30 April 2015

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

I’ve been a bit remiss in reading nonfiction in 2015. In the past I’ve tried to read one nonfiction for every five fictions or so—sometimes even more frequently—but OF DICE AND MEN is the first nonfiction I’ve read all year long, which means one out of thirty-six books in 2015. Mostly that’s been because I’ve been reading a lot of YA as I work on my own novels. But it’s good to read something different, and I have to remember to mix things up a little more.

First, a confession: I am an active table-top role playing gamer. I’ve played in two-and-a-half Dungeons & Dragons campaigns; attempted to start my own before realizing I couldn’t run a campaign and have time to write; and I’m currently engaged in a campaign of Star Trek: The Role Playing Game as commanding officer of the USS Davenport.

So, a book about the history of Dungeons & Dragons? It sounded right up my alley.

David M. Ewalt, a journalist for Forbes, intertwined the story of the genesis of the world’s most famous role playing game with his own personal history with gaming. He acknowledges from the start that it’s considered a nerdy pursuit, outside the mainstream, and that D&D has been the subject of scorn and ridicule. He explains that he gave it up in college in an attempt to appear cooler. I, too, have faced some of that stigma, both from without and from within: there are people who’ve given me some pretty sharply raised eyebrows when I told them how I spent two Fridays a month, and there have been times I’ve simply avoided telling anyone because I didn’t want to be judged.

There’s plenty of prejudice against D&D still out there, but by and large, it’s not as bad as imagination makes it out to be. A surprising number of people will admit, if you press them, that they’ve played before.

The story of Dungeons & Dragons is a lot like the story of Apple: two people coming together to make something neither could have made on their own, building a company, until interpersonal conflicts, poor business practices, and outside forces nearly destroy their vision, though in the end, it survives stronger than ever.

OF DICE AND MEN is hardly exhaustive: rather than a deep dive into the life stories of Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and others, Ewalt paints in broad strokes, and focuses as much on what it means to play the game as he does on how it came about. It’s a book to assist the layperson in understanding D&D, not one for a hard-core gamer to glean new insights. It’s humorous, honest, and occasionally philosophical, as it examines why games like D&D have such an impact on people. Indeed, I would have enjoyed a deeper dive into the psychology of gaming, but that is another book entirely. I bet I could find one out there.

Regardless, OF DICE AND MEN was a fun, engaging read. It was never boring, had a great balance of the personal and the historical, and reminded me (not that I needed reminding, honestly) why D&D is so fun—and why I should not be embarrassed to play it.