Of Dice and Men — The Story of Dungeons & Dragons: A Review

Of Dice and Men Cover
I can’t really recall anything of what my parents put under the Christmas tree for me during my 6th grade school year with but one exception — a small and colorful cardboard box that contained the Basic Set of Dungeons & Dragons. That gift was actually a mistake — a friend of mine had introduced me to Dungeon!, a board game that had players running into the dungeon to fight monsters and acquire a set amount of gold to win the game. I thought I had been specific enough, but apparently not. I was a bit disappointed, especially once I noticed that inside was nothing more than a few books and some strange looking dice. Still, the images in the books looked interesting, and the game’s description certainly got my attention. I remember sitting down, opening up the blue-covered book and reading. At school a week or so later, I had completely forgotten about the mistake and was 100% convinced that my friends were REALLY going to love this.
And they did. We played it all the time. I was typically the Dungeon Master (DM), but not always. Sometimes a friend’s parents would drive us to a local gaming group (that met in a back room at Sears in Pensacola, FL!) — it was this same group that had introduced me months earlier to Metamorphosis Alpha, my first experience with a role playing game. Now we would show up to play D&D... and later Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Top Secret, and others. It was Nirvana for my friends and me for years and years. We would graduate from D&D to Advanced D&D, collecting the books and modules and Dragon magazine. We weathered the storms of negativity that surrounded the game in the 80s, ignoring the strange looks from teachers and parents and the occasional insults from classmates who just didn’t get it. We didn’t care. if you’d asked any of my gaming group at the time why we enjoyed playing RPGs so much, I really don’t think we would have been able to come up with a suitable explanation.
My Collection
I played a lot of games growing up (and still do), but no game comes close to equaling the impact that Dungeons & Dragons had on my youth. These days I have young children and very little time for the games I enjoyed at a younger age, but D&D has never left me. I still have the three standard AD&D books (Dungeon Master’s Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Monster Manual) and a few modules that I occasionally thumb through to stir up memories. I occasionally pick up a game or two, but not near as often as I’d like. And I keep up on the latest D&D news and check out the latest releases at my favorite gaming shop.
D&D has been good to me… and for me. And I’m for certain that every D&D player out there that lived through the 80s and 90s playing the game has their own story to tell about how they found the game, what they loved about it… what the miss most about it if they’re not still playing. It’s these stories that I never tire of hearing, because listening to someone talk about their experiences with D&D just makes me smile and brings back a flood of memories.
David M. Ewalt has a great D&D story to tell. More than one, actually. But it’s not just personal stories that he’s written about in his upcoming book, Of Dice and Men – he’s telling the story of D&D, the people who made it, and the people who play it. And just for grins, he’s also chosen to tackle one of the most difficult tasks around when it comes to D&D… explaining it to those who are completely unfamiliar with the mother of all fantasy role playing games.
There have been plenty of books and articles written about D&D (and Ewalt includes his substantial list of research material in the Notes section at the back of the book), and I’ve read quite a few of them. I don’t just love D&D, I love its history, its creation, and its impact on society. (I doubt I’ll get any laughs with the GeekDad readership on that statement.) And that’s what Ewalt provides to readers — a bit of history, an examination of its creation, and some great observations on how D&D has changed the world.
It’s both a fast read and an enjoyable one. Ewalt sprinkles accounts of various in-game encounters with his gaming group throughout the book, using first-person narratives such as one that describes a pirate attack on a ship and the actions taken by the heroes to escape and fight off the enemies. The snippets read like description and dialogue right out of a fantasy novel, but they also serve a purpose — most of the fictional narratives are placed in a timely manner to assist with the current topic. For example, when Ewalt is describing the pre-D&D wargaming that frequently involved historical armies and famous battles, he cuts back and forth between a first-person narrative of a battle between the Prussian and French armies and discussions on how wargaming rules were conducted by gamers.
The first half of the book is about establishing an understanding of what role playing games are… how they operate… the role of players and referees. Keep in mind this is a mainstream book — it’s not meant to be enjoyed just by gamers but by spouses, brothers, sisters, parents, teachers, clergy, politicians. I’m not kidding — this is a book you can hand someone who just doesn’t get it… but wants to understand. Ewalt’s not apologizing for our strange hobby; he’s explaining why our hobby isn’t strange.
But I’m preaching to the choir. This is a book about us. We know what it’s all about… or do we? I thought I knew everything I needed to know about D&Ds development from Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and Gygax’s Chainmail... but I really didn’t. There’s a lot of backstory that I never heard about… I was playing the game, not interested in its DNA. But that’s exactly what Ewalt provides in the book’s middle — D&D‘s genetic makeup, its parents, its ancestors, and ultimately its children.
Throughout 16 chapters, you’re going to be educated and entertained. You’ll read about Gygax and Arneson, of course, but also about daily goings-on at TSR, new staffers, missed opportunities, and much more. You’ll get very familiar with Ewalt’s own gaming group (and their respective characters) and a few glimpses into some fun campaigns they’ve actually played. Later chapters in the book focus on more specific topics such as the Gygax vs. Arneson feuds and court battles, the 80s “Satanic Panic,” LARPing, and even D&D Next. Ewalt, a senior editor for Forbes magazine, really knows how to dig deep for material — the book follows him from The Napoleon’s Battles Boot Camp to a Dungeons & Dragon Summit  to games with Frank Mentzer  and Ernie Gygax at Gary Con to a walking tour of downtown Lake Geneva complete with visits to the house where Gary Gygax created D&D and the house of the original Dungeon game shop and the Hotel Clair where it relocated.
Through all the history and explanations provided in the book, however, Ewalt never fails to tell his own story. Just as I have my D&D story, this book is Ewalt’s testimony of the power of D&D on his own life. And that’s what I most enjoyed about the book — hearing about Dungeons & Dragons from not only Ewalt’s point of view, but also from those who were there when it all started.
Of Dice and Men will be released on August 20, 2013.
Note: I’d like to thank David Ewalt for not only providing an early review copy, but also for taking the time to answer some of my questions — his responses are below. Also, be sure to check out the book’s official website, http://www.ofdiceandmen.com/ and the Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/OfDiceAndMen, for some impressive memorabilia/collectible giveaways (plus some new RPGs) that David will be announcing.
—- 10 Questions for David Ewalt —-

James Floyd Kelly: You chose to write a book about the story of D&D, a game that’s obviously quite personal and meaningful to you. Before you began writing, did you have any specific goals for the book or for readers?

David Ewalt: Like many of your readers, I grew up playing D&D, and the hobby was an important part of my life. Role-playing games are a uniquely powerful form of entertainment; they’re fun, of course, but they also have real intellectual, emotional and social benefits. It’s no surprise that players tend to be very passionate about their games.

But if you’ve never tried an RPG, it’s hard to understand that devotion. All those rules, and the strange-shaped dice, and the creepy monsters and demons… to the uninitiated, D&D players can seem delusional and weird. Media portrayals have mostly reinforced this perception: In the 1980s, there was a ridiculous hysteria linking D&D to everything from Satan worship to teen suicides.

That disparity between what I know to be true —role playing games are awesome— and what much of the world believes —that role-playing games are a deviant waste of time— has always driven me crazy. So one of my main goals was to bridge that gap and explain D&D to the outsiders. I want them to see what they’re missing, so maybe they’ll join in the fun.

I also wanted to learn more about the hobby. I’d played RPGs for years, but knew nothing about their history; it was like being a film nerd who’d never seen a black and white movie. I think there are a lot of people who love D&D but don’t know anything about its origins, and I think they’ll find the game’s story as fascinating as I did.

James Floyd Kelly: Chapter 1 reads like the essay for Intro to RPGs 101 that got an A+ — it’s the explanation that I wish I’d had twenty years ago to give to those folks who really just didn’t get it. How would you feel about offering that chapter up as a downloadable PDF that could be made required reading by girlfriends/boyfriends/spouses/co-workers?

David Ewalt: I love this idea. Going to talk to my publisher about making it happen.

James Floyd Kelly: You perfectly capture and explain the desire that many young players had to hide their involvement with D&D 25-35 years ago, but not so much with today’s players. With all your research and interviews, have you been able to put your finger that point in time when it became cool to be a D&D player?

David Ewalt: A couple of things have happened over the last decade to create something of a modern RPG renaissance. The first is the mainstreaming of geek culture —you can thank the Internet for that. The second is widespread success of fantasy fiction —the massive success of media like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones means halflings and trolls aren’t as alien as they used to be. And the third is simply the passage of time —all those kids who played D&D when they were kids in the ’70s and ’80s are now adults with disposable income and nostalgia for the good old days.

The rise of video games is a major factor, too: For a long time, it looked like video games were going to kill tabletop RPGs outright, but instead what they’ve done is expanded the potential player base. Today everyone plays some kind of game, whether it’s on their phone, tablet, pc or console… so D&D is a lot easier to understand.

James Floyd Kelly: There have been a lot of books that cover the history of gaming (and D&D), but you used an entertaining first-person-narrative storytelling method to break up your content and illustrate some great points. Did you always have that idea when the book began? Did you at any point realize “Hey, I could be a fantasy fiction writer?”

David Ewalt: I realized early on that I had to do something unusual in the text to convey the drama of a role-playing game. When you’re sitting at the table with your friends, you’re not just rolling dice and checking off numbers on a character sheet, you’re telling a story. Simply reporting that player A rolls a 12 and that monster B loses 5 hit points would have done nothing to help readers understand what it feels like to play D&D.

So I fictionalized some of the D&D sessions I played in, and wrote them up like they were passages in a fantasy novel. I’d never tackled the genre before, so it was a challenge, but also a lot of fun. It would be cool to write a full-blown sword and sorcery novel… maybe someday I will!

James Floyd Kelly: One of the things I loved the most were your experiences playing or talking with key individuals involved in the development of D&D and other games. Did you have a favorite moment with any particular person that didn’t make it into the book? (As a big fan of Dungeon!, I have to say the end of Chapter 16 and the bit with David Megarry made me smile wide.)

David Ewalt: There’s so much great stuff that didn’t make the final cut. I’m planning to release a lot of it online, and working on a new project that will tell more of the history of D&D —but more on that later.

A lot of my favorite moments were when I actually got to play games with people; for instance, I had the good fortune to play in a game run by Michael Mornard, who was one of the original players in both Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk.

One of the great things about the role-playing game community is that anyone can connect with the hobby’s past, and play with the greats —it’s like a baseball fan getting a chance to play catch with Mickey Mantle. Just go to a convention or a local game night, and you can meet some of the people who have designed the game, or played it since the beginning.

James Floyd Kelly: The story of Arneson vs. Gygax is somewhat well-known by many fans of D&D/AD&D, but I found your coverage of events leading up to the separation (and the later lawsuits) to be less about the back-and-forth finger pointing and blame and more about the basic aftermath. Do you have any personal thoughts/opinions on the matter that didn’t make it into the book? (The departure of Arneson happened four years before I even discovered D&D, so I’ve never had a strong opinion.)

David Ewalt: I don’t see a lot of value in the finger-pointing, or arguing over who should get credit for what. It’s clear that D&D was the result of a very special collaboration, and not just between Gary and Dave, but between countless designers, editors and players. As for why the two great men had their falling out: It seems to me it’s as simple as conflicting personalities who wanted different things in life —and perhaps most importantly, in their games. It’s hard to keep a relationship going under those circumstances, particularly when there’s money involved.

James Floyd Kelly: You mention selling your D&D manuals on eBay and then leaving the game for a while. How much pain and suffering have you had to work through to forgive yourself for that? Have you managed to buy back most of what you lost? Do you have a Nostalgia shelf?

David Ewalt: I will go to my grave regretting the day I sold my first edition Deities & Demigods —the one with the Cthulhu and Melnibonéan mythos. I was a college student and didn’t know any better. But I’ve had a lot of fun reconstructing my collection over the past few years. eBay is a dangerous place for the nostalgic gamer —and the Gen Con auction is even worse. At last year’s auction I bought an original poster for Gen Con XI, which was held at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside in August 1978.

James Floyd Kelly: You devote an entire chapter (14) to your invite to beta test the D&D Next product. Do you have a favorite version or are you planning on going full-steam-ahead with the new game when it’s released? Do you have any concerns about Next? Any praises?

David Ewalt: My favored edition currently in print is D&D 3.5 —that’s what I use with my friends. It’s nerdy and complex to a degree I find highly satisfying, without limiting the game’s narrative possibilities. But we’ve also been playtesting D&D Next for over a year, and so far I really like it. Wizards of the Coast has wisely decided to simplify and streamline the rules in order to hand power back to the Dungeon Master, and give everyone at the table the tools they need to tell a cool story. At the same time, they haven’t dumbed the rules down too much, so it doesn’t feel like a video game or collectable card game. I have high hopes for the final product.

James Floyd Kelly: I loved Chapter 15 where you share some snippets of the development of your own campaign (“The Song of Marv and Harry”) — are you playing it now or waiting for the Next rules? Any update for readers who’ve finished your book and understand the world you’ve created?

David Ewalt: My campaign is well underway —it’s actually what we’re using to playtest the D&D Next rules. It’s been amazing to see how the world has changed as the result of the players’ actions; they’re unpredictable, so I’ve had to tweak the world around them.

I’m actually writing up the Tower of Marv as a game supplement, so other game masters can work it into their campaigns as a short, standalone adventure. Anyone who is interested should keep an eye on the Of Dice and Men web site [http://www.ofdiceandmen.com/]: I’ll be giving away free copies (and lots of other cool game stuff) in the next three weeks to help promote the book.

James Floyd Kelly: Any final thoughts on where you see the future of D&D heading? Do you think D&D will still be around in 40 more years?

David Ewalt: I have no doubt that D&D is here to stay, and that tabletop role-playing games in general will prosper. Our lives are becoming increasingly digital, but is there a better way to re-connect with your humanity than sitting down with your friends to tell a cool story?

About James Floyd Kelly

James Floyd Kelly is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His latest two books are "Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station" and "Kodu for Kids." He and his wife have two young boys who are into everything, literally and figuratively.

About James Floyd Kelly

James Floyd Kelly is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His latest two books are "Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station" and "Kodu for Kids." He and his wife have two young boys who are into everything, literally and figuratively.

3 thoughts on “Of Dice and Men — The Story of Dungeons & Dragons: A Review

  1. Awesome article, James. Thank you. This statement, in particular, sums it up so well: “Ewalt’s not apologizing for our strange hobby; he’s explaining why our hobby isn’t strange.”

  2. That was a wonderful review and thuroughly evocative for those of us who played the game through the 80’s! I plan on buying the book tonight and have tweeted links to your review. Thanks!

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