Tuesday, March 17, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Of Dice and Men

Of Dice and Men
by David M. Ewalt
Simon and Schuster, 2013

Thanks, Gracie, for lending it to me!

1. The promotional catchphrase for this book is "The Lord of the Rings meets Moneyball." I'm not that's the best description* of this memoir cum business history, a cocktail that is two parts nerd apologia for the general public and three parts analysis of the game, product, and scene that is Dungeons & Dragons, topped with a splash of insider reference for hard-core gamers. I think in the end, no audience will be totally satisfied: not regular folks looking to understand the nature of geekdom, not business students wishing to understand a commercial phenomenon, and not game geeks looking for new scriptures. But everyone will take something away.

2.  The"autonerdography" bits work well enough in the beginning of the book, as Ewalt establishes himself as a functioning geek: a professional with adult relationships and an ostensibly normal and fulfilled life, but who hasn't let go of some of his early influences and interests - in this case, D&D.  There's perhaps a little too much cuteness in the comparisons between a gaming habit and drug addiction and too little self-awareness of how much his position as a journalist allows him to indulge his avocation in ways not available to most adult geeks, but it's an engaging enough portrayal nevertheless.  One writing choice damages that connection for me late in the game. Ewalt establishes a convention early on of switching to italics when he is describing the scenes and characters in the games he is playing, rather than the real people he meets. Toward the end of the book, however, he starts to relate his inner reflections on the outer world the same way. This conflation of the "fantasy" representations with those of his allegorical awakening to the True Meaning of D&D seemed a little too precious, as if he were trying to elevate his story a little higher than it deserved.

3. The business history seems oddly skewed. It takes 180 pages to go from The Fantasy Game in 1972, perhaps the earliest direct ancestor of D&D, through The Blue Box and The White Box and The Red Box and Advanced D&D and all the other editions and get to Version 3.5 of the modern game in 2003. Then Ewalt skips to D&D Fourth Edition, released in 2008, in literally the next paragraph. D&D 3.5 was a major phase in the evolution of the game - and is still a force to be reckoned with, especially if you include the Pathfinder series by open-license publisher Paizo (often referred to as D&D 3.75), which isn't mentioned at all. The book takes a detour after D&D 4e into LARPing (live-action role-playing, which isn't really D&D at all) before returning to the Fifth edition of D&D. This omission smacks of something besides objectivity.

4. For all that Ewalt misses, he connects best on one element aimed directly at hardcore gamers. As part of his pilgrimage to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the birthplace of D&D, he plays in a session and later has dinner with Frank Mentzer, a close friend of Gary Gygax, the "creator" of D&D and author of many of its key editions. Ewalt is on the verge of moving from lifelong player to a fledgling Dungeon master - the one who has to run the games - and gets this advice from Mentzer:
The ideal game is a player-driven game. They are not actors in a play you wrote. You are presenting a setting, you are doing the stage dressing and letting them come up with the play. And when they come up with a plot twist, you should be able to go that way full force, because that is what they want to do. Some of the worst games are when somebody has a great, grand, and glorious vision, and they want victims to walk out and play their roles with no input in what happens.
That alone was worth wading through the sometimes shallow waters of the book.

5. The cover image shows a twelve-sided die with the book's title on the face where the "1" - an automatic failure - would be. Why Ewalt, who several times mentions in the book how much small details matter to geeks, would use a graphic that showed both the least-used die in the game and the least desired outcome is a mystery to me.

*But then I have a bad history with literary marketing catchphrases.

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