I was playing around with Google Books the other day when I decided, on a lark, to search for some old D&D material. I honestly didn't expect to find anything due to copyright concerns. However, I stumbled across a biography of Gary Gygax. I gave the prologue a read and decided to nab a copy and give it a go. The local library had one so I was off to the proverbial races.
Michael Witwer has given us Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons. It serves as an easy to read biography and clocks in at just over 300 pages including an index. Michael, according to the author page, is a gamer himself and it shows in the structure of the book. There are two things that make this both a quick and enjoyable read. They also make this one of the most different biographies I've ever read. One of them even had me worried for a bit.
The fist is the structure of the book. There are 9 Levels with, on average, five subsections. I suppose you could compare the Levels to chapters but that's not quite right. They're more like sections of time. The 44 subsections are merely designated with a plus (+) sign and the numbers don't break at the beginning of a new section; they merely continue through to the end. (e.g. +1, +17, etc.) The prologue and each Level starts with an en media res scene of a GM and a Player. The Player is speaking for Sir Egary at various points in his life. The banter is very much tabletop and includes the rolling of d20s. I'm sure you've picked up on the fact that Sir Egary is merely a thinly veiled reference to Ernest Gary Gygax. While these short scenes (most are less than a page) don't mimic the upcoming life of Gary directly they definitely serve to set the tone of the upcoming Level.
The second is the author's choice to fictionalize the narrative. As an engineer by degree and a corporate compliance auditor by profession, it was more than a little jarring to think that someone would ignore the data in favor of telling a compelling story. However, I eventually did remember that a biography is the written life story of the subject and that Gary was the creator of virtual worlds where the story mattered more than the data. (Rocks fall, everyone dies. A GM rolls the dice for the sound they make.) Indeed, after reading the book, I can safely say that it was the right choice. Also, Michael has been nice enough to include a comprehensive bibliography and reference notes so we can understand where he drew the data to put into the fictionalization.
Each subsection is short enough that you can usually read it in a few minutes. Additionally, each subsection covers a short period of time or even a single event in Gary's life. Thus, the book can be easily nibbled or you can binge on a Level. I found that I had trouble putting it down. The book does what many good books do and hooks us with the an opening scene in the prologue of a distraught Gary leaving the TSR offices after being ousted by the board of directors and the new majority stockholder – Lorraine Williams. After going on a literal walk through town and metaphorical walk down memory lane, Gary picks up the phone and calls his ex-wife, Mary Jo, before breaking down into tears. When his ex asks him to start at the beginning the author starts with Level 1, subsection +1 and begins to tell Gary's whole life story starting with 7-year old Gary Gygax and friends getting into a street fight in Chicago before the family moves to Lake Geneva in subsection +2.
It would be easy to see Lorraine Williams as the villain who ousted our hero; however, the author takes pains to present both sides of a situation if the sources vary on what happened. This approach humanizes Gary, flaws and all, and makes him seem like one of us rather than the near god-like being he is often presented as. The novel – for it is more novel than traditional biography – takes us from a young boy's imaginative times with the Kenmore Pirate (his Chicago gang) through marriage, children, divorce, triumphs, failures, and finally we see the end of a man's life. The story continues beyond that point and tries to encapsulate the influence Gary has had on life as we know it. With the possible exception of the final few chapters, I enjoyed the read and found it to be both informative and balanced.
My hat's off to Gary for the obvious reason: the hobby he helped create is what draws us together. I also must tip my hat to Michael Witwer for drafting this tale of Sir Egary and his exploits.
A read is highly recommend.