Playing at the World, Winning at History

(Note: I know I try to keep this blog mostly devoted to documentation of actual play, but I think this is the appropriate place to put this. I started this review thinking it might be interesting reading on Ferretbrain, but on balance I think the subject matter, whilst fascinating as an example of subcultural history, is still probably too niche for a more general audience. Hence its appearance here.)

Although the idea of a scholarly examination of the history of Dungeons & Dragons may sound like an exercise which can only be interesting to hobbyists, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is also a genuinely interesting artifact in its own right, since it’s not so much a cultural history as a subcultural history. Peterson’s methodology is to begin with a detailed and focused examination of the specific subculture that Dungeons & Dragons arose in – the wargaming fandom which had grown up around Avalon Hill’s board-and-counter wargames and various miniatures wargames – and details how Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their early players and collaborators met through this fandom and what each of the main inventors of the game contributed. Following this introduction, Peterson then spends three chapters more closely investigating the history of wargaming, the fantasy genre, and the concept of roleplaying itself, and how each of the three are incorporated into the original game. This is important not only as a means of giving the game an autopsy and seeing what it ticks, but also to try and recapture the point of view of wargamers and fantasy fans of the era when coming to the fifth chapter, which examines the reception of the game, the development of the fan community, and the interactions between TSR and that community (and some of TSR’s internal politics) during the period between the original release of the game and 1977 – an appropriate enough point to leave the detailed history of the game, since it is then that the original three-booklet boxed set began to be supplanted by the new J. Eric Holmes-edited basic set and the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. An epilogue gives a brief overview of the wider impact of the game – its influence on early videogames (both CRPGs and text adventures which Peterson notes rely on a similar “dialogic” structure to tabletop RPGs) in particular, but also the cultural controversy surrounding the game (which, like most impotent accusations of Satanism levied at pop culture, did wonders for sales).

What sets the book apart from previous accounts of the history of the hobby is Peterson’s deliberate attempts to excise anecdotal accounts offered up years after the fact from his considerations. So far as I can tell, Peterson conducted no interviews when it came to compiling this history; instead, he has consulted a mountain of source material from the eras under discussion, ranging from centuries-old German kriegsspiel manuals to the magazines and fanzines which served as the forums for gaming and fandom discussion in the pre-Internet era. In the process of doing so he accomplishes an unparalleled level of detail and can unpick who is responsible for what innovation whilst setting aside the frequently self-contradictory and self-aggrandising claims made by various parties years after the event.

Many reading the book will, of course, be primarily interested in the old controversy over just how much credit Gygax and Arneson should respectively get for the creation of D&D, and whilst Peterson reserves judgement he provides more than enough information for the reader to make their own call. (In brief: Arneson may have credit for the initial flash of inspiration, but Arneson’s collection of fuzzy ad hoc rulings and methods needed substantial work to turn into a game other people can pick up and play, and Gygax was the perfect guy to do precisely that – not least because Arneson’s campaign drew a lot of inspiration from the Chainmail wargame rules which Gygax had penned in the first place. Weighing up the facts presented here I’m inclined to say that Gygax deserved the greater name recognition and the lion’s share of the credit which he received, because it’s fairly clear that he did the bulk of the work in actually communicating the game to a wider audience and aggressively promoting it, and without that work the concept might have been simply one of several experiments from the era which lacked longevity due to a failure to present the idea in an accessible form which others could replicate.)

However, Peterson also uncovers just how many concepts actually came from the fandom – he traces, for instance, where the term “Dungeon Master” first appeared in print, and highlights how the thief class was first offered up by Gygax in a magazine article where he freely admits to adapting the idea from a suggestion provided by one of the game’s early adopters. The early debates in the fandom over just how much credence should be given to Gygax’s views on how the game is to be played, as well as TSR’s efforts to curtail piracy of the rules sets (which was apparently widespread) and increasing aggressiveness over its trademarks will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to controversies in the RPG community, because the arguments have essentially continued in varying forms to this day.

Although he doesn’t set them out in a single summary of what he believes an RPG is, Peterson does identify a set of features which he repeatedly emphasise in his discussion of both D&D and its various predecessors. Most important these are the principle that “anything can be attempted” – it is not the rules of the game that limit the range of things a player may choose to have their character try to do in the game, but the imagination of the player. Of course, the rules and the game and the implicit constraints of the scenario might mean that some actions simply aren’t viable – a character who lacks some form of telepathy isn’t going to be doing much mind-reading – but as I’ve pointed out in a previous article, the existence of constraints in a posited fictional world can still give rise to an infinite number of possibilties within those constraints, and experienced RPG gamemasters will know that the players will usually pick one of the infinite number of actions you hadn’t thought of. The use of a human referee is what gives RPGs this unique selling point – as advanced as CRPGs are now they’re not going to be able to offer quite the same thing until computers become capable of imaginative improvisation, a skill that even some humans find overwhelming – and Peterson is able to point to clear precedents of wargaming setups (mostly for the purposes of military officer training or Cold War policy studies) in which participants had a similar amount of freedom.

The second defining characteristic Peterson identifies is the “dialogic” framework of RPGs – the idea that the game primarily consists of a dialogue between the GM and the players in which the GM describes a changing situation and the players declare their characters’ responses to it. In particular, Peterson emphasises the importance of direct, face-to-face dialogue; whilst in-character correspondence occurred to a large extent in postal Diplomacy games, Peterson argues that this is necessarily a less immersive experience than having an in-character discussion in real time, mostly due to the delays in postage at the time; a play-by-mail game attempting to track events on the minute-by-minute scale of D&D combat would become tedious in the extreme. This leads into another departure from previous offerings – the assumption that D&D is played in groups consisting of one referee and multiple players, which both the board-and-counter and miniatures wargaming communities would have found incredible at the time – many wargamers struggled to find even one local opponent at the time, hence the popularity of play-by-mail games. (Of course, the existence of tools like Roll20 has alleviated the need for gamers to meet face-to-face, though the “dialogic” structure of play still applies.)

The next ingredient Peterson identifies is player identification with and control of a single character, as opposed to controlling an entire army. This, obviously, is an even bigger aid to immersion – commanding an entire army is inherently going to make you feel distant from the action, whereas if you have only one character to focus on then threats to them will have correspondingly more impact on you.

Peterson additionally identifies simulation as being a major aspect of tabletop RPGs, though this isn’t such a distinctive identifying characteristic of them compared with other games – as Peterson describes it, they are part of a family of games dealing in simulation of real or imagined scenarios (as opposed to being completely abstract affairs like poker), with CRPGs being a notable descendent and wargames being a direct ancestor. Some who are into what’s called “RPG theory” (online discussions which attempt to apply serious thought to tabletop RPGs to try and see what sees them tick, and often don’t live up to that hype because they end up using jargon as a cheap substitute for academic rigour) might balk at the use of “simulation” here. A lot of RPG theory revolves around so-called “threefold models” which divide the motivations of participants in an RPG (or the decisions of GMs, or the emphasis of game systems, or whatever the RPG theorist responsible for this particular presentation wants to emphasise) into three categories, which usually break down to “experiencing a convincing simulation”, “telling a good story” and “playing a challenging and well-balanced game”.

In fact, although Peterson doesn’t bring RPG theory into the discussion, you can trawl up examples of all of these motivations from the fanzine discussions cited here, though this is probably down to the different threefold categories being so broad and generalistic (despite sounding quite specific) that most RPG related discussions could be hammered into one, two or all of them. (Threefold models are a bit like astrology in that respect.) What Peterson correctly identifies is that, whatever the motivations at work in an RPG are, in practice the simulation of a scenario is always a factor: like wargames, RPGs don’t provide a balanced and challenging game in an abstract vacuum, they contextualise the game in terms of the simulation, and obviously a story is going to comprise a series of events happening in a setting (even if it would be daft and reductionist to reduce stories solely to that level, and the Forge and “story games” movements involve a lot of games whose mechanics are more about assigning narrative power than they are about trying to simulate fictional events happening in a fictional setting). Furthermore, it seems clear that an awful lot of the work in creating Dungeons & Dragons itself hinged on setting the parameters of the simulation – working out how to measure the comparative abilities of characters, deciding on the attributes and powers of specific monsters in a way which goes beyond even medieval bestiaries when it comes to applying a system to what are essentially folkloric entities with few (if any) consistent attributes in the source material, working out how magic works and producing lists of spells, and so on.

RPG theory aficionados of the Forge party may also want to take issue with Peterson’s regular use of “immersion” when referring to one of the singular joys of tabletop RPGs, since it’s an axiom of Forge theory that immersion does not exist. To be fair, this is a reaction against discourse about immersion on other fora (such as where people went somewhat over the top in their discussion of how immersion feels to them, but if we take a fairly general definition of immersion – being sufficiently emotionally and intellectually caught up in an RPG that you’re primarily thinking about what your character is experiencing, possibly from the point of view of your character, in much the same way as you can get sufficiently engrossed in a movie that you stop thinking about the fact that you’re in a cinema – Peterson demonstrates that the pursuit of immersion has clearly been a motivation for RPGs from the word go, and indeed similar experiences were chased after before tabletop RPGs even existed.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of the book, which is how Peterson is able to identify multiple almost-but-not-quite cases. There were, indeed, some games and activities which managed to incorporate some or all of the distinctive features emphasised by Peterson but never quite managed to make the leap to creating a commercial product that could communicate the RPG idea to others. Although Peterson’s historical sweep when looking into the ancestry of wargaming and historical precedents for roleplaying is impressive, taking into subjects as early as the development of chess in the former category and the Brontë siblings’ Glass Confederacy make-believe in the latter, Peterson makes a credible argument that a game like D&D probably couldn’t have been made much earlier than the mid-20th Century; in particular, for a long time wargames aspiring to a greater degree of realism for chess were entirely too expensive to be mass consumer products, or used primarily for military training as opposed to fun, or were just considered to be too babyish to be a serious hobby for adults.

A brief flowering of the hobby might have been possible earlier in the century, except the World Wars proved sufficiently disruptive to nip that in the bud. It was only in the 1950s that the hobby community developed to the point where there was a really vigorous exchange of ideas going on – the sort of exchange of ideas from which ideas for game mechanics could be cherrypicked as necessary. Without that community, Arneson may well never have heard of the “Braustein” freeform one-shots which inspired him (Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign essentially being an ongoing Braustein in which the events and rulings from previous sessions carried over into subsequent sessions), nor would he have had anyone to try out his new idea with, nor would Gygax have tried out Arneson’s new concept, nor would Gygax have any idea whether there was even an appetite for fantasy-themed wargames and similar games.

The presence of the fantasy fandom also helped; to Peterson, the subgenre of the visitation fantasy (which ranges from Harry Potter to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to even earlier precedents), a subset of fantasy involving people from our world visiting fantastical world and having awesome adventures, is a good example of how fantasy caters to a desire for escapism and an urge to set aside the concerns of the real world for a time in favour of a world where overwhelming real-life problems don’t apply for a time being. (Peterson theorises that the reason that the hippies latched onto The Lord of the Rings, despite having more or less no values in common with Tolkien, was that they found the Vietnam War so depressingly murky that they liked imagining a world where the conflicts are simple and have clear good and bad sides.) This is why Peterson believes that tabletop RPGs kicked off within the fantasy genre, rather than more popular settings for wargaming like the Napoleonic era, the American Civil War, or World War II or III: there was more demand amongst fantasy fans than history buffs at the times for opportunities to imagine themselves as residents of a particular setting.

The most compelling almost-but-not-quite cases Peterson identifies all arose in a short time before the emergence of Dungeons & Dragons and all bring together at least some of the distinctive features of RPGs Peterson has identified. However, none of them caught on as commercial products and none of them managed to cross the subculture gaps; some arose in wargaming and stayed in wargaming, some arose in SF fandom and stayed in SF fandom. On the fandom side, of course, you have LARP events clearly predating the tabletop RPG hobby: the Society for Creative Anachronism’s activities are an obvious example, and Peterson also provides a fascinating account of the Coventry phenomenon in Los Angeles, which probably qualifies as a sort of LARP. Inspired by childhood let’s pretend games played with neighbours, Coventry’s originator Paul Stanbery put together a far-future SF setting in a fantastic starship with artificial environments simulating the settings of fantasy fiction and inhabited by resurrected people from past centuries. The initial Coventry stories published in LA fantasy fanzines tended to be good-natured (or, at times, not so good-natured) piss-takes of other local fans through the device of featuring parodies of them as characters in the setting; soon enough, people started to feel attached to their Coventry characters and began contributing their own stories about them, the affectation spread, and eventually participants actually started dressing as their Coventry characters and bringing up Coventry business in LA fandom meetings. People were sufficiently committed to staying in character that it must have points have become unclear as to whether someone was merely playing or had seriously thrown a gear.

The issue Coventry seems to have had is that it wasn’t really a game – indeed, precisely what Coventry was seems, on the basis of Peterson’s research, to have been something which was never actually firmly decided to everyone’s satisfaction. Was it primarily an exercise in writing satirical stories about fandom, or more than that? One of the defining features of a game – not counting risible nerd in-jokes like The Game – is that it has clearly defined boundaries – the participants and non-participants are clearly defined, the activities which take place in the game and the way you interact with it is clearly defined, and so on. Coventry, as a phenomenon that happened more or less by accident, had no such safety net. People could and did feature people in Coventry stories without seeking permission, understandably making the subjects of such stories feel that they were being dragged into something they never asked to be part of. Arguments raged over whether people showing up to Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meetings and injecting lots of Coventry-related business into proceedings were making a nuisance of themselves. Soon enough Coventry came under attack from The Guardian – ostensibly a Coventry character, actually a sort of pre-Internet troll, who expended a lot of energy in mercilessly mocking the Coventry participants for their level to which they took their immersion in the setting. On the other side, some fans were clearly taking the whole thing too far – one participant, Bruce Pelz, seems to have at least semi-seriously speculated about something he called “Operation Flip-Back”, an experiment in using hypnosis and psychedelic drugs to mentally project oneself to Coventry and leave the real world behind entirely.

Efforts by Stanbery and Ted Johnstone, who had become a sort of quasi-gamemaster for Coventry, to put the genie back into the bottle proved fruitless and, at points, somewhat bizarre; for example, after calling a meeting of the major participants in Coventry, which they all attended in-character and in-costume, Stanbery tried to get them all to co-sign a document admitting that Coventry wasn’t actually real and setting clear bounds for Coventry activities, a stunt which prompted a great deal of dissent. (In retrospect, it seems rather odd to try and get people to approach the meeting from the perspective of their characters, and then have them sign a document declaring their characters are not real; surely such an undertaking ought to be taken from an out-of-character stance.) Coventry soon died a bitter and acrimonious death.

Similar levels of dissent doomed an attempt at a proto-roleplaying game – or rather, a series of attempts – called Midgard. Evolving from the postal Diplomacy scene and like efforts, Midgard would have had most of the elements Peterson cites as being essential to RPGs: each participant had a single character, whose actions they declared using a dialogic framework (though via mail rather than in direct conversation), and through that means characters could attempt anything they desired. The level of immersion was likely to be less than a really tense D&D game since game turns spanned weeks or months rather than the more down-to-the-minute timescale tabletop RPGs can cover, but for the most part the ingredients were there.

There were two things missing: rules, and refereeing authority. In a frankly bizarre decision – perhaps born of the fact that nobody had really attempted a play-by-mail game quite like this before and therefore he had little to no idea how to actually run a game like this – Midgard prime mover Hartley Patterson decided that the rules would not be set in stone by him from the start: instead, he produced a first draft of the rules document, and then set it loose so that the Midgard community could digest it and propose amendments via submissions to the fanzines that acted as the focal points of the various attempts at running Midgard. This may have been intended as an exercise in direct democracy, but it’s clear from the evidence Peterson summarises in the book that the end result was anarchy: along with other delays and logistical difficulties, the games were often indefinitely postponed (typically collapsing even before the first turn) because of raging debates and disagreements over precisely what directions the rules should take. In fact, as far as Peterson manages to establish it seems that no actual play of Midgard occurred until after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons – and, indeed, concepts from Dungeons & Dragons were incorporated into Midgard wholesale thanks to the game finally providing a framework for the experience the game sought to deliver. (Hartley Patterson, for his part, apparently now finds running Midgard as a weekly tabletop RPG using the Runequest system suits his needs nicely.)

As mentioned above, the almost-but-not-quite which was the direct ancestor of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign were the “Braustein” model of games invented by David Wesely. These originated in an attempt to add a multiplayer element to a two-player Napoleonic wargame: in the original scenario, the two opposing armies were controlled by two players as normal, but they were specifically attempting to take and hold the fictional town of Braustein, whose occupants (the local priest, the head of the university, the mayor and so on) were controlled by various other players. Wesely, inspired by military wargames such as Strategos (in which a referee essentially comes up with on-the-spot rulings to deal with unexpected situations, specifically to allow players to attempt things not covered by the rules), as well as the make-negotiations-then-write-orders structure of Diplomacy, found the Braustein games difficult and chaotic to manage, since he had to deal with a lot of different people’s conflicting inputs and often found processing turns very time-consuming.

The end result of which is that the Brausteins tended to be self-contained and shambolic affairs. Arneson’s contribution to this model seems to have been adapting it to a fantasy setting and presenting it in an ongoing campaign in which characters persist from game session to game session and become more powerful as they progress (an aspect of D&D which people seem very excited about in the early fan reaction documented by Peterson here), but Gygax’s contribution seems to have been arguably more important: by giving a baseline rules infrastructure for this sort of game, Gygax provided a framework in which Midgard-alikes or Braustein-type games could take place. Of course, player ingenuity being what it is you often end up dealing with situations not covered by the rules anyway, but the tools available in Dungeons & Dragons for dealing with this sort of thing are specifically adapted for one-character-per-player play and help set the context for play, turning refereed “anything can happen, anything can be attempted” games from experiments dabbled in here and there and into something other people can actually pick up and use.

Perhaps the most important advantage of Peterson’s approach in which the influence of non-contemporary sources are minimised is that Peterson is able to get a rough idea of how audiences at the time would have approached white box Dungeons & Dragons – and in particular, to identify the gaps in the rules which experienced gamers often don’t notice because it’s become received wisdom to us. For example, the original D&D rules don’t overtly specify that wizards forget their spells once they are cast and have to rememorise them daily – an omission which completely transforms the magic system, and the experience of the game as a whole. Peterson is also able to identify how skilled wargamers were able to paste over the gaps using their previous knowledge of Chainmail and other systems influencing the design of Dungeons & Dragons, but where conversely SF fans with little prior wargaming experience were left floundering, leading to some devising decidedly divergent homebrewed rules.

In fact, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Peterson’s account of the reception of Dungeons & Dragons is its narrative of how it bridged the wargaming fandom and the SF fandom, and how the resultant RPG fandom ended up having this hybrid character and a range of divergent aims and goals arising from the different perspectives each fandom brought to the table. A particularly startling difference is the inclusion of women, which Peterson does bring up regularly (and to his credit he does note instances where Gygax or TSR made statements or printed articles which made female players feel unwelcome). Although the early tabletop RPG movement had a highly skewed gender ratio (and these days it’s not enormously better – in some local gaming subcultures it has improved substantially, in others it’s no different, and I imagine in others things have actually regressed), the pre-D&D wargaming subculture seems to have been shockingly homogeneous.

Gygax and a few others seem to have stood out on issues such as their disapproval of the Vietnam war; for the most part, the wargaming fandom was quite conservative, and in terms of voices making themselves heard it seems to have been virtually exclusively male. Peterson’s expansive studies of fanzines and gaming publications from the era reveal a world where women could very, very occasionally be seen (wives and girlfriends were apparently allowed to play in Fletcher Pratt’s naval wargames, for instance) but were almost never heard. The quotes Peterson pulls from the wargaming fandom are almost entirely from men, and this does not seem to be the result of cherry-picking on Peterson’s part so much as an incredible scarcity of women writing about wargaming; indeed, when SPI released Linda Mosca’s Battle of the Wilderness, it was claimed that she was “the first published woman wargame designer”.

Conversely, whilst there have certainly been reactionary trends and sentiments in SF fandom since its inception which have continued to this day, the SF fandom of the era which heartily welcomed Dungeons & Dragons did at least have somewhat more prominent female participation. As well as the SF New Wave opening the door to a range of women writing SF being taken seriously (including Ursula LeGuin and Marion Zimmer Bradley), one of the most important names in Dungeons & Dragons fandom from the SF side of the equation – if not the most important name, at least in terms of the early reception of the game – was that of Lee Gold. Her Alarums & Excursions fanzine provided one of the first (and certainly the biggest) forum for D&D discussion outside of the control of TSR (as opposed to The Strategic Review and Dragon, which were both TSR publications), and its contributors not only produced a wealth of fan material for the game but also provided an important challenge to the one-true-wayism which began to seep out of TSR as the nascent company attempted to maximise its profits from the burgeoning D&D craze. It is clear from Playing at the World that women played and refereed Dungeons & Dragons from the very beginning, and gained prominent positions both in fanzine discussion communities and on local gaming scenes in a way which just hadn’t been seen on the wargaming side of the equation. (Readers of the book may find it an interesting exercise to ponder whether the RPG community has become more or less welcoming to women over the intervening years.)

I’ve already gone on too long about the book, which I suppose is a measure of just how much is stuffed in its 700 pages. Playing at the World absolutely puts past efforts at gamer scholarship to shame, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the wider history of the hobby – though if you’re just curious as to what the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons was like, it’d probably be faster, easier and cheaper to just play a couple of sessions of White Box Swords & Wizardry, a retro-clone of the original rules. Those who can’t get enough of Peterson’s trawl through gaming prehistory can find additional material on his blog.

17 thoughts on “Playing at the World, Winning at History

  1. Thanks for this favorable and detailed review. It’s rare that I read reviews that really do take in the whole scope of the book – most people narrow in on some aspect of particular interest. You give here a far more detailed summary than I’ve seen others provide, and a great sense of the scope and purpose of the work. Thanks again!

    1. Yeah, that’s pretty much why I didn’t put it on Ferretbrain – trimming it to keep it interesting to an audience of gamers and non-gamers alike would have forced me to jettison so much I wouldn’t have felt I was giving it a proper overview.

      Thanks for stopping by, and congrats again on the book.

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