Playing At the World remains the definitive text of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and its context in the history of games, combining as it does a high level of academic rigour with a thorough reliance on hard documentary evidence, rather than the potentially confused, biased, or misremembered anecdotes offered by participants after the fact.
However, the fact remains that, whilst the latter-day remembrances of early games industry figures should be treated with the caution for the purposes of making an academic work, there is still a lot of interesting information that has been disclosed by such people over the years – often spread out over a large number of different forum posts. Some form of collation of all this information would be handy for future researchers.
Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series is a self-published attempt to produce just such a compilation, with the intent of focusing on the history of D&D from the formative experiences of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to 1985, when Gygax departed TSR. (A supplemental volume, subtitled The Steam Tunnel Incident, is a new edition of a pre-Hawk & Moor work by Kelly on the James Dallas Egbert case which I’ll look at another time.)
The Dragon Rises kicks off the narrative by giving some biographical details on Gygax and Arneson and recounting events up to Gygax’s completion of a first draft of the D&D rules, ending just as Gary is inviting his son and daughter to playtest his system with him.
To a certain extent the volume exposes the weaknesses of the oral history approach; because Gary was much more forthcoming than Arneson in later years when it came to discussing the history of the game (to the extent of becoming a regular presence on several web fora), Kelly inevitably ends up presenting a Gygax-heavy version of the history because he simply has more material to work with from Gygax. Then again, Arneson was hardly a prolific writer either, so Playing At the World had much the same problem, and Kelly does an excellent job of sifting through the stories that have come to us from those who played with Arneson in order to tease out details of his campaign events and his refereeing style.
Ultimately, the picture that emerges here is much the same as that presented in Playing At the World: Arneson made a number of important innovations at his table, but his rulings were improvised on the spot a lot of the time and there was no coherent, consistent system in a stable enough form for publication; it took Gygax to sit down and actually refine Arneson’s ideas into a form that other people could pick up and use.
Far from being redundant though, the volume presents fascinating insights into the events of Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign, as well as Gygax’s design methodology. For instance, we learn that Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign ran into issues which have regularly popped up ever since in the hobby – like what to do when one of the players can’t make it – and Gary would modify the parameters of an encounter on the fly depending on the power level and status of the adventuring party. (In the light of this the OSR tendency to let the dice roll as they may and to sneer at tailoring encounters to character level seems less “old school” than it might like to think it is.)
Another interesting fact that emerges very clearly from these anecdotes is the way Arneson’s game incorporated a big dose of player-versus-player action and didn’t assume at first an adventuring party of allies; indeed it, included arch-enemies played by other players reacting to the players’ activities, so the first dungeon adventure was as much a precursor to Dungeon Keeper as it was D&D. Conversely, partly due to the constraints of the demonstration game that Arneson ran for Gygax and friends on a visit to Lake Geneva, Gygax approached the initial design of the rules with the assumption that the players would play an adventuring party and (mostly) try to co-operate with each other, whereas the referee handled all the other characters. Thus, the extremely experimental format Arneson used was crystallised into the traditional RPG model by Gygax, who at least in part thought he was following Arneson’s example, making the invention of the traditional format something of a happy accident attributable to no one person’s inspiration.
The second volume, The Dungeons Deep, picks up the story with Gygax’s first playtest session of D&D with his son and daughter towards the end of 1972, and follows the process of refinement which both shaped the Greyhawk campaign and allowed Gygax to take a second pass at the rules. This second draft would essentially form the basis of the published game – Gygax rushing it into production as soon as finances allowed to stave off the possibility of some other publisher putting something out – and this volume chronicles that process and the foundation of TSR, taking us to just after the January 1974 release date of the game.
One notable thing about this volume is how Dave Arneson is barely a presence in it – though the Twin Cities Blackmoor group would get a playtest copy of the rules, along with selected testers dotted around the country, it seems that they were not as active in providing actual playtesting feedback as other groups were – and Gygax’s own Greyhawk saw intensive play over this time period. In some respects this creates a problem for this volume, since it offers up so many anecdotal stories about events in the campaign I found myself skimming at some points. Whereas some aspects of these anecdotes, like the rather self-serving behaviour of the PCs and Gygax’s Dungeon Mastering decisions and technique, are rather interesting, I do wonder whether anyone who isn’t a serious Greyhawk obsessive would find these anecdotes somewhat over-detailed. The fact that the Greyhawk campaign was divided into regular players who needed elite content tailored to their very powerful characters and less regular sorts who popped in on an ad hoc basis is interesting; the intimate ins and outs of each significant dungeon expedition puts the book at risk of becoming every bit as boring as being cornered by someone who wants to tell you anecdotes about a game you haven’t taken part in usually is.
Still, the presentation of information here does throw into sharp relief just how much control Gygax had over the creative process behind making the game once he had crafted a first draft from the morass of rough notes Arneson had provided him, and now that the narrative has hit the publication of D&D the next volume should hopefully take the focus away from the two foundational campaigns a bit in order to take in the wider story of the game’s early success. It also helps provide a clear explanation of why OD&D is as shakily-organised as it is: Gygax deliberately rushed the game to print partly because TSR couldn’t afford to hang around waiting for the product to be polished, and partly because he was worried about the possibility of somebody else putting out a similar game before D&D could come out. In the long run, this is a decision which seems to have paid off, given how Dungeons & Dragons has benefitted from that “first mover” advantage over the years.
The third book, Lands and Worlds Afar, covers the immediate 1974 and 1975 aftermath of the release of the original boxed set. This includes the chaotic collapse of the original Greyhawk campaign as overt hostilities between player characters kicked off, as well as subsequent campaigning that would lead to the development of the Temple of Elemental Evil. One thing which is notable by this point is how long many early player characters managed to survive in Gary’s campaigns, which suggests that he either wasn’t quite the killer GM that he’s sometimes made out to be, or that there was some bias (conscious or otherwise) at work, or simply that the players who knew Gary best and played with him most regularly knew his style best and were better-equipped to look out for themselves, than more transient visitors to the campaign.
As I’d hoped, the scope of this book becomes more varied and interesting now that Kelly is able to draw on a wider range of anecdotes. Now that D&D was out in the wild, people could react to it accordingly, and Kelly documents the genesis of a range of other legendary gaming franchises to boot. Since the focus of the series is on D&D, more attention is given to games which started out as variants of the D&D system, though games entirely divorced from that system also get a mention here and there. Hence, Tunnels & Trolls. a game which implements the premise of D&D through absolutely unrelated game mechanics, gets a brief discussion, but more attention is given to M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, developed independently by Barker after he saw D&D in action and published by TSR to avoid potential acrimony due to the extent to which Barker borrowed the D&D mechanics, and Jim Ward’s early work on Metamorphosis Alpha – the precursor to Gamma World, which came about after Jim suggested to Gary that a sci-fi take on D&D would make a good product and Gary challenged him to write it himself. We also see how the wide range of queries and comments about the game were already giving TSR the impression that perhaps some sort of easy introduction to the game – a basic set, if you will – was a commercially sensible prospect, though that idea wouldn’t see fruit until later years.
This period is also crucial to the history of TSR as a commercial entity due to the unexpected and untimely death of Don Kaye, an absolutely key partner to the business. This prompted a crisis just as D&D was beginning to gain traction, and Gygax’s sales predictions – scoffed at for being over-optimistic by the others – were proving if anything to be far too conservative. It was obvious to all concerned that Kaye’s widow had no interest in being part of the business, and understandably just wanted to sell off her stake and go grieve and get on with her life; eventually, the solution hit on involved Gary signing a deal which saw the Blume brothers get an important stake in the business. As Kelly notes, Gygax would later say that this was the worst decision he ever made – for about a decade later, it would be this deal that allowed a boardroom coup to kick Gary out of TSR altogether and deliver the company into the hands of Lorraine Williams, a controversial figure within the hobby (though I’m increasingly of the opinion that public opinion has treated her unfairly in some respects, as accurate as it may be in others). One poignant fruit of the earlier, friendlier relations between Gygax and Blume that Kelly highlights is their completion of a Western-themed RPG – a project Kaye had talked about and had done some preliminary work on before his death. The game would be dedicated to Kaye, and the fact that it is titled Boot Hill – the traditional name for an Old West gunslingers’ graveyard – becomes a little more meaningful when you know the history behind it.
As mentioned earlier, Hawk & Moor takes in a wider (but less rigorously supported) range of evidence than Playing At the World, and also has a different scope, showing an interest in the entire history of TSR and D&D rather than just the leadup and immediate reaction to the game’s release. This approach starts bearing major fruits here, with a particularly interesting subject being the preparation of the Blackmoor supplement. Credited to Dave Arneson, this was part of the early strategy of each D&D supplement presenting more of an alternative approach to the game rather than an additive approach; rather than expecting people to implement everything in all the supplements, the idea seems to have been that Greyhawk would showcase Gary’s house rules and style rather than being an extensive setting guide, Blackmoor would do the same for Dave, and so on. Of course, the additive approach caught on sufficiently with the general public to necessitate the writing of AD&D, but that’s a story for later.
Anyway, the stories around the production of the Blackmoor supplement told by TSR veterans – which are Kelly’s main source for much of this stuff are often not very complimentary to Arneson, but seem dreadfully plausible given the decidedly variable (some would go so far as to say sloppy) quality of the few publications Arneson put out now and again after he left TSR, and more rigorously evidence-supported aspects of the OD&D design process. The story goes that when Arneson finally got around to sending his Blackmoor notes to TSR, they were another pile of contraductory and disorganised notes with little care given to whether they contradicted each other (or, for that matter, the published D&D rules). much like those Gary Gygax had to struggle with when designing the game in the first place. Gygax wasn’t up for yet another editing-and-rewriting chore; Brian Blume, the other major player in TSR at the time, probably didn’t fancy the task either.
Luckily, the duo had recently hired Tim Kask – TSR’s first very first employee – to act as an in-house editor, with particular responsibility for The Strategic Review (the magazine that later became Dragon), literally gave him a basket of Arneson notes, and told him to go away and turn them into a supplement, which Kask was eventually able to do only after scrapping a lot of what Arneson had produced and rewriting it. Kask’s own, unfiltered account of this process is compiled from forum posts for easy reading here. Given that Kask’s pet name for Dave Arneson is “the Malignant Toad”, a big pinch of salt is probably needed when reading it (and reading the Hawk & Moor account, for that matter), especially since to my knowledge Arneson never put out a rebuttal before he died. However, given how many people I’ve encountered in the hobby who are full of interesting ideas but can’t organise them to save their life, and given what we do know about Arneson’s personal style, I find the story believable and plausible – certainly, as you may note from the comments section on that blog post other people who worked with Arneson over the years found it a real chore to edit his work. (In particular, pay close attention to the comments by Chirine ba Kal in the comments – he’s a Twin Cities gamer who played with both Dave Arneson and M.A.R. Barker in their foundational campaigns and also knew Gary, and as many nice things as he has to say about Arneson even he has to admit that Arneson desperately needed someone like Gygax to set down his ideas and make them actually viable as a product.)
Although Kelly’s conversational, jocular style occasionally grates when he starts goofing around instead of getting to the point, he does at least know how to leave the reader excited to see what’s coming in the next volume of the series. Having regaled us with the painful birth of the Blackmoor supplement, Kelly promises us an even more explosive Arneson story in the next volume – for the next year would see Arneson moving down to Lake Geneva to take up a more active role in TSR. As frustrating as he had sometimes been as a distant collaborator, reportedly given to airily dismissing requests for clarification by insisting that his notes explained everything perfectly adequately, Gygax and colleagues and Arneson had just about managed to work together enough to put out a couple of products with his fingerprints on. Dealing with him in person would, Kelly assures us, be a whole other ball game…
The fourth volume, Of Demons and Fallen Idols, covers 1976 and delves into a lot of important developments that year. For instance, whilst in retrospect the division of D&D into Basic and Advanced versions which had numerous points of incompatibility seems slapdash, we learn here that at least the early planning stages were much more structured, with Gygax and Tim Kask cloistered in Gary’s office at TSR headquarters (TSR at this point being big enough to have actual offices) for about six days hacking up copies of OD&D and its supplements and deciding what should go in Basic and what would go in Advanced. It’s interesting to know that the future trajectory of the game – and thus the seeds of future developments which would see the AD&D line win out over Basic, the development of 3E in response to AD&D‘s perceived faults and the development of 4E subsequent to it, and the return of 5E effectively to the approach Gygax and Kask took back in 1976 by conceiving of the Basic game as a subset of the Advanced, though 5E’s Basic game is actually compatible with the full-fat game this time around.
1976 would also see J. Eric Holmes commissioned to prepare the first Basic Set, the release of Metamorphosis Alpha, and the rise of Judges Guild as an important third party publisher, all of which we get some insight into. There was also the roots of scandal this year; Dave Arneson would become a TSR employee at the start of the year with a nebulous “research” mandate (Kelly speculates – rather credibly – that this was an attempt to make use of Arneson’s strengths by encouraging him to go spot or create the next big thing), and towards the end of the year he’d be gone, with more or less nothing of substance bearing his name published during that time in relation to D&D.
Here, Kelly’s often hagiographic tone of writing becomes a liability; Tim Kask has waxed lyrical about his clashes with Arneson during this time, but whilst alluding to them Kelly is too respectful of his heroes to go into any level of detail. Nonetheless, his account of an adventure that Arneson ran at a con seems to speak for itself when it comes to Arneson’s personality – with Arneson’s buddy allowed to run his 14th level paladin whilst all the newcomers had to play 1st to 4th level plebs, arbitrary deathtraps aplenty, and some fairly blatant favouritism at work (NPCs deferring to the high-level paladin an awful lot), even Kelly has to concede that it probably wasn’t a fun experience for any of the newcomers at the table. For a referee to show such blatant favouritism would ruin even a private game; to do it at a con, in the sight of the hobby, as a representative of your employer who publishes that game is absolutely ridiculous. In fact, I suspect would be a firing offence at any publisher these days, simply because of the sheer lack of professionalism involved; as Kelly notes, it seems to have been professionalism and his aversion to it which prompted Arneson to leave TSR, and based on the story about the convention game it seems to me that Arneson, whatever of the positive qualities of the amateur hobbyist tinkerer he displayed, also embodied a wide swathe of the worst.
Kelly’s writing style continues to be gratingly pretentious at points he keeps stopping to pay effusive tribute to the people he’s writing about which becomes intensely annoying, and seems to involve him really getting into this bardic pose he talked about way at the start of the series a little too much.
The fifth volume, Age of Glory, covers 1977; this volume has less in the way of actual play reports, largely because reports from this era are quite sparse (the TSR prime movers generally being too busy to play as much as previously). That’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned, particularly since this year was rich enough in major events that such accounts really aren’t needed to pad things out. You have major new releases like Traveller and Chivalry & Sorcery representing two different responses to D&D – the former of which was warmly regarded by TSR (because GDW didn’t rip off the D&D system) and the latter of which was, in Kelly’s estimation at least, an angry response to D&D by people who were really mad that it was too fun and not serious enough. (This is not actually an unfair assessment; Chivalry & Sorcery is pretty goddamn dry.) You have the release of the Holmes-penned Basic Set, along with the work which would give rise to Gamma World. You have Gen Con X taking place at the Playboy Club and the release of the Monster Manual.
At the same time, despite having less actual play reports to spill words on, somehow Kelly still manages to focus an awful lot on minutiae and gloss over more interesting issues. For instance, though it’s understandable that he doesn’t go much into detail about Chivalry & Sorcery itself, the story of how its developers tried to pitch it to Gary Gygax is an interesting one which could illustrate many of the points Kelly makes about the developing relationship between an increasingly professional TSR and the rest of the hobby, but it’s glossed over entirely; meanwhile, an entire chapter is given over to an extended summary of the plotline of the first year of Dave Trampier’s Wormy comic, and whilst Wormy is well-regarded by fans who caught it in the pages of Dragon I don’t really think the ins and outs of its plot merit the amount of space dedicated to it here.
Subsequent volumes in the series have yet to emerge, and it’s been some months since Kelly popped in on the Acaeum forum to give updates on it. Although Kelly’s particular foibles as a writer are grating to me, the extant books are still a handy compilation of information, and whilst they’re not especially academic, they at least provide enough leads on secondary sources to be of use to anyone attempting a more formal pass on the same material. Really, the major beef I have is that the Kindle versions don’t properly use hyperlinking for the footnotes, which makes it enormously awkward to look them up.