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.

The Zero-Sum Game of Campaign Settings

As you might infer from the title of my blog, I am a fan of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting. I have spent literally thousands of hours reading, writing, and dreaming about Greyhawk. Technically, I was a fan of the setting even before it was an official setting; most of my homebrew campaigns prior to 1980, when the first Folio was released, featured a Duchy of Aaqa, or an Empire of Lum, or other places whose names were gleaned from the tiny glimpses we read about in the artifacts and relics sections of Eldritch Wizardry and the DMG, and had gods like St. Cuthbert, similarly sourced. At the risk of being called immodest, I am a Greyhawk "superfan".

However, what you might not know is that I'm also a fan of the Forgotten Realms. I am also a fan of Dragonlance. And the Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign. And have had very enjoyable experiences in Dark Sun and Ravenloft.

For me, enjoyment of a particular campaign setting is not a zero-sum game. That is, I don't have a limited supply of "campaign appreciation points" that must be dolled out between the various campaign settings out there. Sure, I don't have an unlimited amount of time to devote to gaming (not even the many hours I had in my youth, which seems endless now that I look back on it, compared with what I'm able to devote to gaming these days).

Thus, I don't understand the mindset that says, "I'm a Greyhawk fan. Therefore, Forgotten Realms sucks and so does WotC for choosing it as the next setting!"

Now, it's certainly possible to not like a particular setting on its own merits; Planescape annoys me, for example. But I don't have to mention that fact every time that I bring up my love of Greyhawk. Unfortunately, it seems that some folks do. I've seen it in the last 24 hours in various forums, in reaction to the announcement that the Forgotten Realms is going to be the official setting for D&D for the foreseeable future.

Not everybody has to love that announcement (personally, I think it's probably the best choice they could have made, other than perhaps developing an entirely new setting). But I just don't understand the mindset that says that any piece of good news for a setting that's not my primary favorite automatically means I need to trash that setting. Or, as I have also seen, to trash the company that made the decision. Or the rules that are going to be used.

The Realms being the default setting for 5E isn't going to make me any more or less likely to play 5E. That will be based on the rules themselves. Ditto WotC as a company. Stuff they make that I like, I'll buy. Stuff they make that I don't like, I won't buy. Simple.