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.

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SWR: Orcs Nest

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.

One of the nicer things about living with the internet is that it is now a lot easier to work out how to get to someplace new. For example, I recently learned of the existence of a game shop about thirty five minutes from my home and the first thing I did was to get on Google Maps and have a look at the address on street view. Does it still exist? Is there nearby parking? Is it accessible by road? Would it take me the best part of a day to get there? Yes, Yes, Yes, and No.

Before the arrival of the internet, it was almost impossible to answer any of these questions before setting out. If you were well-organised and careful, you might track down a map of the local area or look into the public transport routes , but more often than not you would just get yourself to someplace close to your destination and then wander around until you encountered either a map or someone who knew the location of the shop. I remember once learning of the existence of a game shop in Hammersmith and spending about three hours looking for the place only to discover that, while it had once been ‘around the corner’ from the original Games Workshop offices, its relationship to the gaming hobby had become somewhat attenuated over the passage of time.

This is why, despite becoming a regular visitor to the Virgin Game Centre within months of getting into RPGs, it took me literally years to find my way around the corner to Orcs Nest on Cambridge Circus.

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SWR: Virgin Games Centre

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops.

(Tip of the hat to the Duke Mitchell Film Club for unearthing this advert)

The history of roleplaying games is inescapably post-apocalyptic. Anyone who knows anything about the origins of the hobby will have heard about early editions of D&D breaking through to the mainstream, becoming a fad, finding their way into every American shop, and eventually turning up in the opening scene to ET. We all know this history, we carry it within us.

The strange thing is that (despite dealing with different people, different places, different times, and different economic conditions) every subsequent popular history of RPGs seems to have maintained that post-apocalyptic vibe. We are always surveying the ruins of a collapsed empire or an imploded boom.

That post-apocalyptic vibe was also present the first time I went to a shop to buy an actual RPG. The shop in question was a local chain bookstore and while they did carry a load of gaming materials, they were all stacked on top of a shelving unit and you had to borrow a stool to get anywhere near them. I remember my friend scratching his head and muttering that the last time he had been there, the D&D books had had an entire section to themselves.

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