Friday, August 23, 2013

On the New Cultural History of Dungeons and Dragons, and the Warner Books Editor I Knew Who, Like Me, Found His Dream Job in Wisconsin at TSR..

Another Warner Books memory resurfaces. When you start a new job, everyone who has been there a day longer than you seems like they've been there forever. Everyone who starts the day after you or later is a newbie. A number of folks I worked with who were starting out around the time I did went on to be publishing bigwigs.

But today I am reminded of one of my old colleagues. Brian seemed to assist one of our romance editors, but his focus was clearly that of fantasy and science fiction. Our go-to author at Warner seemed to be Alan Dean Foster, who seemingly appeared on the list every other month, but Thomsen's knowledge went well beyond our list. I was a novice sf reader who'd read the basics but then found my interest drifted. I was good at math and science but something was missing. I didn't have what it took to be a geek? Was it cowardice? A lack of technical ability?

But I would say it was the complete and utter absence of Dungeons and Dragons in my teenage years? How can it be that I was never invited to even participate? I skipped lunch so I could volunteer in the science lab. For goodness sake, I was co-captain of our high school math team and I had the polyester jacket to prove it. We raised the money for these jackets by selling bagels, by the way. I asked around the office and seemingly half of my contemporaries at the bookstore were involved in long-running Dungeons and Dragons games. I met someone who told me they delivered pizzas to Gary Gygax and to this day, wore this detail as a badge of honor.

Needless to say, I ran into Brian several years after moving to Wisconsin on a Midwest Express flight. The only nice thing about Frontier eating the airline and then pooping it out is that we can call it by its proper name, instead of that less mellifluous Midwest Airlines, as once they changed it, you could no longer hear "the best care in the air, the best, Midwest Express." Brian had moved to the mother ship, TSR, where he was an editor (!) We each asked if the other had ever got one of the coveted lobster flights, moaned about the colder winters and the need to drive. I didn't actually get my license until three years after I moved to Milwaukee, but I don't think you really could navigate Lake Geneva carless. We wished each other well. And then the memory ends.*

Why does this memory stick with me so strongly when I can't remember folks who insist I was close friends with them in college? The brain is a strange place. But I think it's that weird experience of bridging two phases of my life, running into one of my Warner associates in Milwaukee, much like when I ran into one of my authors on the Pfister Hotel elevator several years after I moved here.He'd divorced his wife and became an eastern-ish mystic, while she remarried and started an excercise program with her hunky new husband. But I digress.

Back to Lake Geneva. It's the town It was the center of the geek universe for a moment in time. And it's all recaptured in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, the new book written by Forbes senior editor David Ewalt, where his specialty is technology and internet culture (I just learned that he's clearly a geek and not a nerd. It's all on this website).I wound up reading this book after hosting back to back events with Nathan Rabin and Chuck Klosterman. Having read and enjoyed both books, and realizing that they were edited by the same fellow, Brant Rumble, I wound up with the question that every editor (and agent, and publicist) wants to hear: "What else have ya got?" This was his answer.

Ewalt's book is part cultural history of Dungeons and Dragons, and part personal journey through his own experiences in role playing games. With its origins in military simulation games, creators David Arneson and Gary Gygax were influenced by epic fantasy to create something different, a story that didn’t have to follow history. It exploded in the 1980s, and for a while, was considered to be the gateway drug to Satanism (just after heavy metal and before video games). Ewalt traces the rise and fall of TSR, and its current standing in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, itself a division of Hasbro, on the cusp of releasing an open-ended version five that tried to write the wrongs of the overly regimented version four.

While this is going on, Ewalt and his friends play a game of Vampire World, a post-apocalyptic version of the game. That’s one of the big things I learned in Of Dice and Men; it ain’t all medieval castles in these worlds. There’s a detour into live-action roleplaying, and a visit to several gaming conferences and Wizards headquarters, but I was sort of surprised that the journey did not included a visit to GenCon, a long-time Milwaukee tradition; we’ll ignore the fact that they decamped to Indianapolis some years ago.

Though Ewalt keeps personal details to a minimum, we know that he was an avid player who left the game behind in college, for the equally nerdy subculture of progressive college journalism. He returned to the game, for one more go-around, but as he got more and more immersed in the game, another question arose: could Ewalt someday be a DM (Dungeon Master?)

The trick in these journalism-memoir hybrids is that many authors get so immersed in their own story that they forget that readers actually came to the story for the journalistic meat, the subculture world the author is exploring. In this case, I would say that I could have used slightly more personal details; Ewalt remains an enigma. His girlfriend, his family, his non D friends, and his Forbes colleagues never really weigh in on Ewalt and his Dungeons and Dragon pursuits. I almost feel like I had a better handle on his alter ego, Westlocke the cleric, but was that an insight into Ewalt’s own character an idealized version of himself? Hard to say.

On the other hand, for many readers, they'd probably prefer the avatar to the writer. I can also think of many a memoir hybrid that was brought down by too much personal info, like the unnamed waitress memoir that started off delicious and veered off the map when she started dating one of the icky bartenders.
I still can't figure out why the whole thing passed me by. The game started getting traction in the 1970s when I was in high school, and certainly should have been an option by my college years. Why didn't my roommate play, who would pick up The Lord of the Rings and start reading from a seemingly random place when he was nervous? Why didn't the radio station techies I hung out with invite me for a game? I mentioned I was a math major in college, right?

I guess I'll never know. But now that I've read Of Dice and Men, I feel like I caught up on what I missed.

*Like TSR, Brian passed away in 2008, but he like the gaming company, he lives on in a lot of memories.

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