Tuesday, July 15, 2014

20 Year-Old Books on Gaming

I recently took a look at two books about games written more than 20 year ago. Heroic Worlds and The Complete Wargames Handbook now provide extremely dated views of the adventure gaming hobby, particularly roleplaying games and traditional board-and-chit wargames (with some digression into the then-nascent computer games). Reading them again not only reminds one of the state of the hobby at their particular time, but how far we’ve come, what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

I acquired each book at different times of my gaming career. I found Heroic Worlds at a local bookstore when it first came out. It proved a solid reference in keeping track of games and supplements I already owned and as a guide giving me a glimpse into games I might want to buy. I recently found The Complete Wargames Handbook at a small wargaming convention’s flea market; it provided an interesting if dated look at the wargaming industry from one of its key creative personalities. Both offer interesting lessons about the adventure gaming hobby over time.

Heroic Worlds

Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games first appeared in 1991 from Prometheus Books. In the pre-Internet Age it served as a comprehensive and informative catalog of existing roleplaying games at the time. Some who are jaded by today’s Internet Age – where anyone with a computer and an internet connection can upload their own history of roleplaying games, lists of published materials for various games, and interviews with industry luminaries – might find Heroic Worlds rather dated, tame reading, though much of the information remains invaluable today in this handy, analog reference tome.

The 448-page masterpiece serves as an impressive monument to meticulous cataloging of the vast and diverse field of roleplaying games and supplements available at the time. The book features a host of elements that help it stand out as a reference work, even as one limited in its particular time:

Historiography: One of the first chapters offers what may stand as the first, published history of roleplaying games. It includes references to both key personalities and products in the development and advancement of the roleplaying game industry. Various subsections cover roleplaying games in the news, different “waves” of development, and the growth of different genre-based games. Certainly more recent work has covered this territory – and more than 20 years of subsequent development – more thoroughly, but Schick’s arguably remains the first.

Publisher Reference: Heroic Worlds includes an appendix listing all known roleplaying games publishers up to that time, including postal addresses where available, and lists of games each company published. Granted, it’s all woefully out of date today, but provides an interesting picture of the 15 year-old industry. What does it say about the adventure gaming hobby when this early reference work already makes a point of noting “NLA” – “No Longer Active” – after a host of company listings?

Award Listings: Another appendix lists “Award-Winning Games,” including Origins, H.G. Wells, and Charles Roberts Awards through 1990, notable roleplaying games mentioned in Games magazine’s annual list of the top 100 currently available titles, and Schick’s own list of top 10 games in Heroic Worlds (and an interesting top five list of “Appalling RPG Products”). Although more comprehensive and current listings live somewhere on the internet today, they reside at disparate websites; no doubt the list of appalling products has grown exponentially over the years.

Sample Artwork: Although extremely sparse, black-and-white artwork from cataloged projects peppers the tome, providing a small glimpse into various game lines’ graphic styles. Each illustration includes the artist’s name, title of the product in which it appeared, publisher and publication date, and copyright and permission citations.

Genre Summaries: The “Game Index” portion of Heroic Worlds – the bulk of the book – covers roleplaying games across numerous categories...and for each category Schick offers a brief, sometimes more substantive summary of the genre’s qualities and significant game titles contributing to the popular success of the field. Schick also includes his top five recommendations in each category. (Solo game aficionados might take interest that Schick deemed “Solo Gamebooks” a valid category.)

Insider Insight: Readers find short essays by industry luminaries scattered across the catalog listings. Most discuss the design behind particular game systems or general approaches to roleplaying game writing. The list of contributors looks impressive: Dave Arneson, Greg Gorden, Gary Gygax, Steve Jackson, Tom Moldvay, Sandy Petersen, Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Greg Stafford, and a host of others who aren’t “household” names but whose contributions to the adventure gaming hobby remain essential. These first-hand accounts remain essential to those seeking primary sources on the earliest days of roleplaying games, especially from luminaries who have since passed away.

Catalog Information: By far Heroic Worlds’ most impressive accomplishment remains its catalog listing of what seems like every roleplaying game product ever published through 1990. Entries include valuable publication reference information like authors, cover artists, interior artists, format, page count, publisher name, and publication date. Schick includes brief summaries of each product, expanding on the subject and contents, and occasionally including his own opinions...all contributing to small, insightful tidbits on nearly every item cataloged.

Author Lawrence Schick remains one of the key personalities of the roleplaying game industry’s early days – giving him an excellent perspective to assemble the catalog and contact fellow luminaries for the insights he included in Heroic Worlds – though he’s not as well-known as many others with more recognizable names. He served as head of design and development at TSR in the early 1980s (what I frequently call “The Golden Age of Roleplaying”) and was responsible for hiring such luminaries as Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook. His greatest claim to fame comes from designing the infamous Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module S2 White Plume Mountain. Like many of his fellow game designers of the period he later moved into the electronic gaming industry, including game-related work with America Online (AOL).

What can readers learn from Heroic Worlds today?

* Compiling a comprehensive catalog of every available product – complete with accurate author and product information – even back before the boom in roleplaying games during the 1990s was a Herculean task, and might prove daunting even with today’s technology.

* The internet helps find game information. In its time Heroic Worlds served as a great resource for gamers and collectors, documenting the products published to date with enough information to give customers an idea whether a game supplement was worth pursuing. Today publisher websites, game forums, and reviews help gamers make these decisions.

* A sense of wonder still comes from reading about early roleplaying game developments from the people who pioneered them.

* Even back then, in the early days of roleplaying games, companies and games came and went.

* Heroic Worlds offers an interesting perspective about the exponential growth of games (a subject I’ve discussed before); if all the game products published in the first 15 years of the roleplaying game industry could fill a 448-page book, how many pages could the games published in the hobby’s first 40 years fill?

The Complete Wargames Handbook

I’ve dabbled in wargames – both the board-and-chit as well as the miniatures varieties – for years, but never to the same degree as roleplaying games. But when I found a copy of James Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them (revised edition) at a recent convention flea market, I grabbed it to add to a small but growing collection of non-fiction books about gaming (my “academic” gaming bookshelf). Published in1992, it’s a contemporary volume to Heroic Worlds for a different aspect of the adventure gaming hobby...arguably one that’s been around for a little longer than roleplaying games.

The Complete Wargames Handbook offers a broad overview of the board-and-chit wargaming hobby, with a number of specific insights from the author’s involvement as founder of Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), publisher of Strategy & Tactics magazine, and a prolific writer and game designer. Chapters cover such diverse subjects as “What Is A Wargame?” “How to Play,” why people play wargames, designing wargames, their history (up to the date of publication), a look at player demographics, computer wargames, and “Wargames at War.” Most chapters offer information useful to both players and designers. Dunnigan’s style remains conversational and easily digestible, as if he’s having a casual conversation with readers about wargames. He also demonstrates many concepts he discusses through a small wargame included within the book itself: The Drive on Metz: September 1944. Dunnigan devotes about a third of the book to computer wargames, though the lessons applied there derive from and inform development of analog board-and-chit wargames.

Dunnigan offers several insider revelations garnered from his years in wargame publishing and consumer surveys conducted through Strategy & Tactics magazine:

Rules Master: While discussing designing a wargame, Dunnigan reveals how at SPI they maintained a “rules master” file on computer with the core text of rules one could easily customize and modify for the current game. He attributes the practice to Avalon Hill’s Tom Shaw whom he once asked how to start writing the rules to a game. “It’s simple. You simply take the last game we published and use it as a model.” Many wargames using basic core concepts in the style of the one he provides in the book could easily fit into that mold, with existing rules updated and amended for the combatants, terrain, and period; but this technique would hardly suffice at all for today’s complex card, board, and roleplaying game rules.

Guidance: Dunnigan’s “Designing Wargames” chapter contains his 10 steps or guidelines to designing a wargame, each demonstrated using The Drive on Metz as an example. His advice includes “Keep It Simple” and “Plagiarize,” as he states, “a dramatic way of saying ‘Use available techniques’” (as demonstrated in his use of the “rules master”).

Solitaire Play: After having conducted numerous surveys from Strategy & Tactics readers, Dunnigan claims solitaire play is the preferred play style for wargamers:

“Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers. The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.... For those players who do like to play with opponents, solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success.”

Solo gamers across the adventure gaming hobby sometimes feel odd about playing multi-player games on their own. Dunnigan provides logical justification for solitaire gaming, both as a prelude to play against live opponents and as a purely solitary activity in the enjoyment of games (and study of history).

Historiography: Dunnigan offers an insider’s perspective on both the history of wargames and the challenges that plagued what at times has seemed like an ailing hobby. He also includes a list of “current” wargame publishers and magazines at the time, many of which no longer exist.

James Dunnigan is one of the luminaries of the wargaming industry. Besides his work with SPI and Strategy & Tactics he’s been inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design Hall of Fame, written numerous books on military subjects, and designed an impressive host of games. BoardGameGeek.com called him “One of the most important figures in the history of wargaming.”

Readers can still learn a great deal from The Complete Wargames Handbook today. Dunnigan’s guidance in designing games – whether or not one uses the “rules master” technique – remains helpful, particularly toward those with “unpublished games” (as he says, “I deliberately refrain from calling them ‘amateur’ because I am consistently impressed by the quality of unpublished games compared to many of those that are published”). The Drive on Metz itself proves an easy introduction to board-and-chit wargaming. Unfortunately this aspect of the adventure gaming hobby has continued its decline, with a few notable surges, in the face of other far more successful and visible aspects like collectible card games, roleplaying games, and even historical miniatures wargames.

Alas, both Heroic Worlds and The Complete Wargames Handbook remain out of print and the realm of second-hand book dealers. James Dunnigan has made the text of his book available for free reading online. I am glad to own paper copies of both volumes, for they help fill out a slowly growing shelf holding books about games to better inform my meager game design efforts.

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