Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Playing Dungeons & Dragons: A Book Review

I was honestly less than thrilled when I got my copy of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Playing Dungeons & Dragons. I probably shouldn’t say things like this, but one doesn’t always think clearly when working four different jobs.

Everything is…kind of a self help book? Well, it’s about self help books. And gaming. And mothers. There’s also a few extended pieces about relationships, shoes, and cats. It’s a little frenetic. The weird contrivances of the narrative (adopting a D&D deity per day, etc) seem forced and more like a bad sitcom pitch than a novel, but the writing itself is pretty solid, odd constraints aside.

Shelly Mazzanoble has been writing forever, and getting paid for it for slightly less time than that. Her blog feels a bit like a “no, really, I am a person and not a fake construct of WIzard’s PR” in blog form, but that’s an easy reaction to see based on early criticisms of her last book, Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress. Given the context (Confessions released at a time when Wizards needed to push 4th edition as much as possible) and the content (both books run rather short and carry larger price tags, something book geeks pay attention to) it can be easy to be dismissive of Mazzanoble’s works. However, Everything is quirky and light-hearted enough to come across as more than a sum of its parts.

Shelly Mazzanoble isn’t writing a strategy-based text here, and that’s important to stay aware of. Her writing is self-deprecating, quirky, neurotic, and entertaining, but rarely seems to come from a place of authority. This may be self-evident but can throw off a crowd that’s more comfortable with line by line instruction. Everything really runs more off of empathy than anything else; when reading it I wanted less to incorporate Shelly’s practices into my existence then share stories, laugh, and have a beer (that last part is really more me than the book I think).

The core of the book is a use of the basics of Dungeons and Dragons (4th edition of course. While Shelly learned on 3.5 and has enjoyed 1st edition, we’re still talking Wizards products) to cover your usual self-help tropes. Being self-actualized and independent, making relationships work, etc. Shelly’s comfort zone is in articles and short stories, and that does come through here. Each section is a short anecdote or opinion piece almost unto itself, and it leaves the entire text feeling a bit schizophrenic. Other elements, such as the aforementioned extended section in which Shelly models her behavior after one of the deities in the D&D pantheon, seem a bit forced. However, the core of the text isn’t really the ways in which she deals with tabletop, its Mazzanoble’s day to day life.

The element of Everything that one should be aware of is that this is a book about relationships. Whether its her coworkers, husband, or mother Shelly works best in the confines of describing anecdotes or interactions. These pieces, whether it be a relationship struggle, a friend fuming over the attention a D&D shirt gets her, or frantic efforts to appease children with dice and imaginary characters are the best parts of the book, and what make it worth reading. Shelly knows how to make fun of her quirks without being self-deprecating, and she’s talented at finding the humor in every day situations and bringing that forward. Her ability to focus on the story of a D&D game rather than the rules minutia pays dividends in the stories told here, and the real gaming lesson seems to be found there.

All things considered, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Playing Dungeons and Dragons is pretty Ok. It won’t turn the nonfiction narrative on its head, but you’re not coming to Wizards of the Coast to do that for you. What it will do is provide a few train rides or lunches of entertainment, and give a reader at least one other “normal” person who plays D&D (kinda for a living, no less) to point to. All its flaws aside, Everything does something important in the same way Confessions before it and similar texts (Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene, for one) do. Each offers a perspective on tabletop and why it’s important, for kids and adults alike, and more books like that should be written about a style of game that’s been struggling on a number of fronts.

I didn’t love Everything, but I enjoyed it, and I liked getting to know Shelly Mazzanoble a bit. Between balancing her mom (Judy really deserves a book of her own), a boyfriend/now husband, a dire housecat, and a dog of manolo blahnik slaying, she manages to find the fun in about every situation, and that comes across in her work. That’s something you should probably get into.

Review score: 7/10

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Author: Zach Snell View all posts by

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