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Book Review: Playing at the World

September 3rd, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Books, RPGs, Wargames

There are tours de force and there are Tours de France, and sometimes Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games is both.

His new book from Unreason Press is a landmark history of the evolution of Dungeons and Dragons, firmly rooting it as a game that drew on the experiences of the wargame community in the 1960s and 1970s and one whose earliest ancestors stretch back centuries earlier. As a book on game design and game history, Peterson’s tome is going to be an essential resource if only for his painstaking research and copious citations.

It is also a book with valleys, mountains and few stretches of really easy going. Even familiar material is presented in sometimes numbing detail, and some of the detours seem better suited to other works or articles. Just when you hit a great pace, things can bog down in a slough of pain and self-doubt. Playing at the World is encyclopedic in its reach, and that reach swallows almost everything.

PatW opens with a quick rundown of the history of Avalon Hill, and how its wargame magazine and American communities spawned partnerships, debates and game sessions that led directly to Gygax and Arneson making D&D. (Well, strictly speaking, Gygax was adapting Arneson’s Blackmoor games which were a role playing version of Gygax’s fantasy Chainmail battle rules. It’s a complicated history, but Peterson clearly, and I think correctly, implies Gygax deserves most of the credit for making Arneson’s games ‘systematic’).

From this history, Peterson moves back to examine the different characteristics of D&D and where these ideas came from. So we are treated to a discourse on the history of medieval fantasy literature and books about treasure hunts. We get thoughtful musings on how to evaluate Gygax’s debt to Tolkien. The birth of weapon systems, how to calculate certain types of odds before the arrival of mass produced polyhedric dice, the long and fascinating story of wargaming in both military and civilian settings and how this simulation vs game divide would shake out in the 50s and 60s, the role of the DM or referee or umpire or what-have-you…this is a book that leaves no stone unturned in its quest to connect all the dots and provide the ultimate genealogy of the world’s most successful pen and paper role playing game.

The research present in this book is beyond impressive. Not content with simply listing games that existed or their mechanics, Peterson digs into old gaming journals, memoirs and designer notes. He notes aggressive almost proto-Fascist boasts of gaming clubs that took out ads in early issues of The General. He quotes comments from game designers that demonstrate they were either reinventing the wheel or completely unfamiliar with other games. The history of how the War Game Digest came apart because the editorial team could not agree on whether they should argue for more “realism” or more “fun” is told. None of these things are strictly necessary for his purpose, which is to tie D&D (and consequently, almost every RPG system since) to its wargame/simulation past. Everyone knows it came out of Chainmail – Peterson wants to explain where Chainmail came from.

And that means a history of miniatures and toy soldiers, including their availability, their use in Wells’s Little Wars and so on and so on until we reach Chess. At which point you realize it is turtles all the way down.

The scope ends up being so broad that it’s almost like doing a family history and bragging that you are descended from Henry V of England – even if that is so, you probably share that with millions and millions of other people. The family tree is broad and tall and almost anything can be connected to the phenomenon that D&D became.

But even if some of the threads get lost in the history, Peterson skillfully reminds us that games happen in a cultural setting. The ones that survive are rare, but even the lost ones (like Robert Louis Stevenson’s wargame, which was never written down or described in any detail) speak to interest in the topic, the question of what these sorts of games say about their players and what the world at large thinks about (mostly) men playing at war.

And some of the connections are so obvious that I never even thought of them until they were written down. The Dungeon Master, for example, is tasked with interpreting rules and making sure all is played out properly. Refereed wargames in simulation rooms clearly predated the DM, but Peterson also connects it to the role of the referee in more chronologically contiguous play-by-mail games like Diplomacy; he/she is there to make sure that orders are correct, that everything is legal, and to play out the new situation for the players. The DM, of course, adds story telling, building the new world – something Arneson did in his Blackmoor games while Tolkien (new in paperback) was still sweeping the US.

When I compare Play at the World to less successful gaming history texts, like Barton’s Dungeons & Desktops, it’s clear evidence that this is the sort of project that is very difficult to do and very hard to see becoming a smash hit. Peterson doesn’t ‘review’ the games he lists, but he does offer critical commentary on design choices while situating them within a game design and cultural context. Peterson doesn’t list every minor Avalon Hill game that Gygax and Arneson would have played, but he is not afraid to remind us of how small AH’s audience was when it started and how unlikely it would have been to find like minded adults in many American cities.

Because this history is not, then, a simple list of Things That Happened, its detours and digressions are more excusable, even as they frustrate a little. Is it necessary to go through the historical meanings of ‘goblin’ or have details on an obscure naval wargame that may be one of the origins of Hit Points and THAC0? Of course not – each of these are interesting on their own, but the book would lose nothing if these bits were saved for another time.

But here they are and they give amateur gaming historians like myself something to ask questions about. It’s not always possible to skip these digressions – Peterson covers ground at a courier’s pace and will leave you behind if you’re not good with names and concepts. Still, the book might be a little less compelling if it didn’t at least try to deal with these sidebars.

Playing at the World is a triumph, but not for the faint of heart. 600 pages of often heavy text, 100 page bibliography, and footnotes besides. Even if you know much of the history it covers, having this material in one place with some deft judgments about the connections and influences makes the book invaluable.

Buy it. If you dare.

(Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games was provided for free by Unreason Press.)

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Dirk

    Bought it. Never would have been aware of it without this review. Thanks Troy.

  • Jon

    Thanks for this thoughtful and enthusiastic review, Troy. You are among the brave few who have managed to plow through the book as of yet. Your warnings to potential readers all seem fair to me.

    One point, on the question of what the book is basically about. If you read it as a story of how wargaming systems inspired D&D, I can understand why some of the material might seem interesting but superfluous. But I aimed for something a bit larger. I wanted to show how the techniques of simulation invented for wargaming expanded beyond the point of just modeling conflict, and beyond modeling things that were real or even possible. D&D was the focal point in this transition, but by no means the end of the story. The ways that D&D simulated people and fantastic adventures have set the stage for a radically different kind of cultural product, a participatory form of media that is today exemplified by video games – but I think this revolution is still in its infancy. This book is thus written, in a sense, as a history of a form of media that is still evolving, so we can’t be entirely sure where it will end up, but we can see where it started: with D&D.

    To take an example, the conceptual origins of goblins might seem like a digression, but the punchline of that section, which appears in its final few paragraphs, is that in order to simulate a goblin, it has to be something specific. The goblin of mythology was a vague and nebulous creature, but incorporating a goblin into a combat simulation game requires that it be specific enough to simulate. D&D brought goblins into a massive taxonomy of fantastic elements that dictates how various entities measure up against one another and interact. Even though goblins aren’t real, in a simulation based on such a taxonomy we can experience them, either as enemy combatants or, in a game like WoW, we can even play as one. Not every subsequent game agreed with the taxonomy of D&D, but they all had a taxonomy – the need for it is the real legacy of D&D’s influence here. It was innovations like this that opened the door to experiencing unreal things as a protagonist, rather than just a passive observer, and I think works based on these techniques are well positioned to be one of the dominant forms of cultural output of the next century.

    Thanks again for the great notice!

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Point taken, Jon. But each chapter is set up with the sense that “Here are the parts that led to D&D” even though the topics certainly range far and wide have a lot of current value. Choosing the ‘end point’ of D&D for your book in some ways puts your larger purpose (which you do set out in your introduction quite clearly) more in the background. I got every reason for why you went on these digressions, but your very summary in this comment about the nature of goblins would have more than sufficed for the point you are making.

    I say this not as a criticism of your motives or plan, simply that the larger plan is sometimes confused by these digressions, especially since you insist repeatedly through the text that you want to focus on the original D&D – not the ones that came after, many of which have been transformed by dialog with other role playing, simulation and video game systems.

    The book is excellent for all of this – not in spite of it. It’s a book I will turn to as a reference for many years in the future.

  • Dylan Horrocks

    This sounds like a book I must read, digressions and all! But a quick question for either Troy or Jon: are there illustrations?

    If not, I’ll probably get the Kindle edition. But if there are (and/or graphs etc), print is probably best, I would think…?

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Hey Dylan:

    It has about three or four black and white illustrations per chapter – some not very clear, some quite helpful, some because they look cool. I sort of wish there were more, but there are a lot of impediments to getting the pictures that I would like. Prussians officers playing, for example. Or a picture of the Blackmoor group.

    The Kindle version should be fine, but I love the look of a book with heft. And this has heft.

  • Dylan Horrocks

    Thanks. I’ve ordered the paperback. Can’t wait to read it!

  • Jon

    @Troy, I suppose I felt obligated to write a narrative that didn’t just summarize the high level story as I saw it, but a book that would convince readers that this story is true. If you want to stamp out the conjecture and speculation that has dominated the history of gaming (especially D&D), you’ve got to show your work, I think. But I certainly agree that this is a book for people who want to read something thorough and exhaustive, and there are sidebars galore, from the history of probability to cartography to 1960s counterculture.

    @Dylan, yes, there are about seventy illustrations, including things like an original Blackmoor character sheet, a copy of the royalty agreement Gygax and Arneson executed with TSR, many early wargaming systems, even a few comic book panels that seemed influential. Hope you enjoy!

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  • Richard J

    Thanks to Troy’s excellent review, I went out and bought this on the spot – after a couple of days hard reading, I’m genuinely impressed by the book as a whole and the lucid way it sets out a rather murky and ostensibly undocumented history by reliance on contemporary texts.

    There’s a couple of areas I wouldn’t have minded some expansion on, and as Jon is kindly responding to comments, I suppose I might ask them here:-

    a) Particularly in the early parts of the book, there’s intriguing references to Gygax’s shall we say, heterodox approach to religion (e.g. the literally apocalyptic quote about the Vietnam war) – and considering the impressive detail and effort spent on distentangling the other cultural influences, the religious background seemed surprisingly light – was this a limitation of the sources available to you?

    b) Have you read Smelser and Davies’ The Myth of the Eastern Front, which includes an (at times admittedly slightly smug) look at the noticeable pro-German bias of wargaming and the unfortunate political consequences of such?

  • Jon

    To question (a), heh. I really did try to keep people’s personal lives out of the book as a matter of scope – there is a ton of this material, and getting into it opens a big can of worms. Gygax was not shy about documenting his beliefs, and sometimes he fought pretty openly with others in fandom about them. He self-identified strongly as a Christian, and I do think there’s a degree to which his Christian beliefs informed his interest in the medieval period and his construction of the fantasy setting. Beyond that, again, the can of worms looms.

    (b) I haven’t read that book, no, but I’ve certain read a bit about the limits of the predictive powers of wargaming, which affected Germany both in the First and Second World Wars. If there’s good material in the book about that, I’ll have to check it out.

    Thanks, and glad you’re enjoying the book!