“You have all gathered at a tavern in search of adventure and glory.”
-David Ewalt, Of Dice & Men
Some of you know that I spent some of my “academic” time in college studying journalism. Most of you know that I also spent much of the rest of my time roleplaying, often at a D&D table1. However, up until recently, I had yet to see those two topics mix well. That has changed with David M. Ewalt’s new book, Of Dice & Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. Ewalt is an award-winning journalist who regularly writes for Forbes magazine. He’s also been playing D&D since he was 10 years old. As a result, he is uniquely qualified to provide a really great perspective on the history of the game that so many of us love.
There are many fantastic retrospectives on D&D out there – from Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene to Shelly Mazanoble’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons – but most of these have been solely personal tales. They’re funny and familiar, but they follow the singular narrative of the author. David Ewalt takes a different approach, having researched his book like any other journalistic piece. The end result is pretty cool, and something more comprehensive than I’ve seen in any other tome2.
Ewalt starts off by assuming that his audience falls into one of two categories: those who are relatively familiar with D&D, and those who have no clue. To the in-the-know crowd, he throws in some in-jokes and frequent references to page numbers from his favorite edition of D&D, 3.5. To the newbie crowd, he takes the time to explain all the basic concepts without talking down or pandering. That’s a tough line to walk, but he crits his Acrobatics check and walks it perfectly3.
From there, Ewalt goes into the history of the game, from Gary Gygax’s first session with his kids, through the confusing early years, up through the Wizards of the Coast purchase, and all the way to the advent of D&D Next playtesting. There are even chapters devoted to some of the game’s less-than-stellar times, like the “Satanism scare” of the 1980s, and one that looks at other formats of roleplaying games… namely boffer LARPs4. There’s also a fairly extensive index, listing all the various sources Ewalt consulted, which could easily lead you to many more hours and days of your own immersive research.
Throughout the book, we also get snippets of Ewalt’s personal gaming adventures, too. His friend runs a D&D game based in a post-apocalyptic, vampire-controlled world, where all the other “monsters” are actually the result of radiation mutation or genetic engineering. These are neat breaks in the history lessons, and they also kind of grow on you, so that you get to know the characters and gain an appreciation for the sort of long-term storytelling that can be achieved in a game like D&D.
While this is a great read, the book is not without its flaws. Maybe I’m biased, since I frequently game with women from the all-female Smith College5, but I found Ewalt’s coverage of female gamers kind of lacking. Sure, he mentions it once or twice, but the majority of his writing focuses solely on the men of the tale (which, I suppose, is reflected in the book’s title6). Also, as someone who really likes the 4e rules for D&D, I found the frequent references to 3.5 books a little tedious at times. Still, these are hardly enough to make the book “bad” in any way. Just minor quibbles from a gamer who has a column in which he can say whatever he wants7,8.
Of Dice and Men is on the shelves at both Modern Myths locations right now. Get it to up your nerd trivia cred. Get it to explain to your grandmother what it is you do on Wednesday nights. Get it to gain a better perspective on something that, for more than 30 years, has been bringing joy and adventure to the lives of millions of people.
1. That, and the “1945” arcade machine they had in the lobby of the dining hall. Oh no! The Nazis have teamed-up with aliens to make giant plane mecha!
2. Okay, so maybe the 1st ed AD&D Unearthed Arcana was similarly comprehensive, but in a totally different way.
3. Clearly I fall into the former of the two categories.
4. Live Action Role-Playing events, usually held at a campsite with folks in costumes swinging foam-covered swords.
5. Shout out to SSFFS! See you all at Conbust in the Spring!
6. Sadly, there was also no mention of tending rabbits.
7. Mwa ha ha!!!!
8. Joe is not nearly as free to speak as he thinks, but don’t tell him that. – Modern Myths Editor