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Of Dice And Men

I Want my MTV is a masterwork. It’s an oral history that deftly documents a major artistic evolution and corporate startup story using the recollections of the entrepreneurs, stars, and suits that revolutionized cable TV and the music industry.

I was hoping Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt was going to follow a similar template and help contextualize the rise of Dungeon’s & Dragons. My older cousins were into role-playing games of the 80s and while I never played regularly I was fascinated by their polyhedral dice, thick books filled with pictures of monsters, and the way our parents tried to dissuade them from playing the game.

Here’s a talk Ewalt gave at Google that provides the broad strokes.

An exploration of the game’s origins, the people who play it, and the impact it had financially and socially is well warranted given its impact on pop culture, and overall, the book delivers. My only complaint, which is actually a high compliment, is that it’s 100 pages too short. It’s half a history of the business and half Eat, Pray, Love for those that love enchanted chain mail. While enjoyable, it would have been massively improved if it delved a bit deeper in a few key areas:

Design: How did the design of the game evolve? Ewalt traces it’s origins from historical tabletop wargames that were used as training aids by various European armies in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I would have loved an aside on some of the key aspects of the game mechanics. If nothing else, an explanation of the history of the oddly shaped dice that have become one of the game’s trademarks. How did the seven canonical three, ten, and twenty sided dice come into being?

Also, more info on exactly how and why the game became so popular would have been helpful. By all accounts in the book, the creators of the game weren’t great writers and greedily “borrowed” from Tolkien and other fantasy authors. Other companies offered similar products. The primary author of the game Gary Gygax was a cobbler in the 1970s—how exactly did this shoemaker in Wisconsin manage to make such a mark on the culture?

Influence: My recollections of the 80s are limited, but I’m curious how much of a relationship there was between D&D and the emergence of heavy metal which shared a fascination with skulls, monsters, and other fantasy tropes. What was the underlying social trend that made both popular concurrently? And how did the concerns about the game “promoting Satanism” dovetail with the “Moral Majority,” the push for parental music labels, and so on?

Influence: Ewalt repeatedly explains that the game had a massive impact on pop culture, but it would have been nice if he spent more of the book showing it. He quotes one of the Penny Arcade guys, but I would have loved to have heard more from the folks who blurbed these competing tome, or who appeared in the trailer for this documentary.

Also, I wish the chapter spent on larping would have been spent looking into some of the larger ripple effects D&D had on pop culture. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a mega-hit like World of WarCraft without the pen and paper antecedent that put the RPG in MMORPG. Also, Kickstarter has pushed over $200M worth of investment into the development of RPGs and other table top games. Much of Ewalt’s book is dedicated to the financial struggles D&D faced in its early days, so it would be interesting to see how these RPG successors are developing differently, both financially and aesthetically.

It’s not fair to grade Ewalt’s book on what I wish it was.

On the merits it’s a solid book and a fun read. I listened to it via Audible, and it’s on the high-end of audio book productions. Not quite as polished as Jim Dale’s Harry Potter performances or Edward Hermann’s magisterial rendition of David McCullough’s books, but Ewalt sounds exactly like you’d expect and sells the heck out of a treasure trove of puns and geeky references that would make Smaug blush.

Interspersed within the journalistic chapters are dramatizations of one of Ewalt’s campaigns which features his avatar and those of his friends. I rolled my eyes at the first one, but by the end was interested to learn more about the church of Ganube.

Final Score: Four of Five Polyhedrals

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