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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 (39)


    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.

    Click to read more ...


    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.

    Click to read more ...


    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.

    Click to read more ...


    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

    Click to read more ...


    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?


    On His Birthday (Today), You Can Help the Memory of Gary Gygax Last Forever

    [Originally appeared on's GeekDad]

    Logo for the Gygax Memorial Fund. Also the Gygax family heraldry, this shield was used by the knight on the cover of the AD&D DM's Guide and was the coat of arms of the city-state Fax in the campaign setting of Greyhawk.Today (July 27) is the birthday of Gary Gygax, who would have been 73 this year had he not passed from this earth in 2008 to dance forever on the astral plane, which (according to the DM’s Guide) is a realm of thought and memory, and also the place the gods go when they die or have been forgotten.

    Gygax, D&D’s co-founder, is gone, but certainly not forgotten. One way he’s being immortalized is in bronze and stone. Previously I wrote for GeekDad about the Gygax Memorial Fund and the increasing likelihood that a monument in his honor will be built in Gary’s hometown of Lake Geneva, WI. The city has granted parkland for the memorial, and the fund has incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

    Now the next step is to raise money, and the hope is for much of the dough to be croudfunded, with this year’s Gen Con and Gary’s birthday as the impetus.

    D&D die-hard and occasional Geek Dad contributor Tavis Allisontells me that at this year’s Gen Con (Aug. 4-7), the fundraising for the monument begins in earnest. Gen Con, you see, was Gary’s baby.

    Over at the booth for ye Old School Renaissance Group (booth #1541), a collective of publishers and fans working to carry the torch of Dungeons & Dragons the way Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson imagined it, Mr. Allison says Gary’s widow, Gail Gygax, will be “talking about conversations she had with her husband before his death about how he wanted to be remembered, the resulting vision for the statue, and the goals of the Memorial Fund.”

    And I can’t imagine anyone who stops by to drop some spare change in the bucket will be refused.

    This illustration by Erol Otus is the cover of a new book Cheers, Gary a collection of Gary's correspondence with his fans. The image is Gary, as the wizard seen on the front of the original D&D box set.To encourage you to give, Tavis says that cool donor rewards include T-shirts with the Gygax Memorial logo, and a book calledCheers, Gary “which selects the best of his correspondence with fans at the EN World Q&A threads.” Editor Paul Hughes will be signing books, which have an Erol Otus illustration on the front cover depicting Gary as the wizard seen on the front of the original D&D box set.

    The big goal?  Raise $500,000 via Kickstarter. Allison thinks it’s doable, with your help, of course.

    “I think there is real potential for the Fund to achieve the $500K goal for this campaign through crowdfunding alone. This would be the most ambitious Kickstarter goal in history, but it’s not unprecedented and if Gary doesn’t have ten times the dedication than Robocop does I’ll eat my dice bag,” Tavis says.

    To help continue the Fund’s momentum, and in recognition of everything Gary meant to gamers everywhere, Allison asks for your assistance in getting the word out about these efforts. Even if you can’t make it to Gen Con, please pay tribute to Gary’s birthday and the role D&D played in your life by posting news to your blogs, social networks, and communities that the Gygax Memorial Fund will be at Gen Con booth number #1541, and that folks can donate in memory of Gary at Gen Con, or directly on the website,

    See you in the dungeon.


    Gygax memorial makes progress

    Gary Gygax the way the folks at "Futurama" drew his cartoon versionLake Geneva, Wisconsin, was always a mythical land of enchantment to me, a kid raised far away on the east coast who spent much — OK, way too much — of his allowance on Dungeons & Dragons gear.

    While the mailing address — TSR Hobbies, Inc., POB 756, Lake Geneva WI 53147, U.S.A. — felt like an imaginary realm, I knew it was also a real land where that mysterious co-creator and co-godfather of D&D lived and worked: Gary Gygax.

    When my local hobby shop didn’t have a module or rule book on their shelves, I’d mail in my order form directly to the source in Lake Geneva (with my check, of course, that covered the price plus “shipping and handling”). The elves and orcs who toiled there would fill my order, and in a few weeks I’d get a package in my mailbox. And the next crucial adventure could continue.

    Ever since Gygax passed away in 2008, his widow Gail Gygax and others have spearheaded an effort to honor him and his contribution to gaming lore with a public monument in Lake Geneva. The Gygax Memorial Fund website just announced that goal is one step closer:

    The Gygax Memorial Fund has reached a huge milestone. We have been granted land for the memorial site at Donian Park. Donian Park is a four acre open space site which encompasses a wetland and the 100 year recurrence interval floodplain along the White River in downtown Lake Geneva.

    On the website for the Gygax Memorial Fund, there’s a link to donate, if you are so inclined. There’s also a forum to share your testimonials of how Gary and D&D changed your life for the better.

    Long live Gary!



    We all role-play now

    [Note: Ethan Gilsdorf speaks at the Boston Public Library Wed, Oct 20. Other upcoming speaking engagements: Attleboro, MA: Oct. 29th (part of a Creature Double Feature tribute!); Brattleboro, VT: Nov 11th; Somerville, MA: Nov 13th; Cambridge, MA: Nov 15th; Providence, RI: Nov 18th; Burlington, MA: Nov 20th; Brooklyn, NY: Nov 22nd. More book tour info here]

    We all role-play now 

    Those Dungeons & Dragons skills can come in handy in the world of Facebook

    "The Social Network,'' Hollywood's latest box office king, charts Facebook's meteoric rise to near ubiquity. Few have not heard of the world-girdling website or been ensnared by its tendrils. In six years, Facebook has woven its way into the daily lives of some 500 million users.

    Whether to check up on friends' exploits or play games like "Mafia Wars,'' we've grown accustomed to its promise of instant intimacy and, some might argue, its voyeuristic pleasures. Many cheer the way Facebook has democratized the flow of information; no longer top-down, news is now horizontally and virally dispersed. Others gripe that it's warped our idea of significance, making what I had for breakfast as important as the latest developments in the Mideast peace process. Facebook's vast and sticky web of connection has caused us all to re-evaluate what we mean by "friend.'' And, I suppose, "enemy'' as well.

    Unforeseen social aftershocks such as these have rippled in Facebook's wake. Others have yet to be detected. But there's something else at work with Facebook. It's actually making role-players of us all.

    Role-playing? Like that conflict-resolution exercise your sales team endured last year? Or role-playing, as in Dungeons & Dragons - that strange and wondrous game I (and perhaps you) played back in the Reagan administration, rolling dice in a basement and slaying goblins and dragons and snarfing bowls of Doritos?

    I'd argue all these experiences - including posting a witty Facebook update - are cut from the same role-playing cloth. We all share that desire to be someone else. To be better, stronger, faster; to appear more handsome, more clever, more attractive than our fleshy selves might ever be. "My, aren't we having fun?'' say our photos, snapped while we're half drunk and posted in a day-after haze. On my profile, I offer clues that might seduce. I suggest, in a whisper of pixels, "I am your ideal man.''

    Not that role-playing is devious. It's a necessary counter to the way we've been civilized. While hidden behind the screen, we give ourselves permission to behave more dauntless or brazen than we'd allow in real life. We get to practice being the best version of the person we can be, or want to be.

    That said, some role-playing experiences, especially offline ones, are deemed more acceptable than others. Dressing up as Tom Brady and painting your body blue and red for the big game? That's OK. Dressing as Gandalf and wearing a purple wizard hat for the big game? Not so much. Even as World of Warcraft and D&D and Harry Potter fandom have become passable in many circles, adults raiding Mom's closet for goofy clothes for "make-believe'' still remains verboten.

    Except, of course, at Halloween. This odd holdover from pagan times is a socially acceptable way to bust loose. Here, costumes are fine. And playing "bad'' is encouraged. Being Dracula or Nurse Hottie for an evening can be instructive, even liberating.

    The irony here is that even in our pre-Facebook existences, we've always engaged in day-to-day role-playing. At a wedding or cocktail party, on a first date or during a job interview, or when home for the holidays, we all dress the part and adopt another character: Brilliant or Well Adjusted, Stockbroker or Salesman, Happy Son or Perfect Mom. If you're not willing to play along and put on a mask, friends (and potential employers) will think, "What's wrong? Come on, get into character.'' Life is a dungeon crawl, full of monsters and opportunities to be on your mettle. Be prepared. Chin up.

    So here's the rub. Eventually, we have to live up to these personas we've created. Many a first date has witnessed the crumbling of expectation's towers and spires. And despite my hundreds of Facebook friends, I wonder who I can really count on in times of trouble. When I really do need to be brave and slay that dragon.

    Ethan Gilsdorf is author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. More info on Gilsdorf and the book here.