Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It

David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men is a wonderful, energetic and personal history of Dungeons and Dragons. Ewalt -- an editor and writer at Forbes magazine -- played D&D as a geeky adolescent, gave it up through his early adulthood, then fell in love with it again. Dice and Men is the story of his journey in D&D and the history of the game itself.

Ewalt is a great writer, and has the magazine-feature-writer's gift of weaving together the personal story and the wider tale, with lots of smooth transitions between the subjects and fascinating interludes. The story of role playing games is itself a fascinating tale, with an improbable origin in the confluence of two strains of tabletop strategy games.

Ewalt has dug deep into the history of the genre, unearthing details about the rise and fall of TSR, a company that experienced an early example of the dotcom era's "hockey stick" growth, followed by a precipitous collapse due to mismanagement, infighting, and a change in the wind that caught the company offguard (this section was worth it just to learn where my beloved D&D coloring book came from).

As someone who was completely obsessed with the game during its heyday, and who struggled to make sense of the strange evolution of its many tie-ins, such as the TV cartoon show and the various Basic and Advanced editions, as well as the relationship that these bore to strange, rare proto-RPGs like Chainmail, this was especially fascinating -- providing the missing puzzle-pieces so that it all made sense.

Ultimately, Ewalt is on a quest to pull the whole phenomenon of RPGs into context -- what made it such a business and cultural success, how that relates to other phenomena like LARPing, video games, and science fiction and fantasy literature. It's an exciting account of the ultimate RPG campaign -- the quest to popularize RPGs themselves.

Of Dice and Men

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  1. Better than using the infamous hundred-sided die that one of my friends bought. He could have made one himself by painting numbers on a golf ball.

  2. First edition D&D in the 8" x 5" pamphlet format was my first encounter with D&D in the mid 1970s. It was simple and left lots of room for interpretation and imagination. AD&D made it more complex without adding a lot to the experience. The key thing about D&D and paper, pencil and dice based RPGs was that they brought people together around a table for a shared experience. Computer RPGs, single or multi-player, involve less imagination, more repetition and less connection with other people. I'm sure I'm being nostalgic, but in hindsight, for me, RPGs have all been downhill since those first D&D sessions with old friends.

    I've gotten rid of boxes of AD&D books and modules, but I still have my old 1st ed. D&D pamphlet set. Maybe I'll give it to my kid and see what she can make happen with it.

  3. You're entirely, totally wrong. As my writeup, the publishers' summary, and many reviews around the web make clear, he played many, many characters, in many games, for decades. He went to many gaming cons. He sat in on a session DM'ed by Ernie Gygax, who played the first-ever D&D game, with his dad Gary. He LARPed.

    Honestly, I could see being concerned that this might be the case, but I can't see publicly opining that it "probably" is, when a moment's -- a half-moment's! -- research would have shown otherwise. It's pretty poor, really.

  4. I bought this book at Gen Con last week and have read the whole thing. jandrese is not entirely, totally wrong. Ewalt talks about coming back to gaming as an adult after not having gamed since he was a kid, and the way he talks about it is definitely like gaming was something he's ashamed to return to. He worries about what his friends will think of him for gaming, especially his girlfriend, and talks about his interest in his d&d game like its an unhealthy obsession. As he gets into his game he compares it to drug addiction. He worries that gamers are smelly and fat, he says he gained thirty pounds because he started gaming. He does talk about going to a couple conventions and a LARP, but definitely only as research for his book, not something he would be doing otherwise... it doesn't sound like his convention experiences were positive, especially not when he tried to wargame. As a gamer and someone who does go to cons like Gen Con to play RPGs and wargames I found his atittude pretty negative and condescending, definitely he comes across as an outsider who's moved on to real life looking back at gamers who never grew up. I don't think any gamer who read this book would walk away with a different feeling, though probably Ewalt thinks this perspective will sell non-gamers by trying to say "I have the same stereotypes as you!"

    And for the history of games, the material here is pretty basic and short, because so much of the book is just about Ewalt personal experiences and his gaming group. If you're a non-gamer, this is probably a good book for you to get a basic introduction. If you game, I wouldn't bother. Ewalt comes out and says this at the beginning pretty much. But this is definitely a "going-native" fish out of water story, and no one who even thumbed through the book would think differently.

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