NPR Story
10:41 am
Sun August 18, 2013

An Adventurer Returns To The Dungeon In 'Dice And Men'

Originally published on Sun August 18, 2013 3:07 pm

Author David Ewalt was in the fourth grade when he got hooked on Dungeons & Dragons.

"I was at one of my friends' houses on a weekend after school. And he broke out this weird game," Ewalt tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "[He] said 'hey, do you guys want to fight some monsters and explore a dungeon?'"

Now a grown man, Ewalt still can't help but spread the good word about the game. He's written a new book about it, called Of Dice and Men.

In it, he explains how and why Dungeons & Dragons grew so quickly, from its 1970s origins as a nerdy pastime to its current status as a worldwide phenomenon.

And as in any D&D campaign, it's best to start with the basics. "Dungeons & Dragons is not a game that you necessarily win, or that even has an endpoint," Ewalt says. "What you're trying to do is grow your character over time, become more powerful, and tell a story."


Interview Highlights

On keeping his childhood character-building sheets

"Well, one of the unique things about the game is that you do create a character for yourself. And because there are rules mediating who you are, you can't just say, oh, I'm the Lone Ranger or I'm Frodo Baggins. You roll some dice, you pick out skills, you sort of describe what your character can and cannot do. And you sort of live or die with its successes and failures. So you start to identify with the character very strongly.

"And the only physical artifact of that character is this piece of paper that says how strong they are, how fast they are. You know, I started to really fetishize those pieces of paper! This paper is important, this is my friend, this is my hero! Decades later, I have all of those characters that I've played when I was a kid, because I can't throw those out, those are my friends!"

On his non-playing wife, and non-players in general

"When I started working on this book project, and I told her, hey, I'm going to start playing Dungeons & Dragons again, she was supportive, but she really didn't understand what the game was, and there's a lot of people who really don't understand D & D, and some people who even think that it's something deviant or something dangerous."

On the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons

"The game is really hugely influential. In the game world, a lot of concepts — things like having a character that persists over time, that becomes stronger, that was really an innovation that Dungeons & Dragons brought in. Beyond that, the game also had a huge impact on the business world. I started covering the games business for Forbes magazine, and I would talk to executives in the game business, and I would talk to game designers, and I would say to them, what made you want to create games for a living? And the vast majority of the people would say to me, oh, you know, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. So Dungeons & Dragons really kind of gave birth to the entire modern video game industry."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, from one man obsessed with sports to another man obsessed with a very different kind of game.

DAVID EWALT: I was in fourth grade and I was at one of my friend's house. This was on a weekend after school, and he broke out this weird game and said, hey, do you guys want to fight some monsters and explore a dungeon?

MARTIN: And that was it. David Ewalt got hooked on the fantasy role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons." Now, as an adult, Ewalt still plays "D and D" - as it's known - and he can't help but spread the good word about the game. He's written a new book. It's called "Of Dice and Men." And in it, David Ewalt explains how and why "Dungeons and Dragons" grew so quickly in the 1970s, from a nerdy pastime to a worldwide phenomenon. And when we spoke, we started with the basics for the "D and D" uninitiated - like myself.

So I will admit that I don't know a whole lot about "Dungeons and Dragons." Can you lay out the basic premise of the game? What is the goal?

EWALT: Well, this is where it gets tricky, is that "Dungeons and Dragons" is not a game that you necessarily win or that even has an endpoint. So it's not like "Monopoly" where you're trying to bankrupt the other players, or "Scrabble," where you're trying to get the most points. What you're trying to do is grow your character over time, become more powerful and tell a story.

MARTIN: So you write in the book about how when you were younger, you kept your character worksheet; these pieces of paper where you work out your character's backstory, that you actually kept these things?

EWALT: Well, one of the unique things about the game is that you do create a character for yourself. And because there are rules mediating who you are, you can't just say, oh, I'm the Lone Ranger or I'm Frodo Baggins. You roll some dice, you pick out skills, you sort of describe what your character can and cannot do. And you sort of live or die with its successes or failures. So you start to identify with the character very strongly.

And the only physical artifact of that character is this piece of paper that says how strong they are, how fast they are. You know, I started to really fetishize(ph) those pieces of paper. This paper's important. This is my friend, this is my hero. Decades later I have all of those characters that I played when I was a kid because I can't throw those out. Those are my friends.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about one of your more memorable characters, someone who really stands out to you?

EWALT: Well, the character that I've actually been playing for the last few years - when I started thinking about this book, I returned to the game after decades of not playing it. I created a character called West Lock(ph) who is a cleric. Their role in the game is to help other players, so you cast healing magic, you know. If your fighter gets injured, the cleric will cast a spell to make him feel better.

MARTIN: That sounds like a great power.

EWALT: It is. It's. you know, one of the things that's so great about this game is that it's cooperative. I'm helping heal our fighter, heal our wizard. They're defending me from attacks and we all have the same goal in mind.

MARTIN: And you're married, right?

EWALT: I am.

MARTIN: And does your wife play "D and D" or is this something that's just for you?

EWALT: No, she doesn't and when I started working on this book project and I told her, hey, I'm going to start playing "Dungeons and Dragons" again, she was supportive but she really didn't understand what the game was. And there's a lot of people who really don't understand "D and D," and some people even think that it's something deviant or something dangerous.

MARTIN: Was there a stigma to playing "D and D" when you were growing up?

EWALT: There was. I started playing in the 1980s, and what happened was this game came out in 1974 and by the early 1980s it had exploded in popularity. But parents didn't know what to make of it. They saw these books with pictures of monsters and demons on them, they saw kids rolling these weird eight and 12 and 20-sided die. The game got attached to some of the panic in the 1980s over Satanism and devil worship.

MARTIN: So here we are, 2013. Where do we see its legacy now in our culture or in other games?

EWALT: The game is really hugely influential. In the game world, a lot of concepts, things like having a character that persists over time, that becomes stronger, that was really an innovation that "Dungeons and Dragons" brought in. Beyond that, the game also had a huge impact on the business world. I started covering the games business for Forbes magazine and I would talk to executives in the game business or talk to game designers and I would say to them, what made you want to create games for a living? And the vast majority of the people would say to me, oh, you know, I played a lot of "Dungeons and Dragons" when I was a kid. So "Dungeons and Dragons" really kind of gave birth to the entire modern video came industry, which is now almost a $70 billion global industry.

MARTIN: And I wonder how, now that you're an adult, do you look at the game differently?

EWALT: I do. When I was a kid, my play style was more what role-playing gamers describe as hack and slash. You know, kids want to run into a dungeon, they want to kill all the bad guys, they want to collect all the treasure. And now that I'm older...

MARTIN: Sounds reasonable.

(LAUGHTER)

EWALT: There's definitely a thrill to that, to be sure. But now that I'm older, what interested me more in the game is sort of the role-playing aspect. I enjoy the problem solving more and the social aspect, really, it matters a lot more to me too is that, you know, it's a chance, after work, to get five of my friends in a room together and sit around a table, and that's one of the most positive things about it for me.

It's not as much about getting a more powerful character. It's about, boy, I like that I'm able to sit down with my friends at a table once a week.

MARTIN: David Ewalt. His new book is called "Of Dice and Men." He spoke with us from WFYI in Indianapolis. Thanks so much, David.

EWALT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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