RPG History: Playing at the World, Part I

As mentioned before, I’ve been reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s been wonderful so far, with a few frustrations, but mostly just shedding light where I’d only heard rumors before.

The book is quite big, and although I’m not the fastest reader, I’ve been working through it quite quickly. Peterson uses a semi-academic prose style that avoids dryness while also mostly staying objective. Plus, of course, the subject matter is fascinating, and my curiosity is a strong motivator.

History is a complex subject, and the evolution of D&D is not a simple matter to cover, so the organization of the book is necessarily complex. The book has only five chapters: “A Prelude to Adventure” (primarily an introduction to wargames and an overview of the development of D&D), “Setting: The Medieval Fantasy Genre”, “System: The Rules of the Game”, “Character: Roles and Immersion” and “The Dawn of Role-Playing”, plus introduction, epilogue, bibliography and notes. It is difficult to fully analyze any one thread in the tapestry that is the invention of RPGs without also pulling at other threads, so the book is scattered with “more on this in the next section”-type comments. This can be frustrating at times, but I can’t think of a better way to organize a prose book. (A wiki might conceivably work better.)

I have two other frustrations so far. (I’ve only gotten up to page 260 or so at this point.) One, Peterson aspires to academic prose, but frequently allows subjective editorializing and colloquial writing to mar the narrative. Here are a few examples:

These pacifist dalliances proved less successful, however, than games in the bellicose mold of Tactics(p. 57)

“Pacifist” could arguably not be biased, but “dalliance” surely is. Or, if it’s self-deprecation (making light of geeky pastimes), then it feels like nerd self-loathing.

Ineffectual copyright protection… further curtailed profits from sales. (p. 230)

There are a lot of modern copyfighters who would argue with the notion that profitability requires strong copyright law. This isn’t a central point of Peterson’s book, of course; but why assert such a thing in the first place? Editorializing like this distracts from the history woven through the book.

…throughout his all-too-short career Lovecraft never found a superior vehicle for his work. (p. 247)

Again, why the editorializing? Why say “all-too-short” instead of just “short”?

Harold Shea… entered these stories by means of the unfortunately-named ‘syllogismobile… (p. 258)

Use of the term “unfortunately” feels very out of place in academic writing.

Peterson isn’t, I think, trying for purely objective, disinterested, academic prose. He’s clearly coming from the position of someone who loves and appreciates RPG history, and that is a big part of the book’s appeal: it is clearly a work of love. But I wish he could keep just that bit further towards objectivity.

The second problem I’ve noticed is insufficient sourcing. Peterson frequently states things as fact without giving a citation or proof for the statement:

Combatants in medieval wargames are typically armored melee units, mounted or on foot, who favored swords and shields and the support of distant bowmen. (p. 92)

(Emphasis mine.) I mean, yes, they probably typically are armed that way, but it still feels like something that would get a “citation needed” tag in Wikipedia.

…lycanthropes… of whom Beorn the were-bear of The Hobbit was a likely prototype… (p. 131)

Likely? Perhaps, but I’d need to see documentation from Gygax and Perren to believe it. As it is, Peterson doesn’t give any support to his assertion.

Tony Bath took up the cause of campaigning in wargames with his Hyborian campaign, rightfully seen as the progenitor of modern miniature wargame campaigns. (p. 148)

The use of “rightfully”, here, feels like both an unsupported assertion and a bit of editorializing. Again, more historical support would be good.

It was in this lively column that science fiction acquired one of its defining characteristics… a fandom. (p. 244)

It’s extremely hard to pinpoint any one location as the birthplace of fandom; if Peterson has more proof that Amazing Stories truly was where SF fandom began, I’d love to see it! Perhaps he’s referring to a study that proved this? If so, it remains uncited.

I’m reading the book in electronic form, and it’s certainly possible that the hard copy has more notes. In the electronic edition, there are endnotes — they don’t provide enough historical support to fill in the gaps, however, and they make me think that the paper edition doesn’t have sufficient support, either.

Mostly, these objections are a wish to strengthen an already great book. It feels like Peterson has textual or oral history that supports (for example) the idea that Gygax and Perren derived their ideas of lycanthropes from Tolkien, but because nothing is provided in the book, it feels like a gap in the otherwise wonderful narrative. It’s more a case of wanting more of his scholarship than of wanting less.

And I’ve been wanting more because the book truly is engaging and enlightening. At numerous points, I’ve found myself saying “Yes!” or “I’ve always wondered about that…” For example, over the years, I’ve heard occasional murmurs about Dave Wesley (sp? Peterson spells it differently in his blog) and the Braunstein games that led up to D&D, but having read the descriptions in Playing at the World, I feel like I really know how they worked and what they were about.

As another example, the book also gives a good sense of what Arneson contributed to D&D, and what Gygax did, relating a lot of facts without getting too far into this very partisan issue. And there are many other wonderments. The discussion of the early history of GenCon is fascinating. Peterson adeptly paints the landscape of early SF&F magazines, and which authors produced what. And it seems that most times I’ve seen a tantalizing name mentioned, within a few paragraphs Peterson had solved several important mysteries.

Also, and this is less of a mystery than just something I really appreciate, he uses a trope-based definition of fantasy: “the presence of one or more of the following elements”, including magic, wizards, mythological creatures, etc. I’ve long felt that fantasy and SF are defined not by a single attitude, but by certain tropes that are frequent (if not universal); SF&F are defined more by their tag clouds than by their philosophies. It’s good to see him using this type of definition.

So overall, Playing at the World has been a great, enlightening read so far. I’ll continue to review it as I finish more.

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