Sunday, March 5, 2023

REVIEW: Of Dice And Men

Let's try a new thing. It will be a variety of "I read a book and talk about it", the difference being: I'm not doing it alone. My good friend Eric Diaz over at his (fantastic and fantastically productive) blog Methods & Madmen will read the same book and we will cross-post and talk about it. We've decided four books to start with (two of which offered by Eric, two by yours truly), all connected to the hobby one way or another. We talk about it, and see how it goes. The first one will be "Of Dice And Men" by David M. Ewalt, a book I wanted to read (and like) and now can't make my mind up about ... 

Character Sheet (what are we looking at?)

The "revised and updated" softcover version Of Dice And Men (ODAM, 2013) I perused clocks in at 285 pages, 32 of which are afterword, notes, acknowledgements and an index. Formally this book is done well, good formatting with no serious hickups in the editing (one word he kept repeating rubbed me wrong around the third time it was used, but that's all that comes to mind right now). Just from handling it, it's a nice book, pleasant to read, even.

Another positive observation up front: Ewalt consistently writes "role-playing games", with the "-" (the hyphen) connecting "role" and "playing" ("role-playing" is a verb, therefore the hyphen is correct). It is a conscious choice, because when quoting other sources, he uses their writing, which can be (and often is) different. I applaud that.

Somehow I care about this more than about if "gamemaster" is possible or not. If "storyteller" is possible, "gamemaster" sure as hell should be as well ... interestingly enough, Wikipedia's respective entries go by "role-playing game" and "gamemaster", so I feel vindicated.

Anyway, moving on, stated mission of this book is to offer "an enticing blend of history, journalism, narrative, and memoir", which is a tall order for 253 pages, but not impossible.

David M. Ewalt was an editor and wrote Advertisement for Forbes magazine, it seems, so there is nothing to gather about the guy's opinions whatsoever ... Not hating here, it's a plus in my book that he keeps a low profile, although writing advertisement is a stance in itself, right? His bubble is, according to his homepage, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Forbes. His job now is editor over at Gizmodo, again also writing advertisements ...

Good money, for sure, but it takes a special mindset to work in circles like that, and it shows in the book. At least it explains a lot how he constantly feels the need to denigrate his fellow gamer nerds (a group of gamers is a "stink" now, is it?) while telling everyone how great the role-playing is he's involved in is, implying his approach is more artsy (or whatever you'd say to "safe face" in front of an audience that'll judge you for the company you share but think you shouldn't).

Unfortunately that's a strong theme in the whole book and we will have to revisit it throughout, I'm afraid.

So this already is a mixed bag. I'll be honest and in-depth about my findings (and feel the need to state this because I feel it won't be a nice review in the end). Is this really "the story of D&D and the people that play it"? Let's find out!

In-Game Analysis (how does it play out?)

I will go through this roughly and from the beginning. Re-reading the introduction for things I could say about that already has me more critical about the text as reading it casually did. So keep that in mind. It nicely connects with the impression the book left with me, but we'll see if I'm able to connect those dots ...

The introduction it is, then. It seems to be the part of the book where the author aims to establish himself in the hierarchy of gamers as the "DM" of this book. As the moderator and the authority, if you will. It begs the question if the author just felt it necessary to build a defense against some hostile grognards, or if he just addresses the necessity of it.

I completely understand the urge, especially if one is used to write stuff published online. In a book, however, it appears to be a bit too defensive. I will not be very detailed about the structure of the rest of the book, but this introduction checks so many boxes already, a closer look at it helps to form and understanding how the book is written.

The introduction is titled "I am not a wizard" and starts with addressing the "hardcore fantasy role-playing gamers in the audience". The mainstream audience can just skip it and start reading. The text then switching to chum up to those "hardcore gamers" alluding that the "muggles" are gone now and we can talk business.

That's just a couple of sentences after claiming he isn't a wizard, so it is already a strange move to use a Harry Potter quote. But that's not even what bothered me (although I'm thinking now he meant not a "Wizard from that coast"?). It is the term "muggles" I object to, as it is abrasive while ALSO painting a less favorable picture of what he implies "hardcore gamers" think of the dirty masses.

It is divisive and I don't like that at all, especially when considering that no one reading that first paragraph would just skip it, so those "muggles" will read at least as far as to read being classified like that. It's not even cute, it's just cringe (if I'm generous).

 Moving on. Next, authority needs to be established. It reads like he wants to be the big man among equals, pointing out that he mostly uses 3e, because that's what he likes and plays, so if people think they need to criticize that, they can go and shove it up their asses (that's actually what he says ... if you don't believe me, just go and read that part on amazon).

Again, the only reason to be aggressive about this is that he expects some sort of backlash in that regard OR wants to establish hierarchy with a reader he thinks needs subjugating, because just stating that 3e is what he's playing now and what he likes would have been plenty enough.

Now imagine what someone would think reading that, who doesn't identify as "hardcore gamer" ... they'd have to think this sort of chest bumping must be necessary for some reason, which directly feeds into negative stereotypes already established. I'm so tired of shit like that.

Ewalt goes on and talks about how his session reports will at times not follow the rules of the game they played, but might take creative license in that regard to make it work in the book. First of all: obviously, duh. Secondly, that's not even how the session report sections are written to begin with, so why bring it up?

Feels like the "I'm the author here, and that's my skill, so shut up"-kind of way to, furthermore, establish authority over what he seems to perceive as a hostile reader? Again, painting what picture?

In closing he writes:

ODAM, p. 2

You read that as I do? Now he's protecting the "mainstream audience" from those evil grognards while snubbing the gamers as having "failed" in reading this properly.

But did they? The book claims to be "the history", not "a history", not "a short history", it's definitive. Nothing in the marketing actually gives any hint of this book being anything else but what it claims to be.

Anyway, he's (again) hinting the reader to go somewhere else. The last sentence, then, aims to cement his authority and advises to play it nice. It's funny, but if someone about participating in a game came at me as aggressive and divisive as that, I'd laugh them in the face if they ended it with "be nice to each other, this is a friendly campaign". Textbook passive-aggressive behavior, I'd say, and I don't care for it one bit.

This could (should?) have been done way more amicably. Easily. As it is, it starts the book off on the wrong foot, and every time he puts himself in relation to those (perceived) hostile readers, you'll see little stabs like that. Here's just a small selection:

  • says (as mentioned in the beginning) that others refer to a group of role-playing gamers as a "stink" (p. 56)*
  • explains how he's anxious to tell others since people have negative associations with the game, to a point where girlfriends leave (p. 75)
  • says gamers are a welcoming bunch, but then goes on to make an example how abusive gamers can be, alluding to something called "Arrogant Nerd syndrome", which isn't even a thing** (the story of Jonathan starts at p. 84) 
  • actually, this is worse than "just" showing how "abusive" gamers can be, it's inverting who's the victim here by saying that gaming should be a "safe haven" for nerds, but ostracizing them is understandable, because they can be, after all, difficult people ... and that's a shitty move***
  • he also dedicates three chapters talking about aspects of the hobby he doesn't like: traditional war-gaming, traditional role-playing and LARP, and I don't think he's giving them a fair shake just because it's not his thing ... more shitting on fringe aspects of the hobby

Let's leave it at that (see the footnotes for the venting). As I said above, it's written well enough, but what's showcased here is also evident in the whole book. Little stories and hints that seem innocent if encountered alone, but accumulate to something where the sum of the parts is uglier than the single encounters. A stink. Ha!


Honest to god, I started reading this book to my wife, who's not a nerd at all, and she did not care for the tone of the book. I'm saying, it's not just me and it is important, imo, to highlight this aspect of the book before going into other aspects of it.

So what else is there to talk about? The history sections are excellent, from the very beginning of the idea of cooperative play in history, via early war gaming roots to the first conception of the rules that would become D&D and how that went viral in the seventies. All of that framed by Ewalt's gaming experience and intersected with gaming reports from when he started playing again (a D&D 3e campaign in a vampire apocalypse setting).

Mixed into that we get some D&D quotes, learn about some of the great minds of the hobby, now and then. Anecdotes, quotes from interviews ... Good show, and he runs strong with that until page 172, when Gary Gygax dies. After that, the book loses steam considerably, most of all because the history part of it is basically neglected. We learn how TSR fared after Gygax' departure, and how all of that ended in TSR being sold to Hasbro, but it's basically bullet points of names and dates.

It's just not where the development of D&D ended, or the cultural influence of it. It's just where the writer stops doing what he did well in the first three quarters of the book. We get more of the session reports and quotes and anecdotes, but even there Ewalt'll shift focus and introduce new stories. It doesn't always work, and that last third drags on until the author describes his pilgrimage to the origins of D&D and helps us see through his eyes what all the famous locations are now, which was a nice touch.

Beyond that, we get lots of fan-boying and shilling for WotC and the development of the D&D 5e, which I didn't care for. So, yeah, that's basically what you'll find in the book, without going that much into detail.

Awarding Experience Points (is it any good?)

A book can read well, but transport horrible ideas. Or better yet: it can hide terrible ideas behind a casual tone and a good reading flow. Not that ODAM is in any way, shape or form offensive, but it is "politically correct" while being uncritically vague and even favorable towards WotC and their business practices to a degree where boring just ends up being a vehicle for, well, advertisement or at least craving endorsement.

And sure enough, there are plenty of examples in the text where WotC is being presented favorably ALTHOUGH there is something to be said about the business practices of Hasbro and WotC in 2013 when this was published (the OSR was thriving back then for good reasons).

If not written in favor, that part of the history of the game is actually not present at all, instead we get a reference to another book for checking out the decline of TSR and nothing but praise for WotC "rescuing" D&D and moving on with the brand. No word on the counterculture movement and success of the OSR and the revival of the old editions ... Especially since he's obviously aware of "old gamers" and "edition wars" (as it is evident in the introduction).

And you don't have to be a "fan" to recognize this, but you have to mention it to cast a complete picture. WotC felt pressured to go back to those old roots because people turned away from 4e in troves.

At least Ewalt is honest about being an "ally" of the company and quite happy to support their drafting of 5e. He wants to be in on that action and is happy to be recognized as a "fan" by WotC. Even gets an invite, or so he writes.

All of that is problematic, in my view, as it goes against journalistic integrity to be biased like that, and "journalism" was claimed to be part of this "enticing blend". No xp for advertisement or networking framed as "journalism", I'm afraid (0/5).


History next. Those passages I enjoyed a great deal. It's well researched and cleverly put together. Lots of interesting trivia. The early years of the hobby sure as hell make for a great story, the good writing puts it to the next level.

But there is a huge stylistic shift after roughly 170 pages. The whole interplay between talking the home campaign (the narrative/memoir part) and the history of the game falls flat. The history part all of a sudden gets rushed and the home campaign gets neglected as well. With what is left, we go as fringe as talking about LARPs while important transition points in the hobby get ignored entirely or just mentioned very briefly.

The last 80 pages are full of odd choices like that, and I get the impression that the author didn't have the stamina to go it all the way (which would have ended in a far superior book, imo).

See, you can make fringe excursions if the main text has enough meat to carry a little extra context. This is well illustrated in chapter three, when Ewalt's talking about legacy war gaming (although I did not care much for the retelling of those battles). But when all the interesting bits fall flat (for instance, how the game developed beyond Gary's involvement), we are left with a boring mess of praise for Big Corp, at least three different session reports and an overall text that goes nowhere until it ends with a pilgrimage to something that isn't there anymore.

I have to admit, the end works for me. The whole idea of the tying the book together like that is nice, and my guess would be that it came up pretty early in the writing of the book. However, there are at least 150 pages missing, and that's a shame. Still, what's there is great (4/5).

Gygax, making history again ... [source]
Memoir and Narrative, now, are interwoven to form the skeleton the history is presented on. I liked bits of that, didn't like others. As with the whole book, it is all crafted by a skilled writer, but I still felt it lacking at times, especially when Ewalt tries to be non chalant about not liking his fellow gamers (the stink, it's an addiction, all being welcome means there are abusive people ... but I'm repeating myself) or blatantly paints an uncritical picture of those currently owning the game (WotC).

That said, I did like the idea of structuring the whole book that way (not the negative parts, but the private aspect of it). It works well until it falls short 172 pages into the book. And when he not tries to paint himself as "the gamer that isn't a gamer anymore but then falls prey to the addictive elements of it again and now plays a far more sophisticated version of the game", it is quite the engaging read.

Even the session report sections work most of the time. Again, until they don't because they have to carry the book in the last third while adding several additional new narratives.

Using this memoir/narrative angle, the book mostly manages to paint a picture of what the game can be and what its elements are in almost all dimensions (the roots, the social dynamics, how it plays, ...), and that's good, although not fully realized and with the caveats already mentioned (3/5 each).

Nice ass, though! [source]

In closing ...

When all is said and done, this is not "the" but "a story of D&D and the people who play it". The historic part is interesting and I wish there would have been more of that and not just the pre-history and the first 20 years or so. Our cultural dialogue with D&D is not over yet, as the latest WotC fuck-up about the license of the game gave ample evidence to gawk at.

Writing a 250 pages book (with only a third of that actually being about the history, if you take away the memoir/narrative parts!) and claiming there'd be no room to explore the history of D&D after Gygax left TSR just to avoid shedding a light on some "problematic" truths regarding Big Businesses Ewalt likes to associate with, is just bad style.

So how should we end this? Is it a good book in my opinion? Yes and no. There are so many shortcomings, masked by a well crafted book that reads well enough to actually work, that it comes down to a meager 2.5/5 (tendency towards the 2, after taking as close a look as I did just now).

The history part that is done, is done well and I enjoyed reading those passages. Learned something about the early history of the hobby, too. The rest was engaging enough for the first two thirds of the book and the last chapter.

What left a sour taste in my mouth was the blatant adulation for WotC and the constant (somewhat underhanded) misrepresentation of most the people that actually play those games as undesirable company. Add to that the missing history of the game after Gygax left TSR and a weak last third with a somewhat strong ending that would have needed a bigger book to work properly.

If that sounds like something you could stomach, you can sure go and get that book.

Let's see what Eric's saying about it (we coordinated publishing, but didn't read each others take ... what fun!): follow me there.

This has always been true ... [source]

* He just came up with it, btw., or at least I couldn't find an easy reference for it. People call their spouse "stink" or relatives, but not a group of nerds, as he implicates. At least not as wide spread as he'd make "us" (assuming a main stream reader? pleasing the WSJ buddies?) believe the term is.

** Try and google that, the only proper hits are referring back to his book, one making the (great!) point that he neglects talking autism in gaming while instead re-enforcing negative stereotypes again. Same pattern as with the "stink", all to make role-players look bad (or make it seem that they are perceived in a bad light). I think it's projection, but that's just my two cents.

*** I'll segue a bit into this in a footnote because I feel it's important: people are not socially awkward because they are assholes or abusive, it's because they are made feeling unwelcome and pressed into the fringes. And what happens in the fringes? Subcultures, which D&D is one of. Or was, it seems, given its popularity today. Anyway, point being, I associated with another subculture back in school, in Germany: the punks. And those had been REALLY socially awkward. For the same reasons. To now go and act as if those phenomena are just direct results of ones conduct instead of symptoms of something far more difficult to tackle (social dynamics of bullying and hierarchies and whatnot), is insincere. At best. "My people" have been excluded and ridiculed for a long time now, what Ewalt does implicates he's more like the people that didn't get along with nerds to begin with ... I wrote about this some time ago in detail, see Nerd Pride and Pop Culture going Full Circle.