Saturday, July 6, 2013

2,458: Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt

I have a secret that may surprise you.  It’s not particularly disreputable, certainly not criminal or immoral or even very interesting.  It doesn't involve peculiar sexual practises, religious cults or even an unusual addiction but, for what it’s worth, here goes………….As a teenager I used to play role playing games.

I know, I know.  It’s come as a shock to you to discover that your suave, debonair and erudite host was once a geeky RPG fan but there it is.  Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu – I had a go at them all.  To be fair, I was never THAT into it all, largely because I was at a boarding school where sport was king and geekiness wasn’t.  So my interest manifested more through my accumulation of an extensive set of RPG systems, combined with the occasional game and, in truth, it had all pretty much faded away by the time I hit the Lower Sixth.

It had all started in Switzerland of all places in the summer of 1981.  My prep school had arranged a school trip to a youth centre in Switzerland where we spent a fortnight in immersive French lessons each morning and a mix of excursions (the Nestlé chocolate factory visit is still a cherished memory) and sport in the afternoons.  The evenings were spent in the usual teen and near-teen occupations – video games (primitive Space Invaders and Asteroids), school-type discos, cack-handedly trying to chat up older girls and just hanging out.  The centre was being used by a number of different British schools and I got into an argument about orcs with a kid from one of these other schools.

Yes, you read that right – an argument about orcs.  I was a Tolkien obsessive at the time and so was horrified when this kid claimed that orcs were pig-like creatures with snouts and tusks.  Tolkien, after all, had described orcs as, “"squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes... ...degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”  So, not at all porcine then.  Argument ensued, almost ending in blows before he explained that his description came from this really cool game he and his friends were into, called Dungeons & Dragons.  He invited me to come and watch them play and I was immediately hooked.

On my return from the trip, I badgered my mother into driving round all the local toy and game shops until we found the red box basic Dungeons & Dragons set.  I corralled some school friends into playing and my career as a Dungeon Master took off.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since those halcyon days of youth and I haven’t played or even thought about RPGs in years, although I still read some fantasy.  But, when I spotted Of Dice and Men in an Amazon browsing session some months ago, a nostalgic interest slowly stirred and when the publishers, Scribner, kindly allowed me access to the title through Netgalley, I couldn’t resist.

Of Dice and Men combines a history of role playing games in general, but more particularly, that of Dungeons & Dragons with a quasi-memoir of David Ewalt’s experiences in the game.  It tells of the genesis of the game and how it evolved from classic wargames, of the gradual falling out between Gary Gygax and Dave Arnessen, the true founding fathers of D&D and of the complex and chequered corporate history of the game and TSR, the company founded by Gygax.  It touches on its cultural impact, from the scare stories of Satanism to its influence on, and eventual supersession by, video games and is a fascinating insight to a hobby that was clearly much much larger than I had thought.

The sections of the book that deal with Ewalt’s life in the world of RPGs and his gradual relapse into playing raised a few wry smiles and a bit of recognition and I suspect manages to convey the excitement and pleasure of the game even to those who have never come across it.  I found myself getting the urge to play again and to get hold of the old sets (all of which have been lost in various clear-outs).  Unfortunately, games like D&D change; as Ewalt describes fluently, there have been various iterations of the D&D rule system and the current system almost certainly wouldn’t appeal anywhere near as much as the AD&D system I was familiar with.  Most of the other games I came across from what must have been the heyday of classic RPGs are also now out of print.  The world has moved on.

I thoroughly enjoyed Of Dice and Men and would recommend to anyone, but especially reformed players.  About the only criticism I’d make is that the descriptions of the actual games he was playing are probably more of interest to his playing colleagues than to the general reading public.  It’s a minor quibble though and doesn’t detract from the book as a whole.

And if anyone has an old Monster Manual or Top Secret set, I might be in the market…………………

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