Michael Witwer’s new book Empire of Imagination follows the turbulent life of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax. It’s a fascinating life, covered comprehensively by Witwer, who shows how Gygax turned his participation in a small gaming community in the 1960s into something that would have a seismic effect on contemporary popular culture. There is some discussion of that as well — from celebrities who are lifelong D&D players like Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel to the way the fantasy elements popularized by the game are now the stuff of award-winning movies and television series. I talked with Witwer about the process of writing the book, his own experiences with the game, and much more. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Signature: This seems like the right place to start: were you a Dungeons and Dragons player when you were younger or did you come to it later in life? Was it something you were more intrigued by as a social phenomenon?
Michael Witwer: I was a player of Dungeons and Dragons. I started when I was pretty young, probably five or six years old, and my older brother Sam is the one that got us into this. He actually had purchased a two-foot-high stack of late 1970s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons modules from a neighborhood boy who was getting rid of his. And so that’s kind of how we got into it. And my brother served as dungeon master for us.
As little kids, of course, you’re not quite prepared for Dungeons and Dragons. So me and my best friend Nick, we were reckless; we were running around; we were bloodthirsty. And learned some valuable lessons in that you can’t get away with doing that as first-level characters, because you get yourself killed quickly. So that was kind of our first foray into Dungeons and Dragons, but I’ve been roleplaying consistently ever since. Lots of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. And we transitioned into various Stars Wars campaigns and a lot of other things over the years, which we still play to this day.
SIG: In Empire of Imagination, you talk about Gary Gygax having an early interest in computer games.Would you say that his influence on them is something that’s carried forward to the present day?
MW: Gary, to a certain extent, saw the future for roleplaying games in computer gaming. Dragon Magazine was the house organ for TSR [a game publishing company co-founded by Gygax], and as early as 1978 or so, it was running an ongoing column called The Electric Eye which was all about the future of computers and in a lot of cases how roleplaying games might show up in computers as they went. And of course that wasn’t really surprising, because many of the early adopters of Dungeons and Dragons were the same people that were into early computers and all types of early technology and electronics. As a matter of fact, a lot of the people that were working on the mainframes at the University of Illinois and Stanford and MIT were these early adopters of Dungeons and Dragons, and that has a very interesting kind of far-reaching implication if you look at it now.
But what’s relevant in that is a lot of the way that these early social networks started to be created, one was called a Multi-User Dungeon, a MUD. That was developed to be an online version of Dungeons and Dragons, essentially. And so again, I guess what I’m getting at is that the same people that were developing the computer technology that we know and love today are the same people that were sitting at the table playing Dungeons and Dragons. And one of the reasons for that is that D&D is a kind of multivariate game. So like with programming, these are people that are thinking about logic. They’re thinking about, you know, if this person does that then what happens? And again the programming I guess tends to follow that, although I can’t say I’m a programmer myself.
So I guess that’s a long way of saying Gary absolutely did see the connection to how this game might show up someday in the computer world. If you’re speaking about his later work on some CRPGs, some Computer Roleplaying Games, and even a concept MMO which he was working on with his very late system Lejendary Adventures – I think basically in those capacities he was kind of more the story guy and the roleplaying game design guy. But I don’t know how much connection he actually had to the technology himself. He was absolutely certain that there was not only a future for roleplaying games in technology, but that in fact technology would take over and be the main medium for roleplaying games, and he was right about that, whether it be computer roleplaying games, whether it be MMOs. That’s certainly where the largest audience for roleplaying games as we know them exists.
SIG: You delve somewhat into Gygax’s later work after leaving TSR. Would you say that Dungeons & Dragons represented his peak as a creator, or did some of his later games represent an even better version of what he had set out to do?
MW: I mean, Dungeons and Dragons was absolutely his opus magnum. There’s no question about that, I think for the reason that it was the first of its kind. It created a genre of roleplaying games. So it would frankly be pretty hard to top a contribution of that magnitude.
The first major revision to Dungeons and Dragons outside of the basic set was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. And that was a major effort. And I think that is absolutely a major upgrade to the original system that was developed in 1974 and revised in ’76. So you might say that really his crowning achievement was the original version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. And as you look forward, that experienced a number of revisions until you eventually get to 2nd Edition which he was not involved in and then of course the many, many editions after that — that turned into edition wars — after Gary is long-gone from TSR.
In terms of his later works post-TSR, I would say…Dangerous Journeys was not some of his best design work. Lejendary Adventures was a very interesting system, and I think a lot of the module work he did later in his career with Troll Lord Games, both as part of Lejendary Adventures and then some small sort of D20 work, there’s some very, very good stuff in there.
SIG: You wrote a lot about Gygax’s influence in terms of bringing fantasy and science fiction into the public consciousness in the US and worldwide. But do you also feel like he had any effect on your own storytelling choices or decisions?
MW: Oh, there’s no question. I definitely attribute my personal interest in swords and sorcery and fantasy to my early experience with Dungeons and Dragons. There’s no question that I was personally inspired from kind of a fantasy and again sword and sorcery concept from actually living and playing in these worlds from a very young age. It’s fairly easy to get into the concept of some of these things and really play it out in your head. It’s a very exciting thing. And so that absolutely nurtured my personal love for it.
I’m not going to suggest that Dungeons and Dragons created fantasy or created swords and sorcery or that it was even the main engine behind it, although I think it was a very, very important engine. And here’s the reason: a lot of people don’t realize that in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, fantasy and science fiction were still really esoteric genre pieces. They weren’t mainstream. You weren’t getting superhero movies out there that were the biggest grossing films in the box office. You know, the biggest show on TV was not a show like “Game of Thrones.” As a matter of fact, in those games, as one of Gary’s colleagues told me, in those days you had Star Trek, you had a couple things like that. You really weren’t going to find a lot of esoteric genre pieces, especially in fantasy. And so after Tolkien’s pieces were re-released in the ‘60s in paperback form in the US, there was kind of a fantasy craze. There was kind of some bug that was directly driven, I think, by the high fantasy of Tolkien, his Lord of the Rings and of course The Hobbit when those again came back in paperback.
I think to a certain extent Gary certainly rode that wave, but what I think he really did is that he created this very personalized version of these otherwise esoteric genres and he made them really accessible, actually, in a way that they never were before through this game. Another thing that’s notable is war gamers of the time – and Dungeons and Dragons, just kind of as an overview, it came out of a tradition of course of war gaming and miniatures players which were two separate factions at the time. But one thing you didn’t see a lot of these days, there was not a lot of medieval war gaming or miniatures playing. Most of it was kind of reenactments of Civil War combat and that type of thing. And there was nothing in fantasy. I mean there were absolutely no games out there that had to do with anything on the table that would be related to, as Gary put, “to recreate the epic battles of Tolkien in Lord of the Rings.” That type of thing.
So Gary basically came out with this fantasy game that nobody was doing. And not only was he doing something very cutting-edge there, but he came out with this game that’s unbelievably immersive and interactive and basically kind of challenges each of its players to kind of create and to improvise and to think through all this stuff. So all of a sudden, what he’s doing is he’s cultivating this group of early gamers who are becoming the future of fantasy and science fiction. We think this game inspired an early group of gamers to really kind of become the fantasy-conscious of our generation.
SIG: Gary Gygax was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness; over the course of his life, he seems to have grown frustrated with it as he grew older, and then ultimately made his peace with some sort of belief towards the end of his life. Do you feel like that had any effect on his work?
MW: It’s a good question, and it’s a pretty complicated question I think. Gary, from roughly 1960 to 1970 or so was – I don’t want to say he was a fairly devout Jehovah’s Witness, but he was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. He would go door-to-door and he would give out pamphlets. He was pretty outspoken about it, as a matter of fact. A lot of his early writings in early gaming communities and early fan events and things like that, where he’ll talk about things. And I don’t think a lot of people who were communicating with him really understood where he was coming from. I know there was a piece he wrote to some people that he knew why you shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, and there was a little bullet point list of why Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, at least not on December 25th as it traditionally is held. And of course that’s something that comes directly out of Jehovah’s Witness standards.
I think one reason it wasn’t a bigger thrust in the book is that I couldn’t find it [as] a huge driving force in his life. I think it was something that was going on, and to be honest with you I think it was something his wife Mary was more into than he was.I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed with that, because I’m not clear that, especially with his gaming work and even his home life, how big a factor that was on a day-to-day basis. But I do know he was practicing. I don’t want to leave out the fact that he was absolutely a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. The reason he ended up disassociating with them in the mid-’70s is because they didn’t approve of his game. A vocal congregation didn’t approve of his game. And they didn’t approve of his lifestyle, his drinking and smoking and all the things that went along with it.
So that’s kind of why he fell away from it. Late in life, as you probably recall in the book, he does come back to faith but not in a denominational sort of way. He becomes a very Bible-believing Christian. That is to say he’s reading the Bible every day. He believed in it. I don’t believe he was attached to any church at that point. So, again, not part of Jehovah’s Witness later in his life when he certainly kind of starts thinking a lot about mortality. And really comes back to a strong sense of faith that’s kind of post-2000, probably post-2004 as a matter of fact.
SIG: Were there any particular stories that you found in your research that you really wanted to be able to get into the book, but it didn’t quite fit in?
MW: There was certainly a lot of material that didn’t quite fit. Let me put it this way. I felt obligated to make sure everything was included, and to make it work. You know, because I went through such trouble to try to get into Gary’s head to a certain extent and to tell the story in this narrative nonfiction way, there wasn’t really anything out-of-bounds I guess you could say. I tried to really make sure it was comprehensive. And then of course that’s its own challenge. You’re trying to tell a guy’s life from his earliest days all the way to his death, to try to get really good coverage on all the various pieces and kind of make it all connect. But to answer your question, I can’t think of anything I left out. Certainly not deliberately anyway.
One thing I will say though is that I did trip on many, many surprises. Things that really kind of blew my mind on the front end. Some of them would seem small, generally fairly small, such as the fact that he never had a driver’s license. For someone to accomplish all that he did in life without a driver’s license – I think is kind of an amazing thing. I think the fact that he had a couple of paranormal experiences when he was young, or what he thought to be paranormal experiences when he was a kid, that I think proved very forming to him. I think it really kind of changed his thinking on a lot of things. The fact that he didn’t finish high school I think is kind of a remarkable thing, especially when you think of it in context of today. We talk about how important it is to finish high school and college or whatever, and here’s a guy that, not only did he do something remarkable and kind of change the world with his game, but something extremely intellectual. I mean this guy was a genius. He was off-the-charts in terms of not only his intellectual capacity but his ability to spit out incredible content.