A few weeks back, whilst perusing the shelves at my local gaming/comic shop, Fantasium, I saw this book sitting next to the small selection of RPG-based fiction. “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons,” by Shelly Mazzanoble. Ostensibly, it’s a parody of self-help books. Everything I need to know… points to D&D as the source of “all the answers™.” I thought it was a pretty amusing idea, but being on something of a budget I wasn’t sure if it would deliver. The whimsical doodles of adventurers on the back cover, though, convinced me to give the book a shot.
I took it, along with my other purchases, up to the counter, and started chatting with the store’s owner. I learned that the book had only been released that very day. The owner mentioned that copies had been flying off the shelf so quickly, she was concerned she wasn’t going to have an opportunity to snag one for herself. Apparently the author’s previous book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress had been quite good. I also learned, to my delight, that the author was a woman. Women are so extremely underrepresented in this hobby that I was thrilled to find a book written by one. Since I wasn’t driving that day, I cracked it open as soon as we were on the road.
As is often the case, the back cover somewhat misrepresented the book. It becomes obvious within the first chapter that it is not a parody of self help books. Rather, it is a series of personal anecdotes from the author’s life in which Dungeons and Dragons helped her solve problems. None the less, the book gets off to a good start. Ms. Mazzanoble has a very conversational style of writing which serves her well. There was a paragraph in the first chapter where she describes her first encounter with D&D players, and the passion they have for their hobby. It was so well written as to be legitimately touching. Not only does she have the ability to be poignant, but the author is legitimately funny as well. The humor didn’t often make me laugh out loud, but it did keep me turning pages through the first few chapters. After that, though, the whole facade starts to wear thin.
Each of the stories contained within the book seem to fall into one of two, equally insulting categories. First, there are the stories which seem entirely contrived. For example, in one chapter Shelly decides to spend each day of the week ‘worshiping’ a different deity from the Dungeons and Dragons mythos. She writes that she did this to help herself explore spirituality. But if I had to guess, I’d say her motivation was to fill 181 pages. Second, there are the stories in which D&D’s involvement seems to have been added retroactively. Such as when she’s wondering if she should ask her boyfriend to move in with her. She asks herself “what would my character do.” When she decides that her character wouldn’t sweat the small stuff, she resolves to be more spontaneous. This culminates in a spur-of-the-moment day trip with her boyfriend, which goes just well enough for her to feel comfortable asking him to move in. I hate to call anybody a liar (honestly, I do) but that just reeks of retcon. The story functions perfectly well if you remove all mentions of D&D from it. And when your book is about D&D, that’s a problem.
Perhaps what bothers me most about the pervading aura of contrivance which surrounds these stories, is that I could actually write a book about how D&D changed my life. How it helped me see that the strict religious cult I was raised in was overly controlling. How it taught me the importance of establishing systems and impartial arbitration. How it made me a better writer, and gave me an outlet to explore my creativity before I had the confidence to write stories. I imagine many or most players would have similar experiences to share. In fact, an anthology of essays about how RPGs changed people’s lives is a fantastic idea…but I’m getting off track.
It is a slap in the face just how little D&D is actually present in this book. Each chapter generally contains two distinct parts. “The Problem,” which takes the form of an extended story from the author’s life, culminating in an obstacle which must be overcome. These are generally engaging tales, told in the author’s amusing style. The second part is “The (Attempted) Solution.” This is where D&D comes into the picture, with the author making a hair-brained attempt to use the game as a problem solving device. Generally the chapters are split about 50/50 between the two parts. That means that D&D is featured in about half of the book. This is despite the fact that D&D is almost certainly the reason people bought the book in the first place. If I had to identify the true subject matter of Everything I Need to Know…, it is really more about the Shelly Mazzanoble’s relationship with her mother than it is about Dungeons and Dragons.
I get that this book was not written for me, but I can’t for the life of me figure out who it was written for. It’s marketed to people who play tabletop RPGs, so whoever the target audience is, they must be some subset of tabletop gamers. Considering how infrequently D&D is actually talked about, and how every reference is explained in excessive detail, it must be aimed at very casual players, or perhaps potential players which Wizards of the Coast is hoping to ensnare with this book. Finally, add in the fact that the book includes more references to reality television than to gaming, and it becomes clear what this book actually is.
This book is marketing. Hell, Shely Mazzanoble even works in Wizards of the Coast’s marketing department. The idea is clearly for the book to be a handy gift for gamers to give their girlfriends, as a means of enticing them to play. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have a problem with that if not for how it was done. Women are underrepresented in our hobby. We’ve alienated them, and it’s good to reach out to them. But apparently, WotC thinks that women are some kind of mysterious creature which can only be coaxed into buying a product if the sales pitch contains numerous references to shoe shopping.
Since WotC doesn’t seem to understand this, allow me to spell it out: women gamers are gamers. When a woman buys a book about gaming, she’s looking for a book about gaming. She doesn’t need you to take the edge off of the “scary boy’s game” by interspersing it with references to Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City.
With all of that having been said, I want to add once more that Ms. Mazzanoble is not a bad writer. If the book were truly abysmal, I would not have finished it. The stories would have been very enjoyable had I not been tricked into purchasing the book under the pretense that it was about D&D. But that kind of thing is often a decision of the publisher, not the author. I’ll probably still read the author’s first book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress. Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like a far superior book.
I’d like to close this post by talking about my favorite part of the book: the last chapter. No, I’m not being glib. The last chapter is the only one which struck me as being real. The only chapter where I felt Dungeons and Dragons was essential to the story. If the rest of the book had been of the same quality as the last chapter, you would have read a very different review just now.
The final story in the book presents the problem of children. Shelly’s mother wants her to have some, whilst Shelly is downright opposed to the idea. None the less, when a minor emergency leaves Shelly in charge of her friend’s two kids, she needs to find a way to connect with them. Otherwise the entire evening will just be a lot of awkward staring. She suggests a few kid-friendly activities like watching a movie, but nothing engages the two until she recommends a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The experience is new and different, and the children excitedly play their roles and roll their dice. Shelly even lets them keep a D20, and learns from the children’s mother later on that she’s now their favorite person in the world. The whole experience leaves her feeling less terrified of children, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Dungeons and Dragons.
That’s a D&D story.