Posts Tagged ‘roleplaying history

13
Aug
12

Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart

I just got my paperback copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games from Amazon. It is impressively huge, and after checking out some of its 698 pages at random, I was compelled to track down this quote from Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

Sometimes I’ll be blathering on about the early history of roleplaying and people will say “hey Tavis, you should write a book about this stuff.” In the past I’d feel bad that this was unlikely to happen, but now I no longer have to worry about it. The position has been taken by Jon, who (to extend the Snow Crash analogy) I firmly believe has a tattoo on his forehead consisting of three words, written in block letters: EXTREMELY THOROUGH RESEARCH.

I first heard about Playing at the World back in March, when Emily Melhorn contacted me for help in trying to get Mike Mornard’s permission to reproduce in the book a map that he’d drawn for the original Greyhawk campaign. She said that Jon had purchased the original of this map at an auction many years ago, and that “he would like to use it to illustrate how the secrecy of a dungeon map was a fundamental design innovation of D&D, which he then further describes how “secret information’ was used in previous wargames.”

This sounded like a pretty cool thesis, and at first glance it looks like Playing at the World is going to take it to lots of interesting places. But Peterson’s killer app – the nuclear warhead on a dead-man switch that he’s carting around to discourage any would-be bad-asses – is his degree of access to primary materials. Just hinted at in this original email, it’s on full view at the Playing at the World blog, where he began busting out a fantastic assortment of ur-texts beginning with Domesday Book #1 and the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1.

In the comments there, early D&D scholar Daniel Boggs writes “For Pity’s sake Jon, why don’t I know who you are?” I think the answer is that the wings of the OSR devoted to rediscovery of original approaches through actual play, and self-publishing of retroclones designed to support such play, have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the circles (like the OD&D boards) that I hail from. The community efforts of roleplaying collectors, like the Acaeum, represent equally vital and dedicated wings of the OSR cathedral. Previously I’ve only sensed the scale of those wings via echoes at places like the North Texas RPG Con which seem to bring out a lot of collectors. Playing at the World is proof that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s an achievement even grander in scale than OSRIC, and like the first retro-clone I expect it will be the foundation for a lot of further expansion by fans and scholars. As Jon says in reply to Dan’s comment:

One of the reasons why I took on this book project was because, as a collector, I have access to some obscure resources that haven’t gotten a lot of prior attention. If you glance through the book, you will for example find a reproduction of a pre-D&D Blackmoor character sheet, with the original names of the abilities and so on. I also have some circa-1974 letters from Arneson, including material that sheds light on which ideas from the Blackmoor system Gygax rejected. Having the big picture from Corner of the Table really helps as well. In short, there are a lot of resources that the community has lacked to date. Expect that as people start assimilating what’s in the book our picture of early Blackmoor will probably shift a bit.

This is exciting stuff! If you’re at all interested in the history of this thing we do, you owe it to yourself to follow the blog and buy the book.

Rob Conley mentions that Playing at the World “doesn’t have much in the way of personal stories about the individuals of the early days.” Although this would seem to leave an un-filled position, I am glad to report that Mike Mornard, a badder motherfucker than I could hope to be, is taking care of it with a memoir of those early days titled We Made Up Some Shit We Thought Would Be Fun. That work is forthcoming; given the dense goodness of Playing at the World, I’m hoping it will take me long enough to read it as it does Mike to write his reminiscences so that I can put down one and pick up the other.

31
Mar
12

Roleplaying Family Trees

"Out in the Streets ... 1972-1979". Rock family tree by Pete Frame

As is often the case, I come away from GaryCon all fired up about a project. In this case, it’s making a comprehensive family tree of gaming groups, modeled on the Seattle Band Map: a community-driven effort to document every local band that ever played a show or recorded a single, and demonstrate how they interconnect.

I’ve been fascinated by these kinds of lineages ever since seeing Pete Frame’s rock family trees in college. The specific impetus for me to pick this up at Gary Con was playing in the Dungeon! boardgame with Dave Megarry and thus getting to meet one of the two people who form the original branching of Dungeons & Dragons’ family tree: Arneson and Megarry traveled together to Lake Geneva to introduce Blackmoor and Dungeon! to Gary Gygax. I’ve learned a great deal from others who moved between the two groups, like Michael Mornard, and members of Arneson’s original gaming circle like Maj. Wesely and Ross Maker, and many others have worked on tracing the members of the earliest gaming groups.

I don’t think this should just be a backwards-facing enterprise, however. Someday the connections between our contemporary gaming groups will be just as interesting, and a lot easier to trace accurately. And the Seattle Band Project, like other genealogical efforts,  shows that filling in the gaps between the small and knowable origin and the huge and knowable current gaming scene is a doable task.

Does anyone out there in Muleland have skills that’d help make this project a reality? Experience with genealogy would be invaluable, of course, but there are a lot of database and visualization components involved as well, and probably there are lots of things I’m not even thinking about yet.

23
Mar
12

Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution

A common theme in the old-school renaissance is that there was a “Hickman revolution” that ruined everything in the development of D&D. There is no doubt that the TSR modules Tracy and Laura Hickman helped create sold like crazy because they met a demand that hadn’t previously been satisfied, that this commercial success helped set the publishing priorities for the expansion of the RPG industry, and that we are still experiencing the consequences.

However,  neither the way that their work was marketed nor received can really speak to the Hickmans’ original creative intent. Thanks to the generosity of Scribe from the Tome of Treasures who let me take some pictures of the works in his collection, and Tim Hutchings who took me along to be awestruck by said collection, I was able to get some insights into the values that Tracy and Laura created Daystar West Media to pursue. From the introduction to their version of Pharoah, which was intended to be the first in a series of NIGHTVENTURE products:

The first two of the four requirements that NIGHTVENTURE endeavored to meet – a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing; an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself – certainly can be seen as containing the seeds of what we now know as the “Hickman Revolution”.

The fourth – an attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions playing time – speaks to one of the creative tensions that emerged with the Dragonlance series. Many gamers wanted and still want to strive toward an end that will provide a satisfying dramatic resolution to the events being played out. At the same time, as genre fans, we always want more of the same. Our desire to have the adventure continue on and ever onwards led as surely to the trend of sequelitis which Dragonlance came to exemplify as did TSR’s commercial motivations in feeding that desire. It is interesting to consider whether an independent Daystar West Media would have maintained the goal of having an end never more than a few sessions away, and whether a Hickman revolution and OSR-style counter-revolution would still have occurred if so.

The goal I found most striking when examining the original Pharoah , however, is the third – dungeons with some sort of architectural sense. Scribe told me that Tracy had been trained as an architect, and each section of the module begins with a beautiful cross-section illustrating which area of the pyramid is being described:

Some of this architectural sense is visible in later Hickman modules like Ravenloft, but the layout, cartography, and visual presentation in Daystar West’s version of Pharoah is, to my mind, far superior to that in its later TSR release. I think that this idea of complex, fantastic architecture is the virtue that the old-school renaissance is most ready to celebrate – it’s certainly one of the things that I admire so much in Paul Jaquays’ work.

Might there have been a different kind of Hickman revolution if more people had been exposed to this virtue of architectural sense, both by having it stated directly and elegantly displayed?




Past Adventures of the Mule

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