Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Witwer's GYGAX

So, I've now gotten a copy, and read, Michael Witwer's new biography of Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D and (co)founder of TSR: EMPIRE OF IMAGINATION: GARY GYGAX AND THE BIRTH OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (2015).

This is clearly intended as a Gygax-friendly book, based on extensive interviews with his wives and children. It tries to be even-handed about some things (Gygax and Arneson's respective contributions to D&D) while not even bothering to try on others (the events leading up to Gygax's loss of control over TSR, Gygax's post-TSR career), where it simply presents Gygax's point of view. It's v. readable, but the journalistic style, complete with invented conversations, detracts from any sense that it's giving anything resembling an authoritative account -- for that, you'd have to go to Jon Peterson's work (PLAYING AT THE WORLD, "Ambush at Sheridan Springs", et al).

Best thing: the endpapers and cover art.

We're always told not to judge a book by its cover (something most of us nonetheless do all the time), but in this case the endpapers and cover are by far my favorite part. The endpapers are a map of Lake Geneva with Gygax and TSR sites identified, done by an old-school TSR employee (Stephen D. Sullivan), all on a square grid and in the non-repo blue so familiar to gamers of my generation. The map cd serve as the basis for a good TSR walking tour of Lake Geneva; I know it helped me sort out the relative locations of some TSR sites that were before my time.

As for the cover, it's a clever parody/homage/reimagining of the cover to UNEARTHED ARCANA (1985), painted by the same artist who did the original thirty years earlier, Jeff Easley (one of the Big Four of the early eighties: Parkinson and Elmore and Easley and Caldwell).

Things I learned: Reading this book, I was struck by how young everyone was. Gygax was thirtysomething when he organized the first GenCon, as opposed to Mike Carr, who was sixteen when he ran FIGHT IN THE SKIES there at GenCon I, or Rob Kuntz, who was 14 when he joined Gygax's wargaming group. Arneson himself a college student of twenty-one when he met and began collaborating w. Gygax.
One gets the impression, fairly or not, that the only other adult in the room was Don Kaye, Gygax's partner in founding TSR.

Things I Want to Know: was the term "role-playing game" really invented in a 1976 ad for TUNNELS & TROLLS as a way to describe a D&D-like game without using the words "dungeons" or "dragons"?  (p. 128)

Things he Got Wrong: Witwer twice states that 2nd Edition AD&D (1989ff) was a financial flop (p. 197, 236), saying that sales fell off by 50% when it was released. This is simply wrong. Artistically, as a piece of game design, it was a lesser offspring of 1st edition AD&D. But financially it was everything TSR cd have hoped: it sold like hotcakes and revitalized the company. Similarly, he writes that SPELLFIRE and DRAGON DICE were expensive flops, which is half-true: SPELLFIRE made money hands over fists, while DRAGON DICE lost it in heaps.*

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book, though I initially skipped over the early chapters, before he'd done anything interesting, and only came back and read about his childhood after I'd read the rest of the book. It's entertaining, and I learned things I didn't know that helped me put together my mental map of who came on when among the early TSR folk. But I think the author's decision to fill the book with imagined conversations was a real mistake: offputting. 

The nadir of this sort of thing comes in Gygax's death scene:

On Tuesday, March 4, 2008, a dark-robed figure entered Gary's bedroom. Gary was immediately startled and could do nothing but pull the covers up to his face. The figure stood motionless at the foot of Gary's bed for several moments, its face shrouded in darkness.

Gary tried to shout for help, but the sheer terror of the moment prevented his vocal chords from producing anything more than a whisper.

The form slowly raised its arm and unfurled a bony finger toward the corner of the room, illuminating a chess board that hadn't been there previously.

"Wanna play?" said a raspy voice that chilled Gary to the bone.

Gary studied the figure in disbelief and then glanced at the stately chess set. It really was a nice set. Gary cleared his throat and sat up against the bed's headboard.

"Well . . . " said Gary, matter-of-factly, "I never could say no to a good game of chess."

Gary was outmatched that day, just as he knew he would be, and the game was lost.

The legendary Gary Gygax had passed away. But his newest adventure had just begun . . .

(p. 218)

Ingmar Bergman he ain't.

Reading this book made me wish someone would extend the Peterson treatment to the years 1980-1995, where all the good work at TSR tends to get ignored in accounts of both the company and that era in roleplaying games.

current reading: MEN & MAGIC (1st ed D&D, booklet #1)

*actually, DRAGON DICE initially did great, but as the original stock was selling out Management made the bad decision to re-order in vast quantities and have the new stock shipped from China by the fastest, most expensive method available. Only to have that new stock arrive just as the game's brief fad was fading. Alas. --John R.


Paul W said...

A fair review of his work, but I cannot agree that 2nd edition was, artistically or as a game design, less then 1e. I think it was an excellent improvement on 1e that remained basically compatible with 1e in ways that lesser, later editions failed to do. :)

But I agree, the 1986-1995 gets unfairly short-changed. For my money, those were the true golden years of TSR design. The best books were produced during that period.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul
As a rules set (e.g. the triad of PLAYER'S HANDBOOK, MONSTER MANUAL, DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE), I think the 1st edition books are better than their second edition equivalents; the omissions from the latter did not, in my opinion, improve them. If we include the modules and boxed sets and campaign settings et al -- the whole body of AD&D rpg releases -- then it's much more of a draw. There are great items in 1st ed. (e.g., TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL) and in 2nd (RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORRORS). And any game, or iteration of a game, that included al-QADIM and the RAVENLOFT campaign settings clearly can hold its head high. But overall, personal preference or not, I still hold that 1st ed. is the superior (indeed, supreme) iteration of the game.

--John R.

Paul W said...

We'll have to agree to disagree. :) ToEE is not on my list of high points for 1e (I prefer the U and L series), and neither is RttToH for 2e (for me that would be the Schend/Boyd FR books). One of my gaming pals recently pointed out that 2e was capable of handling adventuring across a massive tech level time span, from Bronze Age Homeric adventures to the Industrial Age Gothic Earth of Masque of the Red Death. Something yu couldn't do with 1e unless you house ruled it. And I thought the kit system was elegant and clear. :)