Never played a wizard — a review of Of Dice and Men

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It
Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David Ewalt

Although he warns old timer D&D players (and grognards) not to get bound up in the rules because this is a story to introduce people to fantasy roleplaying games, David Ewalt has succeeded in writing a story for longtime devotees like himself. Of Dice and Men is part history and part adventure story, detailing the creation and rise of the innovative fantasy role playing game (RPG) Dungeons & Dragons, while intertwining autobiographical tidbits about his relationship to the game over its long history.

There is a lot here about Gary Gygax, the rise and fall of TSR, and all the historical context and minutiae that nerds like me will appreciate. People just getting into the game should get a good understanding of DnD’s legacy, but nerds like Ewalt and myself — nerds who lived through it — will enjoy this book on a whole other level. As I said in my tweet to David Ewalt:

Lots of nerds must feel the same after reading: “This is MY story.”

Like Ewalt, I played RPGs as a young person, then drifted away, and only recently have returned. In grade 8 I was introduced to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition by a friend, and had my first adventure as a ranger in The Temple of Elemental Evil. It is strange to read in Of Dice and Men that AD&D2e was considered somewhat of a failure. This was my first edition and my first love of RPGs!

Throughout highschool my friends and I played AD&D non-stop, often setting up dioramas of dungeons on the pool table in my basement. We also experimented with other games such as MechWarrior and Star Wars. We would always return to AD&D though. The only other game that could compare as far as I was concerned was Shadowrun (1st edition). I played the hell out of that game. In fact, I have two tattoos that are inspired by Shadowrun. After moving away from my hometown and taking a break form RPGs, I experimented with In Nomine before finding some new Shadowrun enthusiasts and playing that again.

I never was much of a gamer. The last console I owned was an SNES and I had Tetris on my phone, but that was about it. I just couldn’t get into them, it was the interactivity of RPGs that I loved. Paraphrasing Ewalt, video games and movies are about observing. The collaborative story-telling elements make RPGs much more fulfilling as entertainment. To me, video games are about stats, not experiences. I have always been a fan of ROLE playing over ROLL playing, and enjoyed being the dungeon/game master, and have a history of going all out to tell my stories: using props, musical queues, and even once video taping myself with makeup on as a kidnapped and tortured character for the players to rescue.

But then it all came to a stop. I moved to Japan to be reunited with my girlfriend (now wife) and to start a new job — and moved away from all my RPG nerd friends.

Ewalt describes in his book the pull of “reality” that makes many RPGers move away from the game. Of course, during the 1990s video games (which took many of the mechanics of D&D, such as leveling up) started to dominate the gamespace, and tabletop role-playing games took a backseat. However, as he describes in his book, tabletop has been making a comeback recently.

During that long dry spell of almost 15 years, I thought about D&D every once in a while. Then, earlier this year, some new friends in Kelowna who were running a monthly tabletop night decided to run the Red Box edition of D&D. I took them up on their invitation immediately.

I think the mainstreaming of nerd culture and the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones have contributed to the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons. After a night of the Red Box, my friends decided to start a “real” campaign, using 4th Edition rules. I invited one of my oldest friends (who in fact I played Temple of Elemental Evil with). So far it has been amazing. Gameplay has changed as we have access to beer now! Taking time to write adventures is much more difficult as a responsible adult, but now we have Teh Internets! There are sooo many resources available to Dungeon Masters now.

Being the cantankerous grognard I didn’t know I was, I find 4e rules a bit disappointing. I don’t particularly like the influence of video games or Magic the Gathering, so I look forward to 5th edition with hope. Despite that, it has been great fun. We have even started a Shadowrun 5th edition campaign recently, which I have been super excited about!

Of Dice and Men is well worth the read, especially if you have played RPGs in the past, and have or are thinking about getting back into them. I had seen ads and read Cory Doctorow’s review, but it was listening to David Ewalt’s interview on Triangulation that finally coaxed me into buying the (audio) book. And I am glad I did. I rated the book 5 stars on GoodReads. I think it really is a 4 star book, but I gave it a fifth for the emotional impact it had on me. Highly recommended.

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