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Jon Peterson is the author of Playing at the World, a history of wargames and role-playing games. His work has appeared in a variety of academic volumes on the history of games; recently, he contributed a chapter on wargames to the MIT press anthology Zones of Control. He has written articles for games and popular culture websites including Boing Boing, Gamasutra, and the Escapist, as well as print periodicals such as Gygax magazine. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and interviews, and frequently lectures on the history of games, including at NYU, Stanford, and USC. He maintains a blog called Playing at the World that captures continuing developments in his research on the history of games.

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

In the second half of the twentieth century, a new form of popular entertainment captivated the youth of America: games of simulation. The first commercial form of these games, the board wargames sold by Avalon Hill and others, reached a small but devoted audience in the 1950s. Two decades later, growing interest in fantasy genre fiction combined with the principles of wargaming to create the new category of role-playing games, which began with the hugely successful Dungeons & Dragons (1974). These new games matured simultaneously with the personal computer revolution, and the principles of simulation pioneered by role-playing games laid the groundwork for much of the multi-billion dollar computer gaming industry.

Playing at the World presents the history of the simulation gaming phenomenon. Despite the growing prominence of these games in modern culture, previous attempts to capture its history have approached the subject as folklore, drawing primarily on the recollection of early adopters and key designers of the seminal works in this tradition. To provide the basis for a more scholarly narrative, Playing at the World relies on an unprecedented survey of thousands of contemporary periodicals, letters, drafts and ephemera relating to the games and their fans. Focusing on these resources alone, however, would ignore a vital point of context—the roots of these games extend far beyond American hobby wargaming, and to uncover them, Playing at the World pursues three historical threads. First, it reaches into eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe to explore how chess variants evolved into the earliest games of simulation: systems of deciding fictional events randomly within a statistical model. Second, it isolates the elements of the fantasy genre that inspired enthusiasts to want more than just to read about the exploits of heroes, but to experience them, to visit fantastic worlds. Third, it traces how the practice of role-playing integrated with fantasy and gaming cultures to allow access to those sorts of adventures: to approximate the freedom of a character in a story within the framework of a simulation.

The cornerstone of this history is the game Dungeons & Dragons, which represents the culmination of two centuries of the discipline of simulation. Dungeons & Dragons had the audacity to move beyond modeling battles into the more ambitious realm of simulating people and ultimately entire worlds. Playing at the World examines the individuals, clubs and conventions that contributed to the design and dissemination of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as its reception, competition, popularization and impact. The story reveals how a small community of hobbyists, through their infectious enthusiasm, triggered a fundamental change in the way we interact with stories, one that is certain to be central to the future of entertainment. From their niche hobby was born a mainstream activity, one that has since evolved—in ways that could not have been anticipated at the time of its creation—to enthrall new generations of gamers. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these games would no longer live in the margins of our culture: from FarmVille to World of Warcraft, Internet-based simulation games brought these ideas to an audience of hundreds of millions.

CURATOR'S NOTE

"A masterful large-scale book on the origins of wargames and role-playing games & how they grew up to become Dungeons & Dragons, with lots of fascinating custom research throughout - a deep dive, but unmissable." – Simon Carless

 

REVIEWS

  • "A must-read for gaming geeks."

    – Wired
  • "Highly recommended for role-playing game enthusiasts."

    – Games Magazine
  • "The first serious history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons... there's much here to fascinate even readers with only a cursory interest in the game."

    – Midwest Book Review
  • "Playing at the World is the best book I've ever read about games and gaming - not the personalities that play, but the history of games. The author is an absolutely meticulous researcher, and you will learn more about where role-playing games came from than you ever knew before - because I did, and I was there at the beginning, and I still learned more!"

    – Tim Kask, early TSR employee and original editor of Dragon magazine
  • "If you are a roleplayer, or a gaming historian, or a fan of D&D, you have to read this book. That simple."

    – Jeff Grub, former TSR staff designer, author of Manual of the Planes
  • "I'm a bit embarrassed thinking of how many times I've talked about the history of D&D, thinking I knew the story - now I realize how little I knew. Playing at the World applies a higher standard of research than any other work on the history of role-playing games I've seen. Check out this awesome book!"

    – Peter Adkison, founder and former CEO of Wizards of the Coast, owner of Gen Con
  • "At long last, the cultural phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons gets the in-depth historical study it deserves in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. Here, compellingly told, is the fascinating story of the prehistory and origins of the first and greatest role-playing game, and how a group of unlikely American nerd-gods imagined something new and brought it into the world."

    – Lawrence Schick, editor of Deities & Demigods, author of White Plume Mountain and Heroic Worlds
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

In January 1974, a company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, called Tactical Studies Rules released the game Dungeons & Dragons. The product consisted of three slim booklets and a few reference sheets housed in a woodgrain-patterned cardboard box. The authors are identified on the cover as "Gygax & Arneson." The only hint the exterior gives to the subject of the game is the legend: "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures."

At the time of the game's release, Tactical Studies Rules comprised a partnership of three persons, none of whom it could afford to employ. Within a decade, however, Dungeons & Dragons became a worldwide phenomenon, an object of delight or derision to every American teenager and the parents of same. Nearly forty years later, the cultural forces it set in motion not only continue unabated, but accrue new momentum as they assume forms its designers could never have anticipated. Dungeons & Dragons is so iconic that it is almost impossible to recover the eyes of 1974, to see that earliest rendition as its first converts saw it: to discern in what respects it was novel or even revolutionary, and in what respects it merely rehashed known practices or reflected their inevitable combination. For those that know the game intimately, it is even harder to accept that its first incarnation lacked so many familiar qualities and left unexamined many crucial subjects that, in retrospect, urgently required clarification. We must therefore forget the fame of Dungeons & Dragons for the time being, and regard it as one hopeful game among throngs of competitors, printed in miniscule numbers by determined amateurs, distributed with little fanfare and slated to reach only a tiny community of interest before an almost certain plummet into utter obscurity. Conversely, for those unfamiliar with the game, we offer no overview of its operations, as during the formative years of its design and reception the exact workings of the game were subject to much uncertainty, fluctuation and dispute. We can only explicate the game in its famous, mature incarnation by understanding that debate and the community that entertained it, which encompassed both the game's authors and audience.

"Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures" is a bit of a mouthful. The designers threw so many words at the cover because the type of game they had created as yet had no tidy classification. But since they put all this verbiage on the Dungeons & Dragons box, the creators presumably felt that "Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns" would be attractive, or at least comprehensible, to the contemporary market, and that their customers knew how to play games with "Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figurines." With sufficient fluency in the vernacular of wargaming fandom, one can decode from these terms much about the influences on Dungeons & Dragons and the community it targeted.

Commercial wargames occupied a well-developed market in the 1970s, one that had, over the preceding twenty years, risen from the humblest origins into a profitable niche industry in the United States. At the outset of the market, Charles Swann Roberts II (1930–2010) founded the Avalon Hill Game Company, though not to sell "wargames" as such—the very term did not then carry its later popular significance. There had been innumerable commercial boardgames which chose war as their cosmetic subject, though in their mechanics of play, few deviated from the standard children's boardgame tropes: skipping around a racetrack at the whim of a die, finding advancement or reversal when landing on special squares, and ultimately exerting no more influence over the course of events than a spectator. Before Roberts, there had also been elaborate pedagogical military simulations, largely lessons in deployment and logistics, the most famous of these being in the tradition of nineteenth-century German kriegsspiel systems. There had been a smattering of hobbyist publications aimed at the owners of miniature military figurines, touting ways to put these toys to work in an enjoyable battle game. These other pursuits will receive detailed attention throughout this study, but neither provided what Avalon Hill offered: off-the-shelf boardgames that would entertain and challenge adult mass-market consumers.

By his own admission, Roberts blundered the wargaming community into existence: "There was no thought, let alone premonition, of founding a company, avocation or industry in 1952 when I sat down in an apartment in Catonsville, Maryland, to design what ultimately became known as Tactics (1954), the first modern board wargame." His motivation for designing a military game was simply to acquaint himself with the mechanics of war, since, as an American reservist in the early 1950s, Roberts faced the prospect of a tour of duty. When it transpired that the Korean police action did not require his services, and he consequently found himself with a serendipitous opening in his schedule, he decided to market his game to the general public rather than see his creation go to waste. From 1954 to 1957, roughly 2,000 copies of Tactics were sold at $4.95 each, by mail order, under the imprint of the "Avalon Game Company," mostly through the catalogs of Stackpole Books. The box cover bore the legend "... the new, realistic land army war game!" To his mild surprise, this venture did not leave Roberts destitute, so he decided to try his luck on a larger scale. Avalon Hill formally incorporated and, by 1958, it released an initial slate of products, including Tactics II, a slight revision of its predecessor.

Tactics, which may serve as an exemplar of Avalon Hill wargame designs, ultimately resembled fast-paced boardgames more than tedious military training exercises. In the earliest Avalon Hill releases, the board superimposed a grid over a simple terrain map; it was not until a few years later that board wargames adopted their signature hexagonal, rather than square, overlay. The map itself depicted a field of battle which would, from wargame to wargame, admit of widely differing scales. In the case of Tactics, the depicted land represents many miles surrounding the cities of a pair of opposing countries, with squares containing diverse types of terrain: mountains, forests, roads, water and so on. At the start of the game, the board is populated with game pieces controlled by the two opposing players, who take turns moving their forces. The pieces themselves, squares of die-cut cardboard with identifying markings, represented the troops such as infantry and armored units which contended to capture enemy cities. The novice player of the day would find many elements of the game unfamiliar, including the opportunity to move all of one's pieces during a turn (as opposed to, say moving a single piece per turn in chess or checkers), not to mention moving them several squares from where they started.

Furthermore, the use of dice to resolve combats between units differentiated Avalon Hill games from prior offerings available to the American public. In Tactics, all units have a "combat factor" which quantifies their overall efficacy in battle. After the movement phase of a turn, all adjacent opposing units resolve combat by throwing dice (the rules call for rolling a "cubit," a euphemism to disassociate this dicing from gambling) and comparing the results to a Combat Results Table (CRT). This table takes into account the total "combat factors" of the opposing adjacent forces, and through judicious application of probability, when the die is rolled it is more likely that the force with the higher combat factor will win. Depending on how favorable the odds are, a die roll might precipitate a retreat, or might herald the capture or elimination of one or more enemy units. Thus, it is critical for players to deploy their pieces to collaborate in assault and defense, concentrating their aggregate strength in the most strategically valuable positions. The objective is to crush the enemy forces, though in Tactics victory may come from simply occupying cities if the enemy is bashful. These core mechanisms, with minor variations, have remained the mainstay of turn-based military strategy games, on boards and computers, for half a century.

The most commercially viable of Avalon Hill's initial offerings was Gettysburg (1958), given that the upcoming centennial commemoration of the battle would provide some free advertising and spur patriotic purchases. Unlike Tactics, Gettysburg chose a historical battle as its setting, and thus instead of fighting over imaginary terrain with fictional forces, players took the sides of the Union and Confederacy to contend over a small piece of Pennsylvania. The release of the game attracted some national attention: Newsweek, for example, put a blurb about the game in their November 17, 1958, edition which begins by asking, "Want to re-write history?" Whereas Tactics had sold primarily by mail, Gettysburg, as the Newsweek piece informs us, is the "new game salesmen were hawking this week in stores across the US." In fact, Gettysburg virtually put Avalon Hill on the map, selling nearly 140,000 copies (again, at $4.95 each) by 1963. War-themed titles were not indicative of the entire Avalon Hill portfolio, however. During its first five years of operation, Avalon Hill published fewer military games than "civilian" titles, as they called them: sports games, business-themed games (including Dispatcher, a railroad game), even legal thriller games. These pacifist dalliances proved less successful, however, than games in the bellicose mold of Tactics; one out of every five Avalon Hill games sold up to 1963 was a copy of Gettysburg. Despite their innovative product line and favorable reception, the fledgling Avalon Hill business was not strong enough to weather a 1961 disruption in its distribution network, and thus, on December 13, 1963, Roberts regretfully left the company in the hands of a creditor, Eric A. Dott, who pledged to continue the business in cooperation with remaining executives. After the departure of Roberts, Thomas N. Shaw continued as a vice-president and assumed control over products and strategy. Reflecting upon his foundational role in the development of commercial wargaming in Avalon Hill's twenty-fifth year Jubilee retrospective, Roberts can only remark, "May I note that I would rather be known for something that was the result of a deliberate effort."

Before he left the company, however, Roberts conceived of a magazine that would provide marketing for Avalon Hill's products, as well as columns on game strategy, design and the like. Under the anonymous editorship of Shaw, the Avalon Hill General debuted on May 1, 1964. Counterintuitive as this may sound, it is because of the existence and careful stewardship of the General that any serious history of Dungeons & Dragons must begin with Avalon Hill. Through the medium of the General, wargames fans united into a national community, a wargaming fandom, which proved essential to future game development. Of course, the success of wargaming had many fathers, when we look outside of Avalon Hill: Jack Scruby, for example, incubated the infant miniature wargaming hobby community of the 1950s as he built his seminal business around the manufacture and sale of military miniatures. Scruby also recruited English wargamers Tony Bath and Don Featherstone as co-editors of his early hobby magazine, the War Game Digest, a periodical that had already run for several years (and folded) well before the first issue of the General; Featherstone would in turn edit the bellwether miniature wargaming journal of the 1960s and 1970s, Wargamer's Newsletter. One would similarly be remiss to neglect Alan B. Calhamer: his Diplomacy (1959), a more abstract and political game with greater popular appeal than the initial Avalon Hill titles, went on to storm classrooms everywhere and reportedly the inner cloisters of the Kennedy White House. All of these fathers should be given their due, and in pages that follow they shall. The claim which belongs to Avalon Hill alone is the creation of American board wargaming fandom within the pages of the General. By enabling wargamers to connect with one another, and form organizations independent of Avalon Hill and its house organ, the General opened a reserve of distributed creative power that might otherwise have gone untapped. However, in keeping with the regrets of Avalon Hill's founder Charles S. Roberts, it is less clear that the wargaming community turned out to be quite what its enablers had in mind.