On “Of Dice And Men”

Of Dice And Men (ODAM, hereafter) is a book by journalist and self described nerd David M. Ewalt. It is, essentially, three kinds of books in one: a history of Dungeons and Dragons, the story of Ewalt’s re-discovery of his love for the same, and a collection of in-character fiction from the games in which Ewalt is involved. I will address each of these three aspects of the book separately before discussing the work as a whole.

As a history of Dungeons and Dragons, ODAM is both entertaining and informative, if not exhaustive. Playing at the World by Jon Peterson is a much more detailed and scholarly take on the mergence of the role-playing game in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular (Ewalt admits as much and references that work in his own) but as such feels like a dissertation. For those with a serious love of gaming history and detailed analysis, Playing at the World is the better choice. For the rest of us, ODAM serves perfectly well as a primer. in fact, I decided to pick up ODAM simply because after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to force my way through Peterson’s treatise. A historian, I shall never be.

Ewalt (intentionally, I think) omits a lot of the nuance in the events that led to the creation of the first role-playing game, but manages to include the strange characters, weird plot twists and tense conflicts that shaped the game. This is a good description of his book overall, in that Ewalt is driving a narrative that while not necessarily false, is designed more to engage and entertain than to educate. Ewalt wants to tell us a story (or three, as stated above) and he does so admirably. He goes so far as to advise the reader who might want a more detailed history to seek out Peterson’s book.

The secondary narrative in ODAM is Ewalt’s own, about his engagement with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) after a long absence. It is similar to Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks in that regard, except that Gilsdorf made an effort to try on every geek hat in the wardrobe while Ewalt was interested primarily in picking up a twenty sided die again (though he does engage in a little LARPing on the side).

I found myself disliking Ewalt sometimes, in that same way that we gamers sometimes dislike our fellows on internet message boards. It is not that I thought him a bad guy, just that his perspective and persona as the author and in the narrative of his own rediscovery of D&D clashed significantly with my own views and experiences. We are of an age, for example, yet I never left the hobby as he did so I never felt the self-loathing he seems to take great pains to both describe and overcome. In addition, Ewalt’s constant description of gaming as an “addiction” bothered me. In my opinion, he over emphasises the metaphor to the point of making gamers, himself included, look bad. He recovers to some degree, but never quite washes the bad taste out of my mouth. In his LARP experience in particular he exposes the depth of his self consciousness and hints of self loathing I found uncomfortable and off-putting.

As a narrator of fantasy adventure, I put Ewalt somewhere between R.A. Salvatore and Christopher Paolini. Note that neither of those names should be considered a compliment from my perspective. Ewalt often uses in-game narrative to further one of the two narratives described above — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but just as often he is simply describing how awesome his character or his campaign is. There is nothing wrong with that and it certainly fits the tone of the book, but there were times when I barely skimmed the “fiction” in order to get back to the well written parts of the book. This sounds uncharitable, of course. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but Ewalt is definitely a better journalist than fantasist. That said, both the campaign in which he plays D&D set on a post apocalyptic, Vampire controlled Earth) and plans to run (a fantasy world on which a future-Earth, nanobot infused, Godling-AI controlled mothership crash landed an age ago) sound like awesome fun.

One aspect of the final portions of the book that bothered me was its emphasis on D&D Next (the upcoming, 5th edition of D&D) and its complete failure to mention Pathfinder. Given the latter day history of D&D, I don’t think it is possible to describe what has happened to the hobby and its fans without delving into the WotC/Paizo split, the rise of Pathfinder and the very real fracturing of the player and fan base between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

Overall, I think ODAM works well as both a history and a peak into the mind of a lapsed-and-reborn player. It is not a terribly long or difficult book and is well worth the e-book Kindle price. If you are a former or current D&D player, nostalgia will likely grip you throughout certain parts of Ewalt’s narrative. If you are new to D&D and interested in the hobby because of an interest in fantasy, video games or because of the involvement of loved ones, it is a good primer to understands the way the game might be played and how it came about.