Of Dice and Men

I picked up David M. Ewalt’s ‘Of Dice And Men‘ on the strength of the embossed D12 on the cover. My first thought, as someone who spent three of his teen years deeply engrossed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was ‘why a D12 and not a D20?’ but I’ve learned to let those things go. If you have no idea what a D-anything is, bear with me; this book might still be for you.

A little background might be helpful here so that whether you’re a gamer or a civilian you can see where I’m coming from. I played D&D in the 1970’s, back in the early days when it was becoming a craze. For about three years, my final three of high school, I played the game solidly. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but it occupied a lot of my spare time. After I finished high school I quickly drifted away from playing the game, but stayed involved with the role-playing and boardgaming world for a while, writing for fanzines and dropping in on conventions)1.

At this remove from those heady days I had no expectations in picking up the book other than to see what Ewalt as a fellow gamer might have to say about the hobby. His publisher, however, sets a high bar in the margin notes: “Now the authoritative history and magic of the game are revealed…”. This is a little at odds with Ewalt’s introduction which says more modestly of his book “bear in mind it is largely intended to explain the phenomenon of D&D to a mainstream audience”. I’ll say at the beginning that Ewalt’s self-description is more accurate than that of his publishers’ marketing department.

D&D was indeed a phenomenon, one that’s hard to grasp in a time when online fantasy games are commonplace and the cinemas routinely screen 2-hour fantasy epics. Few people give any thought these days to the idea of a fantasy game with an ongoing narrative, or the concept of characters leveling up, but until D&D arrived those concepts didn’t exist.

In fact fantasy itself was a somewhat disreputable and marginal genre – largely a doughy loaf of pulp fiction leavened with the high fantasy of E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and J.R.R. Tolkein. In the UK the new wave of fantasy that was being championed by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds and in his own writing was starting to gain traction, but it was far from the level of general popularity that it now enjoys. It is against this background that D&D arrived, the product of years of development by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Ewalt’s narrative approach in telling the story of that evolution is to frame it within his own journey back to D&D. Like me, and I suspect many others, Ewalt played the game exhaustively until circumstances and life changes led him to abandon it. His book chronicles his journey to understand the origins and evolution of the game, and in doing so he makes side trips into the parallel worlds of tabletop wargames and real life role playing.

The book is organized into chapters about the evolution of the game, the company history of its publisher TSR, and Ewalt’s side excursions. The overarching story is interspersed with narratives from Ewalt’s role playing adventures. I have to say that I did some wincing during these narratives – it’s long been a tenet of mine that descriptions of fantasy role playing adventures are really only interesting to those who were there, and they often sound really naff – but Ewalt carries it off better than most, another tribute to the generally high quality of his writing.

The best parts of the book for my money are the origins story and the mid-section when Ewalt describes how the gaming empire that D&D funded fell apart. Much of the turbulent days at the publishing company TSR and the corporate dynamics that went on during the 80’s was a mystery to me, so I found these sections fascinating.

‘Of Dice and Men’ tells how the small town boys from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, had made it big to the point where Gary Gygax was living it large in Hollywood trying to get interest in a movie based on the game. The company had investments offshore – among other things TSR(UK) owned a property on the Isle of Man, a tax haven close to my heart – but the picture was not as rosy as it might have seemed.

In fact by the mid-80’s the company was in dire financial shape. It had gone from a basement business to a booming company to near bankruptcy in the space of a little over 10 years. Ewalt does a good job of putting the company story in the context of societal reactions to the game – the ‘D&D is satanic’ years – and the waning interest in the hobby in the early 90’s.

He treats the material fairly, quoting the point of view of each of the principals in the drama when it would be easy to point to someone as the villain of the piece. This is a role that Gygax often fills in some people’s estimation. It was Gygax who took the game and ran with it (shutting out his collaborator Dave Arneson, who later sued for his share of the treasure), and who in modern parlance, figured out how to ‘monetize’ the game.

This involved (not unreasonably) exerting strict control over his company’s intellectual property. Gygax made a number of public pronouncements in official publications about how he felt about his imitators and those who published their own D&D related material. He didn’t mince his words: “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt…”

Perhaps it’s self-serving, but to me this seemed at the time all but impossible. The very heart of the game is about improvisation and figuring out for yourself how to make the narrative work. British fanzine writers in the late 70’s, me among them, were in high dudgeon about Gygax’s edicts on indie publications and the characterization of those who wrote and published them as jackals. Having invented a free-form game that encouraged creativity, he seemed to us to be hell-bent on stifling it. This didn’t stop us, of course, but it did drive a wedge between us and one of the fathers of the game.

The gap widened when TSR published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) in 3 books spread out over the space of about 2 years. The books were hard to use as stand-alones and contained contradictions and changes from the original D&D that were hard to reconcile. They were also far more table-driven and prescriptive, and moved further away from the original D&D aesthetic that had attracted us.

Ewalt makes an entertaining tale of what could have become a yawningly dull story of corporate growth and decline set amid a gaming phenomenon. There are omissions in the tale that long-term hobbyists might grumble at, but this is almost of necessity since D&D is such a broad topic. The one I do wonder at is the lack of even a mention of Runequest, whereas Tunnels & Trolls and Traveller get a reasonable amount of space. Runequest, for my money, is one of the richest fantasy role playing settings that has ever been created and while it may be tangential to the story of Dungeons and Dragons, it at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

Be that as it may, Ewalt writes well and this makes for a very readable and entertaining book. I think he accomplishes his own stated goal of explaining the D&D phenomenon to a wider audience, and fills in a few gaps for the hobbyist along the way. This isn’t going to satisfy those who spent a prolonged and intense period of their youth down in the dungeons, but it’s a breezy trip through the highlights.

 

1 If you’re curious for more information on those years, you can find it here in a narrative geeklist I wrote on RPGGeek a couple of years ago (you’ll find it easier to read if you click on Hide All Comments at the lower right of the introductory section at the top).