There aren’t many comprehensive and in-depth books that chart the vast and complex history of tabletop role-playing and simulation games.
Particularly rare are books that successfully track that circuitous route from wargames to D&D and beyond. Weighing in at a colossal 720 pages, and more than five years in the making, a new book was published in August that takes on just such a Herculean task: Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games.
I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and I have to say it’s an impressive achievement, clearly representing hours and hours of research. Peterson, an avid game collector and computer engineer, has tracked down details and documents, especially the hundreds of archival materials necessary to tell the early history of D&D and other RPGs.
That said, Peterson is the first to admit that Playing at the World is not intended for a general audience. It’s a book for geeks, about geeks.
And the book geeks out frequently — on the minutiae of gaming; on how players, from eighteenth-century strategists to modern hobbyists, experimented with various game systems; and on how the Arneson/Gygax juggernaut led to the modern role-playing game.
But I have to admit I haven’t read the entire tome. Not yet … Rather than this being a review, I’ve gone the route of Q&A here. I recently had the chance to ask Peterson some questions about his research, the process of writing his striking new book, and what surprises he discovered along the way.
Peterson: I wrote Playing at the World because I wanted to turn the way we thought about the gaming culture of the late twentieth century upside down. I wanted to show these games not as fads or disposable products of pop culture, but instead as a legitimate part of intellectual history, heirs to a tradition that stretches back centuries and involves many great thinkers and innovators. I wanted to show how the techniques of simulation invented for wargaming expanded beyond just modeling conflict and narrowed into simulating individual people — and then into simulating things that are not real or even possible. Dungeons & Dragons serves as the obvious focal point in this transition, but it is by no means the end of the story, as computer games build tirelessly on its foundation. I predict that we’re coming to a real turning point in our culture, a radical move away from passive media into interactive media, and that through simulations we will have experiences of the unreal that are beyond our ability to imagine today. But when our future selves ask where this all began, the trail will lead us back to D&D. I wanted a history of role-playing games worthy of the future that they are creating.
Gilsdorf: What does your book hope to accomplish that other books about the history of gaming (RPGs, simulation games) do not do?
Peterson: It builds its narrative on a body of contemporary documentary evidence. When I became interested in this history, I found that many of the most widely-held beliefs about the origins of Dungeons & Dragons rested on shaky foundations at best — on unsourced assertions or personal recollections. Since I had been collecting early games and ephemera since the late 1990s, I saw an opportunity to provide a more scholarly narrative. While a book as long and complicated as mine can’t be correct on every particular, I hope it sets a new bar for the level of rigor required to advance historical claims about gaming.
Gilsdorf: I didn’t find anything about your background or any “author’s note” on your book. Tell us more about yourself, and your qualifications for writing the book.
Peterson: I have no special qualifications as an author aside from my access to the primary sources of the era and my passion for exploring this history. I fear that in the past, there had been people who had the motivation to tell this story but not the necessary resources to piece it together, and then there had been people who had the necessary resources but not the motivation to organize and analyze them. I realized I could probably close that gap, and that’s when I hunkered down to work.
A few readers have teased me about the lack of any autobiographical notice about the author, but from my perspective, this book isn’t about me, it’s about the community who made these amazing games. I wasn’t there at the time, and I am not a protagonist in this story. There didn’t seem to be much of a need for me to include accounts of my own experiences with gaming, as there are other books out there that address that more personal dimension — there’s one called Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I believe.
Gilsdorf: Your book is big, and you clearly tracked down an impressive amount of source material. How did you research the book? Did you interview people or was the research mostly archival?
Peterson: Almost entirely archival, though there are no proper archives for this. I began with just my own collection, and from there identified what additional resources I needed. Vicious eBay bidding ensued. Some other private collectors showed extraordinary generosity in allowing me to snoop through their stacks. Also, I did rely on the impressive fanzine collections of the University of California at Riverside and Bowling Green State University, as well as the holdings of several other colleges. When it came down to the last few pieces of the puzzle, I had already invested enough time and effort that truly extraordinary measures felt like a drop in the bucket. If a resource I needed could be viewed only at a university library in a small town in Bavaria, I’d find a way to get there and have a look at it.
I’ve tried to estimate the number of primary sources I evaluated over the five-year course of the project, but it’s a bit difficult — it’s many thousands, anyway. At the end of the day, I now have a lot of things in my office I probably should give to a museum.
Gilsdorf: I imagine it might have been hard to research given that many of the people (at least involved in the development of D&D, i.e. Gygax and Arneson) are no longer living. Were there questions you wanted to ask that frustrated you, and if so, if you could go back in time and talk to anyone in the development of gaming, who would you talk to and what would you ask?
Peterson: When I began the project back in January of 2007, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were still with us, and I did have the opportunity to put some questions to both of them. I will say that Gary left a priceless gift to posterity, in the form of countless hours he spent in the last decade of his life answering fans’ questions on Internet forums. I think you’d be hard pressed to invent a query that wasn’t posed to him already during this marathon, and thanks to the Internet, it’s all a matter of public record. Dave was more sparing with his time, and thus I’m very grateful for the opportunities I had to interview him. The last time I saw him was in February of 2009, only a couple months before he passed away. I will always remember taking him and some of the early Blackmoor players out to dinner then.
If Mr. Wells loaned me his time machine, my first stop would be Davos, in 1881, to demand that Robert Louis Stevenson write down his rules properly. Then I would dress up as a Prussian officer and watch silently as the elder Reiswitz first demonstrated his game in the White Salon at Berlin Castle in 1811. I’d head to 1970 and figure out who sent Gary the anonymous medieval rules in Domesday Book #7. I would subscribe to about a hundred fanzines from the ’60s and ’70s and have them all sent to a very capacious post office box. Now that I think about it, there is also a particular manuscript I’ve been working with for the past couple weeks that I would have loved to ask Gary and Dave about.
Gilsdorf: Your book really reaches deep into the history of gaming, going back to ancient times, chess, the Napoleonic age, H.G. Wells, etc., as you chart how rules and systems developed. What, briefly, was the key thread of influence that led from these older wargames to the modern fantasy RPG?
Peterson: The key thread appears in the work of the younger Reiswitz, in the 1820s. He first introduced to wargaming two separate but intertwined components: referees and dice.
Reiswitz developed a game where verbal orders took the place of movements on a board, where a referee interpreted statements of intention from the players and converted them into results in the game world. This feedback loop, where the referee explains the state of the world and players then describe the actions they would like to attempt, is the fundamental innovation that underlies role-playing games. It bounced across languages and continents until it resurfaced in America in the work of Totten in the 1880s, which Twin Cities gamers later rediscovered and made part of their games in the late 1960s.
This achievement alone would be sufficient to earn a place in the pantheon of gaming gods, but the younger Reiswitz was also the first to grasp how statistics and probability could be combined to let dice resolve fictional events in a game. At his day job at the artillery ranges, he learned the differences in likelihood of striking targets with firearms at different ranges, and from those statistical models, he was able to assign a probability that die throws could resolve as game events. I believe this is where the fundamental principle of simulation was invented, and it was something then unprecedented in intellectual history. He also grasped that dice were a critical enabler for the referee as well, because dice are impartial: an omnipotent referee could always show an unconscious bias towards participants in the game, but dice kept the referee honest.
These two innovations walked hand in hand through the centuries right up to your table top.
Gilsdorf: What were some of the secrets about D&D‘s past that most surprised you — or you think will most surprise readers?
Peterson: Personally, I was most surprised by how many of the system ideas that we consider central to D&D derived from the earlier war-game Chainmail. Armor class, saving throws, class, level, hit points, all are half-baked in Chainmail. Honestly, they were only about three-quarters baked in the first edition of D&D, so the changes aren’t even as radical as one might suppose. I’d never read or played Chainmail before I began this project; in fact, my first Chainmail game was at the Lake Geneva Games Convention in 2008, where you and I met briefly while you were conducting interviews for your book.
Readers so far seem to be most surprised by the arcane ephemera I’ve unearthed. When I talk about rare resources like the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger, which give us new insights into the earliest phases of Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, or like the Rules to the Game of Dungeon, an important early Minneapolis D&D variant, it’s clear that these were virtually unknown in the community up until now. What most surprises readers is just how many primary sources are out there that no one even knew survived, and what they can tell us about how D&D evolved.
Gilsdorf: Number one myth about the history of RPGs and simulation games that you uncovered or want to debunk?
Peterson: I do hope to debunk the myth that either Gygax or Arneson was wholly responsible for the invention of Dungeons & Dragons. You can find partisans today willing to argue either position. Speaking just to the authorship of the game itself, it seems clear to me that both of them made indispensable contributions. But the myth goes deeper than that, because the very first editions of D&D were full of incomplete and tentative rules. The game was received by a community of fans who brought with them their own preconceptions and ideas, and the influence of that community hugely shaped D&D in its formative years. As I say in the book, while the authors create the game, it is the fans who create the phenomenon. Explicating that broader web of influences that surrounded the creation and reception of the game was one of my highest priorities as an author.
Gilsdorf: Your book doesn’t spent much time talking about the rise of video games, basically ending (in your chronology of gaming) at around the point that Adventure, Zork and Ultima come on the scene. Can you talk about why you chose not to delve into modern gaming i.e. MMOs, Halo, World of Warcraft — or are these games of an entirely different order?
Peterson: This may be the first time someone has asked me why I didn’t make the book any longer.
I do cover MUDs (multi-user dungeons) in my section on computer games in the epilogue, and honestly, I think that the MMOs of today still trade on the core principles that MUDs invented. Throughout the book I try to focus on the games that I see moving the ball forward, bringing us deeper and deeper principles of simulation that eventually led us to virtual game worlds. As much as I am personally a fan of Blizzard’s work, I see the advances of MMOs to date as further articulations of the fundamental system pioneered by MUDs, but not actual evolutionary steps beyond them. I think there is still a lot of room for new thinking in MMO design that will make virtual worlds more dynamic, more realistic and more enjoyable. I certainly did not write this book believing that the popular games of today are the apex of design — far from it. I wrote this book because I am convinced that we’re still at the very beginning of a much larger cultural tradition that will build on these systems and bring with them wonders we can barely conceive of today. But rather than predicting what that world might look like, which isn’t really a question of history, I figured I’d be better off just ending the book on that note. I’d be very interested to revisit these questions in a decade or two.
Gilsdorf: I was curious about your decision self publish with (if I understand correctly) your own press, Unreason Press. Was it hard to get a mainstream publisher interested in your book? Would you be open to having your book picked by a traditional press?
Peterson: I went this route for the freedom, mostly. The few publishers I did approach advised that a shorter book with a more narrow and popular scope would be likelier to yield the necessary sales. I can certainly see why a major publishing house would not be eager to entrust a project of this girth to an untested author. But I had really committed to doing something meticulous and detailed, and this was the best way I could find to do it. I am also fascinated by the transformations in the publishing industry and the new democratization of producing books.
Going it on your own, you sacrifice the marketing and exposure that a major publisher would bestow, as well as the editorial expertise. But at the end of the day I wasn’t expecting this book to be a runaway bestseller. It’s not a book written for a casual reader who is only interested in the high-level narrative — it’s a scholarly book for people inquisitive enough that they want to be convinced of what happened by direct evidence and argument. Given the sheer amount of conjecture that has dominated the historical accounts of gaming written in the last thirty years, I thought approaching the subject this way was entirely warranted.
That much said, now that I’ve had the book released my way, I would be open to working with a traditional publisher on a follow-up, sure. I think the reception has been positive enough to justify considering a future edition.
Gilsdorf: Anything else you’d like to add?
Peterson: I have been really pleased with the warm reception that the community has given my book. Through Playing at the World, I’ve been introduced to a lot of other enthusiasts working on different angles of the history. I guess when the book came out, I imagined that my work would be done, at least for the time being, but getting deeper into the historical community has brought me in contact with many new ideas and new resources, and I now realize this is just the beginning. I’m tremendously excited about where some of these new directions will be able to shed more light in the future. Even if a revised edition isn’t in my immediate future, I’ll be talking about this on various forums around the net and on my blog.
Gilsdorf: Thanks so much for your time.
Peterson: Thank you!