Playing at the World – Book Review
Let me begin this review by stating what this book is not; it is not a review of roleplaying games or the roleplaying hobby. If you’re looking to read about the groundbreaking Champions superhero roleplaying game or how the industry was expanded by West End Games tapping into the Star Wars franchise, keep looking. If, however, you want the most comprehensive look at the origins of the wargaming hobby and a painstakingly researched look at the formation and early years of TSR and the original Dungeons & Dragons game, then you will never need to read another book.
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Playing at the World is a scholar’s look at the gaming hobby, and the author uses ten-dollar sentences filled with three-dollar words quite often: “Stratification, if we handle the term a little carelessly for a moment, has existed in some form since the very beginning of gaming.” How exactly does one use the word stratification carelessly, even momentarily? Also, the book is a little odd in its layout. Its first section begins by discussing, in a broad way, how Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax came together to invent not merely a new game but a new social medium, roleplaying games; then, in its second part, the book delves into the history of gaming going back as far as ancient Egypt, followed by the third section which brings us back to the early days of TSR and the first few editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But there are no straight lines in Peterson’s book, so the history of Avalon Hill games, the editorship of The General, and the coming of miniatures gaming are all mixed into the first section of the book; only later do we learn what games and companies preceded them.
Notice I didn’t say chapters, but rather sections, to describe the book’s layout. The book has no chapters per se but instead uses a system VERY reminiscent of the numbering system used by SPI wargames back in the ’70s. Thus, 2.5 is titled ON DUNGEONS AND ON DRAGONS, followed by 2.5.1 MAZES WITH MONSTERS, after which comes 2.5.2 DRACO HORRIBILIS, and so on. Three sections to the book, hundreds of headings and sub-headings. Confusing? Not really. The headings at least help you keep track of where you are as the author jumps from subject to subject to subject like an attention-deficient flea.
But ye gods! what subjects: A discussion of the (unfortunately lost) miniatures game that Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed; the discovery of a d20 that dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain (Wonder what kind of games they were playing? “I roll another 20, that’s a critical. You lose, Vercingethorix.” ”I think you’re cheating, Julius!”); the history and rules of Das Kriegsspiel, considered by many to be the first modern wargame and released in 1780; photos of H.G. Wells playing with miniatures, and Robert E. Howard engaged in a form of live-action roleplaying decades before the Society For Creative Anachronism existed.
Peterson’s coverage of wargaming includes exhaustive detailing of the early years in the hobby’s modern development, the 1950s and 1960s. He does his own bit of dungeon delving, somehow locating very old and very rare fanzines and journals, magazines, even memoirs and mailing lists. Nothing escapes his attention to detail. Topics such as the editorship of the magazine The General, histories of various gaming groups and clubs that formed, and analysis of the evolution of basic wargaming rules (such as movement points, zones of control, etc.) are included, along with a million and one other subjects. There is simply no way possible that anyone else can author a book that will be as informative about wargaming’s distant and recent past as Playing At The World is.
The author treats the history of TSR with the same depth and breadth, beginning with Gary Gygax putting his first “opponents wanted” advertisement in The General. We are given a virtual step-by-step history of the development of the game Chainmail by Gygax, Dave Arneson’s use of the rules to create dungeon delves, and the formative years of D&D, on through the acrimonious break-up of their partnership, which culminated in a series of lawsuits by Arneson claiming Gygax and TSR were infringing on his intellectual property (all of which were won by Arneson, by the way). The book’s scope ends around 1980, shortly after the publication of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books.
This is a warts-and-all corporate biography of TSR, with discussion of TSR’s near-constant invasions of other people’s copyrights—chief among them J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works were used to produce several unlicensed wargames, but also including H.P. Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock—while at the same time aggressively sending out legal notices to anyone who so much as used the word “dungeon” in their games. Peterson sets a neutral journalistic tone when discussing these shenanigans, neither condemning nor defending. He does seem to be a bit more protective of Gygax’s personal reputation, though this may be an effort to make sure we remember the positive gaming collaborator of the early days and not the litigious autocrat he allegedly became.
As I said, this is the bible of wargaming history, and I can’t see how anyone could provide more details on the history of TSR; when you can learn how long Gary Gygax’s commute to and from work was (five hours), it’s hard to imagine someone doing a more comprehensive job of biography. The second section, titled Systems, is a Games Design 101 course, covering the why and how of wargame rules and the rules systems developed for Dungeons & Dragons. Peterson really tears apart the rules of D&D like a mechanic cutting open an engine block to show you not only how but why it runs. Why armor class instead of defense rolls and parrying? Read and understand the design concepts.
At over 600 pages (with another 60 pages of bibliography and index) the book is a heavy read, however, and sometimes you have to meander through some Platonic verses—literally, verses from Plato!—to find the gems. Add in several hundred footnotes, some of which are longer than the original paragraph, and constant three-dollar words (“dialogic interchange” for example) and you’ve got one tough book to finish. Casual gamers won’t really care about the change in scale from the 1811 to the 1824 editions of Kriegsspiel or how it heralded the coming of miniatures wargaming as a popular hobby; roleplayers will find tedium in page after page on the literary origins of the Orcus demon or why clerics were chosen rather than priests (along with a discussion of Dave Arneson’s and Gary Gygax’s religious beliefs).
Yet, this is a fascinating read for game designers and for those of us who really are into the hobby of wargaming, with a wealth of history and hundreds of mini-biographies packed between the covers, along with photos you simply cannot find anywhere else. Roleplayers, too, will find some inspiring anecdotes for the hours they ply into their hobby. Learning that all of the Brontes—the famous literary sisters and their less famous brother—used miniature figures and hand-drawn maps to role-play in the land of Angria, a pursuit they continued into their twenties, reminds us that there is a long and proud lineage to the games we play.
And Jon Peterson has done a fine job of charting that heritage; he deserves an ovation for the amount of research he put into this. Here’s hoping he will pick up the trail from 1980 forward in a second volume. But please, Jon, no more dialogic interchanges in the next book!
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer who began gaming with SPI games in the 1970s. When not reading a book on the American Revolution or Colonial America, he can be found playing one of the 1600+ games in his personal collection.