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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Book Review of Jon Peterson’s (2012) Playing at the World



ISBN 9780615642048

As the editor of wargaming books (some mentioned in the bibliography), I was asked by the author to do a review of this new book.

The book is Jon Peterson’s magnum opus (great work) about the development of roleplaying up to the 1980s when the roleplaying games started to spread onto various computer platforms. The chapters explore the detailed chronology of wargaming events prior to the publication of Dungeons and Dragons (D+D), the development of the medieval fantasy game genre, the origin of the D+D rules and what happened in roleplaying after D+D was published.

The source of much of the material is various archives of fanzines held in American, publically and in private collections. The list of games and magazines alone covers nine pages in the bibliography. The intellectual effort to pull together this vast plethora of material was a staggering undertaking.

The result is a substantial book at 698 pages, with the section on the development of wargaming rules and their influence in the development of roleplaying games having approximately 100 pages. Due to the length and depth of the book, it is no easy read. Some of the ins and outs of development are covered in great detail, for example the material shedding light and investigating the D+D clerics is eight pages. Saying that, the material is fascinating to anyone interested in the murky origins of roleplaying games.

The book delves into such mysteries as the issues of copyright and intellectual property for the creation of D+D (a most curious tale), the development of the magic user, dungeon settings and role of thieves in the game. It was new to me that Tony Bath, the UK wargamer who started ancient and medieval wargames and was well known for his Hyborian campaign, was given credit by Gary Gygax for the inspiration for his Chainmail rules.

The book also has a most interesting section on early wargames of Hellwig, Venturini, Reiswitz, etc, based on translations of the some of their pioneering work. Some of this work has never, to my knowledge, been available in English before.

With a book of this length, it is not surprising that I have some different interpretations in a few areas, particularly in the discussion about the history of wargaming. Donald Featherstone, one of the dozen or so people who made wargaming a popular past-time, is rightly given credit, but his main job was a physiotherapist. Perhaps I would have included more about the advent of live-roleplaying, where people borrowed the idea from historical re-enactors and started to play out D+D adventures in full costume and padded weapons, but exploring the origin of that subject would have added more pages to this book.

I can say with some certainty that no-one else is likely to write a book about the development of roleplaying that will ever match the scope and depth of this book. Whilst the book is targeted at a specialist audience, if a wargamer is interested in the origins of the D+D genre, this is the book. There is no other to compare. 

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