REVIEW: Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

A book that talks as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it does about the book’s author. One of these subjects is considerably more interesting than the other.

Dungeons & Dragons seems to be doing pretty well for itself nowadays. The game’s fifth edition is said to be its most popular ever, people pull down six figure salaries for playing their games in public and entire online platforms exist just to help you find players and run games over the internet. It is easy to forget, but this present was not unavoidable.

Back in 2013, D&D was in trouble. An unpopular fourth edition had failed to rally the troops let alone gain purchase with people outside the hobby and a large chunk of the game’s existing audience had been lured away to Pathfinder. These were thin years for D&D, years without professional DMs or streaming audiences large enough to allow people to quit their day jobs.

In 2021, Dungeons & Dragons is dangerously close to being cool. In 2013, it was what might be referred to as a low-status pastime. The associated feelings of shame cast a long shadow over Of Dice and Men, a book that is as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it is about the author’s conflicted feelings about his love for the game.

This begs two questions:

  1. Who the fuck is David M. Ewalt?
  2. Why the fuck should anyone care about his conflicted feelings about a harmless hobby?

While neither of those questions have particularly interesting answers, they do go some way towards explaining how someone managed to get a book about D&D published at a time when even D&D players had started playing other games.

While the dominant form of American letters remains careerism, its preferred method is that of the personal memoir. While yesteryear’s newspapers were long on facts and carefully-investigated detail, today’s newspapers are full of people earning a living writing about themselves. In fairness, the economics make sense: Get good at writing about yourself and you can then go on to write about anything because anything can be written about from the perspective of your encounter with that thing. It’s all about brand synergy baby.

It helps to think of it in culinary terms: Everyone who writes for American newspapers and magazines starts with a set of raw materials. In some cases, the raw materials are expensive and exotic because the experiences informing the article are expensive and exotic. In some cases, the raw materials are unremarkable to the point of being universal but a talented writer can take cheap raw materials and produce a great dish because they know how to cook and how to season their food: A dash of analysis here and a drizzle of humour there.

Some writers are accomplished technicians who not only know how to put together delicious spice blends; they also have access to the highest quality materials. Jia Tolentino is a great example of this kind of writer: She’s funny, she’s insightful, she knows how to tell a story and shift between different moods plus the raw materials of her life are pretty damn exotic as not many of us grew up as slave owners who got fucked up on cough medicine and then went on reality TV.

On the other side of the spectrum you have oddball British columnists like Giles Coren: People who refuse to wash their hands, start their kitchen prep by scraping a dead badger off the side of the road, and refuse to add spices because they distrust anything foreign. Anyone biting into one of Coren’s half raw, unseasoned and fly-blown badger burgers would be justified in wondering how such a calamitous halfwit ever came to run a restaurant but then you learn that his dad was friends with a load of food critics and suddenly everything falls into place.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book a badger burger, but I am not exactly wild about the spice blend. Ewalt starts with some fairly promising raw materials in the form of the history of Dungeons & Dragons. You’ve got the weird personalities, the oddball culture that grew up around the game, and the fact that the game’s rise coincides with nerd shit becoming the dominant form of American popular culture. Despite the raw potential offered by the subject matter, Ewalt delivers a dish that is crippled with clashing flavour profiles and covered in disgusting homemade cheese.

When I say that Of Dice and Men has clashing flavour profiles I mean that Ewalt comes across as profoundly conflicted about his choice of subject matter.

When Ewalt talks about gaming in positive terms, it is always instrumental: Gaming improves your social skills! Gaming gives you more self-confidence! Gaming is an outlet for personal creativity! From one side of his mouth, Ewalt sings to praises of nerdy pursuits. From the other he is muttering about other gamers and regretting his openness every time a woman sneers at him for the crime of being a gamer. He even recalls the moment he turned his back on his gaming friends and started hanging out with people on the student newspaper because he thought they were just a little bit cooler and had access to a better class of woman.

A better writer would have been able to do something interesting with this tension. They might have worked through their issues and found a way to reconcile middle-class status-obsessed careerism with a fondness for low-status pastimes. Maybe they could have returned home and discovered some traumatic event that soured them on gaming thus setting the stage for personal growth and a return to childhood loves. Squint at Of Dice and Men and you can just about see the outline of this personal journey but I don’t think that Ewalt has much interest in taking this journey. His shame and tendency towards middle-class conformism are evident in every chapter of the book.

Ewalt’s conventional nature is particularly apparent in the interminable sections devoted to his regular D&D game. While there’s nothing particularly distasteful or bad about the games he has with his friends, I would say that his adventures come across as pretty generic even by the standards of your typical D&D campaign. In fact, one of the book’s more interesting recurring motifs is that Ewalt visibly cringes every time he comes into contact with anyone even a tiny bit more creative than him. In fact, the dominant flavour of this entire dish is uncut cringe: Ewalt cringes every time a woman discovers his past as a gamer but he also cringes whenever someone else shows an excess of freedom or creativity. He dislikes LARPing because he feels self-conscious and he dislikes his friend’s weird ideas because playing a one-armed Wookiee with an antagonistic robot arm is just a bit too out-there for someone as relentlessly mundane as Ewalt.

All of this cringing is paid off in a wonderful moment of pathos when Ewalt skips out of a junket in order to start designing his first dungeon only for the dungeon to be the most unimaginative and generic thing imaginable. His first session as a DM even starts with him telling the players that their characters meet up in a tavern. A better writer and a more interesting human being would have used this book to tell a story about a sense of freedom and creativity that, once set aside, was rediscovered later in life but Ewalt simply could not write that book.

In a recent video, the Youtuber Contrapoints describes cringe as a form of discomfort born both of envy and identification: Ewalt cringes because he hates himself. He hates himself for enjoying lower-status pastimes than his professional peers, but he also hates himself for being less free and less creative than his fellow nerds. That sense of shame and conflict may speak to where D&D was back in 2013 but it certainly makes for an oddly ambivalent reading experience now. We come not to celebrate Dungeons & Dragons but to apologise for its excesses and beg you for a second date.

This flavour of cringe is somewhat unfortunate as the raw materials are actually pretty good. The bare bones of the story of how D&D was created are now widely known but Ewalt does a good job of getting across the stunning lack of professionalism that accompanied the rise of D&D.

Far from hagiographic, the book depicts E. Gary Gygax as a petty, vindictive, and litigious control freak prone to self-sabotage and bizarre temper tantrums whenever he is confronted with a woman in power. For example, the original TSR was dissolved after Gygax’s business partner died and left him to contend with a widow who was clearly happy to remain a silent partner. However, rather than deal with this kind of uncertainty, Gygax decided to dissolve the business and buy out the widow costing him so much money that it left the restructured TSR with near-terminal cash-flow problems that forced Gygax to take on a new set of troublesome (male) partners.

When D&D sales reached the point where Gygax was making serious money, he exercised his stock options and forced out his old partners only for him to be out-manoeuvred by a more experienced and competent business woman with a background in publishing. When said woman started asking questions about some of Gygax’s business dealings (including getting the company to pay for Gary’s post-divorce Hollywood lifestyle as well as a company home in a UK tax haven) Gygax threw a temper so epic and ill-tempered that he wound up getting not only forced out of his own company but out of the RPG business entirely.

The broad outlines of this story are fascinating but I do wish that Ewalt had spent less time telling us about his favourite PC and more time filling in the gaps. For example, Gygax blamed the departure from TSR on his plans to hand shares to employees as well as the majority shareholder proclaiming herself to be socially superior to gamers. Quite frankly, both of those stories sound like bullshit worthy of the Am I The Asshole? Sub-Reddit and it’s somewhat unfortunate that Ewalt couldn’t at the very least provide an oppositional quote. Various figures at TSR are quoted in the book and I assume that these quotes are based on interviews conducted by Ewalt and so I find it grating that he failed to ask a follow up question and instead chose to fill his book with stories from his teenaged campaigns.

 It is interesting to note that while Ewalt pulls no punches when it comes to Gygax’s misogyny and incompetence, he clearly respects the man’s creative output and even goes so far as to suggest that Gygax wrote most D&D supplements single-handed. This tendency to respect the hussle is also evident in Ewalt’s depiction of Dave Arneson.

While Ewalt’s Gygax comes across as a dysfunctional creative genius, Arneson comes across as a barely-literate flake incapable of writing a coherent sentence let alone meeting a deadline. Much like the stories about Gygax getting forced out for standing up to the new owner’s contempt for gamers, these stories strike me as in-house folklore cooked up to make everyone feel better about the status quo. I can believe that Arneson was a bad fit for TSR and I can imagine anyone struggling to do their best work in a corporate environment like that of TSR but the book talks about him taking months to produce a handful of incoherent paragraphs and that sounds rather convenient given that Gygax not only sacked Arneson and tried to screw him out of his royalties but also tried to present himself as the sole creator of Dungeons & Dragons. As with the claims that Gygax quit in order to protect the honour of gamers everywhere, I would have expected a serious professional journalist like Ewalt to question the validity of these claims.

The closest we get to a counter-point is a mellowing of the scorn when Arneson launches a series of lawsuits in response to Gygax’s repeated attempts to screw him out of royalty payments. Arneson, Ewalt says, made a lot of money out of D&D but rather than taking that money and using it to build a gaming empire, he seems to have lived a happy life funding other people’s projects and creating stuff for fun.

The fact that Gygax is treated with ‘respect + caveats’ whereas Arneson is treated with ‘scorn + grudging respect’ tells you a lot about not only Ewalt’s lack of distance from received RPG history, but also his personal values. You can imagine someone as conventional as Ewalt identifying with the professionally productive Gygax while loathing the less ambitious and more free-wheelingly creative Arneson.

Traces of Ewalt’s day job are evident in the way that the book is padded out with stand-alone essays about a variety of game-related junkets he happened to attend. The chapter on Napoleonic war-games is one of the most singularly boring things I have ever read while the chapter on LARPers is inadvertently funny just because Ewalt seems so uncomfortable and conflicted about the stuff going on around him. As someone who has tried and failed to enjoy LARPing because he could not stop cringing, I can empathise with Ewalt but then why choose to include a chapter on LARPing in the first place? Non-Nordic LARPing may owe a conceptual debt to the work Gygax did on D&D but LARPing has never been a part of the D&D experience in the way it was for say, White Wolf’s World of Darkness.

Far more engaging are the stories of Ewalt’s attendance at various RPG industry junkets. The chapter devoted to the playtesting of what would later become D&D 5th Edition is particularly interesting as Mike Mearls speaks in weird marketing platitudes that Ewalt takes entirely at face value. For example, at one point Mearls describes D&D5 as being a system that will allow you to do absolutely everything thereby uniting the various tribes of gaming under a single set of mechanics. In the very next sentence, he discusses plans to create a modular rule-set that will allow GMs to opt in and out of various sub-systems depending on their preferences. Ewalt doesn’t raise an eyebrow or pass comment but what is the difference between a gaming landscape broken up amongst different systems and a gaming landscape that rigorously customises a single set of rules? If you won’t play D&D 3.5 because it’s all about tactics and requires battle-maps then why would you play D&D 5 with the battle-map toggle activated?

In truth, I suspect that the sessions Ewalt attended were less about polishing rules than they were about trying to find where the majority of gamers were at in terms of their tolerance for different kinds of mechanics. Should D&D5 require the use of minis or are most people content with using the theatre of the mind for resolving combat? I suspect that Mearls is not so much contradicting himself as referring to the fact that D&D5 was still in flux. I suspect there probably was a whiteboard somewhere containing lists of sub-systems that were definitely going in and list of sub-systems whose inclusion or exclusion were dependent upon feedback from the playtests. Ewalt doesn’t ask too many questions or really give Mearls much space in which to discuss his ideas but it’s still interesting to catch a glimpse of the pre-history of D&D5 and see how different options were being considered.

Also interesting are the encounters that Ewalt has with other figures in the games industry. With his first attempts at GMing in mind, Ewalt asks a few experienced DMs for advice on how to run a game and this section culminates in Ewalt sitting down to play in a game run by Gygax’s son Ernie only for the four hour session to be spent rolling up characters and then wandering around a dungeon so huge and under-populated that they never actually get round to fighting any monsters or finding any treasure. Yeah… that’s a shit game mate. Don’t do that.

Even funnier is Ewalt’s encounter with Frank Mentzner, one of Gygax’s old cronies who had hopes of getting back into the biz by publishing scenarios through DriveThruRPG. One of Mentzner’s plans was to have his adventures translated into different languages. I’ll share this passage in full as it really is a peach of a fucking quote:

I mean… talk about seeing ordinary gamers as your social inferior!

I think my real issue with Of Dice and Men is that it is neither one thing nor the other:  As a history of Dungeons & Dragons it is a thin and incomplete re-telling of the established historical narratives. As a story about one man’s relationship with the hobby, it is conflicted, evasive and outright tedious.

A better journalist would have asked more questions and delved a bit deeper into the history of the game. At the very least, they wouldn’t have suggested that D&D effectively had no history between Gygax leaving the company and the release of D&D5. A better writer would have balanced out the historical stuff with more humour, panache, or actual engagement with the psychological complexities of enjoying unpopular pastimes but for all that Ewalt feels obliged to insert himself into the narrative, he really does not offer much to justify his place.

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