Way back in my high school days I frequently took refuge in the library. During the occasional free period each week (after suffering through mandatory “study hall” as a freshman) I’d hang out in the library using the now-extinct card catalog to research interesting subjects (mostly geared toward my Dungeons & Dragons hobby), browsing for science fiction to read (not much at the time), and even trying out new game designs with friends in the group study area (until a British librarian kicked us out for “gambling” because we were using six-sided dice...).
a website accessible through paid subscription. While one might
consult Wikipedia and other online repositories of group-contributed
knowledge, the old DLB still holds authority (at least for me)
with edited, well-researched materials under a tried-and-true brand.
As part of my fascination with the adventure gaming hobby – as a
young amateur and older professional – I’ve always taken an
interest in the life experiences of people behind my favorite games.
It started in high school when a supportive English teacher
encouraged me to investigate and write about the creation of Dungeons
& Dragons for a major research paper. From the school
library’s meager holdings of newspapers and magazines on microfilm
I gleaned a very basic biography of Gary Gygax and his development of
D&D, TSR’s meteoric rise, and the controversy
surrounding the game in the early and mid 1980s. I later reworked
portions of the research paper into several articles for the
extremely amateurish gaming fanzine I produced at the time. It was
fine for a high school junior but miserably incomplete by even the
most meager journalistic standards.
a comprehensive tome covering
game lines and individual game product up to the time of its
publication. While it didn’t offer biographies of prominent
roleplaying game designers, it presented several essays about games
and game design by industry notables at the time, including Dave
Arneson and Gary Gygax, Greg Gorden, Steve Jackson, Tom Moldvay,
Sandy Petersen, Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Michael A.
Stackpole. The recently published Designers & Dragons
series of books focuses more on game companies and their product,
occasionally mentioning prominent designers; more so in the early
volumes, when such personalities helped shape the hobby, and far less
so in subsequent volumes when designers and their contributions seem
a dime a dozen and hence rarely worth mentioning unless truly
groundbreaking or controversial. Brent Newhall’s Old School Renaissance Handbook – perhaps the only survey of popular OSR
games – focuses more on the systems than the creators, though it
includes interviews with several designers that provide more insight
into their games and views on mechanics than engaging biographical
information. Other recent efforts at constructing a history of the
roleplaying game hobby and its notable personalities include Jon
Peterson’s Playing at the World (about which I’ve written before) and Michael Witwer’s “bio-pic” style Empire of the
Imagination, which, while not as scholarly as I’d like, relied
on both archival ephemera and interviews.
I enjoy historical analysis of gaming trends – themes,
mechanics, genres, marketing strategies – but existing work often
only briefly touches on the people behind the games. As those
designers and illustrators who founded the adventure gaming hobby
begin passing away people start paying more attention to their
legacies and the insightful, often unpublished ephemera they left
behind: notes, correspondence, maps, doodles, and other bits that
could lend insight into their design inspirations at the time. Some
works like Playing at the World and even Empire of the
Imagination have analyzed these artifacts and expanded our
understanding through interviews; I’d love to see this material
available for others to examine and present in more academic formats.
One of the more notable legacy projects – The Tékumel Foundation –
strives to “support and protect the literary works and all related
products and activities surrounding Professor M.A.R. Barker’s world
of Tékumel and the Empire of the Petal Throne.”
Certainly the contributors to some of the first roleplaying games
in the field deserve more academically written and editorially vetted
biographies to summarize their achievements, analyze their impact on
the hobby, and offer insight into the lives they led. What form this
might take and the rationale behind the approach remains uncertain.
Some intrepid authors mentioned above have undertaken projects of
this magnitude, though not specifically one this biographically
focused. Aside from the basic questions – who would undertake this
task, why would they take it, what profit does it hold, and what
format would such a work take – this endeavor raises a host of
concerns and complications. What and who determines the importance of
one’s contribution to the adventure gaming hobby? Does enough
documentation and ephemera exist to compose an objective biography?
What weight do interviews with the subject have, considering they are
naturally biased? Does one organize it chronologically by author
contributions? Does the work include only those contributors who have
passed away? While it might seem safer to profile only those
adventure gaming hobby notables who have passed on, the DLB –
and certainly the science fiction/fantasy editions I perused in my
youth – included authors still living; I think I might have found
Larry Niven’s mailing address in one and sent him some interview
questions for an article in my amateur gaming zine.... What author
would want to navigate the touchy personal landscape of gaming
notables still living with vested interest in forging and preserving
a positive legacy in gaming? Reading about game designers in the
aforementioned sources – and having worked professionally in the
adventure gaming hobby myself – I’m painfully aware how
contentious and at times downright nasty game designers (and people
in general) can become when defending their creations.
Having outlined this daunting project I’d love to read – even
edit – I’ve also convinced myself this is certainly not an
endeavor I personally would want to undertake as a writer. Until
someone else accepts such a challenge, or one like it, I’ll remain
marginally satisfied with what I’ve seen so far.
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