Interview with Michael Witwer Author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons
I recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Witwer, author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons. A must-have book for all Dungeons & Dragons fans out there. I cannot recommend it more highly, you can also read my review that will be posted along with this interview.
For those interested in Michael Witwer, here is a small biography.
Michael Witwer is author of the critically acclaimed Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons (Bloomsbury 2015). He holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago and has a diverse professional background that has ranged from his current position as Marketing and Proposal Director of a national healthcare services firm, to significant work in the geek and gaming markets. Through his work as an author, Michael has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered with Ari Shapiro, spoken at Google as part of its Google Talks series, and served as a featured panelist at the Boston, Miami and Cincinnati Book festivals. His book won many honors including being selected as an Amazon “Best Book of the Month” and a GeekDad “Best Book of 2015”, while his other writings have appeared on Slate.com, Biographile, Tor.com, Medium and GeekDad. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and three children. For more information, visit his website at www.empireofimagination.com or find him on Twitter @MikeWitwer.
– What compelled you to write about Gary Gygax?
Good question because it was actually a book I didn’t set out to write. Empire of Imagination originally began as a master’s thesis at the University of Chicago. As my program drew to a close, I had to choose a topic and begin work on a Master’s thesis or special project to complete the program. Having recently read some brief biographical articles about the life of Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the game that I played on and off for nearly 30 years, I learned that he had led a very interesting life, but the details seemed to be fuzzy and there was a lot of disagreement about many of the events. When I looked for more information, I was stunned to learn that a full book-form biography of Gary had not been written. As I believe most people who grew up playing RPGs would agree, there are so many huge pop-culture phenomena—from aspects of social media to MMOs, from computer role-playing games to 1st person shooters—that find their roots in Dungeons & Dragons, but Gary, the driving force/inspiration behind many of these phenomena, was relatively unknown to the mainstream, yet revered by gamers everywhere.
So, I decided to do a biographical project on Gary for my master’s program. By the time I submitted the master’s project I had a fairly lengthy piece that I thought might have some potential to be published, if further developed. I subsequently began the agent query process and within a few weeks I got an extremely exciting phone call from Jacques de Spoelberch, who wanted to represent my book. Jacques and I worked on the project over the next few months and then he began to shop the book where we got the attention of several publishers including Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury proved the perfect fit for many reasons, including the fact that they are the original publisher of one of my favorite book franchises, Harry Potter.
– How did you go about finding all this information about Gary? Did you travel to Lake Geneva, spoke to his family…?
Fortunately, Gary was a prolific writer and left behind scores of material to review. I pretty much read everything and anything I could get my hands on that he wrote – from his games to issues of the Strategic Review and Dragon, to message boards, archival documents, fanzines, interviews and autobiographical articles. Other sources that made the book feasible and really helped guide the research process were some of the very excellent RPG histories that have come out over the last few years, most notably Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World.
Meanwhile, I spoke to anyone and everyone I could find that either knew Gary or knew about him. This included members of his family, friends, employees, co-workers, collaborators, D&D historians, etc. In all, I conducted a few dozen formal interviews and meetings. I really tried to talk to people who were there in every era of his life and I think we managed a pretty good cross section of folks, most of whom were eager to help and generous with their knowledge and remembrances of Gary.
– What surprised you the most about him?
As a D&D lover, it was naturally Gary’s work that led me to the idea of taking on a biography, but I soon learned that his personal life was equally intriguing. It was really something of a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. When you add all of these great, never-heard-before facts and stories about Gary to the more familiar odyssey of D&D—everything from litigation with the co-creator and alleged psychological dangers, to claims of devil worship and hostile company takeovers—it made for a very compelling story.
I think one of the things that was most surprising to me was the amount of adversity Gary faced when trying to bring D&D to market—it’s pretty much a story of Gary versus the world. At the time when D&D came out in early 1974, Gary was a high school dropout with no driver’s license and five children, working as a cobbler out of his basement. What he lacked in funds or prospects, he made up for in intelligence and passion and he basically willed the game into existence.
More generally, the deeper I dug into Gary’s history, the more I realized that D&D didn’t begin in a single day in 1974 when TSR published its first 1,000 copies of the game—it began when Gary played his first game of chess; had his first paranormal experience; read his first pulp magazine, and so forth. For this reason, I felt it was important that the biography be comprehensive, spanning from Gary’s early days to his death in 2008.
– How long did it take you to write the book?
When all was said and done, I invested about three years into the project. It was very much a labor of love and I enjoyed every minute of it, but with it also came many challenges. Let’s just say that between a full-time job and a growing family in my personal life, I had little trouble connecting to the kind of challenges Gary was facing. In fact, I often joked during the process that I thought I was becoming Gary Gygax.
– Can you tell us a bit more about Gary Con?
Absolutely! Gary Con does and always will have a special place in my heart. Organized by two of Gary’s children, Luke and Ernie Gygax, it’s easily one of the best gaming cons in the country and very much worth the pilgrimage no matter where you’re coming from or what kind of gaming you’re into. Held in Lake Geneva, the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons at one of the early Gen Con sites, guests get to walk where Gary and other legendary TSR staffers once walked. For me, Gary Con is really where my project launched in that it gave me the chance to meet many of the “hall-of-famers” of the RPG universe for the first time and subsequently set up interviews.
Gary Con takes place this year from March 23rd to March 26th. More information can be found on https://www.garycon.com
– How has DnD shaped your childhood? And how is it still shaping you to this day?
My older brother Sam got me into tabletop role-playing gaming when I was pretty young, probably 5 or 6. Sam purchased a two-foot-high stack of late 1970s AD&D books and adventure modules from an older neighborhood boy who was selling his collection. I can’t say I remember that much about our earliest experiences other than the fact that my best friend and I were often reckless and bloodthirsty. What I can say is that playing D&D was one of my favorite things to do and nurtured my passion for storytelling and the dramatic.
A few years later we began playing the Star Wars role-playing game by West End Games—a game we played consistently for several years thereafter. I played a court martialed Imperial Captain named Vac Demark, who sort of filled the role of diplomat and con man in our group (like Face from the A-Team). We were all huge Star Wars fans, so having all of the West End books and supplements in those days definitely gave us the inside track on Star Wars knowledge and quite a bit of foundation in the Expanded Universe.
Since then, we have played a number of other games with varying levels of consistency including many editions/versions of D&D and Star Wars. While it’s hard to play as frequently as we used to, as a writer, I do get to exercise the skills I learned playing D&D just about every day. Ultimately, I credit the game with teaching me how to conceptualize and tell stories.
– Will you be passing on your DnD passion to your children?
Certainly, although I’ll probably wait a couple of years. At five years old, my daughter will be ready soon, but the boys at two and six-months will need some more time. One thing I can say is that they all seem to have the imagination for it.
– Which type of character do you usually play? Or are you the Dungeon Master?
For D&D, I’m inclined to play paladins and monks, but I also love bards. On the Star Wars side, I definitely trend toward fast talking scoundrels. My last character was an actor and aristocrat named Cervantes, who, like his predecessor Vac Demark, was far better off talking rather than fighting (again, think Face from the A-Team).
– Do you have any tips or advice for beginners at DnD?
Yes! This is really for both beginning players and the Dungeon Masters who are bringing them in: No matter what the system, don’t let the rules be a barrier to entry. I’ve too many times seen people scared away by overly complicated mechanics and by what Gary used to call “rules lawyers.” To be sure the mechanics are vitally important to enhance and provide structure to the game, but for beginners it’s important to remember that it’s “role-playing,” not “roll-playing.” To this end, my advice would be to encourage new players to jump right in and begin playing their character (e.g., declaring actions, providing dialogue, etc.) and have the DM and other players support them and teach them how the success of their actions in the gaming world are driven by the mechanics.
– Are you currently working on any other books? Will they also be gaming related?
Yes. I have a couple active projects, although both are a bit under wraps. The first is another D&D-related book and the other is a book about Walt Disney and Disneyland.
I want to extend a big thank you to Michael Witwer for making time available to reply to this interview. It was an honest delight to talk to him.
If you are interested in purchasing his book, you will find it here: Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons