REVIEW: Rise of the Dungeon Master from Nation BooksMay 8, 2017
Out tomorrow, May 9, 2017, from Nation Books is Rise of the Dungeon Master by David Kushner and Koren Shadmi. The graphic novel tells the origin story of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), from basement operation to industry power house and it doesn’t shy away from any bumps in the road that Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson encountered.
Gygax was first inspired to create his own tabletop gaming system after becoming deeply involved with the historical battle gaming community. The system for most tabletop games we know now comes from the days when deeply entrenched (pun intended) history nerds would send troop movements to one another by mail in-between playing in-person games. With collaboration from Arneson and countless test rounds with somewhat-voluntary players, Dungeons and Dragons riffed off war re-enactment tactics, added in interactive storytelling, and finished with a flourish of fantasy. There’d never been anything like it and it inspired an entire generation of game creators and computer programers to give us the modern roleplaying games we have today.
What Kushner and Shadmi do well is play off the passion and immersion that a player feels in a DnD game. The narration is structured like a dungeon master’s speech with periodic interjections from Gygax and Arneson breaking the fourth wall. Tabletop games are about community creation and inclusion (usually), and Rise of the Dungeon Master reads like you’re hearing a story across a table covered in dice and maps. And despite the mainstream popularity of tabletop gaming thanks to media like Geek and Sundry and Stranger Things, Kushner and Shadmi don’t try to sex up the story.
Gygax and Arneson are nerdy, bearded, and enthusiastic about minutiae in a way that I’m sure speaks to the hardcore tabletop gamer on an idol-like level. But the two creators had intense differences in both what they wanted DnD to be and how they approached their own games. Kushner and Shadmi make a point to address both philosophies and the intense riff that these differences caused in what feels like a balanced and fair way, even though this is technically a story about Gygax.
Kushner’s impressive journalistic background lends itself well to an origin story of a community obsessed with “well, actually” moments. Shadmi’s illustration style, while not cartoonish, is just light enough to remind the reader that this is a story about people who like games, after all. Overall, the team put together a solid, well-represented, and honest narrative about what happens when enthusiasm translates to action—even if that action is making oneself into a wizard.