Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress by Shelly Mazzanoble

Rating - 2: not worth reading (skip it) (unless you are the perfect target audience)

This is a book doomed by a lack of audience.

"A Girl's Guide to the Dungeons and Dragons Game." The cover text calls it "a smart, humorous examination of the Dungeons and Dragons game from a female gamer's point of view. The book delves into the myths and realities of gamer stereotypes. It explains how to build a character for a D&D game, how to shop for gear, how to play..."

Honesty in advertising. That really is what the book is.

This is an explicitly evangelical book. The author is a promotions coordinator for the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, and this is their latest attempt to expand the game's audience. "Ladies," it cries, "join us!"

Theoretically, the potential audience is huge. There are about 150,000,000 women in the United States who do not play D&D. If even 1% picked up this book and were convinced, the entire balance of the gaming industry would shift (and this would be one of the best-selling books of the year).

The actual audience is tiny. The ideal reader is a woman who is interested enough in D&D to read a book about why she should be interested in D&D, but not interested enough to have read a D&D book on her own. That is a pretty narrow slice of the market, one that might already be served by Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies.

I can see why you would not read a D&D book on your own. The Player's Handbook reads like an exercise in math and tables. It is great with detail but poor at bringing in someone new to the hobby. Propagation is usually person to person.

I can see why you would not pick up D&D from an existing gamer. Most gamers are not great evangelists or educators. Despite being an interactive storytelling game, D&D has typically attracted players with poor social skills.

Hence, the book. Why not have a female gamer put something together specifically for female potential-gamers? There are a few hurdles, the biggest of which is how to get someone to read this. I am unlikely to pick up a book on why I should start gardening or contra dancing. I am unlikely to even hear about the book. If an avid gardener tries to give me such a book, my reaction will be about the same as if s/he gave me an evangelical tract explaining why I should convert to his/her religion. "Here, read this 192-page book about why you should take up my hobby!"

Those with an existing tangential relationship to the hobby seem like the best audience, when they are not the worst. You want someone who is vaguely aware but who does not already have strong negative connotations. Those people are probably outnumbered by WoW widows, women whose boyfriends and husbands are into World of Warcraft the way that most men are into sports. This sounds like a good pool to draw from, "you could play with your boyfriend!" but it is also a pool full of people with potentially bitter, unhappy relationships with gaming and gamers. The author is a former WoW widow who has a message for her ex-boyfriend on page one: "Well screw you, Zul'Gurub, and the end-level boss!" So, 192-page book on gaming?

With access to the right audience, this could take off. D&D could be the new knitting. Get the author a three-page article in Woman's Day or Redbook. Convince a few percent of readers to give it a shot. Somehow keep that first gaming night from going dramatically off the rails. The effect could be huge.

All this talk about audience and I have yet to really address the book. I don't like it. I really really don't like it. This is not written for me, so that is okay, but I could not force myself through an entire chapter.

It reads like an extended article written for a women's magazine that targets the lower-center of the intelligence distribution. It feels like it is shooting for the 80-105 IQ range. Great, that is a huge chunk of the population, but I am not in it. Also, I do not read Jackie Collins and I do not use brand names as nouns to show which stores and products define my daily life.

Second, the tone of the book undercuts itself. It revels in the gamer stereotypes. The explicit line is, "No no, gamers are not all geeks and freaks." The implicit message is, "Okay, they are, but they're lovable geeks." Maybe this is just hanging a lantern on the problem for chapter one, after which it gets toned down.

To me, it comes across as condescending to both gamers and women. Gamers are spoken of as a bunch of silly boys. Women get to be silly and a different kind of clueless. I fear reading the chapter on equipment because I expect the transition to be "Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" Peeking, there is a section entitled "Does this chainmail make me look fat?" I immediately read this as one of those passive-aggressive lines that hides sincerity behind false irony.

The book oversells itself as "smart [and] humorous." I might go for "clever," but not smart. It is humorous, and there are good lines. If you know gamers, you will recognize and laugh at some bits. This relates back to the previous paragraphs, but then my people have sufficient self-deprecation to laugh at their (often well-deserved) reputation.

Frankly, quite a bit reminds me of the Healer class from the Miniatures Handbook; or, as it is sometimes known, "the girlfriend class." Start with a Cleric, minus combat, plus healing, and give it a pet unicorn. Make her an elf and some sparkly dice, and you're in business, unless one of your female gamer friends stabs you.

Amazon link

Expected publication: September 2007

Oh, and aren't they announcing 4th Edition tomorrow? Anything specific to 3.5 here is going to be irrelevant very soon, so hopefully the target audience reads quickly. Great chance to try to start new players, I suppose.

1 comment:

Frances said...

Apparently it's supposed to be one of the first books released for 4th Edition.

This does not make me any more hopeful about its contents or chances, mind you.