Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks landed on my “I-should-check-this-out” list when fellow GeekDad writer Michael Harrison reviewed it last year. I never got around to it, though – not even after a subsequent GeekDad interview in January brought it back into the “Oh Yeah, I Really Meant to Read That” zone.
Of course, I forgot all about it again until Friday night at PAX East, when Fantasy Freaks author Ethan Gilsdorf joined the GeekDad panelists to hang out for a couple hours. I enjoyed talking with him so much that I ordered a copy as soon as I got back from the convention. It arrived Thursday, April 1, and for the next two days was my “Two free minutes? Gotta read!” go-to book.
I have mentioned before that while I had a huge interest in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games when I was in middle and high school, I never managed to find enough like-minded kids to support a gaming group. Still, I’ve always liked reading RPG reference books and gaming modules and playing with polyhedral dice, even without the Experience Points to back me up.
So as soon as I saw the graph-paper dungeon on the end-papers and Ethan’s hand-drawn fantasy map opposite the Table of Contents, I knew I was in for a good read.
And I loved this book. Part of it’s a generational thing, I’m sure. Ethan’s got a few (not many) years on me, but the cultural backdrop of his childhood – the last years of the Cold War, worries of nuclear war and the Evil Empire, the mind-blowing release of Star Wars – is a familiar one. Even though the book as a whole isn’t a coming-of-age recollection, making that connection at the beginning put me in the right frame of mind for the quest which follows. (For me, this was a bonus, but I want to note that it’s definitely not a book geared solely to the children of the 1980s, so don’t let my nostalgia for that era oversell that angle.)
What you get in Fantasy Freaks is a great story about, well, just what the subtitle says: “An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” And it’s not a dry sort of academic journey: Ethan’s in full-on geek mode (albeit sometimes reluctantly) as he revisits the books and games and culture that shaped his teenage years and gets back into their modern counterparts. Then he checks out previously-unexplored aspects like Live Action Role-Playing, convention attendance, World of Warcraft and the real-life tourist draws of New Zealand in the wake of The Lord of the Rings.
Ethan tells the story well, both as a geek and as a journalist, letting his fandom drive the journey without dominating it, and connecting with the real-world characters he meets along the way while never fearing to ask tough questions of himself, too.
There’s a lot of cultural crossover in geekdom anymore, with comics and science fiction and fantasy and gaming all appealing to a pretty broad group of people, and I think maybe that’s why someone like me, who’s never even played a true game of D&D, can still get so much enjoyment out of a book like this.
A couple weeks back, I started reading the D&D Fourth Edition rules at the invitation of some friends who run a semi-regular game and tell me it’s casual enough that I’m welcome to join in for a session and see how it goes. And when we were at PAX, I will admit that I looked maybe a little too long at some of the dice tables…