Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Empire of the Imagination

I'm probably the wrong person to review this book.  But I'm going to.

See, I've been very intrigued by books like Of Dice and Men, books that talked about the history of the games and peoples' personal experiences.  What they remember.  What their campaigns were like.  Similarly, I was a big fan of James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog, for much the same reason.

So, when I saw Empire of the Imagination by Michael Witwer staring at me from the new book shelf of my local library, I took it home.  And polished it off - because its a quick read - not because its that much of a page-turner.

So review it I shall.  But be warned... I come not to praise but to bury. Just so you know.

As a book, its pretty lightweight.  It is not so much a biography as a series of (to quote GoodReads) "fictionalized vignettes" built around key moments in Gygax's life, or to illustrate his character.  Some of it seems to be drawn from actual research ... and some of it doesn't.  No matter how you slice it, this isn't exactly biography as we know it.

A bigger problem is that, frankly, Gygax's life wasn't exactly the stuff of great thrills.  We're talking about Gary Gygax, here, not T.E. Lawrence.  Gygax's personal flaws or mistakes aren't nearly as interesting as, say,  H.P. Lovecraft's appalling racial beliefs.  Even his "wild years" in Hollywood are pretty tame compared to, say, Iggy Pop.

The biggest problem though is, I must confess, I don't buy the adulation of the old EGG-head.  This is not to say he was a bad person (he sounds like a decent enough man, with some admitted failings), or that he wasn't, really a (the) seminal figure in the story of role-playing games.  But some big claims are made for him here and elsewhere, by those gamers out there who still idolize the guy (and Witwer is clearly one of those).  So let's try putting a little perspective here.

Gygax's story is hardly the tale of a great success in any field or function.  He was a high-school dropout, had a brief and undistinguished stint in the military, was a mediocre insurance salesman before getting laid off/terminated (Witwer puts this down in part to a ruthless co-worker, but also admits Gygax was prone to using company time and materials to work on wargame-related projects).  His only real passion seems to have been gaming - and it was enough of a passion that it actually helped crumble his marriage.  Yeah - Dungeons and Dragons was an enormous, and lasting, commercial success.  But it was his only one.

Nothing else from his company even came close (though some wargames were commercially successful - by wargames standards).  Once he got wealthy the money got squandered.  Aand while Gygax loved to declaim about how the folks back in Lake Geneva were blowing money left and right, he was living high on the hog in Hollywood, in a mansion, stuffing coke up his nose and rubbing elbows with celebrities. In other words, he squandered plenty of that money himself.  His attempts at mounting a high-quality D&D movie to compete with Star Wars et al went nowhere (we got a cheap-ass Saturday morning cartoon out of it instead).  He was forced out of the company he founded.  In response, he tried some new business ventures.  They went nowhere.  He wrote a stack of undistinguished fantasy novels that even his staunchest admirers admit are, at best guilty pleasures.  He wrote some new game systems that never caught on (one of which quickly gained a rep as a laughable disaster).

This is hardly the bio of a successful guy.  Its more the story of a guy who caught lightning in a bottle.  I'm not even sure how much of D&D's success is based on anything Gygax actually did as far as marketing it or anything else (though selling the books in toy stores was definitely a good idea).  It seems to have been simply the right thing at the right time.

He's supposed to be a brilliant game designer.  In truth, even back in the day, us D&D players could see the rules were clunky and weird.  If his design for D&D was so remarkable, why are his rules long out-of-print, while the later editions (3 and on) remain the gold standard?  Yes, I know there are hold-outs who love his system, though most often it seems to be the original three books, not the later AD&D, that they cling to - or, more often one of the later homages such as Labyrinth Lord, etc. 
all due credit to whoever created this one and others
Witwer claims Gygax was a "genius", "off-the-charts in terms of [not only] his intellectual capacity" actually, while undeniably an intelligent man, he seems to have had a painfully narrow field of vision. 

Reading through the AD&D books now, I'm struck by the sense of expectation; the assumption that, of course, players and DMs are not only going to play the game the way Gygax envisions it (and them), but that they would, naturally, want to

Of course, and inevitably, inventive gamers soon found many different styles and ways to play the game -ways he hadn't anticipated.  And instead of going "Hey, wow - I'd never thought of that" or even "well, I wouldn't care to play that way, but what the heck - as long as they're having a good time," he ranted on and on in the pages of The Dragon and elsewhere about the heretical things players were doing with his game.(1) 

The alleged reason for Gygax's academic failure was that he just couldn't tolerate being forced to study subjects that didn't interest him (cue the violins, man).  He seems to have largely turned up his nose at any kind of learning or entertainment outside of his own field of enthusiasm or interest. (2)  These are all indicators of a limited outlook and a narrow mind.  Sorry - that precludes "genius."

In the epilogue, Witwer tries to make the case that Gygax is responsible for the popularity of fantasy in recent years - citing the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films, and the Harry Potter phenom.  Nice try.  But Lord of the Rings has been hugely popular, since the 60's, and fans have been begging for a film from the day one (or, after the Bakshi and Rankin-Bass animations, begging for a good one).  As for Harry Potter - the bulk of the kids who make up the Potter audience probably never played D&D in their life.  Meanwhile, Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson's books and The Silmarillion were all on the best-seller lists at exactly the time the AD&D books hit the stores.  If you wanted to say that the success of D&D helped spread the appreciation and popularity of fantasy, you'd get no argument from me - it certainly did.  But it was part of a larger zeitgeist that was already happening - not the instigator of it.  Like I said - right place, right time.

So ... is Empire a good book?  Not especially.  Neither it is especially a bad one.  It's level of value, I suppose, comes down to how badly you want to read about the EGG.  If you're an loyal admirer, as Witwer clearly is, you might find this little love letter affecting.  If you're of a more critical bent, as I am, you'll probably find it a lot less enthralling.

(1) I'm making this a footnote because it's a major digression, but I also think its relevant and touches on several things I've stated above.  I'm thinking back on Gygax's "Drow" series of modules.  These modules were hot items when I was a kid, and, if you've ever read them, you may understand why I was genuinely shocked when I got my hands on them.  For those who haven't read them, here's the secret: there's not a lot of meat there.  "Descent Into the Depths of the Earth" gives us a vast labyrinth of potential adventure, then throws in a few wandering monsters and a couple detailed encounters and then ... leaves the rest for you to develop.  The third module presents a sinister Drow city (the horribly-named Erelhei-Cinlu - gawd EGG was bad at names [yes I know he based it on his kids' names.  How very sweet.  It's still a crappy name]), describes it (relatively evocatively) in a paragraph or two, and then, again, leaves the rest to you.  No details.  Not even a map of the city.

And this, depending on your perspective, is either its genius or its failing.  The modules are full of undeveloped, but tantalizing, ideas.  Essentially, Gygax gave the DM a big blank canvas, filled in a corner, dropped some cool suggestions and said "you do the rest."  

The "old school" crowd calls it great stuff.  Lots of cool ideas to develop and not a tiresome amount of needless detail.  The younger gen, raised on products of the last couple decades, considers it a rip-off, to put something so sketchy and incomplete out there.

I tend to lean to the "old school" view on this one.  There's a lot of seeds that good stuff could grow from here, and a creative, world-building GM could have hours/days/years of fun developing the Drow caverns and the city alone.

But there's the interesting conundrum.  Again, most AD&D players were young teenagers (or at best, college kids). At 14/15, we knew very little about life and the world.  We knew very little about fantasy literature (most of us were still working our way through the reading list at the back of the DMG - and making discoveries!).  Only the smartest, most creative of kids would have ever been able to develop anything really good out of these materials.

And so it seems, intentionally or not (I suspect not), Gygax - a smart, creative nerd, created something not only this module but really in the whole game itself, that essentially guaranteed that only the smartest, most creative, and most dedicated (in other words, nerdiest) kids would really get the most out of. Gygax once stated that the games he created were the kinds of games he himself wanted to play.  And that certainly seems to be a true statement.

(2) This leads me to another digression, which is that, as many have noted, Gygax was a very bad writer.  Overly verbose, florid, and turgid.  His love of arcane vocabulary suggests a guy very much in love with the florid and decadent styles of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance (he was apparently particularly a fan of the latter).  Add to this an air of tiresome pomposity that seemed to color everything he wrote; Gygax's literary voice was that of a tiresome old poop, hectoring and lecturing from on high.  When he attempted to inject a little humor, it invariably fell flat.

This is no crime in and of itself.  Tastes are subjective, and some fans even like Gygax's style.  But it was a major detriment when trying to write game rules.  Case in point: while putting together some notes on using hex maps, I looked back to the original DM Guide for the entry on hex maps and hex mapping.  I remembered finding it hard to follow as a kid.  Damn!  Reading it today, I find it impenetrably obtuse - I still can't tell what he was trying to say.

My point here is: if you want to write, you have to read.  And you have to read everything - not just things you already know you like.  You have to sample the whole banquet.  You have to try out those great figures of literature and thought.  If you're like most, some will leave you cold, some you will hate - and some you will find thrilling and inspiring.  Beyond that, you have to learn editing: to be able to go back over your own precious words and ask yourself, "Did I make that clear?  Did I say that in a way that others will easily understand me?"  

Defenders of Gygax's prose often note that he was largely self-educated.  Fair enough.  But there's the rub - he didn't throw the net far enough.  He didn't learn to edit himself.  He didn't expose himself to enough that was outside his interest and comfort zone.  He limited himself.  Again ... not genius.