“But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true…”

If you were an adolescent in the early 1980s, you probably heard tales from a college your friend’s brother’s cousin attended on the fringes of wherever you lived: a kid obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons had lost his mind and then lost himself in a maze of tunnels underneath the campus. You may have seen an exploitative novel based on the legend or, more likely, you watched a campy TV-movie based on the book. For most of us, these stories were as enticing—hey, where can I explore some steam tunnels?—as they were elusive. Thanks to a 1985 bestseller by the guy who solved the real-life case, we now know that the truth was weirder than any legend, with an emotional dimension that’s troubling, and illuminating, 40 years later.

In August 1979, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State. The 16-year-old was a clever chemist and a computer whiz at a time when almost no one had seen a personal computer. Awkward, immature, and small for his age, Egbert sought solace in every subculture on campus, desperate to belong but unable to become anything but a curiosity to older students, including sketchy acquaintances with agendas of their own. When college officials were baffled by the disappearance and the press dwelt on a possible Dungeons and Dragons connection, Egbert’s distraught parents called William Dear, a private investigator from Texas who would disclose the full story five years later in The Dungeon Master, a true-crime yarn that’s probably more compelling today than when it was first published.

To read The Dungeon Master now is to be thrown back to a freewheeling time when college students were reckless proto-adults and their daily lives simply weren’t the concern of administrators, when every crevice of a campus wasn’t monitored and mapped. Being a fan of fantasy and science fiction was still a fringe pursuit, and the press was already learning to pounce on any suggestion that role-playing games might lead to mental breakdowns, Satanism, or suicide. Even a campus with its fair share of quirky loners didn’t quite know what to do with children like Dallas Egbert: weird, sensitive, brilliant, creative, reckless, and troubled. As a record of the past, The Dungeon Master is an evocative read, but the book isn’t just a grim, nostalgic artifact of 1979. It’s a personal account of an adult trying to bridge cultural and generational gaps, first because it’s his job, and then because the case turns deeply personal.

At the beginning of their investigation, Dear and his assistants ponder Egbert’s fate—kidnapping? runaway? murder? suicide?—and privately stow their predictions in their wallets. In the weeks that follow, after butting heads with campus police and local cops, Dear crawls through Michigan State’s network of steam tunnels, which are more suffocating and treacherous than the legends implied. He gets unsolicited help from a Dungeons and Dragons player who flies in from California and proclaims himself an expert. He puts to good use a gay investigator from New York who has fallen in love with Dallas Egbert based on media reports. To understand Egbert’s mind, Dear gets so implausibly immersed in a D&D game run by a college kid that he loses his sense of self. A mysterious woman stalks Dear’s room while he’s out investigating the case, strange phone calls and notes hint at sinister conspiracies, and reporters camp out in the hotel lobby, ravenous for news.

If you’re intrigued by the case of Dallas Egbert but haven’t heard how his disappearance concluded, don’t seek out spoilers; just read Dear’s book. Despite his reputation as a James Bond character with fancy gadgets and a private jet and despite his later, lurid involvement in the O.J. Simpson case and the “Alien Autopsy” TV show, Dear writes with unusual tenderness about the missing child. This book, and the case that inspired it, turned Dear into a celebrity sleuth, but amid all the exploitative acquaintances, weirdos, hangers-on, and media hounds that gravitated toward Michigan State in the autumn of 1979, the logical, hard-nosed Dear comes off as the only one who sees Dallas Egbert as a human in full.

Dear’s account of Dallas Egbert’s disappearance serves an added purpose in the early 21st century: It’s a guide for how to remain rational, sane, and empathetic in the midst of a moral panic. It’s not a major spoiler to tell you that the Dungeons and Dragons connection, highly marketable when The Dungeon Master came out in 1984, proves to be slight, but Dear’s professional insistence on not judging the various underground movements of 1979 highlights a contrast between then and now. All of the subcultures in Dallas Egbert’s life—computer programming, the LGBT scene, role-playing games, science fiction and fantasy fandom, and neopaganism—have since been corporatized, commercialized, and entrenched in the mainstream. Superficially, that may be progress for kids who used to be different or odd. Perhaps it also means that if a 16-year-old prodigy were feeling lonely and lost on a college campus today, entrenched interests would claim their piece of him without a care for his welfare or his individuality. When everything is mainstream, when attractive and popular kids are programming computers, immersed in role-playing games, fluent in comic books, writing the rules and setting the boundaries, what becomes of the kids who still can’t fit in? Dear’s book made me wonder who we’re missing. Where are their steam tunnels, real or imagined? Where do they go when they’re tired of being told how to be?

“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.

“Behind bolted doors, talent and imagination…”

Two blocks south of the city center of Aachen, near the cathedral that encases Charlemagne’s famous chapel, you’ll find a gaming store with a window full of tiny knights and monsters. Its existence in this medieval city of emperors is an amusing reminder of the complex relationship between the actual past and the fantasy version of the Middle Ages we’ve never been able to shake. That relationship is always worth pondering, but it’s especially poignant today in light of the news about the fellow who was arguably one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century: “Dungeons & Dragons” co-creator E. Gary Gygax, who died yesterday in Wisconsin at the age of 69.

Four years ago, when hardcore gamers celebrated “Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day” amid the shuffling of graph paper and the plaintive plinking of dice against Coke cans, the event was mostly a nostalgia trip, not a notable phenomenon in its own right. That wasn’t because the culture had abandoned D&D, but because old-school paper-and-dice gaming had evolved as the larger culture embraced RPGs, developed them for new media, and midwifed their mass appeal. Online gaming? Tolkien and Beowulf movies? Girls who are unafraid to enter comic shops? All of these wonders, at one time unimaginable, can be traced back to “Dungeons and Dragons”—specifically, to the bearded sage of Lake Geneva and the arcana he co-bequeathed to the skinny-armed boys who raised fistfuls of dice in geeky solidarity during the early 1980s.

Contrast those humble nerdlings of yore with the polished, professional women who flip through Harry Potter novels during their subway commutes. These valkyries are the goddaughters of Gary Gygax and the unknowing heirs to the mainstreaming of fantasy. So are their kids, from the girls who swooned over Orlando “Legolas” Bloom—girls who, a generation ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching a fantasy movie—to the boys who have slain every goblin the XBox can throw at them.

It was not always thus. When I was in middle school in the dark days of 1983, a science teacher rescued me from study hall with a weekly session of RPGs and military wargaming. That class, for which several of us received academic credit, solved the mystery surrounding the sprawling scale models of the European countryside that took up half of the chemistry room and the elaborate maps of imaginary places stapled to the classroom walls. The teacher, a retired two-star general, was always an iconoclast. Years later, when faculty were forbidden to smoke on school grounds, he reportedly researched the property limits and spent his lunch hours loping just outside the borders, puffing away in furious protest. Those were the sorts of adults who embraced fantasy back then: outsiders, autodidacts, guys who literally brought their vast knowledge of military history to the table, and similar pre-Internet obsessives who made their classmates and co-workers—the type whom every eight-year-old in the Western Hemisphere now knows to call “Muggles”—very, very nervous.

Of course, for those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community. Hardcover tomes served as authoritative published sources. Pages of rules, charts, graphs, classifications of moral and ethical philosophies, and endless systems of nomenclature were all punctuated with academic abbreviations (“cf.,” “q.v.,” and so on) that required training and memorization. Like knowing how to use the Patrologia Graeca and its accompanying scholarly apparatus, mastering the material in the various D&D manuals was a skill not easily acquired. All of this stuff was, like the foundational scholarship of any field, composed by sages whom we knew primarily through their written pronouncements. They published regular supplements, such as Dragon magazine, which featured articles as specialized and as arcane as anything in Byzantinische Forschungen. From disquisitions on the ecologies of imaginary creatures to lengthy debates about the physics of falling and its effect on the proper way to calculate hit-point damage taken by characters wearing variously configured armor, Dragon was a newsletter, marketplace, and academic journal all rolled into one. Its luminaries even hosted annual and regional meetings; in-the-know players became attuned to rumors of contentious professional politics among the inner circle.

As an adult, I’m too self-conscious and jaded to return to the world of old-school gaming. That initial interest didn’t die; it simply matured, thank goodness, and now I seek a similar buzz in hiking, traveling, teaching, and writing. I’ve never worn armor, I don’t attend Renaissance festivals, and I can’t tell one scion of the house of Gondor from another. I will admit, though, that while working on Becoming Charlemagne, I drafted sprawling, D&D-like maps of Aachen, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Rome, simply to give myself a mental picture of each setting. I loved it. So help me, I felt like I was ten again.

At this moment, countless kids are watching their Lord of the Rings DVDs, reading Harry Potter, or playing fantasy games on their computers; perhaps their parents are logging onto Web sites under handles and encountering no stigma as they play at being someone else. Twenty years ago, most of them wouldn’t have touched a set of polyhedron dice with a ten-foot pole; today, they all know what a hobbit is, and they find nothing odd about wizards and magic and the trappings of popular medievalism, recast as they have been into forms that have decreased in intelligence but certainly gained in charisma. So here’s to Gary Gygax, an unlikely popularizer whose almost wholly derivative work broadened the appeal of medievalism by energizing the geek culture that now reigns supreme. I wish him a tomb protected by ingenious traps, and an adventurous afterlife where all of the hallways are perfectly ten feet square.