to a friend who had just read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, and he’d mentioned that the book had to do with this kid who was nuts about fantasy and gaming and the description of the vernacular brought to mind Gary Gygax. I knew he’d invented this game we all knew and loved, but I never thought a lot about the guy who he was and who he might be so I decided to look him up. And sure enough, I found all of these brief biographical articles about him, and I wanted to know more and more about this guy. Who was this guy? What was his life like? That’s when I tripped upon the idea that I couldn’t believe a biography hadn’t been written about this guy. I mean, whether I’m on Facebook, or playing World of Warcraft, I see Gary’s invention everywhere. But I’m thinking to myself ‘I’m in the minority here.’ In the grand scheme of things, I’m in an esoteric community, and as a whole it’s a relatively small community of tabletop roleplayers, and I realized that all of these games came from this little idea, but very few people on the broad spectrum know who Gary Gygax is. How weird! And that was exacerbated by the lack of biography about him, so it was at that point that I decided to change my thesis, and got it changed with the University of Chicago, and they approved me to take on this project instead, to do a biographical project. It wasn’t a book at the time, per se, but it was a special project basically, about Gary. It was at that point when I started digging into his life. Then I realized that even though his business life is really interesting, like with all the controversial stuff that happened with the game the Satanic panic, the lawsuits with his cocreator, the business side of the story is every bit as intriguing as the Steve Jobs Apple story. It has all of those kernels and those elements of intrigue. But taking a step back, his whole life story is what became a passion for me because that was every bit as interesting as everything else. It had all of these awesome concepts small town man makes it really big, redemption late in life, a rags to riches to rags story so I found so many levels about why this guy’s life was so hugely interesting and what drew me to the topic.
Legion of Leia: I know a little bit about the whole TSR thing, but was there anything you found that really shocked you that you think D&D fans will be surprised by?
Michael Witwer: I was surprised by quite a lot. There are some really excellent role playing game histories that I would not have been able to do my work without. The most prominent is probably John Peterson’s “Playing at the World” there’s a number of these books out in the world taking this topic on, but none of them are about the men and the women, per se, who developed these games themselves, though they cover lots of other parts of the history. So I think the really surprising part is going to be what was actually going on in people’s individual lives behind all the games we know and love. That was interesting. That’s the stuff you actually don’t know. When Gary came out with his “World of Greyhawk” series in 1980, you don’t realize what kind of personal tragedy he was dealing with, and it gave me so much context and perspective as a role playing gamer. When I was a kid playing these games, I never thought about what was going on behind the game. Somebody wrote them, somebody published them; I never realized those people, like Gary, had their own personal challenges. So that’s what I find really interesting that the concept of biography had not been taken on yet. For that reason, I think this is going to have some very interesting levels of intrigue. There’s a lot of things that people just didn’t know about these guys. And of course a lot of this material comes from anecdotal data, so it’s really just talking to the people that were there that knew or had heard stories and could relate them to me. That’s a pretty broad answer, but I think people will learn a lot about the man who created D&D, and I think there will be many, many surprises.
Jenna Busch: Well, I think it’s going to get a lot of interest now, especially with “Ready Player One” being made into a film by Steven Spielberg because he’s mentioned in there so much and I think it’ll be really interesting. But there’s been sort of a resurgence with D&D lately. Why do you think that is?
Michael Witwer: The short answer is that it’s chic to be geek right now. For recent context, let’s take The Big Bang Theory. What other show out there is better proof of our love affair with geek culture right now than The Big Bang Theory? I couldn’t believe my ears a couple weeks ago when Gary Con came up on the show. I had just gone there, but this is still a relatively small convention and really more of a living memorial. And unlike Comic-Con, this is not an international thing, though maybe some day it will be. So it blew me away that a show like The Big Bang Theory, which is one of the most watched shows on tv, would mention it. There’s a whole bunch of geeks coming out of the wood work, and many others who are still hiding their geekdom, so it’s nice to see some of these groups publicly recognized.
Legion of Leia: So true! I’ve done a couple of episodes of Tabletop, Wil Wheaton’s tabletop gaming show and so many people are talking about gaming outside of the video game realm.
Michael Witwer: I’ve actually watched that a number of times. It’s awesome! And I actually got to meet him at Paramount on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And that’s not to take any prestige not that there’s really any to take there but Wil Wheaton promoting role playing, and especially tabletop gaming, is really cool to me. In this way, I there’s a lot of pop culture appeal. And if I were to speak to this, I think the lines are really blurred between geek vs non-geek vs nerd due to information being so easy to find, I guess the question is who built this structure to be so sustainable? Who are the masters of the information age? And the answers are the kids who were playing with their computers in the 70s and 80s. And a lot of those kids were playing D&D. These people are the leaders of our culture now. It’s amazing, when you look at it, that D&D is so important to our geek culture now, even as a lot of its derivatives have come to the forefront, including World of Warcraft, which is a game that has millions of subscribers. People are playing that game for 20-30 hour a week, not just an hour a week. That’s a major chunk of society and a major thing happening! And that’s a derivative of a tabletop game that leads directly back to Gary Gygax and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin!
Legion of Leia: I’m one of those people who subscribes to World of Warcraft, so I appreciate that!
Michael Witwer: I think it’s an amazing phenomenon. And it’s all the more reason that I had to look at this guy and to get his story, which I think is pretty incredible for a lot of reasons. And I can talk your ear off about all the things that happened, but the truth is, it was kind of a hard knock life. Gary really did make a big splash and a big success, but you can also say he was creative and one of those eccentrics too, in the same way you might say things about Walt Disney or Steve Jobs. He was kind of one of these types. He was hypercreative, he could be temperamental, but he really brought it and really put himself out there. But it wasn’t single handedly, and I definitely wouldn’t suggest that, but he really was the driving force that made all this happen. It’s amazing what he set up and laid down, because I think he gets relatively little credit in the grand scheme of things. And I do want to mention the cover art because there’s something particularly interesting about it. One of Gary Gygax’s favorite artists was Jeff Easley, who did the “Unearthed Arcana” cover, and one thing that that did was help bring TSR back to being financially stronger. It’s one of the factors that brought it back. So when we were exploring that concept, that was one of the things we were thinking about. So now, we have Jeff Easley, thirty years later doing what is essentially a parody cover.
Legion of Leia: That’s really cool. A lot of our readers play D&D, so they’re going to totally love that.
Michael Witwer: I’m glad to hear that. This, for me, has been a tremendous labor of love. And it’s been a passion that has really turned into an obsession. But I’m delighted to say that we’re through the woods the manuscript is done and we’re moving full steam now, and I’m learning a lot about publishing as well. Thankfully, Bloomsbury has a lot of experience with this sort of thing. And one connection that’s really neat for me is that before I started this project, I’d just finished the Harry Potter series, and I read those really, really quickly and in succession, and a few weeks later I came up with this concept, and now Bloomsbury is publishing my book. So for me it’s the ultimate awesomeness to have the original Harry Potter publisher pick up my little book about Gary Gygax.
Legion of Leia: Wow. That is so cool.
Michael Witwer: I was pretty stoked.