For me, for better and worse, there has almost always been D&D.

In a sense, Dungeons and Dragons has been grafted, simply by doing it at an early age, Lamarck-like, into my DNA. Though I haven’t played it since I was 15, and though I think it a frustrating, byzantine and problematic stew of player self-aggrandizement and rule-mayhem, I can’t escape it. It’s family. Like a deranged grandfather who refuses to die, but whose life story basically makes me, qua me, possible; I am a descendant of D&D.

I probably first set my hands on the “Basic Set” of D&D within a year of its publication in 1977 (this would be the second edition of the 1974 rules for those keeping geek score). In a box with flimsy game manual, strange dice, and a few odd geomorphic maps, this thing came into my hands full-born. Why bother where it came from? This was when I was no older than 10, after all. That’s too early for genealogy.

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Figure 1: Dungeons and Dragons “Basic Set”, circa 1977.

D&D was, when I came upon it, a handful of tools, which I first took out for creative test-work, accompanied by a willing band of equally unprepared friends. These would propel me to some of my strongest and warmest, and certainly most long-lasting, personal relationships. It would also afford me creative opportunities that would not have thrived in the absence of such an imaginative tool-set. D&D was the first push towards a life in the empathetic arts in a sense, a discipline I recognize in my passive struggling appreciation for theater and cinema today, but also as I actively pursue them as a social scientist, speaker and writer.

The key tacit assumption of my game-playing experience, however, grown from a life playing and refereeing role playing games in the years thereafter is that, because I lived it from earliest age, D&D is a thing without history. Indeed I know it to simply be history. After D&D comes everything we all find more gratifying, interesting and challenging, including all the games of imagination from the table top horrors of Call of Cthulhu to the digital post-apocalyptic worlds of Fallout. D&D’s progenitor presence in the world is, in a sense, self-explanatory.

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Figure 2: Perfectly well-adjusted people at the annual Origins event in Columbus, Ohio. This stuff is so mainstream as to be suspicious.

This is because D&D is not simply an urge to ego (which it is) but also a call to empathy (which it became). The magic of D&D isn’t simply that you pick up a sword in your mind and slay things, but that the person you occupy in the process has aspirations, however primitive and acquisitive in nature, has the ability to be, learn and grow.

This is way beyond folk-story telling. It’s something new. It is this that would be bequeathed to its better and more sober descendants: a game where anything was possible and the details would be sorted out as you go. A game where story-telling allowed the fantasist in you to live, for a while, in the skin of another person… and live not just a moment, but the hints of a full life, with failures that continue to haunt you and successes you brag about later.

As a referee (or “GM”), D&D gave me the opportunity to write worlds and richly entertain those who entered them. It is the perfect game from someone who would later become a failed playwright and a scientific participant observer. That I would adopt – and later help to develop – whole new worlds of role-playing games, is not what is immediately important in this review, however. What matters, is that there was always D&D, or so it seemed. Despise it, revere it, reflect on its impact on my development as a person, it always was.

But of course: it wasn’t. Not always.

Jon Peterson’s “Playing at the World: A history of simulating wars, people, and fantastic adventures, from Chess to role playing games” takes this last revelation seriously.

Where do Role Playing Games Come from?

If D&D at some point wasn’t, then it wasn’t inevitable. While human beings have been role playing since they marched out of Africa, early fire users did not set aside their Thursday nights with a set of formal rules to adjudicate their fantasies and folk tales. They didn’t throw dice to tell a story. And surely, even if they had, they wouldn’t pick a Tolkien-addled, but judiciously balanced, system for experiencing imaginary worlds.

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Figure 3: Story-telling is timeless and lauded. Polyhedral dice, conversely, are a sign of a poorly-spent childhood, or perhaps… sewer-dwelling pathology!

Only D&D would do that… and so late in our civilization’s history. It simply can’t be taken for granted… it must be explained!

Human mechanized flight may have been inevitable in the development of technology, after all, but the rise of the bicycle, and their most adventurous engineers, are no small part of the trip from an Ohio garage to Kitty Hawk. The details matter for both the innovation, and for understanding the habits of the technology that would both hinder and advance human beings in the air for decades.

The same thing goes for the weird adventure of inventing role playing games. Why 1970? Why fantasy? What game technologies made it possible or hindered its advance? In the absence of serious history, it’s simply impossible to answer these questions.

Enter Jon Peterson.

Peterson’s book, an intense and lengthy work of bizarre and doting historical effort, seeks to do the following:

  1. Explain why D&D, in its first formulation, appeared as it did, when it did.
  2. Explain why the game emerged to simulate fantasy (i.e. Tolkienesque) adventure, rather than some other imaginative world.
  3. Explain why the rules of that game would take the (arguably problematic) forms that it did?
  4. Explain why it found an immediate and willing audience when, for all purposes, such a game had never meaningfully existed before?

The answers that Peterson provides are a labyrinth of history, geeky detail, and exhaustive analysis of a mail-based social world.

Should you read it? I dunno. I did; 632 pages later, I’m not sure I understand any better my own relationship to role play, though I do better appreciate its fabulous novelty… the sense that it is a contingent rather than necessary product of bourgeois history. As such, it makes me better revere its innovators.

So what does Peterson’s book actually try to do?

Taking a studiously historical approach to the history of D&D, Peterson limits his explanation to only this: explaining the existence of the 1st edition 3-book publication of D&D in 1974, along with its most immediate supplements (i.e Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes), ending around 1975.

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Figure 4: The author has long since lost this set of books from TRS (Tactical Studies Rules)

In the process, Peterson refuses to use later reflections or oral narratives to sort the facts (i.e. stuff someone says Gary Gygax told them one time at a convention). Instead, he burrows into the deep history of the hobby, mostly using the sprawling record of fanzines that filled the gaming community network in the 1960s. Only primary written narrative would suffice in Peterson’s effort; half-remembered conversations are ignored.

This means Peterson distances himself from the dark wrangling over ownership and copyright, along with crises in ownership and the solvency of key firms, which emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All Peterson wants to explain is why D&D exists, on its own historical terms, not of people its legacy afterwards. The book is meticulously footnoted and fastidiously documented.

The implications for this approach are that Peterson does nothing more or less than explain the product that I laid my hands on in 1977.

And he does so convincingly. In the process, he leaves the tumultuous history of role playing games that would follow in the late 1970-s and 1980 (when so many of my friends met!), from The Fantasy Trip to Runequest to Call of Cthulhu. His interest is in genesis, and so he goes deep into the genetic code of gaming itself, starting with nothing less than the creation of Chess in ancient India, but mostly focusing on wargames of central Europe, table top miniatures of the 1950s and 60s, and gaming conventions in the early 1970s.

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Figure 5: Peterson’s book bravely makes role-playing games nothing more nor less than a single part of the longer history of games,  a human enterprise that is as wonderful as it is ancient.

As such, Peterson  makes the history of D&D a study of the history of wargaming, because D&D is so closely tied to the kreigspiel of German pre-modernism, that even a casual player would have to be stubborn not to recognize D&D’s “to hit” tables from the innovations of table top German impresarios of the 1700s. This game’s roots are in places most role players might not recognize when seeing them in exacting detail. Peterson paints such portraits of detail by plumbing apparently incongruous genealogies, poring over the minutes of clubs dedicated to naval wargaming, the Society for Creative Anachronism (!) and of even stranger communities of fantasy immersion. This is a book of history, which rises and falls on the tedium and insight that footnotes provide the diligent reader. This is not the screed of a casual fan or a kiss-and-tell about dysfunctions of the industry: it’s a meticulously detailed blow-by-blow about the birth of the modern role-playing hobby.

Strange Origins of Familiar Things are always a Revelation

The book is broken down into a largely non-chronological set of chapters as a result. In chapter 1, Peterson reveals all you need to know about an especially eager upper Midwest gaming community in the US to demonstrate that D&D is an outgrowth of a small and widespread  geeky international tribe, centered on a very local set of wargaming people in Lake Geneva and Minneapolis. In Chapter 2, he provides us as good a history of fantasy fiction as you are likely to get in a succinct 120 pages. That account should make you recognize that “fantasy”, a novel creation in itself, was the most likely setting for any early role play. Chapter 3 explains how the rules of D&D emerged, and in the process provides one of the best single histories of wargaming I have ever read. It provides a lovingly detailed history of German kreigspiel and a brief survey of America’s troubled Avalon Hill. Chapter 4 muses on the very emergence of a game set around roles and character immersion, with some interesting antecedents in games like Diplomacy and the experiments in Game Theory being advanced for nuclear conflict at the RAND corporation.

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Figure 6: Enlightenment-era Kreigspiel was a sandbox affair, in which players devised scenarios, played in an context of negotiated uncertainty, and sorted outcomes as they went.

There are important epilogues and other details but basically… that’s it… the book’s incredible and startling detail is located in four, incredibly-lengthy empirical chapters. There are many revelations of note

Peterson toys with a great many definitions of D&D and role playing but never does better than with the words that: “ANYTHING CAN BE ATTEMPTED… The advisability of an attempt is another thing…” Those words come from the rule book David Wesley’s Napoleonic war rules “Strategos N” written in 1967, but they are rooted in 18th century freeform kreigspeil traditions that rely heavily on a referee to adjudicate a free-flowing situation. Surely this is the core of any role playing game worth a damn…. Anything can be attempted…

More challenging, D&D comes from the world of tabletop miniatures but probably never used them in its initial years at all, largely resting on paper and pencil adjudication until after the lead figure industry caught up with demand.

Peterson also demonstrates that “Fantasy” fiction – in its swords and sorcery version – is about as historically deep as the NFL. If it weren’t for Conan, and the various intellectual pirates who rewrote him over the decades, this brand of fiction would not precede Tolkien by very much. On the other hand, Lovecraft is given due in Peterson’s book not just for content but for innovating a mode of publishing that allowed modern fantasy to emerge after Lord Dunsanay.

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Figure 7: My parents’ Ballentine Books editions of the Lord of the Rings I first read. Haughty Tolkien never wanted pulp paperback fame, but he got it, thank goodness.

He also demonstrates the early emergence of a meta-game beyond the dungeon, where players could build castles, throw parties, hire henchmen, and count their spoils between adventures. Long before D&D formally existed, it was realized that the lives of characters outside the adventure is the only thing that made their advancement inside especially interesting.

He even traces the tension – that all experienced gamers will know – between Monty Hall gaming and the “tomb of horrors” (whose specific genesis is hinted at in early Gygax  monstrosities as Gencon). The balances between unchallenging, rewarding and punitive experiences are timeless ones, and rest at the very birth of the hobby

Minor revelations are so many that I dare not attempt to cover them all. But for me, the interesting nuggets included: the importance and persistence of H.G. Wells detailed rules for battle with miniature soldiers;

Figure 8 H.G.Wells and his disturbing, bizarre toy soldiers.

the troubled history of table-top miniatures as a simulation in official military circles; the importance of Diplomacy as a wildly popular international play by mail phenomenon prior to the internet; the significance of naval wargaming (a major area of innovation for David Arneson prior to D&D) for the roots of Hit Points and other fussy systems in play; the sad history of the family of Wilhelm von Tschischwitz, originator of many of the basic concepts of wargaming we know now (including the combat results table!); the early struggle between systems that would distinguish being affected/damaged from how much one is affected/damaged.

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Figure 9: The sterile and lifeless Combat Results Table of classic wargames is wholly embedded into D&D, and will forever bedevil it. Woe unto the hobby.

But for those interested in these kinds of weeds… you’ll just have to read the book, which is as dense as it is physically heavy (I couldn’t find a digital copy).

Finally, the book emphasizes several timeless quarrels that anyone who has played games will recognize:

  1. Realism versus playability, an argument known to early modern table-top generals in 18th century Vienna as much as it is to Euro-game advocates versus grognards at Origins in Ohio every year;
  2. Simulating versus being the character in a role playing or game, the implications of which haunt anyone who has tried to play someone stupider or smarter than they are;
  3. Tension between homebrew innovators and game creators and sellers, including the welcoming and rejection of game innovations by fans and their relationship to “official” rules sponsored by capitalist and for-profit companies;
  4. Having or not having a referee. This tug-of-war is so old it sits at the very roots of arguments in wargaming centuries ago.

Should you read this monster? Most fantasy readers will love chapter 2, which chronicles the rise of the Gray Mouser and Conan and the rest of that stuff. Game geeks among us will certainly enjoy Chapter 3, as I did, because it shows the deep history of gaming itself. Chapter 4 is perhaps the least accessible part of the history, with its meditation on the other forms of “role play” that were brewing in the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, only a very few of us may actually find the main topic of the book itself interesting: why does D&D exist?

But, as I’ve tried to stress, it’s that last question alone that can open windows onto more interesting explorations. We can only learn how our hobby ticks if we make the following assumption: it might not.

Then where would we be?

Note: This essay is an adapted version of a brutally lengthy email sent to some close friends in 2014. My thanks to them for their editorial and factual corrections.