Wednesday, February 13, 2013

720 pages on the history of role-playing and D&D? Yes, please.

"Playing at the World" is a book I've been waiting years for someone to write. And if you're even a casual fan of Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing, wargaming history, and American culture, I suspect it's a book you've been waiting for, too.

The work, by Jon Peterson, is subtitled "A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games."

From Kriegsspiel to Zork, it charts the development of fantasy role-playing games and delves into the origins, development and minutiae of Dungeons & Dragons in early 1970s America.

It goes on for 720 pages.

Yes, please!

This is a book I can't wait to get my hands on later this year. D&D has always fascinated me, even if I never was in the kind of social groups that allowed me to actually play much.1 So, instead, I spent the first half of the 1980s devouring the D&D Basic Set, The Keep on the Borderlands, Tomb of Horrors, Monster Manual, issues of Dragon magazine and the Endless Quest books2 from cover to cover.

There are a few different places you can go to get more information about Peterson's "Playing at the World."

But I think the best website to check out, if you want a taste of Peterson's content and style, is his blog — also called Playing at the World. Some of the post titles hint at the passion and scholarly approach Peterson takes toward role-playing history:

There is also a whole series of detailed blog posts related to something called The Dalluhn Manuscript. I'm just starting to delve into those.

Finally, one thing that intrigues me about Peterson's weighty tome is that he self-published it, through Unreason Press. Now, it's one thing to self-publish e-books. But to self-publish a pricey, 720-page paperback that clearly only appeals to a niche audience would seem like madness. Wonderful madness.

I'll let Peterson explain his reasoning in this excerpt from the Wired interview:
Gilsdorf: I was curious about your decision self publish with (if I understand correctly) your own press, Unreason Press. Was it hard to get a mainstream publisher interested in your book? Would you be open to having your book picked by a traditional press?

Peterson: I went this route for the freedom, mostly. The few publishers I did approach advised that a shorter book with a more narrow and popular scope would be likelier to yield the necessary sales. I can certainly see why a major publishing house would not be eager to entrust a project of this girth to an untested author. But I had really committed to doing something meticulous and detailed, and this was the best way I could find to do it. I am also fascinated by the transformations in the publishing industry and the new democratization of producing books.

Going it on your own, you sacrifice the marketing and exposure that a major publisher would bestow, as well as the editorial expertise. But at the end of the day I wasn’t expecting this book to be a runaway bestseller. It’s not a book written for a casual reader who is only interested in the high-level narrative — it’s a scholarly book for people inquisitive enough that they want to be convinced of what happened by direct evidence and argument. Given the sheer amount of conjecture that has dominated the historical accounts of gaming written in the last thirty years, I thought approaching the subject this way was entirely warranted.

That much said, now that I’ve had the book released my way, I would be open to working with a traditional publisher on a follow-up, sure. I think the reception has been positive enough to justify considering a future edition.
I think Peterson should be roundly applauded for the chance he's taken, publishing this book on his own terms and without having to make any concessions regarding his dream.

I can't wait to dive into it. It'll be like the early 1980s all over again.3

1. I did get to take part in a few hilarious fantasy role-playing sessions, mostly of the Star Trek variety, in the early 1990s with Penn State friends Tom Smithyman and Greg Scopino, who were also my roommates for one crazy summer and my colleagues on The Daily Collegian.1
2. Here's a fun fact that ties in directly with ephemera: Rose Estes, who wrote the first seven volumes in the Endless Quest series, now sells note cards featuring vintage photographs of cats and dogs at a website called The Woof Gang.
3. Except that I had more hair then.

Secondary footnote
1. Smithyman is also an auteur filmmaker who directed a version of "A Christmas Carol" featuring the acting-challenged staff of The Daily Collegian. My big scene — I was more character actor than star — came when I played the boy who exclaims "What, the one as big as me?" when the now-changed Scrooge asks him about the prize turkey hanging at the poulterer's. Sadly, this film is now believed to be lost.

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