Review – Of Dice And Men by David Ewalt

I doubt there’s a mainstream audience looking for an explanation of the phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons, but clearly there’s a need for self-professed gamers to justify their hobby. Self-indulgent, haphazardly sourced, and narrowly focused on personal experience, Of Dice and Men is yet another geek-aggrandizing memoir in the guise of a history.

In just over 250 pages, David Ewalt breezes through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, focusing on its inspiration and original rules sets (cannibalized from Playing At The World) while barely mentioning anything that came after 1985 (which could easily be summarized by anyone with Internet access). As a writer for Forbes, Ewalt’s reputation promises a behind the scenes look at the business side of the role-playing game industry, but there’s little here that isn’t already general knowledge at the gaming table. After briefly mentioning some pulpy financial shenanigans from the early days of TSR, Ewalt jumps directly from Gary Gygax’s ouster to Wizards Of The Coast’s rescue of the franchise in the late ’90s. He glosses over the transition from 3rd Edition to 3.5, ignores the opportunity to investigate the failure of 4th edition to take hold in the market, and dedicates a disconcerting page count to the company push for its forthcoming 5th edition, also known as D&D Next.

Given direct access to the head of that project, it’s embarrassing that Ewalt spends more time gushing about what it was like to be involved in the playtest (something anyone can do by signing up on the D&D web site) than challenging Mike Mearls on this curious new direction. Rebuilt with a modular ruleset, D&D Next aims to provide something for all generations of players, offering them the ability to incorporate as many or as few rules as they wish. The problem with this approach is evident to any experienced role-player. Since the rules are only suggestions, every previous version of D&D already allows players to tailor the system this way. For that matter, there are dozens of alternative role-playing games that allow players to do the same thing with systems that are more flexible.

But even ignoring the rest of the tabletop RPG market, there are obvious questions Ewalt either refused to ask or chose to not report on. Is it wise for Wizards to go without publishing any new rules supplements while rebuilding their brand for the third time in just over ten years? Is establishing a large print library still a viable business model? Why push to modernize D&D when there’s a clear demand for old school rules sets? How successful was D&D Insider, Wizards’ subscription-based online D&D encyclopedia and player utility? If D&D is so influential as a RPG, why haven’t there been any first or second-tier D&D videogames in the last 10 years? What were the battles that went on behind the scenes during each redesign? And with Wizards’ manpower and renewed interest in the hobby, why has D&D lost ground to competitors like Paizo Publishing?

These are the types of questions I’d expect a history of Dungeons & Dragons to address. But the disclaimer that this book is for a mainstream audience aside, Of Dice and Men is neither for the hardcore nor the non-existent curious outsider. It’s for Ewalt. A good portion of the book is dedicated to the fictionalization of his own D&D adventures. It’s meant to convey the mindscape of a play session, but even in the introductory chapters it comes across as a cringeworthy act of ego.

One of the first rules of gaming etiquette you learn is that no one wants to hear about your character. Ewalt violates this rule throughout the book, both in the fictional asides and descriptions of his own play sessions and world design. To make matters more confusing, the campaign he describes isn’t even typical of a 3.5 experience. It’s set in a modern day world ruled by vampires and uses fantasy classes for player characters. While this is obviously a matter of personal choice, it’s much more likely that anyone playing a contemporary horror or fantasy game would be using The Dresden Files RPG or Call of Cthulhu.

That’s par for the course for Of Dice And Men, which is more about the author’s personal experience rediscovering the hobby than even a passable overview of D&D and its legacy. Ewalt would rather footnote spell statistics he’s readily familiar with than cite facts, which are instead relegated to lazy bookmarks in the afterward (at least on the Kindle version). It’s a rules-light approach to journalism and about as interesting as listening to someone tell you about their character implies.

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