Book review: 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). 632pp + bibliography and index. $34.95.
Despite its lengthy (and slightly misleading) subtitle, Playing at the World is really about one thing: the evolution, development, and impact of the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons from its earliest precursors to the late 1970s. Yet this narrow focus is, at the same time, both far-reaching and exhaustive in its treatment of the subject. Peterson masterfully tells the story of D&D in the broader context of wargaming since the 18th century, in reference to the gaming subculture and networks that shaped it, and with due attention to both the economics of the nascent RPG industry and the key personalities of the day. He does this, moreover, in exquisite detail and on a foundation of truly stunning primary research, with copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography that runs the gamut from original game design notes through to rare hobby newsletters and fanzines to historical texts and academic analyses. The result is a thoughtful, erudite, yet highly readable book that should be viewed as a seminal contribution to the history of an important gaming genre.
The book itself is divided into five main chapters, plus an epilogue. The first chapter explores the immediate context in which D&D was born. This includes the rise of wargaming clubs, wargaming of the medieval and the fantasy settings (including the publication of D&D’s precursor rules, Chainmail, cowritten by Gary Gygax), Dave Arneson‘s Blackmoor adventure campaign of the early 1970s, and the collaboration between Gygax and Arneson that produced the three-booklet original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1974).
In the next two chapters, Peterson shifts focus to explore the inspirations for D&D. Chapter 2 thus examines the medieval fantasy genre, and the literary influences that would shape the emergence of RPG classes, equipment, and scenarios. In Chapter 3, the book traces the historical evolution of wargaming from the late 18th century onwards, and in doing so demonstrates the emergence of game design elements and concepts that would be incorporated into D&D and similar games.
In Chapter 4, the focus shifts once again, this time to the notion of role-playing itself, and how campaign games embed players in imagined world. In large part this is told through the lens of significant wargame club campaigns, some of whose participants were (or would be) influential figures within the broader hobby. Chapter 5 then returns to continue the story begun in Chapter 1, recounting the popularization and expansions of D&D into the mid- and late-1970s.
Finally, the Epilogue to the book shows how the fantasy RPG genre would make its first transition to computer games. This is in many ways the least satisfying part of the volume, taking the reader no further than the late 1970s and Zork. Then again, by this point the page count is already up to over 600 pages of meticulous analysis. Anything more and the book might be reclassified as a two-handed weapon (doing the same d6 damage as every other weapon in original D&D—but increasing to d10 by the time of the 1975 Greyhawk supplement).
For many readers the analytical value of the book will happily complemented by the sheer gaming-geek-pleasure of being transported back to the era of early D&D, reading about the first origins of the thief character class, or seeing once more the advertisements for the 1970s Miniature Figurines “Mythical Earth” wargaming figures (a set of which is still packed away in my gaming closet—minus the hobbits, which have more recently been converted to hungry undead children for gaming the near-future zombie apocalypse). Make no mistake about it, however: Playing the World is a serious piece of cultural and intellectual history. While the author apparently chose to self-publish the volume so as to retain full editorial control (and, doubtless, to avoid an editor’s insistence that he shorten his manuscript), I worry that this might make it less likely to appear in public and university libraries where it rightly deserves to be. Readers would be well advised not only to put it on their own Christmas lists this season, but to suggest it to their local collections librarian as well.
Jon Peterson’s “Playing at the World” blog can be found at http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com.