Review: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, David M. Ewalt

Prefatory note: I have never played Dungeons & Dragons. My knowledge of the game is theoretical rather than experiential. David M. Ewalt, in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, aims to tell the history of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and provide insight into gamer culture. Despite its subject matter, Of Dice and Men is intended less for gamers than it is for non-gamers, who are less informed about the game and, often, inclined to sneer at players. Ewalt, a talented writer and senior editor at Forbes, largely succeeds, though, as a result of his “high level” approach, tends towards breezy prose and a certain shallowness. Of Dice and Men is more a celebration of the game and an apologetic for its players than it is a true exploration of D&D and its role in American pop-culture.

Ewalt approaches his subject matter in three ways: The history of D&D; stories about players; and his personal experiences and observations. Ewalt’s history of the game is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frustrating aspect of the book. After a perfunctory explanation of the game’s deep background in the war games of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ewalt moves on to tell the story of Gary Gygax, (co)creator of D&D, and his failed company, TSR. Readers will find fascinating the early history of D&D as it emerged, unsurprisingly and appropriately, from peoples’ basements and living rooms.

Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. Miniatures from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game and others on Master Maze scenery by Dwarven Forge. Around the dungeon can be seen many multi-sided dice, a character sheet (bottom left) and a D&D manual (top right). Note that the circular template at the bottom is not from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather is from the futuristic wargame Warhammer 40,000.

Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. Miniatures from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game and others on Master Maze scenery by Dwarven Forge. Around the dungeon can be seen many multi-sided dice, a character sheet (bottom left) and a D&D manual (top right). Note that the circular template at the bottom is not from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather is from the futuristic wargame Warhammer 40,000.

Ewalt studs his reporting with quotes from the men who participated in the early development of the game, as well as Gygax himself. Unfortunately, Ewalt glosses over the disputes that wracked TSR almost from its inception and which appear to have stemmed from personality conflicts as much as they did from managerial inexperience. There are inconsistencies in reporting: Dave Arneson, creator of the D&D predecessor Blackmoor, left TSR possibly due to his lack of interest in fantasy; in the next chapter, Arneson publishes fantasy games on his own because of his interest in fantasy roleplaying. Gygax, despite his indiscretions (living in high style in Hollywood on company funds, etc.), is presented sympathetically, but his personality is underdeveloped.

One of Ewalt’s goals is the favorable presentation of D&D and its players. To that end, Ewalt cleverly intersperses chapters with bits of the game he plays with friends, telling the story from his character’s perspective, an approach that is the best approximation of game play, I imagine, that one can achieve on the written page. Ewalt introduces the reader to the friends with whom he plays the game, all of whom, he takes pains to point out, are successful and well adjusted. He accomplishes this by describing a stereotypical geek who they considered dropping from the game due to his uncouth behavior, an episode, to Ewalt’s credit, that provokes some soul searching, as nerds are supposed to be accepting of one another. (I use the terms “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably; I’m not concerned with their nuances.) The nerd tendency toward hierarchy remains, though: The point is made that D&D is collaborative storytelling and is an “active” pastime, as opposed to the “passive” consumption of television and videogames. (I’m not familiar with the psychology or neurology of RPGs v. TV or videogames and take no stance in regards to whether one is “better” than the other.) Likewise, Ewalt participates in and dismisses a LARP-ish game, Otherworld, because he already has all the fantasy he needs via D&D. (For more on LARPing, see Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania.)

Finally, Ewalt discusses the role of D&D in his own life. He knows it’s a passion and is able to direct some humor at himself for it. It’s genuinely refreshing for the reader to encounter someone who is so unabashedly sincere about something in which he’s interested; snark is kept to a minimum. Still, Ewalt’s story proceeds almost as if by rote, eventually resulting in his ascendancy to Dungeon Master, finally leading his own game (and life). In this respect, part memoir, part self-help book, part apologetic, Of Dice and Men resembles Shelly Mazzanoble’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons.

Of Dice and Men is a readable and enjoyable introduction to Dungeons & Dragons and related tabletop roleplaying games, but is hampered by Ewalt’s efforts to cover so much ground in so few pages. Recommended for diehard fans and curious onlookers.

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