Tuesday, November 6, 2012

DnD History: A Review of Playing at the World

Jon Peterson. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. (San Diego: Unreason Press, 2012.)

Chronicling DnD History
The definitive text for the cultural and historical context surrounding the 1974 publication of Dungeons & Dragons is Jon Peterson's Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games, although one likely will not find it in most university libraries. Coming in at over 700 pages, Peterson’s self-published gem tells the story of how DnD was constructed from components of wargaming, fantasy literature, and role-playing and how the pencil-and-paper phenomenon revolutionized our lives. The book attempts to parse out not just what DnD drew from those elements that preceded it, but more importantly what it developed that helped to shape the genre of the role-playing game.

From the beginning, Peterson’s main goal was to write a history of DnD relying exclusively on primary sources such as fanzines. To lend the information even more credence, he only draws information from sources that were printed within the year following the event(s) being discussed. The more sensational stories are disregarded since his aim is to compose a solid history without rumors passed off as fact. The information in the book is extensively footnoted and the bibliography is nonpareil.

Peterson’s ability to pack so much detail into such a tight narrative demonstrates a command of the historical information that he is presenting that only comes with total immersion in a subject. He is not oblivious to the predominantly informational tone of Playing at the World; he describes his book as a “dry, factual framework” (xvi). Peterson set out to write the definitive sourcebook for other scholars, and when doing historical research every scholar appreciates the text that trades a witty turn of phrase for a clearly worded statement of fact.

The first chapter of Playing at the World covers the history of wargaming communities from the founding of the Avalon Hill Game Company in 1954 to the publication of DnD in 1974. Peterson provides a detailed view of the wargaming community and its key players. Along the way he also defines wargaming, explains its origins, distinguishes between board wargaming and miniature wargaming, and describes medieval and fantasy wargaming. The events recounted in the chapter come to a head when two luminaries in the wargaming community Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson create the three-booklet original edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

In the three chapters that follow, Peterson presents DnD as an outgrowth of the setting provided by fantasy fiction (chapter 2), the system provided by wargaming (chapter 3), and the concept of character provided by immersive role playing (chapter 4). The fantasy literary genre not only helped to shape the topographical landscape of DnD but also introduced such elements as race, class, alignment, equipment, and scenarios. In addition, Peterson’s history of wargaming from 1780 to 1968 maps the evolution of the system that would make up the basic mechanisms for modeling action and characters while simulating reality in DnD. From wargaming, DnD took the concepts of a referee (dungeon master), polyhedral dice for determining the outcome of a character’s actions, leveling, hit points, and various other features now associated with role-playing games. Further, full immersion in adolescent games of pretend eventually gained a foothold in wargaming through games like Diplomacy and introduced the notion of fully inhabiting a character of one’s own creation.

The fifth chapter and the epilogue present an accounting of the ways that DnD has helped shape historical and cultural developments since its publications. Picking up the story at the rise in popularity and the expansion of DnD after its initial publication, the fifth chapter chronicles the creation of numerous games meant to compete with DnD. Prompted by a sizable market, the term “role-playing game” was appropriated to describe the genre. The epilogue handles DnD’s cultural reception and the transition from the table top to the computer screen, from the dungeon master to the computer program. DnD not only molded the role-playing genre of video games but it still influences almost all genres of video game.

Unfortunate Timing
Playing at the World hit the shelves at a time when the market is full up with histories of wargaming and role-playing games. From 2010 to October 23, 2012, there have been six other titles released dealing with topics similar to those in Playing at the World. Another is scheduled for release in May of 2013. Of those seven titles (see below), five are published by publishing houses that have wide distribution to university libraries. Peterson’s decision to self-publish was wise in that any publisher would have edited the text down significantly, stripping it of its exhaustive historicity. Still, unless Playing at the World can get distribution to research-university libraries, the text might never reach its target audience.

Playing at the World is not without faults. In fact, the book’s most glaring fault is also its principal achievement: each page is so densely packed with minutiae that the book might never appeal to a wide audience. Playing at the World will be the authoritative text on Dungeons & Dragons for decades and could maintain an academic audience, but the average reader will likely never read it. Still, there are a large number of DnD and role-playing game fans who will find the book extremely interesting, though slow and navel-gazing at times.

**The Other Histories of Wargaming and Role-Playing Games (2010-2012)**
Jennifer Grouling Cover. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. (Jefferson: McFarland, July 1, 2010).
Michael J. Tresca. The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. (Jefferson: McFarland, November 16, 2010).
Shannon Appelcine. Designers & Dragons. (Swindon: Mongoose, October 24, 2011).
Philipp von Hilgers. War Games: A History of War on Paper. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, March 16, 2012).
Philip Sabin. Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games. (London: Continuum, March 22, 2012).
Christopher George Lewin. War Games and Their History. (Stroud: Fonthill Media, October 23, 2012).
David M. Ewalt. Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. (New York: Scribner, May 7, 2013).