Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

2014 is behind us. From all of us here at Playing at the World (well, that's actually just me), I wanted to thank everyone who follows the work here. Since the subject matter is a bit niche, and Playing at the World doesn't boast a great many social media followers, I'm really grateful to the folks with a wider audience who take the time to draw attention to my research.

For anyone who didn't obessively follow Playing at the World in 2014, here's a retrospective year in the life of a gaming historian.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Quagmire: The Making of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons Module

As my final contribution to role-playing game posterity for 2014, I wrote a new piece on TSR's internal process of making modules that traces the evolution of one Expert-series product from its conception in 1982 to publication  in 1984. It turns out the development process could be a bit of a quagmire - maybe even nine hells worth of development.

Read it here on Medium.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A New Dungeons & Dragons Timeline

Following on the official release of the Dungeon Master's Guide, and thus the completion of the core 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, Wizards of the Coast has put up a new timeline of the history of Dungeons & Dragons on their web site. It replaces an older one dating to shortly after the turn of the millennium, which had been cited by numerous Wikipedia articles--but which unfortunately contained a few inaccuracies. I worked with Wizards to clean these up and provide a sturdier historical account of the game for today's readers.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sheets Before Characters

When Dungeons & Dragons popularized the simulation of characters in games, it entailed that players fill out quite a bit of paperwork. Characters require a record of their names and ability scores as well as their dynamic attributes like equipment lists and hit points. As a way of preserving the state of the game for each player, the character sheet thus became an essential accessory in role-playing games. But before characters, there were similar record sheets used in some types of earlier simulations, and their continuity with the later Dungeons & Dragons accessories is immediately apparent upon inspection. Above is a sheet that shipped with Gygax and Arneson's first collaboration, the naval wargame Don't Give Up the Ship (1972).

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The First Female Gamers

Over on Medium, I posted a new and lengthy piece about the first female gamers, and how Dungeons & Dragons managed to win the interest of women where prior wargames had not. The process of making the hobby more inclusive was not an entirely smooth one, as the illustration above might suggest. You can read the essay here:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

1974 Dungeon Variant, Now for Download

One of the many pleasures of writing about the history of games is receiving unexpected correspondence from the people whose work I study, sometimes people who are very surprised to learn that a pastime they briefly enjoyed decades ago has brought them to the attention of posterity. Such was the case with Craig VanGrasstek, whose 1974 Rules to the Game of Dungeon I covered on this blog (and in Playing at the World) as the earliest known Dungeons & Dragons variant. Craig wrote to me having long lost any copy of the Rules and understandably curious about my interest. This is easily explained: the Rules provide one of our earliest windows into fantasy role-playing as practiced by some of its first fans, a tradition that has survived as "Minneapolis Dungeon."

In the course of my exchange with Craig, he volunteered to make his work available to the readers of today. We therefore present this week the complete text of the Rules to the Game of Dungeon [download PDF] as Craig VanGrasstek originally wrote it up in the summer of 1974. I provide a bit of commentary and context in an Afterword and in endnotes. After the jump, we review three of Craig's play records from 1974, which give further insight into how this important early community went about dungeoneering. Give it a try the next time you want an "old school" experience, and see how it plays!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gen Con 1968 and Today

With Gen Con in Indianapolis this week, today we're exploring what is almost certainly the first press coverage of the convention, just following its debut in 1968. This comes from a regional paper, the Beloit Daily News, and it ran two days after the first Lake Geneva Wargames Convention - no one called it Gen Con yet. We can read within that Gary Gygax hosted the convention, and other familiar names from the International Federation of Wargaming feature into the story as well, among the "over 90" gamers who attended.

Expect attendance to run a bit higher than that this weekend, but you still might stumble over me wandering the halls: and on Saturday afternoon at 2:00, I will be appearing on the D&D Documentary panel at the Westin (the room is Capitol I,

Monday, July 28, 2014

How Gary Gygax Lost Control of TSR

Yesterday was Gary Gygax's birthday: an occasion to celebrate his achievements and successes. Today, I'm releasing a long piece about another, less cheerful part of his story: the upheaval of TSR's corporate governance which ultimately led to Gygax's ouster in 1985. I have noticed over the years that there has been some confusion about the details of company ownership, structure, and performance which led to this turn of events. I therefore spent some time building a historical record based on the evidence as I see it today. You can read it here:

The Ambush at Sheridan Springs

I tried to keep the narrative high level and uncluttered with footnotes, so there are a number of details that would benefit from further explication. Below we will consider just one of them: the situation that, in 1981, TSR was named one of Inc. magazine's ten most profitable privately-held companies due to an apparent misrepresentation of their revenue.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Legacy of Gygax's Armor

Recently, the Basic Rules of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons became available for download. While for most, this presents an occasion to ponder the future of the game, for this blog, it inevitably turns our gaze back to the past. To magnify one microscopic detail, we find in the new rules a division of armor into familiar categories, with "studded leather" and varieties of mail including ring, scale, splint, chain and finally plate. These types seem to have been with the game since its inception. So where did they come from? We can gain some initial insight from this article by Gary Gygax in Panzerfaust #43, from April 1971: about a month from when the game Chainmail first became available.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Midgard II (1972), the Other Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campagin

FANTASY NUTS UNITE! [Someone] is producing a multi-player Fantasy game... It will include giants, wizards, Heroes and Rulers as some of the cast of Characters. The rules of the game are but a guide to the use of your own imagination in play. Many unique concepts are outlined.

This blurb appeared in 1972, about a month before the first notice of Arneson's Blackmoor campaign in the Domesday Book; just a rumor spreading through science-fiction and wargaming zines. Of course we all know what game that was about - or do we? As Dungeons & Dragons developed over the next year and a half, another fantasy campaign game that let players adventure as magicians and warriors in an imaginary world developed in parallel. It was one of the Midgard games, which briefly lived in the shadow of their more famous cousin. The particular game that inspired the blurb was "Midgard II," which took place on the map shown above.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Fantastic Bestiary

When we study the monsters that populated the early setting of Dungeons & Dragons, sometimes we're at a loss to identify any particular source for them. The basilisk, for example, might have come to gaming through any number of fantasy authors or encyclopediae of mythology. But other times it's very clear from whence monsters came. Take the case of four lesser-known creatures from the Monster Manual: the Ki-rin, Shedu, Couatl and Su-monster. All debuted in Eldritch Wizardry (1976), and all have a mythological pedigree, but all certainly owe their appearance in Dungeons & Dragons to a particular work: Ernst and Johanna Lehner's A Fantastic Bestiary (1969). An image of the Japanese mythological creature the Ki-rin, probably the most famous of the four monsters, from that book is shown above. A thorough analysis of the Fantastic Bestiary demonstrates that its influence goes back much farther, to the very dawn of role-playing games.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

History of D&D in 12 Treasures

[for best results, watch on YouTube directly]

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, and for a change of pace, in this video I review the development of Dungeons & Dragons through twelve rare artifacts from the period leading up to the first publication of the game. They include original documents from Braunstein, an early letter from Gary Gygax on the medieval setting, Dave Arneson's notes for his own early medieval game, fanzines and maps associated with the Castle & Crusade Society, and various pre-publication D&D rules. Readers of my book will see quite a few things from my personal treasure chest that I haven't discussed before. A full breakdown of the contents is after the jump.