Saturday, 11 April 2015

Interview - Michael Witwer

It is my great pleasure to welcome to Farsight Blogger Michael Witwer, author of the upcoming Gary Gygax biography 'Empire of Imagination', due out on October 6th 2015.

From the website:

'Gygax's involvement in the industry lasted long after his dramatic and involuntary departure from D&D's parent company, TSR, and his footprint can be seen in the genre he is largely responsible for creating. But as Witwer shows, perhaps the most compelling facet of his life and work was his unwavering commitment to the power of creativity in the face of myriad sources of adversity - cultural, economic, and personal. Through his creation of the role-playing genre, Gygax gave generations of gamers the tools to invent characters and entire worlds in their minds. Told in narrative-driven and dramatic fashion, Witwer has written an engaging chronicle of the life and legacy of this emperor of imagination.'

Welcome to Farsight Blogger. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

By day, I lead a department of business proposal writers; by night I am a writer, actor, gamer, husband and father. I'm originally from the Chicago area where I still reside with my wife and two kids.

What's your history with tabletop gaming?

My older brother Sam got me into tabletop role-playing gaming when I was pretty young, probably 5 or 6. Sam purchased a foot-high stack of late 1970s AD&D books and adventure modules from an older neighborhood boy who was selling his collection. I think the first modules we played were The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and Danger at Dunwater - developed by TSR UK if I'm not mistaken. I can't say I remember that much about our earliest experiences other than the fact that my best friend and I were often reckless and bloodthirsty, which usually resulted in my Dungeon Master brother getting annoyed and turning our otherwise helpless victims into 9th level monsters who would quickly dispatch our characters. What I can say is that playing D&D was one of my favorite things to do and nurtured my passion for swords-and-sorcery fantasy and even inspired me to take up collecting swords (I still have a few).

A few years later we began playing the Star Wars role-playing game by West End Games - a game we played consistently for several years thereafter. I played a court martialed Imperial Captain named Vac Demark, who sort of played the part of diplomat and con man in our group (like Face from the A-Team), alongside Smuggler Max Terran, Jedi Roark Mann, and Bounty Hunter Thom Sabian. Our first adventure was Starfall and we probably played dozens of subsequent modules. We were all huge Star Wars fans, so having all of the West End books and supplements in those days definitely gave us the inside track on Star Wars knowledge and quite a bit of foundation in the Expanded Universe.

Since then, we have played a number of other games with varying levels of consistency including the Amber diceless role-playing game (we've had several one-off throne wars); several iterations of the Star Wars RPG; FASA's Star Trek RPG; Palladium; TSR's Conan RPG; Castles & Crusades; and of course, several iterations of D&D including AD&D, 2nd Edition; d20 and 4th Edition (still haven't played 5E, but I've heard great things). Of all of those, the experience that stands out most was when we tried to get through Gary's AD&D Tomb of Horrors module - it didn't go well and we never finished although I believe there is a 9th level cleric from my party who is still magically locked in a room who has been keeping himself alive by making food and water for himself everyday.

Your working on the book 'Empire of Imagination', all about the life and work of Gary Gygax. Avid gamers like myself already know a lot about the father of the tabletop roleplaying game, so what can we expect to see in this book?

When I first started looking into Gary, I was stunned to learn that a biography had not already been written. As I believe most people who grew up playing RPGs would agree, there are so many huge pop-culture phenomena - from aspects of facebook to MMOs, from CPRGs to 1st person shooters - that find their roots in Dungeons & Dragons, but Gary, the driving force/inspiration behind many of these phenomena, is relatively unknown to the mainstream, yet revered by geeks everywhere.

One aspect of the book that I feel is worth a mention is the scope: the more I dug into Gary's history, the more I realized that D&D didn't begin in a single day in 1974 when TSR published its first 1,000 copies - it began when Gary played his first game of chess; had his first paranormal experience; read his first pulp magazine, and so forth. For this reason, I felt it was important that the biography be comprehensive, spanning from Gary’s early days to his death in 2008. Another notable aspect is the style: when I was writing early chapter drafts when Empire of Imagination was still a master's thesis project at the University of Chicago, I was experimenting with two different styles: traditional academic biography, and dramatized, narrative non-fiction (a la Erik Larson [Devil in the White City] or probably closer to Ben Mezrich [The Accidental Billionaires (Film: "The Social Network") and Bringing Down the House (Film: "21")]. After awhile, it became clear to me that the best way to tell the story of a storyteller like Gary was in the dramatized, narrative non-fiction style. Rather than relaying dry facts about Gary's life, I really wanted the book to read like a novel - for the reader to follow along as Gary celebrates his victories and agonizes over his defeats. Ultimately, I think we struck a nice balance of factual history with lots of detail paired with good storytelling.

If the cover art seems familiar that’s because it was developed by celebrated fantasy artist Jeff Easley, responsible for some of the most iconic D&D artwork of all time. Referential to the cover of one of his earlier masterworks, bestselling Unearthed Arcana by Gary Gygax, Easley’s cover for Empire of Imagination is a wink and a nod to old school gamers, while serving as an invitation to the new.

I know we'll learn a lot about Gary Gygax's legacy and the game he helped bring to the masses, but will we learn much about the man himself, his personal life and history?

Yes and Yes. With Gary it is very hard to separate his gaming work from his personal life, but I think we managed to give excellent coverage to both. As a life-long role-playing gamer, it was naturally Gary’s work that led me to the idea of taking on a biography, but I quickly discovered that his personal life was equally intriguing. It has all of the high-concept elements of a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. When you add all of these great, never-heard-before facts and stories to the more familiar odyssey of D&D - everything from litigation with the co-creator and alleged psychological dangers, to claims of devil worship and hostile company takeovers - it makes for a very compelling story.

Tell us something of your research on this book. What pains did you go to, who did you speak to?

Fortunately Gary was a prolific writer and left behind scores of material to review. I pretty much read everything and anything I could get my hands on that he wrote - from his games to issues of the Strategic Review and Dragon, to message boards, fanzines, interviews and autobiographical articles. Other sources that made the book feasible and really helped guide the research process were some of the very excellent RPG histories that have come out over the last few years, most notably Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons.

In regards to interviews, I spoke to anyone and everyone I could find that either knew Gary or knew about Gary. This included members of his family, friends, employees, co-workers, collaborators, D&D historians, etc. In all, I conducted or participated in a few dozen formal interviews and meetings. I really tried to talk to people who were there in every era of his life and I think we managed a pretty good cross section of folks, most of whom were eager to help and generous with their knowledge and remembrances of Gary.


Do you still get time to game? What's your game/campaign of choice?

Absolutely, but because my group is dispersed throughout the country, most of my gaming occurs in a dedicated one-week trip that we take every year (last year was in Lake Geneva) and then intermittently over holidays. The rest of my free time is consumed by my family and this little book project I've been working on over the last 2.5 years.

The games that have gotten the most consistent play from our group have been the newer iterations of the Star Wars RPG - a 10-year campaign we finished last spring. I played an actor and aristocrat named Cervantes, who like his predecessor Vac Demark, was far better off talking rather than fighting (again, think Face from A-Team). During this campaign, developed and run by my brother, we actually started with the WotC Star Wars RPG rules and eventually transitioned to Fantasy Flight Games' excellent new system to finish the campaign (porting characters from one system to the other was not an easy task though). We are actually now debating what game(s) to play next - I'm sure we'll get around to 5E and a new FFG Star Wars campaign.

Thank you very much, Michael!