Notes from the Wargaming Underground: Dungeons, Dragons, and the History of Gamesby Aaron Trammell
Playing at the world: a history of simulating wars, people, and fantastic adventures from chess to role-playing games. (2012) by Jon Peterson. San Diego, CA: Unreason Press. ISBN: 978-0615642048
Abstract: This is a book review of Jon Peterson’s (2012) book Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games. This review contextualizes Peterson’s book within other work on the history of games. It argues that Peterson offers an important intervention in this discourse by offering an empirical account of the historical player communities which innovated the role-playing genre and its most well-known staple, Dungeons and Dragons.
Keywords: Game Studies, Cultural Studies, Book Review, History, Dungeons and Dragons
The encyclopedic Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-playing Games is an important step toward a history of games that encompasses domains beyond technology and business. But even though it comes as a timely intervention, it is difficult to imagine the book’s specific audience. Peterson tries to do it all, relating a grand narrative of games, culture, and Dungeons and Dragons that frequently trades depth for breadth. The book attempts to court an academic audience with its comprehensive and meticulously researched scope, but rarely engages with theory in Cultural Studies or Game Studies. Likewise, it also tries to engage with an audience of hobbyists and fans of Dungeons and Dragons, and, in so doing, it provides a specificity of detail that is likely to appeal only to those seeking a true expertise on the topic. Playing at the World, therefore, is best regarded as reference tool and approached as a way to start understanding the history of role-playing.
Criticisms aside, the book is a panacea, or remedy, for the two key problems with the historical narratives that recur in the field of Game Studies. First, histories of games tend to focus exclusively on computer and video games, only occasionally referencing the vast swaths of tabletop, card, and other games that have been developed around and before the electronic game . Second, histories of games tend to be histories of programmers, businessmen, and developers, not player communities . In this sense, the history of games has been, to this point, a history in the service of business economics and a history that focuses mainly on the games that have earned money and succeeded commercially as opposed to those which have been forgotten by consumers. For these reasons, the thoroughgoing Playing at the World is a timely and important intervention in the history of games .
Playing at The World is a labor of love. Self-published by Jon Peterson from his San Diego-based Unreason Press, the book was edited by a small cadre of Peterson’s friends (presumably fellow experts on the subject). It takes on a meticulous and scholarly tone throughout, and draws on historical resources from a variety of archives and interviews with a number of key figures in the history of the role-playing game. Although Playing at The World is not structured as a counter-narrative to any of the aforementioned problems in the history of games, it can be read as such. Ostensibly, the book is a history of Dungeons and Dragons, which is accurately situated as the precursor to the genre of role-playing as we know it. But, in tracing the various avenues of Dungeons and Dragons’ development, Peterson reveals a meandering series of tangentially connected communities, each indicative of a key moment in the history of role-playing.
The tome is massive in scope. Almost 700 pages long, it can be roughly divided into three key sections, each long enough to be its own book. These sections - setting, system, and character - are meant to represent the various dimensions of the role-playing game. Each section is an independent history, which tells the story of how that one particular trope (setting, system, or character) has come to be. In addition to these three main sections, the book begins with a considerable chapter on the American wargaming underground (years 1964-1974) explaining the community contexts from which Dungeons and Dragons originates, as well as a final chapter and epilogue that focuses on Dungeons and Dragons specifically, and its impact on computer and video games. Finally, there is also a helpful “Selected Bibliography” which lists all of the fanzines and game reference manuals to which Peterson has referred in his writing. This is a particularly important section, as much of what Peterson contributes to the scholarship on the history of games is a compass useful to researchers seeking to orient themselves to the ephemeral fan communities of the 1960s wargaming underground.
Amongst the many things that Playing at the World gets right, Peterson reveals a number of previously invisible player networks and fan communities that had heretofore been absent from the narratives of game history. The first chapter, “A Prelude to Adventure (1964-1974),” focuses specifically on the connections between these communities and Dungeons and Dragons. Notable in this section is Peterson’s attention to the Alternative Publishing Associations (APAs), which were autonomous, not-for-profit, play-by-mail, fan-publishing networks active across the United States. While the APAs existed, primarily, as a way for interested hobbyists who lacked a local community of similar hobbyists with whom to play games of Diplomacy by mail,this infrastructure became the key mode of communication for the hobby networks that developed Dungeons and Dragons. Peterson only tells part of the story, however, as he focuses primarily on the fanzines which are directly relevant to Dungeons and Dragons, forgoing an exposition on the overarching cultural practices of the American (and international) wargaming underground. This is disappointing because understanding the interests, history, and culture of the APAs is fundamental to Peterson’s methodology. Although the book situates the key figures in these APAs as part of a lineage of fan publishing dating back to science fiction trade paperbacks, he neglects to comment on the political climate, missing an opportunity to connect role-playing to the counterculture of Haight-Ashbury, social paranoia and depression around the draft, Watergate, civil rights, warfare, and rebellion. Gripes aside, Peterson still locates many disparate precedents for the setting, rules, and characters of Dungeons & Dragons and proceeds in each section to trace the history of each idea in more detail.
The second section, “Setting�"The Medieval Fantasy Genre”, moves mainly from Peterson summarizing work done on both the APAs that published science fiction fanzines in the 1920s and 1930s and the impact and politics of J.R.R. Tolkien to a discussion of how TSR Hobbies incorporated these elements into the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. The chapter is at its most interesting when Peterson makes erudite observations about the motifs, artifacts, and landscapes that were borrowed from the literary genres of science-fiction and fantasy and then superimposed into the game’s setting. Prospero, from Shakespeare’sThe Tempest, is revealed to be as fundamental to the wizard archetype as Gandalf from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Doctor Strange from the comic Strange Tales (Peterson, pp.163-4). No stone is left unturned in this section as it even delves into the etymology of magic spells. Peterson notes, “The spells ‘Polymorph Self’ and ‘Polymorph Other,’ for example, both derive their name from the biological term for marked diversity in a species as used by Darwin and his successors, ‘polymorphism’” (p. 171). This attention to detail is simultaneously Peterson’s most intriguing and frustrating proclivity as an author, as he uncovers worlds of detail that productively obscure his key arguments regarding Dungeons and Dragons.
The third and most ambitious chapter, “System�"The Rules of the Game,” follows section similar structure and includes a summary of prior historical research followed by a close-read of primary sources, fanzines and manuals, which illuminate a set of deep-seated links between the two. Instead of focusing on popular fiction, however, this chapter summarizes prior research on the history of wargaming. Although Peterson’s attention to detail considers even the wooden servant figures, used as game pieces, kept within the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, the chapter glosses over much of this prehistory and begins in earnest with the development of the Kriegspeil and other wargames in late eighteenth century Germany. Here it is interesting to note Peterson’s treatment of the ways in which the underground wargaming communities in the 1960s and 1970s negotiated a desire to maintain historical accuracy with a conflicting desire to run games in fantastic environments. Most fascinating, Peterson alludes to the ways in which these communities integrated and naturalized numerical statistics into a discussion of individualized character bodies.
The origin of character in Dungeons and Dragons is derived from many different communities. The least chronological and most divergent of all Peterson’s sections, “Character�"Roles and Immersion,” moves forward from the most peculiar sources. There is a brief section on the military experiments in role-playing performed by the RAND Corporation, an air-force sponsored, Cold War think tank, and considerable exposition on Paul Stanbury’s often forgotten proto-roleplaying world of “Coventry” as well as Tony Bath’s Conan-based game “Hyboria” (distributed via 1950s APAs). Finally Peterson notes the in-character player correspondence hosted in 1960s Diplomacy fanzines and live-action play with The Society of Creative Anachronism. These disparate conditions, according to Peterson, worked behind the scenes, priming the player community for the eventual release of Dungeons and Dragons (p. 456). People had found many ways to play roles before role-playing emerged as a genre of games and Peterson makes it explicitly clear that the real innovation of Dungeons and Dragons, thereore, was the fusionof fantastic setting and structured rule system with the dramatic (and strategic) play of character.
The final chapter pulls the threads of setting, system and character together with verve. “The Dawn of Role-Playing (1974-1977),” shows how Dungeons and Dragons succeeded despite TSR Hobbies’ lack of coherent marketing and company vision. As the company itself grew out of the Twin Cities-based APA community, The Castle & Crusade Society, they were not prepared for the success of the game or the rate of growth that the company would need to accommodate. Here, Peterson tackles the sense of control TSR Hobbies attempted to maintain over a product that suffered from an unclear ruleset and which was therefore being rapidly altered, modified, and photocopied by eager fan-communities. The chapter begs a set of important questions regarding intellectual property, consumerism, and appropriation. Was Gary Gygax, a designer of Dungeons and Dragons, acting ethically when appropriating some fan-produced materials in the core game? Did the game’s fan communities, who were themselves responsible for the game’s rapid spread and popularity, playing with some key boundaries between producer and consumer? Do these comparatively small skirmishes over intellectual property help to inform a discussion of the topic in the computer game industry today? Although Peterson does not directly address these key issues in Media Studies, it can at least be said that Playing at the World is a strong place to begin thinking through their historical relationship to Game Studies and how to locate useful primary sources for their exegesis.
In the epilogue, “Role-Playing and Reality,” Peterson sketches a trajectory between Dungeons and Dragons and the history of computer games. Although there is an interesting set of comparisons to be had in this section, it is myopic compared to the vast and impressive set of historical tales that have preceded it. While most of Playing at the World shows how rich the history of role-playing games is and how they are a worthy object of study on their own, this chapter reduces the preceding to a thin dialogue about analog precedents for digital games.
For a book that leaves no stone in the history of role-playing unturned, it is curious that Peterson does not deal concretely with issues of race, class, or gender. Apart from the occasional paragraph or footnote, these issues are often lost in the deluge of other supplementary information. The book’s focus on the fan communities that produced the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is often frustrating as it avoids connecting Peterson’s primary sources, underground wargaming fanzines, to a set of greater social themes (civil rights, Watergate, and The Vietnam War) fundamental to understanding the culture of the time. Playing at the World is not a work of critical analysis even though it presents many good starting points for such work. But these oversights must be forgiven because of how it presents a well researched narrative of game history conspicuously absent from the field of Game Studies, writ large.
There is a treasure trove of ideas, starting points, connections, and trivia in Playing at the World that simply cannot be ignored. Even though the book boasts a narrative that almost single-mindedly focuses on the game mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, it opens up many new and exciting avenues of scholarship and in doing so invites conversation and integration. It helps us to see how Game Studies might benefit from challenging its preoccupation with the digital, as the game mechanics which are replicated on consoles and computers worldwide often have precedents on the Xeroxed statistical tables of underground fanzines. Although it is not perfect, Playing at the World is a foundational and generative reference for all who are interested in the history of games.
The author would like to thank Emma Leigh Waldron for taking her time to review this manuscript and offering ace suggestions on the content.
 Tellingly, Michael Tresca’s (2011) book The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, deals very little with Dungeons and Dragons as a phenomenon, instead focusing primarily on the development of the role-playing game on computers.
 These histories of business and design include Steven Kent’s (2001) book The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon �" The Story of the Games that Touched our Lives and Changed the World, Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton’s (2009) Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time, and Tristan Donovan’s (2010) authoritative Replay: The History of Video Games and Goldberg’s (2011) All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.
 There have been a handful of notable exceptions in the history of games that deviate from the trends above. The first three chapters in Nick Dyer-Witherford and Grieg DePeuter’s (2009) book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games provide an amiable counter-history to the business histories noted earlier. Zoya Street’s (2013) recent Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History is also innovative as it focuses on failed, as opposed to successful, technologies. Gary L. Fine’s (1981) Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, though written as an ethnographic study, is a somewhat documentarian glimpse of gaming history in the late 1970s and, as such, can be read now as a history of sorts. Of course, Von Hilgers (2012) has also released War Games: A History of War on Paper which deals with the same themes that Peterson explores but which was not translated into English until 2012. And it must be noted that David Parlett’s (1992) The Oxford History of Board Games also fills a unique historical niche by providing a comprehensive history of all known games stopping just short of those produced in the modern era. These texts all avoid reducing the history of games to a history of business, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Playing at the World is similar to these texts in that it allows us to understand games as something more than just than mere products consumed in a ubiquitously digital world.
Donovan, T. (2010). Replay: the history of video games. East Sussex, UK: Yellow Ant.
Dyer-Witheford, N. and de Peuter, G. (2009). Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
Fine, G. (2002). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goldberg, H. (2011). All your base are belong to us: how fifty years of videogames conquered pop culture. New York: The Three Rivers Press.
Kent, S. (2001). The ultimate history of video games: from Pong to Pokémon and beyond. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing.
Loguidice, B. & Barton, M. (2009). Vintage games: an insider look at the history of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the most influential games of all time. Boston: Focal Press/Elsevier.
Parlett, D. (1999). The Oxford history of board games. New York: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, J. (2012). Playing at the world: a history of simulating wars, people, and fantastic adventures from chess to role-playing games. San Diego, CA: Unreason Press.
Street, Z. (2013). Dreamcast worlds: a design history. http://rupazero.com/
Tresca, M. (2011). The evolution of fantasy role-playing games. Jefferson NC: McFarland.
Von Hilgers, P. (2012). War games: a history of war on paper. Trans. Ross Benjamin. Boston, MA: The MIT Press.