Book Review: David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a nerd.
By “a bit of a nerd” I mean “a huge freaking nerd.”
By “a huge freaking nerd” I mean “I’m probably going to a post-apocalyptic themed LARP this weekend where I will shoot nerf guns at zombies.” I may even just write up a blog post on that, if any of you guys would like to read about it.
In any case, while I’ve come to accept (and perhaps even revel in) my nerdery, I’ve found I don’t read that much in the way of “nerd lit.” I mean, sure, I gobble up Sci Fi & Fantasy paperbacks by the pallet, but I don’t read much about said nerdy hobbies. I could say this is because there’s not much out there- but the bibliography at the end of Of Dice and Men would prove me wrong. And that’s before you get into books written by nerd royalty like Wil Wheaton or Felicia Day. But I digress.
Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It explores the origins of Dungeons and Dragons- and as such, the invention of a whole genre of game. Ewalt intersperses the origins of D&D with his own experiences playing the game. It’s written for just about anyone, regardless of nerd-level. In theory, someone who’d never played D&D before could read the book and get a vague understanding of how the game worked.
The history segments of Of Dice and Men are the best part. He starts by exploring D&D’s wargame origins, and in turn spends a little time on the mother of all wargames: chess. Incidentally, Ewalt spends about as much time on chess as A.J. Jacobs did, but Ewalt isn’t nearly as obnoxious. This mostly stems from the fact that Ewalt admits he’s terrible at chess from the get go. A brief segment about historical wargaming is also quite interesting as well. It’s these historical strategy games (along with a lot of pulpy swords & sorcery stories) that were distilled down into Dungeons and Dragons.
I’d been vaguely aware of the origins of D&D, but Of Dice and Men lays out a lot of specifics that I hadn’t known about before. For example, I’d known Gary Gygax as the main guy behind the game, but it was actually Dave Arneson who ran the first proto-D&D adventure. Together, at a startup company called TSR, Gygax and Arneson wrote and published the first edition of D&D, and spawned a whole new genre of hobby.
Cheesy as it may sound, the story of early D&D is a quintessentially American one. Gygax and Arneson (along with several other key players who pop in later) are essentially inventors. It’s just that instead of developing a new smartphone app or whatever, they wrote books about how to be an elf and how to slay orcs. At one point, TSR was bringing in millions of dollars worth of revenue. Of course, like any other properly American story, Gygax and Arneson split, lawsuits were filed, and settlements were made. And on top of that, Gygax spent some time living it up in Hollywood, spending ridiculous amounts of money as he tried to get D&D optioned into a movie. (He only managed to get a Saturday morning cartoon , for his trouble). But then, as it goes in these stories, everything collapsed. People started calling D&D Satanist (everything fun was Satanism in the 80’s), TSR went bankrupt, and eventually Gygax was forced out of his own company. Honestly, the rise and fall of TSR would make for the most awesomely geeky Oscar bait movie ever.
While these chapters on D&D’s origins are full of juicy detail, the history parts of the book kind of peter off once Gygax leaves TSR. Ewalt tells us when Wizards of the Coast (the guys who make Magic: The Gathering) bought out TSR, and mentions how Hasbro (the guys who make Transformers and My Little Pony) bought them in turn, but we don’t get much in the way of info past that. He mentions Third Edition’s open-source system, but he doesn’t mention the mini-bubble (and ensuring bust) that the d20 system created. He spends a few paragraphs on Fourth Edition, and about a chapter on a Fifth Edition playtest. Second Edition is glossed over entirely. I can’t blame Ewalt for that, since THAC0 is dumb (that’s right I’ll start arguing over editions, WHAT). Maybe D&D just became another product when TSR went under, maybe Ewalt couldn’t get enough first-hand sources,
Interspersed with the history chapters are Ewalt’s own musings on D&D. These … aren’t as fun. Maybe it’s just because I’ve lived the nerd life, so I know where he’s coming from, but a lot of his personal accounts come off as someone saying “let me tell you about my character.” Then again, I might not have enjoyed Ewalt’s accounts of his D&D game because it sounded like a game I wouldn’t want to play in, to be honest. The post apocalyptic setting he describes sounds like a bad fit for D&D, and most of Ewalt’s tabletop stories seem to revolve around his buddy’s character: a bard, of the obnoxious variety. If you’ve played enough D&D, you know the type. Bards are the worst.
Once Ewalt gets past his particular tabletop game, and gets out there in the world, it becomes a little more interesting. He plays in a LARP called Otherworld, which seems both interesting for how in-depth it is (you only get to play once, and if you want to get involved in years after that you have to be an NPC), but also somehow even nerdier than usual. There’s an interesting point to be made about the focus of Otherworld, how it’s geared more towards a select few newbie players, vs. an ongoing interactive narrative you find in other LARPS. Ewalt doesn’t dwell on this, however, as he’s a tabletop gamer, not a LARPer.
The book culminates in a visit to “Gary Con,” a convention in Lake Geneva dedicated to the memory of Gary Gygax. Ewalt gets to play boardgames on the table that Arneson first ran Blackmoor on, even. He also finds out that Ernie Gygax, Gary’s son, is kind of a shitty DM. Still, I enjoyed little peeks into the various events and conventions he was able to go to.
My biggest criticism of Of Dice and Men is that it’s just not nerdy enough. Admittedly, Ewalt is writing for the broadest audience possible, but I could still see a couple gaps in the work. There’s the glossing over of at least 15 years of history, for example. Additionally, Ewalt is so focused on D&D, he doesn’t really talk about how it spawned a whole hobby of its own. Other games are mentioned in passing, but Ewalt doesn’t talk about hobby trends like the rise of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade (and the subsequent change in hobby demographics), or even games like Pathfinder that are explicitly D&D clones. That last one struck me as particularly grievous, since Ewalt complains about how hard it is to find a Third edition game, and Pathfinder is basically D&D 3.75. Maybe things were a little different in 2012 when Ewalt was writing the book, but it seems everybody’s playing Pathfinder these days.
Still, Of Dice and Men is a fun read, if a bit light. If you’ve ever rolled a handful of funny shaped dice, or if you’ve ever wondered why your friend/sibling/random aquaintance is rolling a handful of funny dice, you’d probably enjoy this book.
I guess it’s just my fault I’m nerdier than the author.