THE ELUSIVE SHIFT REVIEW: The cosmic horror of RPG arguments & time is a flat-circle


Picture by the author himself Jon Peterson

Peterson's editors must have held strong behind their shotguns and shield walls to force a much slimmer volume out of him. But it lacks no less of the punch of Playing At the World. In the same manner as his previous book, Peterson dissects conversations around what exactly this new game Dungeons & Dragons really was by two methods: (1) highlighting critical voices & discussions in the fanzines of the time, such an Alarums & Excursions (still in print) and (2) cross-comparing the numerous fantasy, western, and sci-fi that emerged shortly after D&D. Everyone then too thought they could produce a "better D&D".

At the end of the book, I had come to the realization, on an almost cosmic horror level, that the RPG community as a whole has not advanced any large arguments about what RPGs are and their purpose in about 30 years.

Here is what I am talking about:

"We might observe the initial players of Dungeons & Dragons divided into two camps- with due caveats about overlapping membership and interests- that reflect the two cultures of wargaming and science-fiction fandom: there were games people and story people."

[Post publication of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975]: "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." 

[Lee Gold writing in her first issues of Alarms & Excursions 1975]: "In their midst, Gold found, that, compared to her own group, 'the Dungeonmaster is player much more against the characters'. Her assessment corroborated Kevin Slimak's concerns about the problems of antagonism incumbent on the power imbalance between the referee and the players."

"Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in Alarums & Excursions if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with the chance met characters and a more exciting game"

[From Bill Seligman 1977]: "The problem TSR has is that the term 'D&D' is starting to refer to fantasy role-playing games in general, and not just those bound by the D&D official rules"

"Kevin Slimak, feeling 'tired of trying to kludge a good game out of Gygax D&D...'"

Another interesting bit is how Gygax shifts from commenting on D&D as an open system to AD&D as a closed and complete system. Distinguishing between the two. This further leads to another discussion about if AD&D lays down too many rules which destroy the free-form play of the early little brown books/white box. 

Peterson walks us up to the early eighties where there are hardened attempts at a unified critical theory about RPGs. Which contains this graph showing the alignment of power gaming vs. storytelling; role playing vs. wargaming

We also get a brief section on how with the publication of the Holmes' Basic D&D  box set and D&D in the media in the 1980's,  there was a huge influx of younger players who were not steeped in the prior editions of D&D. Jorden writes:

"By 1981, 60 percent of all TSR products would be purchased by or for players between the ages of 10 and 14"

These "munchkins" touched off the same, by this time, ~5-year-old arguments, while at the same time feeling discriminated against by the "grognards" of the time simply for not being born early enough. This just sounds like a similar discussion occurring around players entering only ever having experienced 5e D&D and Critical Role.

In total: A fantastic book! As authoritative and insightful as Playing At The World, but more tightly executed. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in RPG analysis and critique. I think it is an almost must-read because even if you hate D&D the book will provide a firm context for the game and illuminate resonating early critiques.

If you want to know how D&D was developed, I would hit up Play At The World first.

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