When I was growing up, my dad had a small business in the wargaming industry, acting as a wholesaler for other companies, selling games retail by mail, and publishing a magazine. So, I grew up amidst a collection disparate products from Avalon Hill, SPI, and an insane number of tiny publishers in the wargaming and burgeoning RPG market.
Much of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World therefore is familiar ground. Familiar, but not extensively known, since I was never all that directly plugged into the events he talks about. However, I have contemplated trying to produce such a book myself. While this isn’t the book I’d write, it is close, and it shows just how insane an undertaking it would be to do my half-formed thoughts right. Jon is obviously a fellow fan, and his viewpoint is shown on the cover, which features a hand-drawn dungeon map on graph paper, a couple of hand-made wargame counters, and a well-worn old-style d10, and on the title page, which is done to look like a copy of an old fanzine cover, complete with staple in the corner, and a rust mark from an old paperclip. In his acknowledgements, he mentions “In keeping with the tradition of self-publishing exemplified by gaming fandom, this work was written, edited, typeset, illustrated and published by the author with the help of some friends.” The lack of professional editing shows on occasion, but given the nature of the project, it’s very well done. It also points up a criminal lack of academic interest in subjects that have had a profound influence on popular culture, and therefore modern culture as a whole; one of the author’s assertions is that early RPGs pioneered systems that can be seen in the vast bulk of current video games, and he later points out that the only histories of the SF&F genre are similarly self-generated without any real scholarly interest.
The bibliography of this massive work is twenty-five pages long, most of it dedicated to various tiny-run fanzines of the period. Jon Peterson went to an amazing amount of effort scouring eBay, and getting access to private collections to be able to reference ‘zines that often had a run of less than a hundred copies per issue. All of this is in pursuit tracking down what people said at the time, rather than relying on what they said about it later. The scope and breadth of his research shows both in the main text, and in copious footnotes that give asides, point out connections, develop an argument further, etc.
There’s two themes in this book. The first, and heavily dominant one, is the history of the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. The first chapter (of five, they’re all massive chapters) covers from the birth of commercial wargaming in the late fifties to the publication of the original box set at the beginning of 1974. The next three chapters are massive essays on just what history and concepts fed into that, before the last chapter picks up the main story again, and covers the next few years, effectively leaving off with the publication of the AD&D Player’s Handbook, by which time the concept of the ‘role-playing game’ had taken root, and other competing systems were coming out at an increasingly furious pace. So furious, in fact, that even Playing at the World‘s normally exhaustive coverage starts breaking down, such as when the company Wee Warriors gets mentioned in a footnote with no explanation of who they were, or what they had been doing, other than picking up the publishing of the product that was the subject of the footnote.
The middle three chapters are deep dives into what Jon Peterson feels are related subjects. The second chapter looks at the origin and history of the fantasy genre, to show how the genre was understood at the time of D&D. He also points out the recurring theme of the ‘visitation story’, where a person from the real world is transported to a fantastic land, and then returns to the real world at the end, which he posits played a part in why the first RPG was a fantasy RPG. The third chapter takes a look at the history trying to simulate events in games, effectively a history of wargaming from early chess variants into dedicated kriegspiel systems, then through more civilian efforts, the rise of miniatures wargamers inside of toy soldier collectors, and thence into commercial wargaming explored at the beginning. This part comes with extra warnings from the author that it really is for the more dedicated reader, though I found it all fascinating. The fourth chapter looks at the idea of ‘role playing’, and notes several powerful instances of shared collaboration in a fictional world. This one is rougher, and doesn’t flow as well, but there’s some interesting groping towards the shape of an instinctual type of ‘group think’ that can have a very powerful impact on people.
The second theme of the book is just how far the concepts pioneered in D&D have carried outside of traditional RPGs. It doesn’t get a lot of space in the book, being mostly confined to the introduction and epilogue, but again, he has some interesting things to say.
It’s a truly massive book (no, really, I was very surprised by the weight of my Christmas present when it showed up), and the result of an undertaking no less massive. But it reads very well, I had problems putting it down every time I picked it up. I can quibble about a few facts, but they’d be at most clarifications of points he raises, can doubt some of his assertions, but they are massively snowed under by the amount of other arguments that are rock-solid. It’s a great, enjoyable book, about a small, critical happening, and why it happened when and how it did, and anyone with an interest in gaming really needs to pick this up.