When a sizzling meat monster assaults your pals, chucking kaleidoscopic gobs of acidic liquids at Krong the fighting man and Grue the dwarf and yes, even Neville the Pleasant—the nerve to go after Neville the Pleasant, a mild-mannered man of the cloth, my gods—and when that tasty Frankenberry blue potion has imbued you with super strength, you don’t waffle or waver or wonder re: repercussions, you don’t stop to plot, you don’t hesitate. What you do is: you rip that fucking fountain out of the ground, and you swing it like Miguel Cabrera at that sizzling meat monster’s melty face, and you pray you make contact.
You roll the dice.
David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It is a quick read, an unholy memoir/history book hybrid, a must for anyone interested in Dungeons & Dragons’ origin story, its co-creators (Gary Gygax and eventual rival Dave Arneson), the game’s heyday (it used to be cool! Honest!) and ensuing controversies (this Tom Hanks after-school special about the dangers of D&D is not to be missed), and its profound influence on not just the role-playing games (RPGs) it birthed but the modern video game industry (“The idea that you have a character that has resources, moves around, encounters obstacles, and develops over time—all that came from D&D”). The most affecting sections, though, cover not the game’s history or its broader impact but Ewalt’s personal relationship to it and the people with whom he’s played.
At Of Dice and Men’s launch party in Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore on August 23, Ewalt read a passage from the first chapter that touches on what D&D and its offspring meant to him as an adolescent:
In high school we spent hundreds of hours playing Shadowrun, a futuristic game that brilliantly combined sci-fi with classic D&D elements… My favorite character was a wizard who could shoot a gun with one hand and cast fireballs with the other. I sat in a friend’s basement and played that character on almost every Saturday night of my high school senior year.
At “a friend’s basement,” Ewalt gestured to Mike Bagnulo, a stout, tattooed man at the back of the room whose wife Jessica co-owns Greenlight with Rebecca Fitting. Ewalt also gave a shout-out to his current group of D&Ders, who play a recurring role (har) in the book and with whom he’s been campaigning (think a weekly poker night but cheaper and geekier) for several years now. This is the thing about D&D: It’s not really about exploring dungeons and battling dragons. Bigger picture, the game is more like those sweet calm-before-the-story moments when your party is tossing back ales at the tavern, eyes and ears peeled for adventure.
That first chapter is titled “You’re All at a Tavern,” because that is how countless quests begin.
The next day, we’re all at a tavern. A couple dozen shameless nerds—including myself, Ewalt, and authors Austin Grossman, Lev Grossman, and Victor LaValle, who told Ewalt that his “ten-year-old self would kick [his] ass” if he didn’t play—have converged upon Crown Heights haunt The Way Station (whose bathroom is, what else, a TARDIS) for an afternoon of old school, first edition, turbo-paced D&D.
Unlike the launch party at Greenlight—and contrary to Ewalt’s assertion (or at least, implication) in Of Dice and Men that more women are picking up the dice nowadays—dudes dominate this all-star, quasi-secret affair. (The game’s details have been divulged only to those who bought the book from Greenlight.) Of the two-dozen players, only two or three are female. And only one—a roundish black man in thick square glasses, a green velvet robe, leather pouches, and a satchel—plays in costume. (Though they’re both forms of role-playing, D&D differs significantly from LARPing in that [among other things] all the action’s in your head. Miniatures aren’t even required, let alone costumes, not that there’s anything wrong with looking the part.) On one table sit a mondo bowl of cheese puffs and a mondo bowl of Doritos: fat fraternal twins, childhood classics, nostalgic Agents Orange.
When I arrive around two pm, the Grossman brothers, LaValle, and three others are fighting for their lives in one chamber of The Tower of Gygax, a multidimensional monolith named for D&D’s more famous co-creator, who passed away in 2008. I order a Lagunitas Lucky 13, introduce myself to Ewalt (with whom I’ve exchanged a couple emails), and take a number (14). The way this works is: six people play at a time, their strings pulled and inevitably snipped by a professional Dungeon Master (pro DMs: they’re real, and they’re spectacular) named Tavis Allison. When a character dies (which will happen early and often, thanks to the bearded, Apatowian Tavis) a new character/player steps in to replace them.
“Little less dungeon, little more dragon!” someone shouts from the peanut gallery.
Tavis ignores him. “There’s one orc left,” he says to one of the Grossmans. (It will take me an hour to figure out which Grossman is which.) “He looks terrified.”
“Hmm,” a Grossman says. “Who’s more terrified—him or me?”
Moments later, a magic tile on the floor of the chamber flips over, and a Wave of Death rolls through the room, wiping everyone out.
Ewalt hands me his number, twelve. “You’ve just been promoted,” he says.
I sit down to play D&D for the first time in almost twenty years.
So, okay, yeah, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons. From ’92-’94, with my three older siblings, until they reached high school and realized their gargantuan frames might be better suited dominating sundry sports across all seasons (basketball, football, soccer, crew) and chasing chicks than holed up in our basement playing half-elf.
Before he became a star basketball player (“The Caucasian Sensation,” they called him—seriously), my eldest brother Chris was the DM for every campaign we ever ran. Chris is one of the only people I know blessed with a mind equal parts technical and creative: he double-majored at William & Mary in English and computer science and now works for ESPN.com’s fantasy division, which allows him to exercise both halves of his brain on a regular/ridiculously fun basis. (Do I hate him for this? You bet.) In other words: you couldn’t design a finer DM in a lab.
For at least a few years after Chris’s campaigns ended I continued to buy expansion books and generate characters—gravitating towards halfling rogues and rangers: small stealthy types nothing like myself—just in case I stumbled across a game or my siblings relapsed, I told myself. I was especially drawn to kender, an irrepressible, top-knotted breed of halfling from the Dragonlance universe whose books, along with Lord of the Rings, Redwall, et. al. (not to mention video games like Final Fantasy, Shining Force, Myst, and Celtic Tales: Balor of the Evil Eye) I gobbled up like Shark Bites. My AOL screen name all through high school: Kender13. Needless to say, I didn’t shed my Cloak of Virginity until college.
Ewalt, on the other hand, played D&D through his senior year of high school, only bailing when he reached college and became “conflicted about my identity as a role-playing geek. Sure, the games were awesome, but I worried about ghettoizing myself in a world of dice and fantasy.” Ten years later, an award-winning journalist and editor at Forbes, he told himself that picking up the ole dice pouch would “make a good story… I hoped to justify the lost hours of my youth by approaching the game as a journalist and reporting on the phenomenon with the advantage of insider experience.” You don’t have to be a Diviner to guess what happened from there: the journalist became one of his subjects, the article a book, as if victims of a friendly transmutation spell.
And, sure enough, fifteen minutes into the Tower of Gygax adventure, I find my focus all dice, no pen, the marble notebook on my knee forgotten. I have to remind myself all afternoon to temper my enthusiasm, extract myself from the game and take notes on it. Like Ewalt, I’m morphing into the very (geeky) subject on which I’m supposed to be reporting, getting lost in the fantasy. Ewalt says later, “That was the biggest problem I had writing the book.” There’s a reason twenty million people have played D&D, a reason I kept developing reams and reams of characters (yes, complete with cartoonish pencil drawings) long after our family campaign had faded out of existence.
I hate to break this to Ewalt—under whose name is written “(Level-Fifteen Cleric)” on Of Dice and Men’s cover—but I’ve never cared for clerics. I’m not a spiritual or celibate (by choice, anyway) person, and if I’m going to play as a magic-user, it’s gonna be somebody who launches magic missiles and fireballs, not light rays and cure-alls. The only upside to being a cleric, as far as I’m concerned, is swinging a mace into the faces of myriad beasts, bandits, and nonbelievers.
So it’s with some disappointment that I’m playing as a pre-generated Level 2 cleric whom I’ve named, for reasons unknown even to myself, Dwight. Dwight is an opportunistic (lapsed?) priest who doesn’t hesitate to riffle through a pile of corpses for rope and oil. Alas, these bodies have since turned animate/violent. Through one door: an encroaching Wall of Slime. Through another: a pack of presumably angry orcs (stereotypes exist for a reason, guys). The third: a hulking, truck-sized snake filling a corridor.
A fighting man named Strabor, brash and true to his class, decides to fire an arrow at the snake which glances off scale, rattling the monster. The snake hocks a mouthful of venom at Strabor, killing him instantly. “Congratulations,” Tavis says, smiling, “that’s the shortest lifespan of anyone today.” Strabor takes a bow as he rises from the table, we all applaud, and a boisterous dwarf named Oglaf the Gruff sings a song of tribute to him (the first of many; dude should’ve been a bard).
It’s nowhere near the level of LARPing, but there is a theatricality to Dungeons & Dragons: some players mime or half-perform their actions, some speak in voices and/or accents befitting their characters, some stay in character with the conviction of Daniel Day-Lewis on set. At least until their guy flatlines; then it’s a wistful sigh and, “Anybody need a beer?”
Speaking of which: Oglaf the Gruff has just retriggered the magic tile. Another Wave of Death rolls through the room, wiping everyone out—except Dwight, who ducks out of the chamber at the last second, the first and lone survivor of the Wave of Death.
The rest of my party cut down, five new players replace them: the Grossmans, LaValle, The Man in the Velvet Robe, and “Neville the Pleasant,” a thin, bespectacled cleric to my left who, spoiler alert, will outlive us all. In the Additional Notes section of his character sheet, Neville (I don’t recall his real name) writes things like Very fastidious and Polite.
Lev Grossman says he’s a magic-user named Harry Potter: “No relation.”
“He hates when people ask about his name,” I say, thinking of Michael Bolton (David Herman) in Office Space.
“He’s just very hirsute,” Neville says.
Austin Grossman plays a fighting man named Krong; LaValle, a dwarf named Grue. Lev/Harry proves his mettle straight out of the gate, catching the snake in something of a food coma and putting it all the way to sleep (to think, we had cracked wise about Harry’s meager two spells, Sleep and Shield), after which each of our six companions takes a stab or whack at the snake’s head, just barely finishing it off and crawling over its fresh corpse to find, what’s this, a secret door.
I recently watched the Freaks and Geeks series finale “Discos and Dragons,” in which affable denim-clad fuck-up Daniel Desario (James Franco) is forced to enlist in the high school A-V Club, where he befriends a group of geeks and joins their D&D game, playing a dwarf named Carlos. Turns out Desario—whose hobbies generally don’t extend beyond smoking pot, making out with girls, and playing guitar—can’t get enough of the game. As Desario trots into the kitchen to fetch the geeks some sodas, Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) asks: “Does this mean we’re cool… or that he’s a geek?”
When Victor LaValle’s Grue is cut to pieces by a magic sword that (apparently!) can only be wielded by a lawful fighter, and when Lev Grossman’s Harry is slain under similar circumstances, and when Austin Grossman and I talk video games, I wonder: Does this mean I’m cool… or that these guys are geeks?
It doesn’t matter. At this point Dwight the cleric has outlived everyone who’s sat at the table (Lucky 13 indeed), and Evan the gamer is having the time of his life. That secret door opened to a room with four fountains (blue, green, orange, and red) trickling into a pool which, upon disturbance, gave rise to a sizzling meat monster from the green portion. After watching more of my companions (Grue, Harry, et. al.) go down, hearing Neville the Pleasant’s pleas for aide, and realizing that I’ve been playing what’s supposed to be a lightning-round version of D&D for at least ninety minutes (it feels like ten), I decide the situation calls for a little boldness.
“I want to drink from the blue fountain,” I say.
“Well, you’re dead,” someone says.
(The blue fountain is Frankenberry-flavored courtesy of LaValle, now the most vocal member of the peanut gallery, having also flavored the red fountain tomato-and-basil, the green seaweed, and the orange biscotti. Meanwhile, Austin Grossman has left The Way Station but remains in spirit, tweeting for us to “teach those fountains a lesson for me.”)
Tavis—who is an unflappable improviser, by the way, hasn’t missed a beat all day—consults his notes (maybe just for show?) and says the Frankenberry potion has given me super strength. Well that’s more like it! At Neville’s behest, I yank the fountain out of the ground and swing it at the sizzling meat monster. To see if I’ve made contact, I roll a twenty-sided die and come up with an eight. Sometimes you want low rolls—this isn’t one of those times.
I’ve whiffed, giving the meat monster an opening. It tosses a big glob of gods-know-what at Dwight, and I roll again to see if I’m hit, or maybe how hard.
“Ugh, another fucking eight,” I grouse.
“Any last words?” Tavis asks.
“Drink the blue potion, guys,” I say.
Here is a confession (the kind of thing to which Dwight might lend an ear): I’ve been itching to get back into D&D for about five years, and since moving to New York in March I’ve joined a local Dungeons & Dragons Meetup group and come this close to attending several sessions. Before I even heard about the all-star Way Station adventure, I’d hoped to set up a celebrity game with Ewalt and localish D&D enthusiasts like Sam Lipsyte (who told me in March that playing D&D and writing fiction “come from a similar urge”), Chuck Klosterman (who blurbed Ewalt’s book), maybe even John Hodgman or Stephen Colbert (giving new meaning to the term fantasy). Like Ewalt when he decided to pick the dice back up because it would “make a good story,” I’ve been quietly dying for an excuse to play.
So I have to pick Tavis’s brain. Tavis says he can’t recommend the Meetup games; they’re often comprised of people who have been booted from other groups for one reason or another. He gives me his email address and a couple recommendations (Red Box, NerdNYC) and I write them down because, holy shit, he’s been a professional DM since he was twelve, when a neighbor paid him five dollars to run a game for her son and the other neighborhood kids. Tavis has two other jobs, at least one of which also falls in the realm of storytelling: he writes hospital grants and RPGs. He says he runs after school D&D games at his kids’ school (Tavis, like Ewalt and The Man in the Velvet Robe and many if not most of the other nerds in attendance, is married). He says being a professional DM pays well per hour, but there aren’t a lot of hours to be had. Sometimes he does bachelor parties, which, oh my god, being completely honest here, is something I would consider.
The question is no longer if I’ll return to Dungeons & Dragons, but how soon and with whom. It sounds strange, and maybe it’s just because prior to The Way Station I’d only rolled with family, but there’s something intimate about D&D. You see these people every week, fight and die for (fantastic incarnations of) each other, and they get to know not just you but who you’d like to be. As a tall gawky kid, I pined to be a little ninja—ergo all the halfling rogues.
The last thing I do before departing The Way Station—and I promise, this essay’s almost over—is ask Ewalt to inscribe my copy of Of Dice and Men for my brother, whose birthday is coming up. (Surprise, Chris!) It’s not the most eloquent thing I’ve ever scripted, but it’s on the fly and I’m half-drunk from roleplay and half from ale, and I’m no Tavis Allison. Ewalt writes: Happy birthday to the best DM a brother could ask for.
I think, for my own birthday, I might have Chris meet me at a tavern.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.