Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Elusive Shift, My New Book

Since Playing at the World came out, I've been asked now and again about extending its historical timeline for just a few more years. After toying with a few potential approaches to that, I ended up writing The Elusive Shift, which focuses on what gamers meant when they called something a "role-playing game" once that term came into fashion. Thus, The Elusive Shift is first and foremost an early history of RPG theory, and an exploration of whether the 1970s community succeeded in delineating a new genre of games from previous practices -- which is the "elusive shift" in the title. The book is also my love letter to the many small press games and fanzines through which gamers explored the possibilities of this new genre in the first five years of its existence.

The book breaks down into six chapters.

At the beginning, "The Two Cultures" explores wargame and science-fiction fandom leading up to the release of Dungeons & Dragons. While PatW does precisely that in far greater detail, here I review some of the activities described in chapters 3 and 4 of PatW for their theoretical conclusions in particular; for example, how wargamers talked about what they were doing when felt they had exceeded the boundaries of traditional conflict simulation. This section may also serve as a fentanyl-concentration refresher of PatW for those who don't have it all fresh in their minds.

The second chapter, "How to Play", briefly examines the dialog at the core of D&D and how it interfaces with the system of the game. In particular, it follows how people characterized the "statements of intention" voiced by players and what sort of influence those statements exert over game events. This chapter introduces an early critical stance I call "Eisen's vow," the position that player enjoyment of the game is diminished by understanding how the referee resolves system events.

The meat of the book begins in earnest with the third chapter, "Designing for Role Play". The narrative here focuses on 1970s discussions of how three mechanics of early role-playing games could influence player behavior: abilities, alignment, and experience. Does playing a low intelligence character mean that your statements of intention as a player should be foolish, and were referees obliged to police that? Similar questions arose about alignment, which early players viewed sometimes as guardrails around character behavior, and sometimes as a judgment imposed by the referee -- if not both. The chapter concludes with controversies about personal progression, whether the goal of accumulating experience points might impede role playing, and what sorts of alternative goals referees or players might impose on the game that are more conducive to being "in character." 

The other side of the tabletop is the subject of the fourth chapter, "The Role of the Referee", which examines the sort of agency that referees have in creating a world and controlling the flow of game events. This includes some discussion of how referees could induce a property that early adopters called "immersion." It looks at design evolutions like the way saving throws, traditionally imposed by the referee, began to morph into mechanisms that players could invoke themselves, like the Fame and Fortune Points of Top Secret. Finally, this chapter considers early refereeless role-playing games (with even a smidgeon about computer games), which provide a different angle of illumination on why games have referees and what they actually do.

At this point, a brief interjection (a volta, perhaps) on the subject of "Transcending Design" explores skeptical arguments about the purpose of system in role-playing games in the face of "free-form" practices, and the very need for an industry to produce improved systems if indeed, as some maintained, published rules are only ever a starting point for play around the table.

With that understanding of how players, referees, and the system interact, the fifth and longest chapter "Toward a Philosophy" then dives into the first crop of self-identified essays that address the nature and philosophy of role playing. Largely this chapter follows the early thinking of Lew Pulsipher, Steve Lortz, and Ed Simbalist as they grappled with defining what these games were and how best to approach them. This literature took shape right before the James Dallas Egbert incident triggered a dramatic change in the demographics of players, which caused new stresses, inducing the community to delineate sanctioned ways to approach role playing, as opposed to the disparaged practices of the newly-arrived "munchkins." This introspection about what it meant to role play culminates in a survey of ways that people positioned RPGs at the time: from viewing them as an art form, or a simple diversion, or a tool for psychological development, or even as something more profound, perhaps something mystical.

The final chapter, "Maturity", begins with where things stood in 1980, when Glenn Blacow published his "Fourfold Way" model, dividing the practices surrounding RPGs into "forms": role-playing, storytelling, wargaming, and power gaming. The widespread adoption of the Blacow model triggered some of the first true theoretical work on RPGs, as people tried to measure levels of player engagement with those forms, and consider how designs optimizing for particular forms might appeal to targeted audiences. But the crush of new systems appearing in the early 1980s left many grasping for purer, more stripped-down approaches to role playing, which in some respects little differed from the free Kriegsspiel that originally fueled D&D. So ultimately, did these intrepid explorers succeed in forging a distinct identity for role-playing games? Well... if you know my work, you might anticipate I'm not about to give a pat answer, but you'll find some of my thoughts about it at the end, anyway.

Oh, and then there's a brief Epilogue, which looks a bit ahead to the end of the 1980s, at what happened when the "munchkins" grew up.

Three things that The Elusive Shift does not try to do:
  • Attempt to furnish a tidy dictionary definition of "role-playing game". Instead, it illustrates how deeply the early adopters were divided on what would qualify to be an RPG.
  • Articulate some new theory of RPGs. This is a history book about what people thought and documented in the first five years that RPGs were around, not my own philosophical enterprise.
  • Engage with later fan or academic theory and criticism of RPGs. Well, okay, it does do that a bit, but mostly because later theory helps to identify the early threads worth following. That material is largely confined to endnotes.
Three things that The Elusive Shift does try to do:
  • Show both the extent and the limits of what "old school" role-players managed to achieve in the furious and inventive years that followed the acceptance of the term "role-playing game."
  • Furnish a bibliography of early games, commentary, and essays from the first years of the role-playing community.
  • Provide more insight into how people approached the oldest role-playing games, in a way that resurfaces some forgotten ideas that might prove useful to contemporary gamers.
The Elusive Shift comes out in a few weeks from now, and will be available in the ways that books are available these days. I'm delighted that MIT Press saw fit to include it in their Game Histories series.

(And yes, it is available for pre-order on Amazon and the other usual places.)


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this!

  2. Congratulations! I look forward to your book's release.

  3. Replies
    1. Well, I mean, it's a history book about RPG theory. If you are thrilled by the early history of RPG theory, I hope this will be thrilling!

    2. I found Playing at the World very interesting. The way in which we tell stories to one another is one of the essences of humanity.

  4. Ah, good, I see it WILL be available on my side of the Pond.

  5. Looking forward to digging into this!


  6. Likewise I am looking forward to this PaTW was thought provoking and I have no doubt this will be as well.

  7. I had already pre-ordered the book, Jon, and I am very much looking forward to reading it, as I also was very pleased with PatW. Congratulations on the forthcoming publication.

  8. I'm very excited to read this. "Eisen's Vow" sounds particularly juicy!

  9. I so love Playing at the World so this is fantastic news. Looking forward with great anticipation to reading this.

  10. Pre-Ordered and looking forward to the wait and trying to get it posted Down Under!

  11. I made a comment on the next thread but would like to expand, slightly, on the topic here on the thread devoted to The Elusive Shift.

    The first thing is to add my voice to the people who have claimed this as one of the most important works on role-playing. It looks at several of the strands of role-playing in the turbulent era where the concept became an specific form as distinct from wargaming, though one with a direct interface in that many of the same people participated in both role-playing and wargaming. Read this work.

    Second thing is to admit that I am one of the people who was part of the MIT SGS cadre of people. This means that I was influenced by the tenor of the group of people and the games which we ran - both as a player and as games master (which the author uses another term “referee” out of Traveller and similar games, this is a choice which is entirely acceptable within the world of role-playing.)

    The third important aspect of this work is its attempt to furnish a dialogue of the various philosophies that have been brought to the field of role-playing games. Peterson realizes that one of the most important aspects of this work is to show the wide differences in people who were attracted to role-playing games, and the conflicts between these philosophies.

    Fourth is that this work almost demands of people with different views come forward and talk about their own experience.

    One thing that this work does is it separates the actual game, from the conversations about the actual game, and the meta-gaming experience. For example, which game system one place is also part of the role experience, and picking which experience is also part of why one does what one does. For example, people who play first edition Advanced Dungeon and Dragons are different then people who play fifth edition D&D who are in turn different from people who play Traveller or Daredevils.

    I would have wished for more on the meta-gaming discussion because this affects the in world experience (“it is not a dungeon in is an advanced underground defense installation.”) This is shown by articles in the Dragon magazine, where the caption reads “I told you it was that kind of dungeon.” With the artwork showing doors numbered #1,#2 and #3 in a spoof of the game show “Month Haul.” The are dozens of takes on this point. One could say that talking about gaming was in fact the main way that many players participated in role-playing games.

  12. Got a copy, and laughed myself silly - it's a great look at the times and world that I lived in!!! :)

  13. I just finished this the other day. Nice read and interesting highlights of early understanding of role playing. It's cool to see so many names I know. Glen Blacow was one of my mentors and happily played occasionally in my games. Howard Mahler was another person I gamed with.

    Often I wish I hadn't taken my Wild Hunt (and slim A&E) collection apart. I forget what my earliest issue was, but I had some of the early issues (Glen gave some to me and sold me others as I recall). I even managed a couple submissions.

  14. So I just discovered your blog and your books today, and I just wishlisted this. However... is there any chance now or in the future to be able to attain Playing at the World again?