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

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Given the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons worldwide, there’s little surprise that there is enough material to put together a history of the game.

It’s an interesting tale, chronicled by David Ewalt’s new book Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons, exuberantly blending together memoir and history in a concise volume that is, for the most part, entertaining and informative.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with Third Edition D&D along with friends at summer camp, and I’ve gathered many fond memories of playing deep into the night, caught up in our own world of adventure. Ewalt, and many other fans recognize the importance of the game in their lives, and over the course of this book, traces the origins of the game from its founding by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson back in 1974 to the present day.

A regular writer for Forbes, Ewalt’s book succeeds the most when he’s looking at the historical elements of the game. We look over some brief history of war gaming, and how it influenced the founding of Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. It’s a fascinating business tale of how a small group of passionate gamers built an empire, starting out of their house, printing up primitive game manuals and along the way, sparking the imagination of gamers generations over.

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

A history of a gaming business sounds boring on paper, and Ewalt intersperses his tale with elements of his own life to accompany it. Paradoxically, it’s the memoir parts of this book which I found myself skipping over, eager for more background on the company and characters that created Dungeons and Dragons. It’s the story of the game that’s the most interesting, growing from a single house to a fantastically successful business, all on the back of a single game.

Along the way, Ewalt looks at how Dungeons and Dragons changed over the years as more players flocked to the game. From the first printed editions to the latest version and beyond, to the company’s upcoming release, Dungeons and Dragons Next. The book is a real lesson in disruptive innovation, repent with drama along the way as characters fall out with one another in a changing landscape of entertainment preferences.

D&D is a unique sort of game; straddling the eras between family-friendly board games and the latest first-person shooters, Of Dice and Men finds exactly why it has remained such an enduring game. Even as the video game industry takes off, it is the first social network, a game that brings people together around a table to tell a collaborative story. There are few games that have the same impact, where people play with the same characters for decades.

Still, there’s a lot that’s not said. Ewalt goes into great detail with the early days of D&D’s development, but fails to speak much about the later incarnations of the game. By not mentioning Version 3.0, 3.5 and 4.0 he misses an opportunity to really examine how gaming habits have changed in recent years, and to speculate on where gaming is going. There’s a lot that could be said for not only how D&D has influenced fantasy (and vice versa), but how other companies are doing well (Look at Paizo Publishing with their Pathfinder game) with the same concept. In the end, the history sort of peters out, which is disappointing.

There’s been a trend of nerd-memoirs recently, such as Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms by Ethan Gilsdorf and American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, and this one fits nicely alongside those books; it’s a mix of local history with a self-deprecating look at the authors during early points of their lives.

Fantasy Freaks and American Nerd Of Dice and Men Book Review: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It

It’s an annoying approach, unfortunately, because we’re far past the time when gaming, LARPing, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and other geeky pursuits are shameful, and this sort of self-confessional embarrassment versus nerd-cred validation is at odds with itself, and really not indicative of the rest of the growing ‘geek culture’ that’s out there. They are celebrations of something that they feel ashamed to enjoy.

In many ways, this would have been a stellar casual history of Dungeons and Dragons and the people who created it. In a lot of ways, it’s a campaign in and of itself, with all the epic drama and world-changing events that make for a good story. Of Dice and Men doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless; a story that pulls off the curtain on how this incredibly important game has come to influence and entertain so many.

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Photos courtesy of The Lyons Press, Scribner, & TSR, Inc.

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