Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms


An amazing journey through the thriving worlds of fantasy and gaming

What could one man find if he embarked on a journey through fantasy world after fantasy world? In an enthralling blend of travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir, forty-year-old former D&D addict Ethan Gilsdorf crisscrosses America, the world, and other worlds?from Boston to New Zealand, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar.

?For anyone who has ever spent time within imaginary realms, the book ...

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Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

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An amazing journey through the thriving worlds of fantasy and gaming

What could one man find if he embarked on a journey through fantasy world after fantasy world? In an enthralling blend of travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir, forty-year-old former D&D addict Ethan Gilsdorf crisscrosses America, the world, and other worlds—from Boston to New Zealand, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar.

“For anyone who has ever spent time within imaginary realms, the book will speak volumes. For those who have not, it will educate and enlighten.” —

“Gandalf’s got nothing on Ethan Gilsdorf, except for maybe the monster white beard. In his new book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, Gilsdorf . . . offers an epic quest for reality within a realm of magic.” —Boston Globe

“Imagine this: Lord of the Rings meets Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.” —National Public Radio’s “Around and About”

“What does it mean to be a geek? . . . Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks tackles that question with strength and dexterity. . . . part personal odyssey, part medieval mid-life crisis, and part wide-ranging survey of all things freaky and geeky . . . playful . . . funny and poignant. . . . It’s a fun ride and it poses a question that goes to the very heart of fantasy, namely: What does the urge to become someone else tell us about ourselves?” —Huffington Post

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

from Kirkus Reviews, “Big Book Fall Preview”:

“In the late ’70s, playing fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons put [Ethan Gilsdorf] on equal social footing as the AV club. Thirty years later, though, fantasy films rule the box office, J.R.R. Tolkien is considered essential reading and games like World of Warcraft are pop-culture phenomena…. But there are still pockets of fantasy culture—Lord of the Rings conventions, Society for Creative Anachronism battles, LARP (Live Action Role Playing) camps—that the casual fantasy nerd wouldn’t even dare to tread…. ‘I wanted to know why a 40-year-old man is still so interested in this stuff that he’d dress up in armor on the weekends,’ [Gilsdorf] says. The author traveled from the woods of South Carolina to libraries in Wisconsin, from battlefields in Pennsylvania to the mountains of New Zealand—all in the quest to find some answers. His conclusion? They get to the heart of why any of us, geeks or not, become involved with any group. ‘It’s all about a sense of belonging,’ says Gilsdorf. And maybe a bit about killing stuff.”

“This is a delightful book—more fun than being a Dungeon Master to a group of high-level mages and thieves.” A.J. Jacobs, New York Times best-selling author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically

“Witty, downright funny, poignant, honest and ... well, wistful. Anyone who has ever embraced ‘escapism’ will understand, and those who haven’t taken that leap of imagination will want to after reading Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks…. Reading Ethan Gilsdorf’s tale conjured my own D&D and fantasy experiences, vividly, right down to finding some of my old character sheets in a 3-ring binder a decade and more after I had stopped using them.” –R.A. Salvatore, New York Times best-selling author of The Dark Elf Trilogy, and lead storyteller of 38 Studios game company  


“A fun, quirky and fresh perspective for those wanting to know more about the amazing world of gaming.” –David Brin, futurist and Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning author of The Postman and Startide Rising      

“Ethan Gilsdorf’s quest for himself leads through the fantasy world of millions of gamers in a breathless adventure/quest/memoir that is uniquely contemporary. This is at once a primer on the world of gaming, a self-help manual, and a wistful meditation on the passing of real time in a (nearly) virtual world.”

–Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and author of The Posthuman Dada Guide
“An Orcs-and-all journey through geekdom, told with affection for every elf, wizard and dungeon master it meets along the way. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is for anyone who’s ever been lured by the enchantment and secrets of faraway fantasy worlds; meticulously researched and lovingly told, the book gives a personal face to the cloak-swishing, wand-wielding, lightsaber-rattling gamer in us all.” —Melissa Anelli, author of Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon


“Vivid, moving, evocative, intriguing, engaging.” –Chris Castellani, author of A Kiss from Maddalena and The Saint of Lost Things

“Gilsdorf . . . returns to the fantasy games that he used to navigate a difficult childhood as a jumping-off point for a full-scale investigation of geekdom.” —Huffington Post

“A detailed, funny, and loving account of all things dorky.” —The Wire

“Like many who will pick up his book, [Ethan Gilsdorf has] got one foot squarely in the real world, the other in the fantasy one. This is a journey well worth taking.” —Booklist

“Forget Frodo; Ethan Gilsdorf guides readers through fantasy lands far more enchanting than anything you’ll find in Tolkien’s books.  Donning his cloak of invisibility, he takes readers along on a mind-blowing tour of nerd universes—from a knighting ceremony in a Pennsylvania park to vampire slayers in a Marriot Hotel.  The result is a compassionate, humorous and magical trip that makes reality seem like a poor substitute for the realms of imagination.” —Pagan Kennedy, author of New York Times Notable Book Black Livingstone and The First Man-Made Man

 “Ethan Gilsdorf takes us on a vivid, funny, poignant trek through geekdom . . . and somehow, before we’ve caught on to his tricks, he makes a genuinely important contribution to understanding fantasy, pop culture and their roles in our emotional and cultural lives. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is entirely worthy of that fantasy Pulitzer Prize the author’s been coveting.” –Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence and Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book

“This book—part memoir and part insider’s guide—is both poignant and hilarious, baffling and informative, disturbing and entertaining.  It is a must read for anyone whose idea of a good night involves dragons, spaceships, or one-eyed monsters dripping with slime.”—Jake Halpern, NPR Commentator and author of Fame Junkies

“With the authority of an initiate and the curiosity of the seeker Ethan Gilsdorf leads us through the world of role-playing games that — for both better and worse — provided the arena for his coming-of-age. Part memoir, part travelogue, part investigative report, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a compelling exploration of a moment in our cultural history. What you learn about the games and the players is considerable, but stands as nothing compared to what you learn about the human heart.” 

–Richard Hoffman, author of Half the House: A Memoir


“After his mother’s brain injury Ethan Gilsdorf saved his childhood through the Dungeons and Dragons game. Now Gilsdorf sets out on a quest to revisit his childhood and to explore the expansive post-Tolkien landscape in this fascinating travelogue. Potter Rock in Harvard Square, Bilbo Baggins in New Zealand, and much more.” –Doug Whynott, author of Giant Bluefin and A Country Practice


“Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is alternately hilarious, surprising, poignant, and odd, but always utterly compelling.  Beginning with his own teenage geekdom and addiction to Dungeons & Dragons, Gilsdorf transports us to the fantastical worlds of live-action role playing, Harry Potter tribute bands, creative anachronism, and Lord of the Rings tourism, reminding us that these substitute realities are not just amusements, but at times, life-savers.  A must-read book for trolls, orcs, hobbits, or anyone interested in the quirky corners of popular culture.” –Dinty W. Moore, author of The Accidental Buddhist and Between Panic and Desire

 “Ethan Gilsdorf is a poet and explorer, a gentle soul with a spirit for adventure. He is a deft storyteller, too, and here he leads us into realms real and imagined, personal and universal. It is a moving journey for fantasy freaks and gaming geeks, and for anyone curious to wander into their world.” –Tom Haines, award-winning travel writer, Boston Globe


“This is at once an affecting memoir, a thorough survey of the subculture of fantasy gaming, and an immersion journalist’s journey into strangeness.  It’s also a wincingly honest self-portrait of a man who reaches forty and resolves to confront the role-playing escapist adolescent hidden not so very deep within him.” –Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights


“If you think fantasy culture is just a bunch of pimply-faced kids shouting about dragons in a finished basement, you haven’t been paying attention. From wizard rock to chic French geeks, Gilsdorf catches you up on everything you need to know about the modern state of make-believe. And he does it with such humor, honesty, and, yes, cool, you’ll almost wish you had an orc-slaying, princess-saving past of your own to suppress.” –Yael Goldstein Love, author of Overture: A Novel and The Passion of Tasha Darsky


“Intensely personal yet universally appealing, Gilsdorf’s work speaks to the geek in all of us. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, with its exploration of an emerging marginalized culture, rolls a natural 20.” –Larry D. Curtis,

 “Unfortunately for the establishment, the geeks—like Frodo and Sam slipping into Mordor quietly and unobserved by the Dark Tower—have come out of the quiet and peace of the Shire, or the gaming dungeon, and merrily taken over a large portion of the world, as illustrated by this book…. Ethan Gilsdorf looks critically at gaming and fantasy and finds out how wonderful they can be for bringing people together across wage, ability, and ethnic divides, or from disparate places around the world, for developing imagination and creativity, and all in the name of fun! Cogito Ergo Geek.” —Ian Collier, The Tolkien Society


Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a lively exploration of the fantasy realms into which boys and grown men retreat. Moms of teenage boys will find new insights about what makes these worlds so compelling as well as some encouraging stories about the friendships and communities they foster.” –Michelle Seaton, co-author of The Ways of Boys


 “For every adult hiding his D&D books like they were Playboy magazines, behold Mr. Gilsdorf as he undertakes his Greatest Adventure, one that any geek will envy. Gilsdorf takes a Kerouac meets Cliffs Notes approach and gives us On the Road for the Star Wars generation, sharing his impressions while allowing the people he meets to share theirs.... Chapter after chapter, the author puts the geek psyche on the dissection table, and tries to get to the root of our escapist society. It’s fascinating to watch him peel back each layer, and wildly entertaining to cavort with the motley cast of outcast characters he digs up. In his more introspective moments Gilsdorf remembers his own troubled youth, and a love/hate relationship with his own geekhood. It’s a self branding that seems all too familiar, as we all have difficulty with who we are....Too many of us will find this book hitting joyously close to home. Call it ‘Confessions of a Closet Geek.’” –Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza and Victor Piñeiro, creators of the award-winning documentary Second Skin 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781599219943
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/1/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 779,945
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, poet, critic, editor, and teacher whose writings have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, USA Today, Psychology Today, and National Geographic Traveler. He has been a guest on talk radio as a fantasy and escapism expert. Follow Ethan at

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Momster ix

Chapter 1 I Was a Teenage Magic-User 1

Chapter 2 The Quest Begins 17

Chapter 3 On the Tolkien Trail 27

Chapter 4 Into the Dungeon Again 47

Chapter 5 The Fount Whence Fantasy Games Flowed 63

Chapter 6 The Monk Went Down to Georgia 85

Chapter 7 Geeks in Love 109

Chapter 8 To Work Here, You Have to Forget 125

Chapter 9 The Weapon We Have Is Love 137

Chapter 10 In the Beer Line with the King 155

Chapter 11 I'll Only Go to Level 10 179

Chapter 12 An Outlet for Souls Who Could Not Rest 201

Chapter 13 You Have to become the Con 217

Chapter 14 There, or Nowhere, and Back Again 241

Chapter 15 Get Off the Road 263

Chapter 16 Being a Hero Ain't What It Used to Be 269

Afterword: Saving Throws 285

Acknowledgments 296

Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations 300

Photo Credits 308

Permissions 310

Index 312

About the Author 320

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 12, 2010

    This book rolls natural 20s.

    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.

    What you get in Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks 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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2010

    Must-Read for Gamers - Current and Former

    Gilsdorf's treatment of his subject - gamer culture - is as unique as it is informative and interesting. As an avid gamer (Dungeons and Dragons mostly) of the early 80s who hadn't played in decades before researching the book, he simultaneously provides both insider and outsider perspectives. Gilsdorf is clearly passionate about gaming and the theme of recapturing the magic from his childhood drives the narrative. Nevertheless, much of the new gaming culture (particularly of the online video variety) is new territory for Gilsdorf and he candidly admits his prejudices and preconceived notions. In the end, his book is a quest of personal discovery of which gamers of all stripes will readily identify. It is also a great read for those who know and love gamers and goes a long way toward explaining the attraction of gaming.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    For all fantasy freaks and gaming geeks (and their friends and relatives who don't understand them)!

    Since I have been a fantasy freak since the time when all you could do was read books and it was passing itself off as science fiction (take a spaceship to a planet where magic works), I was interested in what he had to say. I was glad he rediscovered why he loved immersing himself in fantasy, and the good it can do. When I was LARPing I saw many geeky kids try out many characters, learning how to relate to others, trying out leadership skills, and if they got into a mess, killing off that character and starting over again with a different one. Something you can't do in high school, where one dumb stunt can brand you for years.
    Plus you get used to saving the world, not somethig available to other kids, ad thatcan give them the feeling they can have a real impact on the world around them and look for ways to do that.
    If you are a freak or a geek, read this to find out who else is out there. If not, read it to enter into a new world.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Non-gamer's Glimpse into a Fantasy World of Role Playing

    Fantasy Freaks is more than one man's discovery of the wide variety of gaming and role-playing options. Gilsdorf's journey across the great geek divide becomes a search of society's need for escapism, and his own need to reconcile the geek war within himself. It is a collection of individual's stories of coping, of celebrating, of living-it is a story of acceptism and growing up.
    This book deals with the fantasy-based board games like Dungeons & Dragons, building an authentic thirteenth-century castle, weekend role playing, reenactments, and the most current computer based games like WoW. Gilsdorf touches briefly on Dragon*Con, a convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film. Although his journey and experiences rest firmly in the gaming and role-playing genre, geekdom is widespread. All fanatics (whether, Disney, Anime, gaming, movie, comic or even social networking like Facebook or Twittering) can relate to the subject matter of escapism and social snubbing.
    Like LARPing, Disney freaks dress in their character garb as they stroll through the parks in California, and Florida playing out some fantasy life among the Main Streets of Magic Kingdom. During those magical hours the "real" world disappears.
    Like Tolkien fans (and gamers), Potter and Twilight fan too plaster their walls, shelves, and floors with paraphernalia, dress as their favorite characters, and line up hours before book releases. Fans fantasize about living the lives of these characters, escaping into another world if only for a chapter or two.
    Ethan Gilsdorf has a unique chapter style. Each main chapter has numerous sub-chapters (mini-chapters with chapters) which allows him to go off on several adventures within the same forest.
    Gilsdorf's often funny and candid, journalistic-style of writing is full of easy to understand information for even the non-geeks. The vivid details, capturing all the senses, of his experiences have the reader racing down dark dungeon halls and jumping on the backs of scorpion right along with him. His book is a valuable tool for understanding the "whys" of the gaming/role-playing world to those "gaming widows" and oblivious moms and dads. To further explain terms, his book has footnotes and at the end of the book he includes a glossary to sum up the meaning of terms and abbreviations just in case you missed it the first time.
    Geekdom comes in many forms in today's society. If one searches deep enough the discovery of escapism can be found in most of us from young to old, rich to poor, educated to drop-out. It is within all of us, it is just a matter of recognizing what particular "geek button" triggers our rockets to launch us into another world. Whether it's for a half-hour a week watching our favorite sitcom, three hours on Sunday wishing we too were on the football field making touchdowns, or a lifetime of weekends building a castle we find comfort in our escape.

    I highly recommend Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geek: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, who knows you might discover deep down that a geek or a freak lurks within.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2010

    Great Look into the World of Geeks

    I really loved this book and the way it was so well written. There are so many people out there that look negatively at people who like to roleplay, whether it is dressing up or simply playing a video game online. This brought a lot of humor with it too. I would recommend this for anyone to read, even if they're not interested in the world of fantasy and sci-fi.
    I really loved all the information that this book contained. I am a geek so I could totally relate to everything in this book. I found that all the information in this book is true. I could understand the struggles that the author found during his time writing and researching this book.
    Overall, I love this book. It is an excellent look into this thriving community of fantasy and sci-fi fans as well as those who are into the constantly evolving gaming lifestyle.
    Pick it up! You won't regret it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2010

    Fantastic tale of growing up Geek

    I felt that I had made the journey with him. I was surpised how fast I finished his book. I would recommend the book to everyone.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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