I recently got a chance to speak with Michael Witwer, author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons at the Chicago Wizard World Comic-Con. He gave us some info on the book, gaming, zombies and all sorts of other nerdy stuff. His book takes a look at the life of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons and how he helped the gaming world grow through the early days.
Legion of Leia: Please introduce yourself.
Michael Witwer: I’m Michael Witwer and I’m the author of the Empire of Imagination about Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. This is a biography with a lot of focus on the birth and influences of Dungeons & Dragons and the whole story of Gary’s early days in Lake Geneva to his death in 2008.
Legion of Leia: So, why Gary Gygax?
Michael Witwer: Why not? It had occurred to me as a lifetime role-playing gamer, there are so many concepts that are huge in pop culture today that have their roots in concepts that were originally unique to role-playing games. So I started looking around at things, whether it be MMO’s which many people don’t realize has a second part to the acronym, MMORPG- the role playing game elements. The kids that grow up playing these games these days don’t realize its derivative of a tabletop element like Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games. You can even stretch this to avatars and things on Facebook where a lot of these concepts really find their roots in role-playing games. In fact the whole last section of the book is dedicated to the why, as in why Gary Gygax? He created a game that early geeks played and helped them to create imaginative concepts. They later took over the world. That’s why I think it’s important that people know why this otherwise esoteric game was created by Gary Gygax, and by the transitive property he is a very important person that otherwise didn’t have a biography. So that was the thing that originally drew me to this idea, I couldn’t believe there was no biography on Gary Gygax. In my life he’s hugely important whether it’s playing Dungeons & Dragons or things that I do on my cell phone.
Legion of Leia: So as a Dungeons & Dragons player, squares or hexes?
Michael Witwer: Woosh, that’s a tough question to answer, I really like them both. I really like the flexibility of hexes. I also like starship miniature combat and that was all hex oriented, it’s a good mechanic that works really well. I would hate to be in one camp or the other let’s put it that way. Honestly, the gaming I like if you want to get old-school about it is, measuring. I don’t mind measuring miniatures and having neither squares nor hexes.
Legion of Leia: Do you still do tabletop gaming?
Michael Witwer: I do, it’s a very dedicated trip these days. I grew up playing games with my brother, my brother was always our Dungeon Master and it never went the other way. It makes sense if you look at where Sam’s career has gone, it makes a lot of sense that he was the storyteller driving all of these adventures. He would tell you it really inspired his abilities to be an actor and assume a lot of different roles while keeping stories moving within a live context. I’ve gamed for as long as I can remember. Since I was six years old we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. After high school when everybody starts to disperse, as what usually happens, the gaming became intermittent so what we do and what we’ve done for about the last 10 years now is me and my gaming group, we call ourselves The Council- we get together from a weekend to a whole week. We’ll rent a house somewhere and do nothing but game, usually it’s in Galena, Illinois but the last couple years have been in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; the home of Gary Gygax.
Legion of Leia: How is technology, things like Roll20, changed gaming?
Michael Witwer: You know what, for us not very much, because we still run regular live campaigns. I know it’s changed gaming a lot but for us, we haven’t done much with it. Honestly it’s such an important thing to be together; the people make the party.
Legion of Leia: So other than Dungeons & Dragons what types of games have you been playing?
Michael Witwer: Well, we started with Dungeons & Dragons then we started playing West End Games’ D6 Star Wars and we played that for years. That was a long, long-term campaign it lasted maybe 10 years. After D6 Star Wars we moved into a bunch of different games that we experimented with like Palladium; it is a fantasy role-playing game that we played a little bit. Amber, we played quite a bit; Amber is a diceless role-playing game. It was a pretty neat game if not pretty strange and abstract. That was something realistically you could do in the weekend and then everybody could fly off and that was that. Eventually we got back to D20 D&D and D20 Star Wars. At this point Star Wars was a Wizards of the Coast product and that was the campaign we just finished last year. We must’ve played that from the early 2000’s and for at least 10 years, maybe a little bit more. We are actually in the market for new game now. We’re going to play another Star Wars campaign for sure; we’ll likely also play D&D 5E.
Legion of Leia: Tell me a little bit about Gary Gygax and your book, what’s stood out the most?
Michael Witwer: Gosh, there really was so much. When you break down the whole D&D story one of the first things that occurred to me was that none of this stuff exists in a bubble so D&D didn’t just come out of nowhere in 1974. There was a history to it and it had various influences. It was the confluence of a lot of different stuff. First of all Gary’s early life was really interesting. A lot of it, you would put in this Rockwell-esque Midwestern mischief time with kids running around doing kid things in small-town America, in this case Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. You dig a little bit deeper and according to Gary he had a couple of very interesting supernatural experiences in his childhood home that were unusually influential to his life. There are stories that he told time and time again, stories that I retell in the book, there was an abandoned insane asylum in the town. It’s the stuff of Young Adult fiction but this was his childhood. So, he’s screwing around, roaming the ruins of the Oak Hill Sanatorium in town. These are the seeds of imagination that are really being cultivated in Gary. That stuff all had a lot of influence and he connected with me because a part of it was you could remember being a kid and having these types of experiences and part of it was ‘oh, wow’ you can understand when you play Tomb of Horrors or play later modules that he wrote that these concepts were behind the scenes. You start to realize, ‘oh my gosh’ that’s where some of this came from. There hadn’t been a lot of exploration of his early life in writing; he’d written some things about it kind of in memoir fashion and in various articles. All of the role-playing books have been focused on the hot bed period from ’65 to now, really. I say ‘65 because that’s when the Wargaming and the Miniatures things started to permeate into culture and Gary was a part of bringing that all together. That was really one of the things he did that was most important, he found away to bring all of these formerly disparate groups together and turn it into something that made sense. And then of course as a result it had all of these audiences that we’re interested in it. In terms of mind blowers the reality is, I think there’s so much interest in the Dungeons & Dragons’ story because of some of the bigger pop culture stories that are told around it. Everybody knows about the allegations of Satan worship and that it was alleged to be a recruitment tool for devil worship. It is relatively well known that he was in a big fight with Dave Arneson over the original creation rights and that he was in a fight with his original business partners. The story has some new layers that when I first started to get the whole picture I was like ‘oh, my gosh’ this is a remarkable pop-culture story independent of anything that Gary did. It is just a really interesting story; it is almost like Facebook meets Jobs meets, something else entirely when it comes to some of the controversies around the game. I think it’s just a multilayer story that is damn interesting. For me it was a no-brainer when I found out there was no bio on Gary Gygax. Nobody had really done a thorough study of Gary, just things that he has done like the role-playing movement but not Gary himself.
Legion of Leia: So what was your goal in writing this book?
Michael Witwer: It was important for me to spread the message of Gary. The more I studied Gary the more I realized how he has been important to pop culture and I don’t think that’s really widely known. I think role playing gamers know it and they can readily recognize it but I think everybody on the fringes wouldn’t necessarily make the connection unless somebody helps them make the connection. Again, you really have to understand how these things were so revolutionary at the time in order to bring it back to why it’s important and why he did what I’m saying he did. It’s pretty far-reaching, it really is, you could even take something as seemingly simple as the “Con” movement and look at that. Whether it is here at Wizard World, San Diego Comic Con or where I just was, Gen Con. He founded Gen Con, it is now about 60,000 people in attendance and is probably the oldest major Con in the country, so you could make an argument that Gary was one of the founders of the mainstream con movement in the United States. It just takes little things like that to make you realize ‘wow, this guy really did a lot of important stuff’. When he started Gen Con in 1968, 96 people showed up, which was actually tremendous. It was an unbelievable effort. He was pitching something as esoteric as Wargaming and Miniatures and trying to bring them together. So getting 96 people to go to one place was remarkable and they all went to Lake Geneva. From there it double, tripled or quadrupled every year and this exponential growth lead to Gen Con becoming a major thing on the map and it has grown ever since. You could argue that without Gen Con there would not be San Diego Comic Con as we know it.
Legion of Leia: Looking at the cover of your book, Gary has a pretty frustrated look on his face, how accurate would you say that represents his overall experience?
Michael Witwer: I would say it’s very accurate. For some context here, this particular piece of cover art was done by Jeff Easley. Jeff Easley did the original cover art in 1985 for a book called Unearthed Arcana. If you look at the cover you can see the connection there to that particular piece of art by the same artist. Instead of the wizard of course it’s Gary and instead of the book it’s the typewriter and so on and so forth. It is also accurate to the time, it has the jug of wine and coffee. This is his Royal typewriter that he wrote the original D&D on. This is Gary circa early 70s, so vintage Gary pretty much. You see the loose tie and the cigarette in the mouth while he’s writing with a moonlit sky. What you need to understand about Gary is that he was a grinder, he was extremely creative, he was a tremendous reader and the guy was light-years above most of his peers in terms of intellect but he walked to the beat of his own drummer, always. As a result he never finished high school, he dropped out as a junior in high school and then he starts grinding, finding intermittent jobs and things. He started to get really interested in gaming and stumbled upon it. He got married very young and ended up falling into the insurance industry of all things. He actually becomes an insurance underwriter, which makes a lot of sense if you think about his ability to work with calculations, probabilities and that type of thing. He was probably quite good at it. Around the early 60s he starts having kids; kid after kid after kid. By the 1970 he’s got five kids and he’s been in insurance for nine years and in 1970 he’s let go from his job. Now he’s got a problem, he has a little house in Lake Geneva and they were barely making ends meet as it was. So part of what the artwork was trying to depict was that this was a guy that was living two lives. He was living in Lake Geneva and working in Chicago so you can see that this is a guy who was burning the midnight oil. He was known to only sleep 4-5 hours a night his whole career. He would get home, see his kids, have dinner and then he would write. This is how the original movement was being built, he was writing into these fanzines he was connecting with these other people and building it one piece at a time. By the time Dungeons & Dragons came out that was a culmination of all the stuff and this work he’d been doing. The reality was that he had been building this for years and years and years. It had worn him out, it had taken its toll on him, his marriage, his home life and his job. One of the main reasons he lost his job was that he wasn’t as focused on insurance as he was on his games. He would stay late at work and use his work typewriter to write up new fanzines and new games. In a lot of ways I was trying to capture this late-night grinder mentality of this guy, that was working a regular job trying to support the family and do what he needs to do but he has this unbelievable creative engine inside him and he needs to find the hours to express it on paper.
Legion of Leia: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Michael Witwer: The book comes out October 6th by Bloomsbury and you should be able to find it in regular bookstores and a number of gaming stores will also carry it. And of course, you can find it online. It has been a labor of love for me. It has been a wild ride. It sheds some interesting light on someone that deserves it in the mainstream.