Musical Accompaniment: “Ready to Roll”, by Flashlight Brown
I’m not entirely sure for which audience David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men was written. Is the book intended to be picked up by absolute newcomers to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons, or tabletop roleplaying altogether? Is it supposed to be of interest to people who already play, but are interested in the story of the game’s creation? Or is it for readers interested in a memoir of a lapsed geek coming back into the fold, trying out different activities for his own edification?
Of Dice and Men combines three elements in an attempt to give readers a sense of Dungeons and Dragons’ past, present and future. Ewalt crafts a concise history of TSR, the company that first released the game, while laying out his own experiences coming back to tabletop role-playing after a long absence. In an attempt to help readers understand all facets of the gaming world, Ewalt visits a display of ancient boardgames, attends a wargaming convention, becomes a LARPer and finally visits Lake Geneva, the birthplace of D&D. Interspersed among these chapters we also find the fictionalized adventures of some of Ewalt’s own player characters, mostly focusing on his 15th-level cleric Westlock, who battles vampires in a dystopic future Earth.
Of the book’s three features, by far the most interesting and best-written is Ewalt’s look at the history of the game itself. Starting with a brief look at military wargame culture in mid-century America, Ewalt spins a solid yarn around the lives of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two men whose combined genius in rules and story laid the groundwork for what was originally called “The Fantasy Game” and later D&D. Ewalt works at Forbes, and the facility with which he makes corporate intrigue around the later years of Tactical Studies Rules and the falling out between the two fathers of the game gripping reading is to be commended. Ewalt interviews many of the key players left over from the early days, and digests TSR’s press releases and sales data to give us a sense of just how big the D&D phenomenon grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Some great nuggets are dug up around the time of the “Satanic Panic” (one of the United States’ frequent lapses into moral absolutism), which in the early Eighties made parents around the country think that D&D was a gateway drug into occult rituals, human sacrifice and devil worship. This is around the time that Mazes and Monsters was released, a TV film now remembered mostly for being an early Tom Hanks vehicle, but at the time fuelling this supposed crisis around the game.
As can be expected, this massive outcry made the game irresistible to bored teens worldwide, and the company in turn became flush with cash. This led to some entertaining and extravagant purchases around the TSR office, as a bunch of nerds who started a game about pretending to be wizards are potentially not the most prudent financiers as it turns out. Ewalt’s ease at explaining the business narrative makes corporate power plays between Gygax and the company’s investors compelling reading, even if I would have liked a few more details on how the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show came into being. I would even love to see a movie based on this material, actually.
Less successful for me, though, were the other two facets of the book, the combination of Ewalt’s re-entering the fantasy role-play world and the dramatizations of his own characters’ adventures. Of Dice and Men starts off incredibly slowly with an extended chapter which makes abundantly clear every bit of trivia about D&D readers could be expected to know for the rest of the story. Concepts like player characters, stat points, Dungeon Masters and the like are laboriously explained, and I feel like, in the wake of the massive popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, the average reader probably has at least some sense of what these things are. Given the fact that the cover features a large 12-sided die and marks Ewalt off as a “level 15 cleric”, I can’t see someone even picking up this book without having at least some sense of these concepts. Ewalt then relates his experiences as a young person playing D&D, and how he eventually quit playing in college for fear of being called a nerd. While he explains the things that brought him back into the fold as an adult, what he doesn’t do is really give a sense of how D&D is becoming less of a stigmatized hobby. He also has some weird prejudices, especially towards Live Action Role Playing (LARP), which fall by the wayside as he gains more experience in the modern-day gaming world.
Interspersed here are bits of dramatic fiction set in the various worlds Ewalt plays in. While they were relatively inoffensive to start, eventually these vignettes began to grate on me as they ham-fistedly tried to find equivalencies in Ewalt’s real world travels. It’s a cute idea, but I think it could have been scrapped. I worked at a comic book store for four years, so perhaps the novelty of having someone tell you how cool their elven ranger is has potentially worn off on me, but again, I can’t imagine an absolute newcomer being interested in this sort of material either. It all ties back to my confusion with who this book is actually for. It’s far too inside baseball on the history of TSR and the early days of D&D to really be of interest to a newbie, but it also takes great pains to explain the simplest of concepts, potentially alienating people who’d be interested in that history. It is trying to be all things to all people, and it should have just picked one concept and stuck with it.
This is the first book I’ve reviewed on this blog that I listened to as an ebook. While a professional acts out the fantasy adventure sequences, Ewalt provides narration for the rest of the book, and he is a decent reader. While he’s prone to a bit of overeager excitement when talking about the extent to which peoples’ lives are shaped by D&D, and some of his pop culture references are annoyingly obvious, on the whole it was a good choice for him to read his own work, I think.