Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards of the Coast (192 pp, $12.95, September 2011)
Reviewed by Josh Wimmer
I have my first-edition AD&D Monster Manual open on my desk, and I’m looking at the entry for “mimic.” As many of you will likely recall, a mimic is a creature that disguises itself as something else — a chest, maybe, or a door — to fool unwary adventurers.
That is where my head went after reading Shelly Mazzanoble’s second book; she is a bit of a mimic. I don’t mean that she cannot stand sunlight or that she resembles stone or wood — hey, this is not a perfect analogy — or even that her armor class is only 7. I bet it is at least 5. She strikes me as dexterous (not to mention closer to chaotic good than true neutral).
No, what I mean is that Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons, while delightful, struck me as only tangentially “One Woman’s Quest to Turn Self-Help Into Elf-Help,” as the subtitle puts it.
Mazzanoble is fun to spend time with. Most of the book is concerned with her relationships with her mom, Judy (this is the mom ur-name, I think), and boyfriend, Bart. Judy has a lot of advice to offer, much of it on the subject of Mazzanoble and Bart’s love life. Mazzanoble clearly adores her mother — they talk daily, which I can accept intellectually is a beautiful thing, for someone else who is not me — but she gets justifiably fed up when Judy starts sending her an unending stream of books like The Secret.
In response, the author — a Wizards of the Coast employee who pens Dragon magazine’s popular “Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard” column — devises a plan: She’ll take the lessons inherent in D&D and demonstrate how they can be applied toward the improvement of one’s life.
This is a solid, enticing premise, even if, like me, you haven’t played a tabletop RPG in over a decade (I think they do armor class differently now). As Mazzanoble notes, role-playing games foster creativity and cooperation, offer opportunities for problem-solving, and give participants a chance to explore facets of their personalities that might otherwise go unexamined. Surely they could have therapeutic value, then.
My chief problem with the resulting book is simply that the actual D&D-related content doesn’t feel as necessary or organic as it ought to. A chapter where she must convince the other members of her condo association to invest in costly but essential repairs is damn funny. But the wisdom Mazzanoble uses to make her case, gleaned from the four Dungeon Masters she observes at work (all, strangely, named Chris), just didn’t feel to me like it was especially specific to their province. “Kill ’em with enthusiasm”? “Appeal to their selfish sides”? Absolutely sensible. Just not that Dungeons & Dragon-y.
So too with the sidebars scattered throughout — they served more to remind me that “Oh, yeah, this book is about D&D!” than to truly instill a sense of how the game could help me stop, say, eating fast food or procrastinating (not that I turned this book review in six months late).
Other readers may disagree. And either way, Mazzanoble is an entertaining presence, blending knowing self-absorption with amusingly exaggerated self-deprecation, and generally coming off like a bit of a spaz, but definitely a spaz who knows it. She teases her loved ones, but makes it even more clear how lucky she is to have them — and in so doing shows us they’re lucky to have her too.
Which is why Everything I Need to Know feels like a missed opportunity. Her voice will charm you (no saving throw) regardless. But had she hewn more tightly to what the title promises, this might have been a true tome of magic.
Josh Wimmer is a writer and editor. He blogs about Hugo-winning novels for io9 and sporadically updates his own website at scribblescribblescribble.com. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife, son, and cat.