(Imagined) Revenge Of The Nerds

DiceBy the time DUNGEONS & DRAGONS exploded as a full-bore cultural phenomenon in the early Eighties, my friends and I were already past high school and college, the game’s demographic sweet spots. So we were spared the inevitable schoolmate scorn and taunting that follow “D&D” players wherever they go. (Well, almost spared. The local paper did a story on the new craze and talked to a few of us, and for a week or so I got, “You actually play that nerdy game?”)

David M. Ewalt wasn’t so lucky. He caught the D&D bug at age ten and fell for it harder than anyone I know personally. He even went GAFIA (that’s fannish for Getting Away From It All, also something only a nerd would know) for a few years, became a journalist (he writes for Forbes now), met and married a beautiful girl – and then was pulled back into his lifelong hobby. OF DICE AND MEN is the story of one of the most creative and innovative games ever invented, told in a breezy, cheerful style telegraphed by its title. Mr. Ewalt wants to fix D&D in its deserved cultural place of honor, and also introduce you to the kind of people who are attracted to it: “My people,” as he writes.

My group of friends picked up the game out of sheer curiosity. The snippets we heard from the outside just didn’t add up: this isn’t a “game” in the usual sense because there is no winner; the players don’t compete, they cooperate; they each play a character that’s completely imaginary, as does an actor; and though you can trick up the experience to ridiculous extremes, all you really need to play D&D is a pencil and paper and some funny-looking dice. We bought a couple of rule books and shoved off – and were immediately fascinated.

Mr. Ewalt traces the game’s origins all the way back to chess, that iconic bloodless simulation of battle, and watches its evolution through “wargaming,” in which military buffs recreate actual battles from history and introduce an element of chance, so that with sound leadership and good luck, the side which lost in reality might even come out on top. The most famous mass-produced military wargame is Avalon Hill’s GETTYSBURG – you can imagine the appeal to descendants of both sides – but wargaming’s true believers keep it as real as possible, using tiny lead figurines atop ping-pong-table-sized dioramas of the genuine terrain. It was a group of wargamers who had the inspiration to leap from history into fantasy, improving kludgy medieval-battle rules and turning a player’s attention from hundreds of infantrymen to – and here’s the genius part – one individual, recurring, personality-possessing character. The bird’s-eye view gave way to the mind’s-eye view, and by fits and starts, the “fantasy role-playing game” was created and refined.

Mr. Ewalt is particularly adept at explaining this concept; he assumes you know even less about D&D than we did when we started. A group of “player-characters,” their skills and attributes determined by rolls of those funny-shaped dice, go on a cooperative adventure under the direction of a Dungeon Master (DM), who creates the fictional setting and acts as referee. The characters have their own individual personalities, abilities and even moral leanings. As they work their way through a scenario that only the DM can see, the players search for treasure, fight monsters (“monster” is the term used for any opponent), and face whatever trials the DM can conjure. This group’s story (the “campaign”) is open-ended and can last for weeks, months, even years. Success in most everything, including fighting, is determined by die rolls, some of them cast by the DM out of the players’ view. Besides completing the specific quest or mission, the long-term goal is to stay alive – each character has a finite number of “hit points” – and accumulate experience to make oneself more powerful and harder to defeat. The setting of most of these games is medieval, though the same general concept has been adapted to Westerns, postapocalyptic cities, outer space – even the cinematic world of STAR WARS has its own role-playing game. But the daddy of them all, and still far and away the most popular, is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (the origin of one of our most recognizable trademarks is a delightful little anecdote which I’ll leave for you to discover in the book), whose DNA comes straight from Tolkien, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance.

If you’re following me here, you may have already observed that this game rewards creativity and improvisational skills. Unsurprisingly, its former players include improv geniuses like Stephen Colbert and Robin Williams, and an untold number of professional storytellers, including Neal Stephenson, Ray Feist, Mike Stackpole and dozens of others. Not to photo-bomb myself into that canon, but my own first pro fiction sales were to D&D paperback anthologies; it was a natural fit for me. I even used character names from our old group in homage – and I earned back every cent I’d spent on the game and then some, which made me feel great.

Mr. Ewalt doesn’t shy away from personal intrigue, such as the corporate politics that (depending on who you talk to) either victimized the game’s major creative force, E. Gary Gygax, or else finally gave him what had been coming to him all along. The other elephant in the room is addressed as well: the 80s “flap” (to use a UFO term, for that’s what it most resembled) over D&D’s supposed malefic influence on young people. If you still actually believe that D&D promotes either Satanism or teen suicide, you should probably stay away from this book and you should definitely stay away from me. As with the uproar against “death metal” that until recently contributed to the continued circumstantial incarceration of the West Memphis Three, these thinly sourced accusations proliferated, reaching as vaunted a megaphone as 60 MINUTES. CBS used a psychologist who was later stripped of his medical license, and ignored letters from two mothers of cited suicides who said the game had nothing to do with their children’s deaths. The low point was probably the terrible 1982 Tom Hanks TV movie MAZES & MONSTERS, based on a terrible novel by Rona Jaffe.

My only beef with this lighthearted, knowledgeable, authoritative work is something which veteran D&D players have long learned to shun: the “home-movie syndrome.” When you’ve all just gone through a harrowing adventure together, it can be fun to talk about it over a beer afterward. But the only thing more boring than hearing about another campaign waged by total strangers is your relatives’ home movies of their vacation trip. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewalt relies far too heavily on recounting a certain campaign of his Brooklyn-based gang: it’s useful at first for a real-time demonstration of how the game works in practice, but it soon becomes wearisome, and I’d imagine that goes double for anybody who doesn’t have any particular desire to play D&D.

He redeems himself, though, in a beautiful section reporting on a live-action role-playing (as opposed to D&D’s paper-and-dice role-playing) weekend called Overworld, held annually in Connecticut. It sounds at first like the Society for Creative Anachronism – a bunch of people in phony chain mail swinging padded broadswords – but the lovingly crafted, immersive experience turns out to be much more profound, inspiring Mr. Ewalt to create his own campaign setting for the very first time, and guess what: his invention sounds wonderful! He ends with a poignant, heartfelt coda in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ancestral home of D&D, where he attends the annual convention held in Gygax’s memory and visits the old locations where the struggling little company got its start nearly forty years ago. Those structures are either gone or changed, but somehow their significance lingers – and, thanks to this lovely book, maybe that genuine cultural impact can now be made permanent.

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4 Responses to (Imagined) Revenge Of The Nerds

  1. pjsandchocolate says:

    I was introduced to D&D in college in the mid 1990’s and my husband is probably one of the few men outside the hardcore gaming crowd who can honestly claim that he met his wife for the first time at a D&D game.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      The D&D gender issue is also met head-on in this book. Our post-school group included several women, and you’re not the first couple to hook up that way. But let’s be honest: we were older than most D&D enthusiasts, and we knew it.

  2. pjsandchocolate says:

    Do you still play? The only reason my husband and I don’t play now is because we have young twins, which are frighteningly like Brain Moles in many respects.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Funny!

      No, not any more. We were hot & heavy for about two years as we discovered the parameters of the game and tested its limits. But any successful D&D campaign requires a DM who is inventive, industrious and just. It just takes so much time and effort to do it right. As a book editor, I went to big conventions where I saw the best DMs work, and it’s an art form, believe me. Good *playing* is too: I watched Mike Stackpole one night [all of us fortified by chocolate-covered coffee beans, my first time ever!], and wished I had been in his group. Using the force of his imagination and a glib improv tongue, he energized the entire table, but he didn’t dominate, making sure there was room for everybody else to have fun. Great players like Mike — and our little group also had a couple — elevate the game. Without them, even the world’s best potential DM is sunk, s/he can’t put together a “campaign,” and hisser former D&D players will forever wonder what the fuss was all about.

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