Posts Tagged ‘Playing at the World


The World’s First D&D Players and Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary

The Kickstarter for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is ending in nine hours. It’s a project deserving of support for a number of reasons, one of which is the quality and range of voices they’ve collected. Check out, for example, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehesi Coates on growing up with the Keep on the Borderlands:

I  met the filmmakers at last year’s Gen Con, was impressed by their passion and professionalism, and have enjoyed finding things to do to help the project along. One of these was to moderate the panel at Gen Con 2012 at which a preview of early footage was shown. A number of folks who were interviewed for the film were on hand, both on the panel and not. After watching the clip and talking about the parts of the D&D story each of us thought were the most important to be told, I took questions from the audience. The one I remember best was “Who were the players in the first ever session of D&D?”

Fortunately, I had a ringer in the audience to call on: Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World. I figured Jon was the kind of person who could rattle this off, but he was able to do even better than that. “Actually, one of those original players is here in the audience. David Megarry, would you please stand up?”

After the applause died down, David started telling us about what he remembered about those earliest Blackmoor sessions (refereed by Dave Arneson) and the people he played them with. The thing I found fascinating – and wouldn’t have understood before Playing at the World – was that the groups entering the Blackmoor fantasy world were still segregated according to the nations they played in  Arneson’s prior Napoleonic campaign. David still remembered them as such – he was like “well at first it was just Russia and Spain, it wasn’t until later that the groups in the dungeon really started mingling.”

It’s now possible to know more than ever before about the earliest roots of gaming. The job now is to put these stories together and reveal what they mean, and I think that Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is going to be an invaluable part of that process. Go back it now before it’s too late!


Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.


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.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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