Books on the history of D&D

Books on the history of D&D

I just recently finished reading, for the second time, David M. Ewalt's book Of Dice and Men, which interposes his personal history as a D&D player with a (very brief) history of the game itself.  It's an engaging, fast read, and it covers a topic that I find deeply fascinating.  When I first read the book, probably around five years ago, I didn't really know much about Gygax and Arneson and the game's early years--my interest was primarily coming from the place of being a player of the game.  But Ewalt's book piqued my interest in the story of Dungeon's and Dragons, and Gygax and TSR, and it's a really fascinating story in itself, even for people who haven't ever played D&D or rolled a d20.  The story of Gygax, the game he helped create, and the company he built on the back of that game, is a classic Rags to Riches (and then back to Rags) type of story, and after reading Of Dice and Men I went on to read several other books on the subject.  I figured I'd use this blog post to briefly summarize some of those books.

cover of Of Dice and Men by David M Ewalt

Book: Of Dice and Men

Author: David M. Ewalt

Readability: High

Informative content: medium-low

Notable for being written before the release of 5E and the mass popularity that edition accomplished, Of Dice and Men was written when D&D was still relatively a niche hobby.  Because of that, Ewalt spends a fair amount of time dealing with the social stigma and shame he feels as a D&D player.  It's something I can relate to myself (I wrote about it in my piece Behold the Dungeon Master, published in the second issue of the zine Map of Fog, back in 2011), but D&D is so ubiquitous nowadays that it seems like a lot of the shame has mostly of evaporated.  Ewalt's book gets into the early days of D&D--it's evolution out of the War Game scene that both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were involved in, and its inspiration from a roleplaying game set in the Napoleonic Wars (called Braunstein, and created by Arneson's gaming friend Dave Wesely).  And this is the part of the story that really sparks my interest: Gygax, who'd never had much of a career up to that point (he'd recently been forced out of a several year stint in insurance), saw potential in Arneson's creation (a fantasy roleplaying game called Blackmoor, which used some of the wargaming rules Gygax had written in his game Chainmail) as a game and a product.  He developed Arneson's notes into a more fleshed out game (though still not-nearly as fully developed as D&D became later), created a company to publish it, and in just a few years that company exploded into a multi-million dollar business.  From being a mostly unemployed college dropout to a millionaire in just a few years--it's a wild ride to read about.

 cover of Rise of the Dungeon Master, a graphic novel by David Kushner and Koren Shadmi

Book: Rise of the Dungeon Master

Authors: David Kushner and Koren Shadmi

Readability: High

Informative Content: medium-low

This book is a graphic novel--if it wasn't for the art, the length of the text itself would probably only be enough for an article, not a full book.  It does manage to fill in a bit more about Gygax and the story of what happened in his life after he was forced out of TSR and lost control of the game he'd been largely responsible for creating.  It's also notable for showing a bit of the abrasive parts of his personality--a lot of what's written about Gary Gygax comes from such a geek fandom perspective that it glosses over any of the man's rougher edges.  The split between Arneson and Gygax is dramatic enough that it makes for compelling reading, and it's easy to end up taking sides and feeling empathetic for one man over the other.  After reading Of Dice and Men I was more oriented to picking the Gygax side--Ewalt's book can leave you with the feeling that Arneson didn't provide much beyond initial inspiration, and that thereafter his main involvement with D&D was a series of lawsuits against the company Gygax created.  But Rise of the Dungeon Master helped alleviate that developing bias, giving me more perspective on the personalities of both men, reminding me that they were regular humans, with their own good points and bad points, instead of larger than life demi-gods with immaculate behavior.

cover of Empire of the Imagination by Michael Witwer

Book: Empire of the Imagination

Author: Michael Witwer

Readability: medium-low

Informative Content: High

Speaking of geek fandom deification, this book serves as a pretty good example.  The writing is pretty clunky, Journalism-101 type of stuff; Witwer doesn't have much of a way with words.  And the book pretty much puts Gygax up on a pedestal.  Still it's a very informative account of the early days of TSR, and of what happened to Gygax afterwards.  Plus you've got to give it some credit for having such a cool cover, paying homage to the classic tome Unearthed Arcana.

 cover of Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs

Book: Slaying the Dragon

Author: Ben Riggs

Readability: High

Informative Content: High

The previous books on this list primarily focus on the early days of D&D--Gygax drafting the game and creating TSR and seeing tremendous commercial success, only to make tremendous mistakes and end up forced out of the company a few years later.  This book covers what happened next, after Lorraine Williams (who Gygax brought in) takes over and forces Gygax out.  What's ironic is how similar the arc of this second part of the game's history is to the first arc: incredible creativity and popularity coupled with incredibly bad business-decisions, ending with the company being on the verge of collapse and getting taken over by someone new (this time it's Peter Adkison with Wizards of the Coast).  Of all the books mentioned in this blog post, this is probably the best read.  Riggs is a good writer and Slaying the Dragon is interesting, page-turning read.  There's rumor that Riggs will be doing a follow up, to cover the years after WotC took over D&D (and was in turn, just a few years later, bought by Hasbro), and if he writes that book I look forward to reading it.

The several other books covering the D&D history too, and some of the ones I'd most like to read are: Designers and Dragons by Shannon Applecline and Playing at the World by Jon Peterson.  Maybe I'll do a second part to this post if I find the time to read those books.

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