How I Wrote It, with David Ewalt
It's no fluke that Of Dice and Men was an August Best of the Month pick for both the Nonfiction and the Humor & Entertainment categories. The book, which came out last week, is actually several stories all at once.
If you carry a bag of oddly shaped dice everywhere "just in case," David Ewalt offers some geektastic referential humor, a deep dive into the origins of the game you love, and a validating look at his own love affair with roleplaying games (RPGs).
If your experience with Dungeons & Dragons begins and ends with the vague recollection of someone you knew in high school or that funny episode of "Community" a few seasons ago, there's just as much for you to find here, too. What is so appealing about this game that it has attracted such a massive following of basement dwellers? What is playing it actually like?
Amid all of this, Ewalt also dabbles in fantasy writing, offering glimpses of his own character's adventures.
We spoke with Forbes reporter, author, and proud geek David Ewalt (via email) about writing standing up, mixing fiction and nonfiction, and how a lifelong activity ultimately turned into a labor of love.
I wrote this book for a mainstream audience. It always bothered me that D&D has a somewhat dodgy reputation, and that so many people have heard of it, but have no idea what the game is actually like. So I set out to explain D&D to the outsiders -- I want them to see what they’re missing, and to understand why those of us who play the game are so devoted to it.
But I also worked hard to make the book interesting for existing D&D fans. That's where the history of the game comes in; even the most hardcore of role-playing game fans will learn something from Of Dice and Men.
I played Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, and the game was very important to me. But I stopped when I went away to college: I wanted to re-invent myself, so I threw myself into the only slightly less-geeky pastime of student journalism.
Years later, I started writing about the video game industry for Forbes magazine. I like to understand why businesspeople make the decisions they do -- it's never just about money. So every time I met a game company executive or a game designer, I'd ask them the same question: "What made you want to make games for a living?"
Over and over again, I got the exact same answer: "Well, I played Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid." I started to realize that D&D wasn't just a fun pastime, but that it was the most important game of the twentieth century; a unique and powerful form of collaborative entertainment that gave birth to entire industries, and inspired a generation of writers, artists, and executives.
It made me want to find out more -- and to play the game again.
I started the research for this book five years ago, by reading everything I could get my hands on about D&D. There weren't a lot of books about the subject, and most of them were written in the '70s and '80s, so I tore through those pretty quickly. But then I read through a search of every newspaper, magazine story or website article ever written that contained the term "Dungeons & Dragons" -- thousands of pages of text. It was exhausting, but worth it, since it gave me real insight into the game's history.
After learning everything I could from reading, I conducted dozens of interviews with people who helped make the game over the last forty years -- designers, executives, artists, writers, editors and players. Unfortunately, the two creators of D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, both passed away during the very early stages of my research, so I never got to talk to them. But that's where the massive periodicals search came in handy again; I found so many past interviews with them that I was able to reconstruct that part of the story, and re-quote Gary and Dave in their own words.
I knew I couldn't just write a dry history of D&D and expect people who'd never played the game to read it; I had to give those readers something they could relate to. So I added in some of my own story, my experiences being a geeky kid and now a geeky adult, and my personal journey as I returned to the game that defined my childhood.
I also knew it would be a challenge to convey the drama of a role-playing game on the written page. At its heart, Dungeons & Dragons is an exercise in collaborative storytelling; it's you and your friends sitting around a table, creating an adventure. So I fictionalized some of the D&D sessions I played in, and wrote them up like they were passages in a novel.
The resulting book is a rather unusual hybrid of memoir, journalism, and fantasy fiction. I know that sounds crazy, but so far people seem to be enjoying it. Of Dice and Men has been described as The Lord of the Rings meets Moneyball, which I find hilarious and tremendously gratifying.
I was surprised how much I got pulled back into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. The game sucked up a lot of my childhood -- nights and weekends lost in a wonderful fantasy world. I thought when I returned to it as a journalist, I'd be able to keep a kind of clinical distance, but I got completely drawn in. It's a testament to the game's power and unique appeal; I want to play it now, just thinking about it.
My workspace is a white-hot singularity of geekiness. On the wall there's an original oil painting of a Dalek, a signed poster from a Devo concert and a framed Xkcd comic strip; behind me there's a bookshelf full of games, novels and science books. I write standing up, so I have a 24" monitor, wireless keyboard and mouse set up at proper height; there's another 24" monitor on the desk itself, for when I feel like sitting down. When standing, I switch the second monitor over to display the command line interface for my linux server.
When I can't write at my desk, I'll take a Moleskine notebook to a bar, often The Brazen Head on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It's named for a Dublin pub made famous in James Joyce's Ulysses. For some reason, I find it nearly impossible to write on a laptop, so when I'm not in front of my big clicky keyboard and giant monitor, I'm all about pen and paper and a pint.
Silence drives me crazy -- anywhere I go, I turn on the TV or the radio, or wear headphones so I can listen to podcasts. But when I'm writing, I can't have anyone talking, or even singing; their words distract me from my own.
So my Spotify writing playlist is heavily classical, mostly consisting of baroque composers, with an emphasis on J.S. Bach. While I was writing Of Dice and Men I also mixed in a number of modern geeky compositions, including Howard Shore's soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the soundtracks to the first six modern "Doctor Who" series, as performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.