Friday, August 17, 2012

Playing at the World: First Impressions

Author Jon Peterson was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new book Playing at the World, which bears the wordy subtitle of "A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Games".

In a word, if you have any interest in the early history of Dungeons and Dragons, wargaming, Gary Gygax, or role-playing games in general, buy this book now. No, don't wait. Buy it now. I'll wait.

Ordered it? Good.

I'm only partway through the book, so this is only a "first impressions" rather than a full review. The thing is 720 pages and weighs in at more than three pounds. But from what I've read and skimmed through, I am completely confident in saying that this will become the definitive text of the early history of the role-playing hobby for years to come.

I am an historian by training and avocation. I'm used to reading large books filled with footnotes. I like reading large books filled with footnotes. And this book is that. But it reads lightly, and for me, who thought he had a passing familiarity with the subject matter, this book is a revelation. The level of detail is simply astounding, and in uncovering all of the salient facts of the state of gaming in the 1960's and 1970's that led to the advent of Dungeons and Dragons, Jon Peterson does something that warms the cockles of my heart. It's exactly what I do when digging into some obscure piece of lore, whether it be related to the World of Greyhawk or Norse mythology.

He relies on primary sources.

The importance of that fact cannot be understated. One of the great achievements of this book is that it doesn't rely on the memories and reminisces of those people involved. Peterson double-checks every date, every assertion, and every faded memory against the actual text of the myriad of fanzines, club newsletters, magazines, and other primary documents of the period (the tale of how he amassed such a treasure-trove is probably worthy of a story unto itself). He also cross-references this material against other works that claim to give histories of the period and material involved, and often enough points out where they are contradicted by the actual sources.

I'll say it again. This will become the definitive text of the early history of the role-playing hobby for years to come.

Is it perfect? No, but only because it needs two companion volumes. The first would be a Sourcebook. I would love to see the complete text of the original sources to which Peterson refers and quotes only enough to make his point. The second would be a volume that does consist of the reminisces of the persons involved. The pure facts laid out in "Playing at the World" are fascinating, engaging, and an utterly unthinkable amount of work. I would love to see a pure book of interviews, intended to capture the impressions and emotions of those involved, and see it cross-referenced against the facts laid out here.

But those points are not failings of the book itself. It's a phenomenal achievement. If you are interested in the history of RPGs, you must get this book. Buy it now. I'll wait.

9 comments:

Tim Knight said...

Sadly I can't afford it at present, but it's on my birthday/Christmas wish list!

Timothy C. Schenks said...

I couldn't wait so I downloaded their Kindle edition.

Rob Conley said...

Got the Kindle version and it is a great read. The hyperlinks make browsing the footnotes a snap as well.

I am about halfway as well and agree 100% with your assessment.

Archangel said...

Sadly I've no Kindle or Nook, but I think this demands to be read the old fashioned way. So, ordered it is!

I've been in & out of RPGs lately, so maybe this will spark something.

Gray Mouser said...

Sounds like a very cool book. But my REAL question is, what's the 411 on that map you've posted? Is it from the book itself? Looks like maybe an interim map of EGG's between the Flanaess as an alternate USA and the Darlene maps version.

Inquiring minds want to know!

kvndv1 said...

Sounds great...I'll get a copy ASAP! While I'm at it, urge the author to put together the two additional volumes you mentioned...I think that's a *great* idea!

Joseph Bloch said...

Mouser: The map is indeed from the book. It's the original map of Gygax's "Great Kingdom" campaign made up for the club in Lake Geneva.

Rob Conley said...

I suspect that the western shore of Niv Dyv is deliberately similar to that of Wisconsin. That when folks said that Greyhawk,is where Chicago is they are not inaccurate.

grodog said...

Gray Mouser: more info on the GH map at http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-great-kingdom-domesday-book-9.html.

Allan.