Y’know, being a geek is rough sometimes. Not so much as it used to be. Indeed, nerds of my age bracket have enjoyed the dubious pleasure of watching our obsessions go mainstream–this after long years of hiding, Liberace-like, deep in the closet.
Dungeons and Dragons, however, still sits wearily on the pinnacle of our kingdom. Telling someone you roleplay can still bring about that face. It’s the face of someone who just walked into the toilet after you. And they make the face even though you considerately lit a match. They make the face even though they can only smell sulfur.
They make the face because they know what you did.
So the fact that a Forbes editor wrote a fairly mainstream book about the history of the nuclear bomb of the geek arsenal is damn impressive, and my feather-adorned hat goes off to Mr. David Ewalt for even having the notion to begin such an endeavor.
Of course, the very nature of writing something about geek culture leaves yourself open to criticism by geeks (something that is about as pleasant as it sounds). And while it would be a simple thing to prod here and jab there and argue esoterica until I’m blue in the face, I’ll skip straight ahead to the most important point of this book:
This book is about the soul of D&D.
Between sharing his personal memories of the game (right down to fictionalizing moments in his campaigns) and engaging the reader in the emotional drama of the history of Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, TSR, and everyone else involved in D&D’s creation, Ewalt has made it clear that he’s done this for the good feelies. Of Dice And Men is warm, friendly, and easy to read. Indeed, I’d highly recommend this book as a jumping off point for anyone who’s only ever heard of roleplaying and would like to know more. It’s entry-level without boring the old salts to tears. Indeed, the wistful nature of the book is what kept me going chapter by chapter.
So in saying that, it’s odd that what I found really jarring about this book also came from Ewalt’s emotional response to the world of gaming.
Ewalt points out right off the bat that it’s been some time since he played D&D. It was a childhood fling, essentially, and returning to the fold is much like puberty: he’s got lots of questions, and he isn’t always terribly comfortable. Because of that, Ewalt spends nearly all of the book firmly planted in the closet of his rekindled geekery. I say that in a cheerful way, but in all honesty: this is a massive problem within the book.
As a history of D&D, Of Dice And Men is entertaining, straightforward, and nostalgic. As a representative of nerd culture, however, Ewalt comes off as some sort of tourist, gawking at the notion that girls also play D&D, and cheerily comparing his love of the game to drug addiction. This is not only frustrating but confusing, given his admirable coverage of the idiotic allegations of Satanism and drug use attributed to the hobby.
This isn’t entirely Ewalt’s fault–he’s a Forbes editor. He’s a man of the mainstream, tossing himself headfirst (voluntarily, mind you) into an odd subculture that he barely remembers from his youth. Of course there’s going to be a learning curve. And in all honesty, it’s so much better that someone as understanding as he did brought this book to the masses (I sincerely hope that they read it). I’m glad that Ewalt brought our love to the table–I just wish he didn’t have to go through the same old geek stereotypes to do it.