Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Playing at the World: An Essential Gaming History

I’ve finally finished reading the almost 700-page dissertation-sized masterpiece Playing at the World, Jon Peterson’s expansive examination of the earliest days of roleplaying games – centered on Dungeons & Dragons – and the long history of varied elements that coalesced in the 1960s and 1970s to enable its creation and sustain its popularity. The book stands as perhaps the most comprehensive, scholarly history of the birth of roleplaying games. If you’re interested in the background behind the roleplaying game hobby in its formative years, I highly recommend you read Playing at the World.

That said, this tome and its all-encompassing stroll through gaming history isn’t for everyone. It’s an amazingly comprehensive work, complete with a detailed table of contents, long list of sources, and helpful index. The subject matter at times might seem tedious, particularly when it explores issues that might not engage some roleplaying gamers’ interests, such as the early history of German Kriegsspiele and wargames in general, the various fiction genres that inspired game designers, the imaginative endeavors of sci-fi fandom, and the origins and development of various roleplaying game mechanics. Some readers might not care for the numerous footnotes scattered across nearly every page; but I found in them interesting tangents, coincidental bits of information, and overall tertiary details enhancing the historical narrative. Peterson sometimes encourages readers to skip the deeper analysis he offers to reach more appealing subjects, though slogging through more difficult portions provides an appreciation for the numerous element that helped D&D and the fledgling roleplaying game hobby emerge.

Anything Can Be Attempted”

The book’s central theme focuses on the concept that “anything can be attempted” within the framework of the game, one of its great novelties and yet one of its complications as D&D came into its own and players began developing their own mechanics to accommodate seemingly infinite possibilities of character actions. All precursors and inspirations for roleplaying games involve some degree of “anything can be attempted,” whether limiting that concept within the scope of early games or expanding on it in the activities of fantasy fiction and fan groups. Playing at the World explores the development of elements that would eventually form core concepts in roleplaying games by examining other phenomena from which such ideas emerged, all within the scope of players ability to try anything.

Peterson begins by describing the gaming scene in the 1960s and early 1970s before the appearance of D&D. Most of this focuses on wargaming clubs, their newsletters, and memberships, primarily the involvement of many of those directly responsible for D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, among others frequently mentioned throughout the narrative. The chapter also focuses on Gygax’s and Arneson’s individual efforts in wargaming clubs and design (and distribution) of their original wargames. The development of the Chainmail miniature rules, with additions for fantasy elements, along with Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, and the miniature battle Braunstein campaign, all contributed to the immediate conditions conducive to D&D’s advent among its principle designers.

The next few chapters divert from the central story of Gygax, Arneson, D&D, and TSR to investigate various non-gaming factors that contributed to both the creative endeavor of designing the game and the cultivation of a base of interested consumers beyond wargamers; how they might have influenced D&D’s designers and game rules that appeared in the original edition, mechanics and terminology that set the precedent for many games to come. Peterson surveys the medieval fantasy fiction available at the time, mentioning many titles later to be included in “Appendix N.” He correlates elements from fiction with concepts in D&D, such as the various character classes, alignments, equipment, and magical items. Peterson demonstrates how some fiction used the “visitation” theme, in which the protagonist from contemporary times visits a past or alternate medieval fantasy setting for a while, much like in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. This concept feeds into the idea of roleplaying game players escaping into a fantasy setting for a short period. The chapter on “The Rules of the Game” challenges readers with a comprehensive history and game-mechanic analysis of wargames, particularly the early German Kriegsspiele of the 19th century and later wargaming efforts – including those of Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells, Fred Jane and Fletcher Pratt – with emphasis on how elements of those games prefigured specific systems within the D&D rules (such as systems of damage, hot points, armor class, saving throws, and advancement through experience). The fourth chapter, “Roles and Immersion,” follows the burgeoning fandom of the time, especially movements in which fans immersed themselves in published or self-created fantasy worlds; these efforts helped cultivate a consumer base seeking more opportunities to engage more actively in fantasy settings. Finally Peterson picks up where he let off in the historical narrative of D&D’s development, publishing, amazing success, fan enthusiasm, and controversies, all leading up to the point at which the original little books were supplanted by the rules-tome trilogy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Although Peterson’s focus can sometimes veer off on tangents or quite explicitly explore specific game mechanics, his overall style remains fairly accessible in an enjoyably narrative way. The theme that D&D presented a game framework within which “anything can be attempted” remains a constant reminder of its novelty at the time of its publication. Throughout the history readers become involved in shorter anecdotes demonstrating how these distant aspects coalesced into a set of rules for an entirely different kind of game genre with an enthusiastically creative consumer base ready to immerse itself in D&D and contribute in its own way to that game and others at the time.

Enlightening Revelations

During the long journey reading and absorbing Playing at the World I encountered a host of interesting bits I’d not known before or only fully realized upon reading Peterson’s synthesis of elements inspiring early roleplaying games:

Publications & Community: The book demonstrates how print publications both amateur and professional helped bring together communities integral to the formation and popularity of roleplaying games. The first examples consist of wargaming club newsletters, play-by-mail efforts, and Avalon Hill’s The General magazine, which not only offered a forum for new rules and scenarios but provided a venue where players could find other players...and ultimately designers could find other designers. The fan community used APA ’zines to share their enthusiasm for various sci-fi/fantasy media properties, their own fictional endeavors, and eventually roleplaying games. The reach of these printed, mailed publications remained small compared to our world-wide reach on the internet today, but it was still strong enough to create communities of creators and gamers.

Some Things Never Change: These communities also suffered from the same kinds of melodrama that still plagues gaming more than 40 years later...personality conflicts, claims of being the “first” to pioneer a game, mechanic, genre, or class of games, arguments over the “right” way to play, dissatisfied people creating and marketing their own games, the constant debate between playability and realism, creators threatening lawsuits over perceived violations of their intellectual property, friction between publishers, players, and fans.

Role of Conventions: Conventions for gamers, fiction fans, and others played an integral role in expanding and reinforcing the communities, exposing them to new ideas, and providing interaction where new concepts could develop. The book touches on the roles both GenCon and Origins played in cultivating gamers, introducing them to new product, and bringing together personalities who would bring to the adventure gaming hobby new and inspiring games.

It wasn't D&D, but it still had the forerunners
of armor class, hit points, and character sheets.
Early Wargames: In its sometimes exhaustive exploration of the history of wargames the book revealed to me some of the earlier efforts about which I didn’t know, particularly the detailed history and mechanics of the earliest German Kriegsspiele, Robert Louis Stevenson’s toy soldier games and Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargame, an unexpectedly popular wargame that not only fostered regular social events in the 1930s and 1940s but greatly influenced American naval simulation training of the time and predicted the outcome of the Battle of the River Plate (about which I’ll write more in an upcoming Hobby Games Recce post).

OD&D Playability & Extensibility: D&D as presented in the three little books of what we now commonly call “Old” or “Original” D&D – and the subsequent digest-sized supplements – offered a rather loosely described game with plenty of room for both interpretation and expansion. Remember those communities and ’zines I mentioned above? Each one had their own take on the rules, with house rules, new classes, dungeons, and visions of where the game should go. Many thought the roleplaying game concept of D&D was far too broadly innovative for definition and control by one man. The tide of player-created material surged despite a few “official” game releases and Dragon Magazine serving as TSR’s “official” platform for new rules; this mirrors the empowerment creators in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) used under the Open Game License (OGL) in creating their own versions of fantasy roleplaying games.

Variations in Play Style: People interpreted dungeon delving in their own way, usually filling it with far too much loot; but D&D’s creators demonstrated their dungeon style in convention games that featured numerous lethal traps that established the deadly “meat grinder” style of play and a sometimes adversarial relationship between players and dungeon masters.

Holmes Basic D&D: The Holmes edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons was intended more as a consolidation of the “Old D&D” rulebooks and supplements at a time when TSR was compiling, revising, and expanding the rules into the triumvirate of AD&D core rulebooks, a more complete version of the game outlined in the first releases. Its “basic” designation was meant to reflect its purpose as an introduction and clarification to the existing game as the line transformed into AD&D. (I’d always thought, from my backwards perspective, it was an earlier iteration of the Moldvay Basic D&D which served as my first exposure to the game.)

I regret my effusive ramblings about the numerous topics this book covers don’t do it justice. Playing at the World remains perhaps one of – if not the – essential histories of the advent of the roleplaying game hobby; certainly it’s the most scholarly of those available today. A similarly critical look at more than 40 years of roleplaying games would take far more meticulous research than has been done to date, despite at least one multi-volume “popular” history gleaned from internet sources and widely available publications. Few could approach Peterson’s synthesis of so many inspirational origins for D&D into a meaningful narrative shedding so much light on the themes and mechanics that permeate roleplaying games even to this day.

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