Of Dice and Men is the definitive book on Dungeons & Dragons and its rise to cultural prominence, interlaced with engaging forays into the colorful world of the author’s fellow obsessives — from Forbes Senior Editor and gaming and technology expert David Ewalt. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, ”Grognards,” in which David travels to a D&D convention, just outside of Philadelphia, to connect with other gamers.
I knew that if I truly wanted to understand Dungeons & Dragons, I had to first understand the games that gave birth to it. But I couldn’t just go to a toy store and buy a hundred-year-old war game: today, games like Little Wars and Kriegsspiel are decidedly out of style.* They’ve been replaced as entertainment by war-themed video games and supplanted in education by incredibly complex simulations. Militaries around the world still use war games for training, but these exercises are usually either computerized or playacted. The U.S. Army employs game designers in the Simulations Division at its Command and General Staff College; their events look like highly moderated role-playing games, a cross between D&D, fantasy football, and high school Model UN.
*But not extinct: Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was a Kriegsspiel fan; in the early days of the company, he’d play games with engineer Daniel Kottke, sometimes while they were both tripping on LSD.
But dedicated war gamers soldier on. The Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, a nonprofit foundation created to promote the hobby, has more than two thousand members worldwide and hosts a yearly convention—four days of seminars, socializing, and lots and lots of games. Since I had never actually played a war game, I decided to check the con out—these games are too important to ignore. (In other words: Fear not, ranger. We’ll get back to D&D in two shakes of a lamia’s tail.)**
**“This creature seems to be a cross between a stunningly attractive human and a sleek lion. It looks human from the waist up, with the body of a lion below that.” Monster Manual, page 165.
Historicon was held over the second weekend in July at the Valley Forge Convention Plaza in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, an edge city about twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. The town is best known for its massive mall, the largest in the United States. It’s also home to Valley Forge National Historical Park, where George Washington and the Continental Army famously made camp during the American Revolution. But the mall gets way more visitors.
It’s easy to find the convention center, an unappealing 1970s concrete bunker connected to dusty and dated hotels at either end; the whole complex rises out of a sea of parking lots like a crashed alien spacecraft. Three thousand attendees walked through the doors that weekend to grab spots at over six hundred games. I got there early on Friday to procure one of twelve tickets for “Napoleon’s Battles Boot Camp,” a hypothetical skirmish between French and Prussian armies, intended for novice players. With time to kill, I wandered the halls.
There are certain characteristics common to all game conventions, whether they’re dedicated to historical minis, role-playing, video games, or board games like chess and Scrabble. The first is gender imbalance. Maybe men are more attracted to competitive games or more likely to obsess about their hobbies; either way, they always constitute a majority of attendees. The second is age imbalance. Convention-goers are more likely to sport gray hair than tattoos and ear gauges, probably because of the high cost of attending. Finally, there’s racial imbalance. Chalk it up to social differences or economic ones, but crowds inside a game convention are always whiter than the population outside, even in cities like New York and San Francisco. In other words: The typical game convention attendee is a middle-aged white guy. This will come as a shock to few, but it’s worth noting. Appropriately, war gamers refer to themselves as “grognards”—a French term for “old soldiers.” The literal translation, “grumbler,” was first applied to Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard, veterans so respected they could freely complain about orders and even groan to the emperor himself.
Of Dice and Men was recently published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. For more information on the book, click here.
David Ewalt is an award-winning journalist, a widely-recognized tech guru, and a level fifteen cleric. As a Senior Editor at Forbes, he covers a wide range of topics ranging from technology and online culture to beer and wine. As a tech guru who can communicate clearly, Ewalt has appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNBC’s Closing Bell, NPR’s All Things Considered, and various programs on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He is a regular contributor to G4TV’s Attack of the Show, an internationally broadcast daily program dedicated to gaming, gadgets, and pop culture. Ewalt spent nearly every Friday and Saturday night of his teenage years engrossed in various role-playing games. Despite that fact, he eventually married and lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, please visit: www.davidmewalt.com
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