If you are a gamer of any seriousness, at some point someone has asked you “What’s this D&D thing about, anyway?” You may have offered an answer about playing pretend or making characters or collaborative storytelling, only to have them reply “Hmm. . . still, not sure I get it.” Now, however, things are easier. Just give your mom/dad/crazy uncle/spouse/prospective spouse a copy of Of Dice and Men. Nothing I have come across explains what Dungeons and Dragons is better than David M. Ewalt’s book.
Ewalt’s goal is understanding D&D and communicating that understanding to both players and non-players alike. To that end, he approaches the game from three angles. First, he approaches D&D as a player. Second, he examines the history of the game. The third angle is a bit tricky. Let’s go with “D&D as making meaning.” I’ll explain that it a bit.
The great strength of Of Dice and Men is in conveying the experience of playing D&D in an accessible and enjoyable way. Much of the book is interspersed with narratives of actual play. Ewalt describes the story he and his fellow players have put together through hours at the game table. That story is very enjoyable. As a gamer, I really enjoyed the creative setting and characters that developed in Ewalt’s weekly game. These play vignettes are supplemented by explanation and commentary, which is where the book really works. Ewalt not only explains what the terms (“troglydyte” “alter self”) mean, but what playing D&D is like.
That’s harder than it sounds. Playing D&D, at it’s best, is a strange brew of bonding, storytelling, problem solving, goofing off, talking in code, and spectacle. It’s fantasy football meets painting a watercolor meets beers with friends meets Words with Friends. There’s not really much else like it. Yet Ewalt gets as close as anyone I’ve ever seen to explaining it in a way that anyone can grasp. His way may have been made easier by the general surge of gaming and fantasy into mainstream popular culture, but it’s still exceptional work on this front.
A significant part of the book also outlines the history of Dungeons and Dragons, beginning with Napoleonic wargames and continuing through the founding of TSR, the parting of the ways between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and Gygax’s own ouster. It’s a good account of the early days, though it falls somewhere between too comprehensive for the uncaring and maddeningly incomplete for those who are serious about the development of the hobby. I appreciated the history, but wanted more about the post-Gygax years and the development of 3rd Edition once TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast. The post-Gygax decline was apparently covered in an excised chapter, but I couldn’t find it on the book’s website.
I did find it frustrating that the Third Edition/Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro period was dealt with in only a few sentences. The publication of the Third Edition really did put D&D back on the map, bringing in a host of new gamers and older gamers back into the fold. I really would have liked to have seen more about this period, given it’s really set the stage for where we’re at now. Not a lot has been done here. Perhaps it’s too recent, with many of those responsible still working for Hasbro, bound by NDA’s, or are simply too polite to comment.
Regardless, the history was fun and informative, nicely setting the stage for Ewalt’s third angle. If much of the book is concerned with what D&D is, this angle is the concern for what D&D means, for Ewalt at least. In a later chapter, he details his visit to Otherworld, a participatory storytelling weekend camp. He leaves having overcome his prejudice about live action role playing, but still unsatisfied. Otherworld was fun, but not transformative. Ewalt chalks this up to his weekly D&D experience:
“Role playing games allow me to experience the fantastic, and even though it’s make believe, the catharsis is real. My life isn’t wanting for magic, because I’ve got Dungeons and Dragons.” (201)
D&D clearly means a lot to Ewalt, as it does to myself and to millions of others. Explaining why it has such meaning and importance is hard. Ewalt uncritically employs metaphors (addiction, religious ecstasy) that I found forced or thoughtless, given the juxtaposition of a game with other human activity that is harmful or, for many, essential. Finally, though, he settles on the metaphor of the game itself. He comes closest to explaining what the game means by using language and ideas from how the game plays.
Ewalt journeys to Gary Con — a yearly gaming convention held in the birthplace of D&D and attended by many of it’s early luminaries– while simultaneously developing his own campaign setting, employing the metaphor of a fantasy pilgrimage to account for his growing courage to run a game on his own. Admittedly, I found this approach hokey at first, but came to see that this is Ewalt’s way of showing how much the game means to him. Becoming an active creator of one’s home game means taking up the same sort of responsibilities that Gary Gygax and the other founders of the game assumed. For someone who cares about the game, this is a big deal. It not only involves considerable amounts of creative work, but also mean developing a sense of agency and responsibility that’s not usually part of our modern entertainment. This may be the meaning of D&D in our current world. No other recreational activity so gloriously blurs the line between producer and consumer, between creator and player. It’s uniquely participatory, social, and creative. This, over and above the influence the game has had on modern entertainment and other games, is it’s enduring contribution.
Ewalt, through his account of the history of D&D and his own gaming, helps us see just how meaningful and important D&D can be.