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.


4 Responses to “Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart”


  1. August 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    there’s a fun little book that won’t be claiming any motherfucker awards, but I got a bit of a kick out of reading called ‘The Elfish Gene’, all about a young lad growing up as a gamer. I discovered gaming maybe half a dozen years further into my life than this guy, but I think a lot of gamers will, like me, see a little something of themselves in it.

    http://reviews.waterstones.com/4921-en_gb/5619672B/reviews.htm

  2. 2 Dan Boggs
    August 14, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Heh. My copy was estimated to arrive today and I duly showed up at the post office this morning. No luck. Hopefully tomorrow…..

  3. August 14, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    @Shorty, I dug the glimpse into the past that The Elfish Gene provides. I think it’s a valuable portrait of why the hobby changed when it went from being the province of guys 24 – 33 years old who were already versed in managing the social dynamics of wargame clubs etc. to being something kids developed in their own Lord of the Flies way. However the authorial self-hatred kept me from really enjoying it. Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks is less valuable as a historical document (c’mon, the Owl & Weasel fanzine gets namechecked in Elfish Gene!) but more palatable as a memoir and vehicle for gamer self-discovery.

  4. August 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Just received my copy as well. Really a pleasure to read! :)


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