Author Jon Peterson was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new book Playing at the World, which bears the wordy subtitle of “A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Games”.
Ordered it? Good.
I’m only partway through the book, so this is only a “first impressions” rather than a full review. The thing is 720 pages and weighs in at more than three pounds. But from what I’ve read and skimmed through, I am completely confident in saying that this will become the definitive text of the early history of the role-playing hobby for years to come.
I am an historian by training and avocation. I’m used to reading large books filled with footnotes. I like reading large books filled with footnotes. And this book is that. But it reads lightly, and for me, who thought he had a passing familiarity with the subject matter, this book is a revelation. The level of detail is simply astounding, and in uncovering all of the salient facts of the state of gaming in the 1960’s and 1970’s that led to the advent of Dungeons and Dragons, Jon Peterson does something that warms the cockles of my heart. It’s exactly what I do when digging into some obscure piece of lore, whether it be related to the World of Greyhawk or Norse mythology.
He relies on primary sources.
The importance of that fact cannot be understated. One of the great achievements of this book is that it doesn’t rely on the memories and reminisces of those people involved. Peterson double-checks every date, every assertion, and every faded memory against the actual text of the myriad of fanzines, club newsletters, magazines, and other primary documents of the period (the tale of how he amassed such a treasure-trove is probably worthy of a story unto itself). He also cross-references this material against other works that claim to give histories of the period and material involved, and often enough points out where they are contradicted by the actual sources.
I’ll say it again. This will become the definitive text of the early history of the role-playing hobby for years to come.
Is it perfect? No, but only because it needs two companion volumes. The first would be a Sourcebook. I would love to see the complete text of the original sources to which Peterson refers and quotes only enough to make his point. The second would be a volume that does consist of the reminisces of the persons involved. The pure facts laid out in “Playing at the World” are fascinating, engaging, and an utterly unthinkable amount of work. I would love to see a pure book of interviews, intended to capture the impressions and emotions of those involved, and see it cross-referenced against the facts laid out here.
But those points are not failings of the book itself. It’s a phenomenal achievement. If you are interested in the history of RPGs, you must get this book. Buy it now. I’ll wait.