Thursday, November 4, 2010

REVIEW: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Nearly everything I review on this blog is a product for use with roleplaying games. When I discuss books, they're almost always genre fiction that relate to gaming in some way, generally having served as inspiration either to myself or to the founders of our shared hobby. I can't recall ever having reviewed a non-fiction work before, but I'm sure someone with a better memory than myself will quickly remind me if I'm mistaken on this score. Consequently, the present review is somewhat unique, which is only fitting because Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a unique book.

I'll admit that I was initially skeptical of this book, which is subtitled "An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." Past experience with books and articles in which the author reminisces about his youthful adventures as a roleplayer are typically suffused with shame and self-loathing and imply, if not outright state, that escapism is unhealthy and unbefitting "normal" people, among whom the author, of course, numbers himself. Gilsdorf does nothing of the kind. Indeed, despite its provocative title, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is anything but an exposé about the dangers of roleplaying and related hobbies but rather a surprisingly affecting memoir, travel journal, and cultural analysis of the imaginary realms in which so many of us dwell.

Gilsdorf begins with a prolog in which he takes the reader back to 1979, when he was initiated into the world of roleplaying games. What's interesting is how similar Gilsdorf's entry into the hobby is to my own. He was a little older -- 12 as opposed to 10 -- and started a few months before me -- summer rather than winter -- but he learned from the same rulebook as I (the Holmes "Blue Book"). He even played with a guy named J.P., just as I did. Reading all this immediately warmed me to Gilsdorf; he was clearly "one of us." Unlike a lot of writers who reflect back on their "D&D days," Gilsdorf either actually remembered lots of little details, such as the fact that a wight deals 1-4 points of damage with a successful hit, or at least bothered to check his facts beforehand. That may seem a small thing, but I assure you it's not and it speaks volumes about the seriousness of the author.

While the surface details of Gilsdorf's early experiences with gaming are similar to my own, the deeper reality he lays bare in the prolog is not. A year before he discovered roleplaying, Gilsdorf's mother suffered a brain aneurysm that turned her into "the Kitchen Dragon," who endured "crippling left-side paralysis, massive changes in behavior and personality, and dangerous bouts of epilepsy." Previously a "free-spirited" and vibrant woman, Sara Gilsdorf, whom the author calls "the center of my world," was now "shifty, sickly, needy, deformed, antisocial, frustrated, volatile, closed to the world." The appearance of "the Momster," as the author also called her, forever changed his childhood and created a need for escape -- an escape that roleplaying games provided.

Like many people who played RPGs back in the 70s and 80s, Gilsdorf eventually moved on, however, despite the solace the hobby had offered during his difficult teen years:
Dungeons & Dragons began to die for me when, during my senior year in high school, 1983, I had my first kiss. My then-girlfriend's highly realistic look and feel banished those fantasy leather-clad busty she-warriors for good. That first love was serious. With something else to do on Friday nights, and a female creature to do it with, I played D&D less and less often. High school led to other kingdoms, such as college, sex, beer, cars, jobs, travel, and heartbreak. The D&D gang dispersed from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, New York, Chicago, and Alaska. I left those dreamy medieval worlds behind and mostly forgot about my role-playing years. They dissipated and the netherworld released its grip, like a wizard dispelling a curse. I let my D&D obsession fade -- not because my longing to role-play had ceased, but because, perhaps, I sensed I was through with childish things. I had gone on one adventure too many. If D&D was a rite of passage, then I had passed through the dungeon to become a young man.
The release of The Lord of the Rings movies starting in 2002 reignited Gilsdorf's mad love of fantasy. Then, one Christmas, he visited his father's home, looking to collect some of his possessions, and he discovers a twenty-five pound camping cooler, inside of which was "a stack of mold-ridden game boxes, notebooks, and books" -- his D&D paraphernalia. Comparing it to the One Ring, Gilsdorf suggests that his old gaming gear "want[ed] to be found" and, while he resisted delving too deeply into his old stuff for a while, he eventually acquiesced. Now 40 years old -- older than his mother was when she was struck by the aneurysm -- midlife was starting him in the face and it frightened him.
I had the sense that the D&D gear would somehow solve the riddle of who I was, where I had come from, and why I still needed imaginary realms. And maybe help me understand what I still had left to accomplish.

The contents of the blue cooler had saved me once. Could they save me again?
This is the beginning of Gilsdorf's "epic quest," as he investigates "21st century geekdom," from Tolkien fanatics to MMO players to medieval re-enactors and more. The author travels across North America (to Wisconsin for GenCon and Georgia for a LARP), Europe (to France where a castle is being built according to medieval techniques), and New Zealand (where he met Peter Jackson), and places in-between, as he explores the breadth and depth of contemporary fantasy and science fiction fandom. Along the way, he meets and interviews many people, each of whom offers him more food for thought on his own personal quest to discover who he is and why fantasy has proved such an important aspect of his own life.

Breezily written but moving at times, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a memoir that avoids being either self-indulgent or preachy, both of which are very real dangers in books of this sort. Gilsdorf offers no definitive answers to many of the questions he raises, but he does offer plenty to think about, particularly if, like him, you'd "devoted so much mental energy to a world that didn't exist ..." If the book has a flaw, it's that it can be meandering at times, feeling more like a random collection of thoughts and impressions than anything genuinely coherent, but, as I just stated, that's the nature of the beast. Gilsdorf isn't trying to advance a philosophy or a cause with this book, except perhaps that, as Tolkien reminded us, escapism can be a powerful good in one's life. It certainly was in Gilsdorf's and I can say the same of mine.

That may seem to be a fairly jejune point, but, given the popular portrayal of fantasy fans, it's nevertheless a needed one. Interestingly, it's a point that Dr. J. Eric Holmes made in his earlier Fantasy Role Playing Games, where he answers the question, "Are They Crazy?" in reference to roleplayers. Far from being injurious to one's mental health, Holmes argues, fantasy probably contributes to it positively, a truth I doubt anyone reading this blog would dispute. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks drives this point home with plenty of examples, as Gilsdorf speaks not to "freaks" or "geeks" but to real people with real lives that are enriched through their indulgence in fantasies of one type of another. I enjoyed this book immensely and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others for whom fantasy is a lifelong love.


  1. Thanks for writing this review, James. I stumbled across this book at my local bookstore a few weeks ago and began flipping through it, then came home and put it on my "Christmas list" for my wife to buy. It seemed like a book I would enjoy, and I'm glad that appears to be the case based on your review.

    I know that you mean about other "D&D memoirs" being filled of self-loathing. I read one called "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange." While I enjoyed the reminiscing about your hobby, one of the things that struck was how ashamed, almost, the author seemed about his gaming days and how they "interfered" with him having any "meaningful" relationships. It's sad, really, that a lot of people look back on the RPGs of their youth as a negative instead of a positive.

    My best friend in High School had played a lot before I met him, and he informed me that he would no longer play D&D (or any RPGs) because it had "taken over" his life. He found himself becoming too involved and obsessed with his D&D world and less with the "real world", so he just threw all of his D&D stuff (including his own campaign notes and maps) into the trash and never looked back.

    So sad.

  2. It's interesting to me that so many people involved in the OSR fit a similar sociological pattern (or arc?) as the author. I've met so many, myself included, that are about 36-43 in age started with Holmes or the later Basic sets, quickly graduated to AD&D, stopped playing for good long stretches of life and then came in the last few years.

    What was is it that lead us all back here at roughly the same time? I guess it could have in part LOTR as it was this guy or Gary's death or the rise of the Internet or what. It mystifies me.

  3. "Gilsdorf" sounds like an awesome name for a wizard.

    /book sounds cool!

  4. This sounds like a good read. Maybe I can get it through an interlibrary loan to circumvent my self-imposed buying ban.

    And I have it on good authority from Ron Edwards, a Real Live Professor, that D&D causes brain damage.

  5. I read that book earlier this year and found it enjoyable and an easy read. Ckutalik's comments are right on too.

  6. Thanks for this review. I was put off this particular genre by the odious "Elfish Gene", which is full of the 'self-loathing' you spoke of at the start. Looks like another addition to my Amazon Wish List then :)

  7. We have seen the mainstreaming of fantasy and gaming in our culture over the past 10-15 years. It is the result of a lot of little things. Like Harry Potter. Like the fact that the digital game industry outperforms box office receipts. Like the fact that World of Warcraft has so many active users.

    In many ways it is like what happened to the computer nerd culture in the 90s.

  8. Thanks for throwing this out here. It sounds like an interesting book. It's going on my list.

  9. @ The Acrobatic Flea: I agree with you about "The Elfish Gene" (read my first comment to the post, above.

    @Ckutalik: I think you're spot on with us "old-timers" coming back into the hobby and some of the things that happened that caused us to do so. One other thing that happened around this time and definitely affected me getting more involved was the release of 3rd Edition D&D and the massive ad campaign they did to reach lapsed gamers. I had stopped playing around 1989, when 2nd Edition came out. I kept reading Dragon so I knew what was going on, and I did pick up the 2nd Edition rules but never played them. I'd pretty much dropped out completely by the time 3rd Edition came out, but there was a "perfect storm" for me. A new group of friends I met, who were hard-core gamers, wanted to play 3rd Edition and invited me to join their campaign, and at the same time I had a completely different group of friends who had never played RPGs became interested in playing based on what they'd read/seen about 3rd Edition and asked me to DM a campaign for them.

    While I'm still DM'ing that campaign that started 10 years ago, I've also come back to running an old-school AD&D/OSRIC game for a group of friends.

  10. Thanks for the review! I am often on the look for people who have more integrated views of their days (past or present) of gaming. I like the OSR community that I have encountered here even if I find myself a marginal member. I've already hit Amazon for a copy of it.

  11. Thanks James for the review. I am one who has also been wary of picking up this book after reading The Elfish Gene. Despite the previous book sparking my interest in the 3 LBBs and providing a glimpse of english life during the release of those said books, both me and my partner found the author to be a absolute tool.

  12. "both me and my partner found the author to be a absolute tool"

    I am so relieved to hear others say this - at the time the Amazon reviews were universally glowing for this book (I suspect now it was a lot of the author's friends!)!

    I have subsequently exchanged emails with him and found him a very pleasant and interesting chap, but it still doesn't excuse The Elfish Gene.

  13. Gilsdorf is an engaging fellow. We got to meet him, give him a tour of the office, and chat over beer when he visited Seattle for a reading at a local book store.

    I had an entirely different reaction to The Elfish Gene than others here. The 'self loathing' seemed to be directed more at adolescence in general than toward D&D specifically. Barrowcliffe would have had a hard time fitting in anywhere. Initially, he blames his longer-than-typical road to adulthood on D&D, but by the end, he admits that D&D was only his enabler of choice. It's an affecting memoir of a type of self-imposed dysfunction that lots of teens put themselves through. I enjoyed it immensely, even if it was occasionally painful to read -- or perhaps because of that.


  14. @ckutalik: I got back into gaming in 2003, before Gygax's passing, although I really became interested in the OSR through this blog (after being frustrated with some aspects of the modern style of gaming). Don't know if I'm the statistical outlier, though.

  15. Gilsdorf was signing copies at the Troll Lord Games booth at Gen Con 2009. He seemed really enthusiastic about the hobby in general. I picked up a copy then but it is still waiting to be read...

    I concur with what has been said about The Elfish Gene. I appreciated the look back at the state of the hobby in the 1970s (he mentions ordering D&D through a magazine ad, several comments about fanzines and other products), and as Orion said above, it's a great insight into growing up in England at that time. For all the attention to detail and the interesting stories of his fellow gamers (I remember a few just like them), it does unfortunately give the impression of gaming as an unhealthy, unproductive adolescent activity.

    Steve, you're right about Barrowcliffe's conclusion, although I wonder if that idea could have been expressed earlier on in the book. Perhaps as gamers we tend to be overly sensitive on that subject? I'm not sure.

    Any similar works like these out there?

  16. Doesn't France already have a few castles that were built according to medieval techniques?

    1. You made my day! (Excuse me while I clean up my coffee.)

  17. @Steven - to be fair to The Elfish Gene I hated it so much that I only made it about half-way through before - fighting the urge to throw it out the window - putting it in the "charity bin". So, if there is some degree of redemption at the end, then I never reached it.

    To me, it was just a lot of sniping against old friends (effectively behind their backs) as though he was trying to worm his way in with the "cool kids"; retroactively rewriting his childhood to put the blame on D&D and his goofy mates.

  18. @amp108

    I have to admit that this blog is what first informed me that the OSR was happening, and gave me the resources to learn more about it. Even though I run a 3.x game (due to the proclivities of my players more than anything--I had to stridently oppose their initial desire to play 4E as they were all new players and assumed it was "just D&D, but the most current/best one"), I am an old-schooler at heart.

    p.s. keep up the good work, James!

  19. Wonderful blog post, James! Need to reed this book.

    I can honestly say that role-playing games got me through adolescence. I spent most of weekends throughout high school running D&D and Cyberpunk for college students in their dorms. RPGs were both a figurative and a literal escape from the painful high school environment into a world where people were a little smarter and a lot more accepting.

  20. Great post and great comments. And the book sounds great, too-- especially in grappling with what it means to return to D&D after proving that in fact you are a fully-functional adult.

  21. For myself I started poking at the memories in 2003 by buying the Dragon CDROM from Ebay. And reading William Dear's "The Dungeon Master". It went into overdrive when EGG died.

    I think that if I had played D&D continuously since 1983, when I stopped, I wouldn't feel, as this author does, that he'd discovered a complete, hermetically sealed, strata of his past with which he can use to evaluate this present stage of life. There's something about having a clear start and stop point that traps the past in amber.

  22. Wow, have to admit I'm a little surprised to hear you review this book so positively. Much like the referred to Elfish Gene, I felt this book was enticing at first but then flat at the end. Neither author seems to me to really come to terms with his childhood pursuit, ultimately dismissing it as innately childish. At least Elfish Gene focused strongly on gaming, while Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks roamed the entire map of the fantasy genre before chucking it all at the end.

  23. Neither author seems to me to really come to terms with his childhood pursuit, ultimately dismissing it as innately childish. At least Elfish Gene focused strongly on gaming, while Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks roamed the entire map of the fantasy genre before chucking it all at the end.

    I can't speak to The Elfish Gene, since I've never read it, but Gilsdorf doesn't dismiss gaming as childish at all. True, he's not returning to the hobby himself, but that's hardly an indictment of gaming. Far more significant to me is that he thought of enough of roleplaying and related fandoms that he investigated them all with an open mind and heart, something I don't see all that often in contemporary journalism, which is usually quick to paint us all as socially retarded weirdos.

  24. Thanks for the review, James. By a nifty coincidence, my wife was just asking me for my Christmas wish list, which, as usual, is chock full of books. I'll definitely be adding this to the list.

  25. I can't speak to The Elfish Gene, since I've never read it, but Gilsdorf doesn't dismiss gaming as childish at all. True, he's not returning to the hobby himself, but that's hardly an indictment of gaming.

    It's been a while since I read this one, and unfortunately I don't own the copy I read so I can't go back and re-read parts to refresh my memory. I definitely remember though feeling disappointed at his conclusions in the end. To his credit, I do recall some very nice and accepting sentiments expressed, especially in the part about the cos-players.

    It certainly wasn't as overtly antagonistic towards the hobby as The Elfish Gene was, which I read second, so perhaps reading them in succession colored my experience. I'll have to go dig up the book again and refresh my memory.

    Either way, it seems to me what's really missing in this genre of literature is a story of a well adjusted individual who continues to enjoy the hobby and makes no bones about it. I suppose though that probably doesn't make for very exciting reading.

  26. Somewhat along these lines, I found the following recent New Yorker story to be both infuriating and kind of fun:

  27. Great review. I loved this book.

    I have to disagree about the Elfish Gene, however. I felt similarly (damn, this guy hates himself and roleplayers!) until a British person told me, "Look, it's just typical self-deprecating English humor."

  28. "until a British person told me, "Look, it's just typical self-deprecating English humor." "

    Sorry to jump in again, but I'm British and prone to self-deprecating humour, but The Elfish Gene was beyond the pale, nasty and directed like a dagger into the back of people who clearly thought he was their friend.