Friday, September 14, 2012

A Fake Thing That Should be a Real Thing

Constant readers might recall that I once proposed that the OSR really needs to create a fanzine based on the "manly men" magazines of old. As soon as somebody gets that off the ground, somebody else needs to start publishing this pulp on a regular basis:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary

Assuming you have any discretionary income left after backing the Reaper Kickstarter, The Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter, and any other role-playing related projects that came down the pick recently, you might want to wander over the Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary Kickstarter page and consider making a contribution to help get this film funded.

I know a few of the people participating in this documentary, all of whom expressed their enthusiasm for seeing this film made if only for the opportunity to finally allow for a fair-handed treatment of our favorite pastime, rather than one filled with histrionics, atypical gamers, or Mazes and Monsters.

The Kickstarter has four days to go and is around $15,000 away from funding. Look, read, watch, and if you think it's a good goal, kick a few bucks into the kitty and help it become a reality.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Impressions of Playing at the World

Allow me to preface this post by stating that I’m neither a professional reviewer nor an obsessive scholar into the history of our favorite pastime and, as such, this review of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World might contain errors easily avoided by those who are. Nevertheless, Peterson was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of his enormous text and I’m extremely thankful to have been given the opportunity to read the book and post my impressions of it here.

For those readers who haven’t heard of the book via other venues, allow me to introduce the book to you. Playing at the World is a scholarly text that traces the origins of role-playing, specifically that of Dungeon & Dragons. In varying detail, everything from the games of chance of antiquity up to early computer role-playing games is given consideration, but the primary emphasis of the book is the history of wargaming in its many forms, culminating in the development, release, and response to Dungeons & Dragons. Playing at the World runs nearly 700 pages in length, including an extensive bibliography and index, bears copious footnotes, and features many photographs and illustrations, some of which have never before been seen by the general gaming public. It is available through Amazon for $34.95 for the printed version and at $17.99 in the Kindle format.

While attempts have been made to chronicle the history of role-playing in the past with various degrees of success, Playing at the World stands out amongst earlier efforts in its dedicated research of the written historical record. Peterson states quite boldly in the Introduction that he concentrated his research on contemporary written sources produced during the time periods covered by the book rather than later interviews with the principles from those periods. For myself, this is the book’s strength. As an archivist, I know all too well the perils of relying on recollections of witnesses long after events have occurred. Human memory becomes untrustworthy with time and is susceptible to outside influences that can distort the remembrance of events as they actually occurred.

I consider this decision to be the correct one when penning a book like Playing at the World, but I know others will be less satisfied with Peterson’s choice. Readers looking for juicy gossips and tales told out of school by the principles (and about other principles) of the game’s development will be disappointed. Many of the so-called great mysteries regarding the early days of the game’s development remain unsolved simply because nobody commented on them in a public forum during that time, leaving no written references to draw from (which is also why they remain the great mysteries of old).

So if not a tell-all book, what is Playing at the World? Essentially, Peterson proposes a very persuasive argument that Dungeons & Dragons is not the product of a few isolated developments in America’s Mid-West during the 1960s & ‘70s, but rather a culmination of a multitude of influences extending back to at least the 18th century. These influence happened to come together in a perfect storm roughly forty years ago, but the creation of the game and role-playing as a whole does not rest solely in the hands of Gygax and Arneson. Peterson also does an exception job of arguing that, despite the prior existence of many of the elements that helped birth D&D, the game could not have come into being at an earlier time than it did. For myself, it’s this second argument that raises the book above other attempts to document the game’s history.

Playing at the World begins with a rather forthright examination of the history of role-playing in contemporary times, beginning with the development of Avalon Hill’s Tactics game in 1954 and ending with the release of D&D in 1974. Peterson covers the wargaming culture that existed in America during this period, drawing on the many fanzines and professional publications produced then to document the attitudes, feuds, games, and play styles of the period, as well as the prominent wargame groups and societies that helped influence and fuel the development of D&D.

Once 1974 arrives, however, Peterson pauses this contemporary examination and takes the reader on a backwards jaunt through time. While this jump is bound to frustrate the casual gamer looking to read about the history of D&D, and by extension TSR Hobbies, it’s an important one for more serious scholars—both those reading the book now and for future researchers examining the history of the hobby.

Over the next three chapters, Playing at the World reviews the history of fantasy literature and the role it plays in the default setting of D&D, the lineage of wargames in history and how their systems for the recreation and resolution of real events were considered, discarded, or adopted into the mechanics of the game, and, lastly, the evolution of role-playing as a learning tool and entertainment outlet, and why this is important in D&D’s leap from being just another wargame into something entirely different.

Although the book’s middle three chapters will be slow-going for some, I consider them the most important ones in the text. Peterson does a superb job of establishing the social and political context in which role-playing developed, something that is often overlooked by other attempts to document the history of the game. In the future, when scholars find themselves even further removed from the cultural atmosphere of the middle to late 20th century, it will be all too easy to miss the impact these elements played on society at large and the game in particular. Playing at the World’s chapters—especially its coverage of fantasy literature boom of the 1960s and the insular and argumentative science-fiction fan organizations of this period—will serve as an important reminder of those influences.

Having documented this important ground, Peterson then picks up the story of D&D once again and the role-playing titles that followed in its wake, culminating the book with an examination of the early efforts to take RPGs into the digital world.

Considering Peterson’s decision to cite the written historical record in his research and the sources he cites in the bibliography, I find that I simply cannot fathom the cost in both time and money he must have accrued in writing the book. Allowing that the written record of this period rests largely in small, amateur-produced fanzines and newsletters, many of which with near microscopic print runs, Peterson nevertheless ran many of them to ground in his research. Luckily for us, the reader, Playing at the World not only gives us a glimpse into the contents of some of these rarities, but Peterson also maintains a blog where he posts images culled from his sources.

In the interest of fairness, I did come across two minor errors in Peterson’s research, but both were inconsequential to the argument he proposes and small faults are a given in a book of this length.

While I believe that we’ve yet to see the definitive book on the history of role-playing (and concede that it’s likely we never will), Playing at the World comes very near to being that book and will undoubtedly serve as an important cornerstone for future attempts to document the story of Dungeon & Dragons. I unhesitatingly recommend the book to any gamer with a devoted interest in the history of wargames and role-playing games, but would dissuade casual readers—especially those lacking any exposure with the hobby at all—from choosing Playing at the World as an introduction into the sometime bizarre and incomprehensible pastime of ours. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Affairs: See “State of”

It’s safe to say that August 2012 won’t go down as a banner month of posting here at the Society. Somehow, the entire last few weeks of unofficial summer here in the Northern Hemisphere slipped by without much activity around these parts. Such is the nature of blogging, especially when you’ve been doing it for four years now.

This dearth of regular postings does not reflect a lack of activity on my part, however. Quite frankly, I’m busier than ever writing, designing, planning, scheduling, corresponding, and brainstorming on new projects. If the OSR is in fact dead as the naysayers would have you believe, somebody neglected to inform my inbox of that fact! I’d appreciate it if you all kept it on the QT as well since I’m having a lot of fun keeping busy with the work.

So, like a neglectful boyfriend, I find myself needing to explain why I haven’t written you all lately. Hopefully, I haven’t damaged our blogger-reader relationship irrevocably, even if I’ve been catting around with other slutty projects on the side.

As long-time readers and fans of The Dungeon Alphabet undoubtedly know, Goodman Games and I are deep in cahoots. The lion’s share of work that’s been occupying my time has been for Joseph Goodman and the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. My adventure “The Undulating Corruption” debuted in this year’s Free RPG Day release from Goodman, but it’s not the first adventure I wrote for the game. That honor belongs to Emirikol Was Framed! which should be on the shelves of your finer FLGS either this month or next depending on when the printer gets finished with it. I’ve seen the layout of the adventure, including Doug Kovacs’ excellent maps and player handouts, and I’m mighty pleased how it’s all turned out.

When I took the job of writing Emirikol, I knew I was putting myself in the crosshairs. When you’re dealing with one of the iconic images of the hobby, you’ve got to accept that people are going to have their own expectations firmly in place before they even get a look at the damned thing. Early speculation pegged it as a parody module, but it’s absolutely not. It’s a solid, pulp sword & sorcery adventure, one where Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would be at home. My hope is that once people get a chance to read it (or better yet, play it), Emirikol will be judged on its own merits. Time will have to tell.

In addition to Emirikol, I’ve completed two more adventures for DCC. One is The Sea Queen Escapes!, a nautical-themed adventure with a deliciously evil twist for the judge to spring on his players. The second is a more traditional “stop the evil brotherhood” dungeon crawl. I’m not sure if I can make any formal announcement regarding its content or title, but regular readers can probably speculate on its subject matter if you recall what I’ve play-tested at conventions this year.

These two are not the end of my scribbling for DCC RPG either. Contracts have been signed for at least two more adventures by yours truly and they’ll take us safely into the heart of 2013. I’m also doing work for a third-party DCC RPG release entitled Tales From the Fallen Empire to be published by Chapter 13 Press. Suffice to say, if you enjoy my work and DCC RPG, you’ll be a happy camper for the foreseeable future.

The DCC RPG stuff is in addition to two more books I’ve written for Goodman (well, one and half, really). Next month sees the release of the expanded version of The Dungeon Alphabet, available in both the regular and limited-edition covers. The third printing is 33% larger than the original and features new art in addition to eight more entries covering other classic dungeon tropes we couldn’t squeeze into the original. I think “T is also for Treasure Chests” is worth the price alone, especially when you see Holloway’s accompanying illustration, but there’s plenty more to inspire in there as well.

The second book in the schedule is The Adventurers’ Almanac, a title in the same vein as The Dungeon Alphabet. It’s not a “this is how you do it” text, but one written to inspire the referee and get the creative juices flowing. I had a lot of fun writing this one. A system-neutral supplement, The Adventurer’s Almanac provides an entire year’s worth of adventure seeds, monsters, interesting NPCs, magic items, weird events, strange celebrations, and other juicy morsels to season your campaign world. It’s also a big book, much larger than The Dungeon Alphabet, so you’re bound to find something in there to suit your purposes. The release date is not yet set on the book, but hopefully it’ll be available the first or second quarter of 2013.

As part of the grand plan to make DCC RPG your game of choice in 2013, I’m going on the convention trail throughout the fall and winter of this year and a lot of the next. I’ll be running play-tests, demo sessions, and regular games at various locales along the East Coast (or as we here call it, the “Right Coast”). The process of hammering out dates and appearances is still ongoing, but there’s a better chance than usual I might be in your neck of the woods in the months ahead if you rub shoulders with the Atlantic Ocean. More on these appearances as things get finalized.

Putting my Goodman Games projects aside for now, I still find I’ve got irons in the fire, on the anvil, or quenching in the bucket. As mentioned previously, I wrote an urban fantasy game for Goblinoid Games and the play-test period of that is at an end. No official word from Dan Proctor on it yet, but if you’re a fan of Hellblazer, Clive Barker, or classic film-noir, I encourage you to check this one out once it’s available.

I’ve not forgotten poor old Stonehell Dungeon either. I recently squeaked past the halfway point on the manuscript (thirteen quadrants are finished and there’s thirteen to go) and I’m desperately trying to ride the downhill inertia to completion. For those of you playing along at home, this means that Stonehell 2 is three quadrants larger than its predecessor. Even when the manuscript is finished, there’s still a lot to be done (cartography, editing, layout, and proofs) before it gets the green light for sale. I remain hopeful that it gets completed this year, but it’ll be close.

I decided that I won’t be doing a Kickstarter for the book, although that has been suggested. It’ll be in the same style as the original to keep the aesthetics identical and the cost down. If you own the first book, you know exactly what to expect. Perhaps, somewhere down the line, I’ll go back and combine the two books into a prestige version, but that’s so far over the horizon at this point you can barely even see it from space.

Finally, I’m writing my own role-playing game and expect to have the first draft of the rules and setting completed in the next two months. After that, I intend to spend a year in play-testing to make sure the wheels don’t fall off before offering it up for public consumption. It is not a retro-clone and it isn’t even a traditional fantasy game. Despite this, I’m designing it with old school sensibilities in mind. My goal is to keep it simple and flexible, and to leave as much agency in the referee’s hands as possible when running it. I hope to have a formal announcement as well as a design & promotion blog ready in October.

There’s more things going on, but I’ve already taxed your time and interest enough with this post. Besides, I’ve got work to do. I’m eagerly anticipating the fall months as they’re not only my most favorite time of the year, but also my most productive. Hopefully, you’ll reap the benefits of that intellectual harvest in the year ahead.