David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons (New York: Scribner, 2013). 264pp+ index. $26.
About 35 years ago, one of my then high school gaming group showed up one day with a simple, but undeniably magical, cardboard box. It contained the original, three volume edition of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which had first been published just a few years earlier.
We started to play—and play, and play. That D&D campaign, in what we termed “just off-centre Earth,” would continue on through high school, college and university on two continents, and later was dusted off for exploration by my children and their friends. D&D proved to be both the progenitor of, and gateway to, an almost infinite variety of table-top roleplaying games. Its influence can also be seen in almost every digital RPG and MMORPG today. Game mastering skills honed in D&D contributed in countless ways to my own later professional educational and policy gaming. And I’ve still got a halfling rogue called Arnold adventuring in an ongoing campaign, not to mention two bookshelves full of various editions of the rules.
David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men is an attempt by a fellow D&D enthusiast to explain to a broader audience what the game is all about. His style is enthusiastic and highly readable as he describes the game, its players, its history, and its broader cultural significance. This is not an academic volume or detailed history of the genre—for that, one would be better served by Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. Rather it is written as a joyful tour guide for the interested but largely uninitiated.
How well did Ewalt succeed? It is surprisingly difficult for me to tell, precisely because I’m an enthusiast and not a non-gamer. Certainly I enjoyed most of it, especially his discussion of the game’s history and evolution.
I did rather think, however, that the book sometimes excessively decorates its topic in eccentricities. After all, we’re really not all that strange, nor is the idea of an RPG as culturally unfamiliar as Ewalt seems to suggest. Over half of all Americans play digital games (with an average age of 30), and role-playing games are among the most popular types, from the Sims to Grand Theft Auto to World of Warcraft. Collectively, tens of millions of people are RPG gamers of some sort. And, while most console and computer gamers may have never rolled a d20 in a pencil-and-paper version of the genre, almost all of them understand the principles and mechanisms that D&D first embodied.
The author’s periodic habit of enlivening the text with somewhat cutesy D&D or geek references —”We’ll get back to D&D in two shakes of a lamia’s tail” (p. 44) or “Making a Monty Python reference in a room full of geeks is like bringing brownies to a Weight Watchers meeting” (p. 21)—does not help. (In fairness, I understand the impulse that led him to do this—I’m tempted to write this review laden with self-referential comments too, and keep editing/deleting/rewriting that his book is intended for “the NPCs (non-player characters) among us.” ). My fear is that the book’s style might sometimes contribute to a textual distancing of RPG gamers from mainstream culture and “othering” them as somehow exotic and unfamiliar.
Or does it? It all rather reminds me of the debate over the TV comedy Big Bang Theory. Does it promote and popularize geek chic? Does it stereotype it and hence marginalize it? Both? Neither? Does it matter?
I’m not sure. I enjoyed the book. I’m not entirely sure I would recommend it to a non-gamer friend.
Or then again I might, and then ask them to write their own review for PAXsims.