Friday, October 28, 2016

A Review of Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

For the last couple of months I have been scribbling notes in my copy of Playing at the World. Every few days my wife says “aren’t you done, yet?” It took three pencil sharpenings before I could even consider my next projects, either WN62 (a biography of a WW2 german machine gunner on the beaches of D-day) or Dune. I thought before becoming consumed by either of these I should savor a few moments of freedom and write a few words about Playing at the World.  

Before I get off track, trying to sound all clever and stuff, Here it is: I really really like this book. I have always been enthralled by the design history of games. I have read many and there are not many good ones.

Playing at the World has a lot of damn pages, 698 to be exact. There’s a narrow passageway in the middle where going back was too treacherous, so I hunkered down and slashed my way through. Not to worry, it passes quickly and I managed to dispatch a few goblins, earn a few xp and find an old boot. In some ways this book is like a long murder trial in which a lot of evidence must be presented to insure a faithful reconstruction of the crime. Additionally, it goes in depth regarding games that came before, such as Kriegspiel and Diplomacy. All good games are built on the shoulders of giants and Peterson’s exhaustive research shows that D&D is no exception. He wisely limits his source material to Fanzines written before D&D’s huge success and the revisionist history that followed. By combing through contemporary sources, Peterson accurately reconstructs the events that give rise to the birth of RPG’s. One of the many things I found amazing is the well documented exchange of ideas in fanzines. They read like a three legged slow motion version of today’s internet. I also appreciate that he presents E. Gary Gygax without judgement and allows the reader to form their own conclusions on the Man, the Myth, the Legend.  

For me this book scratched two itches:

The first was an itch I did not know I had, namely laying out what exactly was appropriated from Arneson, Kriegspiel, Diplomacy, Leiber, Tolkien and Dr. Strange. Gygax combined many disparate ideas to make D&D.  This fusion was incremental and like many category starters, he had no idea what this thing really was or what it would become. He simply thought it would be just another product in the TSR line. I never had the pleasure of meeting Gary Gygax, but I did meet Dave Arneson. In that brief encounter, I could sense the bitterness he harbored, not getting the billing he probably thought he deserved. In reading interviews with him, this is certainly a thing. (Spoiler: not very many people who worked at TSR  ever seemed to be happy). Playing at the World sheds light on Arnesons creative role in D&D and it’s a mixed bag for sure. I still have issues that Gary Gygax always seemed to take more credit than he deserved. Certainly he could have been more upfront about where his inspiration came from, but that’s water under the bridge. I liken it to the credit Stan Lee heaps upon himself in creating the Marvel universe, delicately omitting his fellow creator Jack Kirby. Unlike Kirby, however, Arneson sued TSR and got paid millions (yes, actual royalty numbers are quoted) for basically doing nothing. Bitterness is it’s own reward, I guess.

The second itch I’ve had for a while. It has to do with reconciling the terms “role-playing” and “game”. Technically a case can be made that an RPG is not a game at all. As a game designer this is the Burning Question and for me, Peterson has insight on this dilemma. He lays out the things that make D&D and role-playing unique: a player controls a single character (essentially defining game scale), these characters advance in power through “stratified progression” and one player must take on the role of referee who reveals secret information as the world is explored. But, lastly, and by far the most unique aspect of RPG’s is the agency allowed by the players, in that “anything may be attempted”. I danced around this bit in my own game rules about the Crypt Lord: “This is the magic of role-playing. It cannot be explained to the uninitiated, or simulated by even the most technologically advanced main frame-computing device”. Nothing on this earth except the pulpy mass of the human brain can deal with that kind of free agency.

Yes, “it’s a fine wine, it has a bouquet like an aborigines armpit”. I highly recommend this book to anyone who really wants answers about the history of D&D. Now, if I can just find six more people to play Diplomacy...

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