Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

A high-school dropout, a failed marine, sacked from his job as an insurance clerk, the life of E. Gary Gygax had hardly been a blazing success. Unemployed and making a living as a cobbler in his basement, the thirty-something Gygax spent his days scratching around to make enough money to feed his family of five children. His nights he spent playing board games, something that would lead him to invent the gaming phenomenon of the 1980s: Dungeons & Dragons.

Michael Witwer’s biography of Gygax, Empire of Imagination takes us back to those early days. Gygax was just one of a group of war-games fanatics from the Great Lakes area of the United States. At that time, he would often spend whole days away from home playing civil war reenactions in his friends’ smoke-filled basements.

As they changed and developed the rules of these board games, the concept of role-playing slowly emerged. Gygax, who had been writing his first board games during his spell of unemployment, realised that something special was in the air.

Born in 1938, Gygax was older, as well as cannier, than his younger contemporaries in the early 1970s. Following an idea of his friend Dave Arneson, he took the concept of basing a fantasy adventure around an adult version of ‘let’s pretend’ and turned it into a sophisticated rules-based system. Gygax lived in Wisconsin while Arneson was in the Minnesota area, and they had few opportunities to discuss their ideas using the primitive technology of the time:

Arneson “complained bitterly that the game wasn’t right.”—likely a reaction to Gary providing written structure around Arneson’s hypercreative, shoot-from-the-hip design aesthetic. But, alas, disjointed postal communications between the two, coupled with infrequent and still unaffordable long-distance phone calls, had served as natural barriers to the communication.

Gygax took Arneson’s handwritten notes and wrote them up, reworking them on his typewriter over long sessions of monastic dedication. Like many hyper-successful people, Gygax was able to survive on hardly any sleep. He frequently worked twenty-four hours solid.

He was a man possessed, mainly because he knew he was ahead of the curve. Perhaps too far ahead, because when he began to pitch the nascent Dungeons & Dragons to the big publishers, such as Avalon Hill, they turned it down, a decision as costly as rejecting The Beatles.

Part of the success of D&D was that the game wasn’t just a collection of mathematical tables explaing how to kill someone. Right from the beginning, it also had its own feel and colour, no doubt inspired by the early gaming sessions from which it had sprouted.

One of the fun things about Witwer’s history of this time is that he captures the spirit of D&D by introducing each chapter with a little sketch in the style of a role-playing adventure:

As you travel, you notice the ground is soft and muddy. You can hear various types of shellfish snapping and rustling in the mud. You realize that this cave had been flooded up until recently.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when the heroes must leave the tunnels and come blinking into the living room. As the old saying goes, “where there’s a hit, there’s a writ” and as Dungeons & Dragons and TSR (Gygax’s company) grew, so courtroom battles broke out. Old friendships dissolved in the blast of boardroom struggles for control of TSR, which eventually led to Gygax himself having to leave the company that he had founded.

Like Steve Jobs, who also came a cropper in this way in the mid-1980s, Gygax could only watch as his old business encountered financial difficulties, while he was left to write lesser products in small enterprises that would soon be bought up by the very company he had departed.

Also like Jobs, Gygax changed the world. Empire of Imagination is a little heavy on this, and readers can happily skip the last couple of chapters of this book where the author reels off a list of how much impact D&D has had on popular culture. However, it is indisputable that in its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, Gygax’s work did unlock the world of the imagination for people all over the world.

His and Arneson’s legacy is secure, and their impact stretched way beyond the obvious fields of film, TV and computer programming. I remember my neighbour in the US running our games and drawing hugely complicated dungeon maps to help him run the campaign. Today, he is a successful architect in Virginia. It cannot be a coincidence. Without those dragons and those dungeons, many people’s lives would be much the poorer today.