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    >My new video "A HARD DAY'S KNIGHT," in which I don chain mail to find glory, donuts and spare change for my quest. BIGGER SCREEN ON YOU TUBE

    CLASSIC BOOK trailer! [bigger screen on YouTube]

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    Entries in d&d (42)


    Hire me!

    Ethan reads, makes world safe for geeks. Sometimes he wears these grampy pants.

    I love to give talks and readings, slide presentations, moderate panels, teach creative writing and role-playing games, and inspire people to geek out.

    I've appeared at conventions like Pax East, Gen Con and DragonCon; read at book festivals in Atlanta, Brooklyn and Boston; spoken at universities like MIT, Notre Dame, Bryn Mawr and LSU; and appeared at dozens of bookstores, book groups, high schools, libraries, and other venues.

    I've fought (badly) with foam swords in public. I'm not afraid to wear my chainmail and tunic. I've taught 25 newbies how to play Dungeons & Dragons in one evening.

    If your bookstore, library, book group, writer's festival, college/university, high school, club, game shop, convention, bar, cafe, mother, etc. would like to book me to give a talk, slide-lecture, organize a discussion, teaching a writing class, or have moderate a panel or Q&A, let me know.

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    The Original D&D Gets a New Deluxe Edition

    Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the company that owns the D&D brand, has embarked on a new campaign in the past year to recapture older gamers whose magic-users and paladins slayed many an orc and beholder and pillaged many a graph-paper-charted land. All year longWotC has been reprinting new editions of ancient tomes from the heyday of tabletop role-playing games. On November 19, the granddaddy of them all arrives: a deluxe edition of The White Box, the original D&D set (aka OD&D) first published by Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, Inc, back in 1974. (In a exclusive, a new photo of the final product prototype is pictured here.)

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    How D&D changed my life and the life of Brian "Clerks" O'Halloran

    I had a great time at the Boston Festival of Indie Games, geeking out and waxing nostalgic with Brian "Clerks" O'Halloran about how D&D changed (and warped) our lives and saved our asses. Thanks Brian and thanks BostonFIG.

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    Announcing, Dungeons & Dorkwads!

    What is a dork-off, you ask? Noble and Ethan, we are not-so-youthful dorks, with an unhealthy attachment to the role-playing games of our glory years — D&D especially — and assorted fantasy, science fictional and pop cultural artifacts. Here at Dungeons & Dorkwads, we exhume and celebrate these lost relics, be they worn dice, faded hand-drawn maps, broken lead figurines, beat-up Tolkien boxed sets or Hoth or Happy Days dioramas. (We’d like to see one that combines both universes.) Then, we geek out about them.

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    I'm on PBS's "Off Book" to discuss D&D

    I was asked to appear in this PBS Off Book program and jabber about the importance of D&D. Sure, I can do that.

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    Dungeons & Dragons Is Evil Again

    Save vs. disbelief. Pat Robertson, former Southern Baptist minister, Chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and erstwhile presidential candidate, had this to say last week about the latest blight on America: Dungeons & Dragons: The game is "demonic.” “Stay away from it,” is his advice, in 2013.Wait — Dungeons & Dragons? Yes, D&D is back. And it’s more evil than before. This would be amusing, if it wasn’t so scary.

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    Exploring the origins of D&D for Wisconsin Public Radio

    Dungeons and Dragons is the single most famous roleplaying game in the world. Writer Ethan Gilsdorf didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, but his love of D&D led him to fantasize about visiting the game’s hometown: Lake Geneva, hometown to Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. In this cool radio piece, Ethan explores the origins of D&D for Wisconsin Public Radio

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    Mitt Romney as a D&D Character? 

    Now that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is wailing on his opponents Newt, Rick, and Paul, perhaps it's time for his deeds to be enshrined as a D&D character.

    Artist Casey Jex Smith has been working on a series of works that depict people as D&D characters. Here, Mitt Romney, although unnamed, is shown as Lord Spelldyal, a 21st level warlord with 152 hit points, Boots of Speed and a Helmet of Authority.

    The drawing was one of the works in the Dungeons and Dragons On & Ever Onward art show at the Soho Gallery of Digital Art in New York City. The show, which closed Jan 11, 2012, was curated by Timothy Hutchings, and featured works by Casey Jex Smith, Ryan Browning, Sean McCarthy, Rebecca Schiffman, Josh Jordan, Jeffrey Brown, Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, Chris Bors, Owen Rundquist, Andrew Guenther Jason Phillips, Ketta Ioannidou, Fiona MacNeill, Kitty Clark, Erol Otus, Steve Zeiser, Matt Brinkman, Chris Coy, and others.

    And it featured historical selections from the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive.

    More from Casey Jex Smith's D&D characters series here.

    Image courtesy Allegra LaViola Gallery


    [a version of this post originally appeared on's GeekDad]


    Gygax Biopic in the works

    The has reported and confirmed a rumor that’s already been echoing through the dungeons of D&D talk: that a Gary Gygax biopic is in the works. Michael Tresca wrote:

    George Strayton confirmed he is … the scriptwriter for a $150 million movie based on Gary Gygax’s life. George describes the film as a ‘combination action movie and bio pic.’ The movie will tell the story of how Gary created Dungeons & Dragons, switching between his real life and the fantasy realm of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Strayton is the CEO/Lead Designer of Secret Fire Games, as well as a writer for TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys andXena: Warrior Princess, and the animated feature Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

    Another morsel: Tresca said that “George let it slip that a ‘huge star is playing Gary.’”

    I’m game.

    That said, some skeptical voices have already begun to pepper the blogosphere. As James Maliszewski says over at Grognardia, “I’d frankly be amazed if any studio thought that the life of Gary Gygax had enough mass appeal to be made into a movie, let alone one with a big budget and a huge star.” It’s an excellent question.

    This certainly raises the question if the non-nerd world is ready for a biopic on an essential, but for many, still unknown pop culture innovator who helped usher in a new gaming and leisure genre. The Whole Wide World, the 1996 film about Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, and starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger, proved that more obscure subjects for biopics can be made. But … while that film was largely well-received critically, it tanked at the box office.

    The life of Gygax and genesis of D&D certainly sounds like a promising idea for a movie. Who among lovers of RPGs won’t want to see the reenactments of D&D’s early years? Those behind-the-scenes scenes of early play-testing? And to settle once and for all the junk food dilemma — did Gary prefer Doritos or Cheetos?

    More updates on this as I hear more.



    Two New Books Lavish in 80s Video Game Culture

    READY PLAYER ONE By Ernest Cline [Crown, 374 pp. $24.00]SUPER MARIO: How Nintendo Conquered America, By Jeff Ryan [Portfolio, 292 pp., $26.95]It’s easy to cast a long shadow of nostalgia across your geeky past, now that you are standing taller.

    There’s no shame, no risk of ridicule or reprisal, now that nerds top the food chain. More confident, you might even find yourself admitting, “Sure, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons. Had an 18th-level paladin named Argathon. One righteous orc-slaying dude.’’

    I do. I played more than my share of video and role-playing games during a less friendly era, the 1980s. Fantasy and science fiction had not come out of the closet. The financial success of genre franchises had not yet made geekery acceptable. Gaming culture was nonexistent.

    A bonus of my then fringe game habit: It felt user-driven, indie, even subversive. When free time, not money, was my currency, gaming created a peculiar, and intimate, community. I inserted real quarters into singular machines shared with others. No Internet. No interruptions from texts. Total immersion in virtual worlds was possible even as, paradoxically, cutting-edge special effects were analog, not digital.

    And a game of Donkey Kong, its chunky graphics about as sophisticated as the dungeons I sketched on graph paper, might last only a minute, while a game of D&D, limited to the primitive technology of dice, pencils, and brainwaves, would take months.

    Differing both in approach and success level, two new books -- Ernest Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel “Ready Player One’’ and Jeff Ryan’s historical reportage “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America’’ -- plumb and pay tribute to the genesis of our gaming culture. To a time when to find out who was the best at Asteroids or Galaga, you hoofed it down to the mall to witness the heroism gracing the “high score’’ screen, where someone’s tag -- “ZAK’’ or “LED’’ -- was hallowed only in the halls of your local arcade.

    Ryan, a video game critic, painstakingly charts the Japanese company Nintendo’s startling success. When its 1980 Space Invaders rip-off Radar Scope failed, technicians retrofitted 2,000 of the machines with a new arcade game, designed by an underling named Shigeru Miyamoto. Donkey Kong was born, as was the character Mario, based on a real mustachioed landlord who once showed up at Nintendo’s US headquarters to collect the rent and “grew so incensed he almost jumped up and down.’’ The red overalls and hat came later.

    Ryan does a fine job describing Nintendo’s growing rivalry with Atari and Sega and subsequent shrewd moves, as arcades shuttered, to dominate the home console market. Super Mario Bros. became the “dense’’ game-changing killer app, Ryan writes, which “called for deep exploration instead of facile button mashing.’’ A new generation of gamers could explore endlessly, wandering tubes, hopping platforms, and collecting shells and coins. Nabbing the high score wasn’t the point. Mario helped kill quarter-based game culture.

    Ryan can be insightful, and his prose colorful, but also distracting. Images and metaphors compete and clash - the Zucker Brothers follow Derrida, a music reference is slammed cheek-by-jowl with a baseball analogy. At times, the text seems translated from the Japanese. What is “a nebula’s improvement in graphics’’? A “veritable sleuth of unsold Teddy Ruxpins’’? It’s also difficult to picture the graphical evolution of Mario and his game world when the book has no illustrations.

    Most frustratingly, we never hear directly from any Nintendo designers, not even Miyamoto or company head Hiroshi Yamauchi. Curiously little on-the-ground reporting of personal travails or internal corporate tensions. After the first 100 pages, the narrative devolves into a cheery laundry list of game releases. It’s as if Ryan reported the book from the distance of the Internet.

    Still, “Super Mario’’ remains an important link to understanding how we got from Donkey Kong to Wii, and why the wee Jumpman still rules. “Mario is the id: working off of instinct, never having much of a plan, always able to leap into the middle of things. We all become younger as we play Mario, because when we’re Mario we simply play.’’

    More so than Ryan, Cline banks on blatant nostalgia for our geeky pasts. The year is 2044 and the young protagonist of “Ready Player One,’’ 17-year-old orphan Wade Watts, narrates his own progress in an elaborate, online scavenger hunt. He lives as an economic refuge in a crime-ridden shanty town, “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade,’’ Watts says, and like many who have given up on the “real world,” he spends his waking hours as an avatar, named Parzival, in a massive, Matrix-like virtual space called OASIS.

    Created by a reclusive, Reagan-era game designer, the game melds Tolkienesque riddles with ’80s pop arcana - from Matthew Broderick’s lines in “WarGames’’ to dungeons designed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. Solve the puzzles and you inherit the game designer’s vast fortune. An old-fashioned “high score’’ leader board pops up periodically in the narrative to remind us who’s winning.

    Such is the post-apocalyptic, nerd-friendly premise of “Ready Player One.’’ Watts is one of thousands of other players known as “gunters,” or “egg hunters” because they are looking for Easter eggs, or clues, hidden in the thousands of designer virtual lands that populate the OASIS. Watts steeps himself in the period, eschewing the world of 2044 to effectively live and breathe the era’s most mundane factoids, memorizing characters  from “The Breakfast Club,” plot points from “Star Wars,” tactics for an obscure arcade game like Joust. Clearly having fun with the reader, and himself, Cline stuffs his novel with a cornucopia of pop culture, as if to wink to the reader, “Remember the TRS-80? Wasn’t it cool?’’ The conceit is a smart one, and we happily root for Watts/Parzival and his gaming buddies on their quest for the big egg -- and hope they win before a villainous, corporate-run gaming guild declares “game over.’’

    Not that the novel is without its problems. Cline, the screenwriter who gave us “Fanboys,’’ oddly chooses a first-person narrator. What is the occasion for a 17-year-old explaining the plot of “Blade Runner,’’ or that “ ‘2112,’ Rush’s classic sci-fi-themed concept album’’ hit record stores “in 1976, back when most music was sold on twelve-inch vinyl records’’? Long, awkward passages of  exposition bog down the story, and conflict with Watts’s own distinctive narrative voice. A third-person, roving point of view would more logically allow for these passages of authorial intrusion. Also a bummer: Much of the action is virtual, statically describing Watts’s online moves: “I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.’’

    One can picture much of this working better on the big screen, where asides won’t be needed. We’ll hear “She Bop” on the soundtrack or see a character wearing a “Muppet Show” T shirt and get it. No surprise, Cline’s movie adaptation of Ready Player One has already been sold.

    But ignore these narrative hiccups and “Ready Player One’’ provides a most excellent ride. Once the story is up and running, and the novel blasts to its world-ending climactic battle, I found the adventure story and its revenge of the dorks dream fully satisfying.

    Both Cline and Ryan’s books lavish in the toys and pastimes of our youth. And also nostalgia, which may soft-focus the hard and real edges, and yet we're happy to lavish in it nonetheless. We aging humans traffic in it. Perhaps we must to make sense of our past lives.

    Like the film “Super 8,’’ these two books play also into a final fantasy: that things were once simpler. Today, some attribute the violence in Norway, unfairly, to video games. Suddenly ’80s pop culture looks less troubled. But of course, the arcade and role-playing games of yore were controversial scourges bent on the destruction of youth. Remember?