HEX LIBRIS: JON PETERSON
Mira Manga speaks to best selling author and RPG historian Jon Peterson about his recent book The Elusive Shift - How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, and how early role-playing games evolved in the 1970s, moving beyond their roots in wargaming and science fiction and fantasy fandoms to become something entirely new.
Can you tell us how your obsession with gaming and its history began?
I used to go to a comic shop to play Magic the Gathering, when I first saw people playing a game called Jyhad, which would later be renamed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. It was a collectable card game, based on the Vampire the Masquerade role playing game and I joined in. Those players also happened to be vampire LARPers (of course!) and they started dragging me to events, so I soon became immersed in the New England LARP scene.
I was at Brown University, and there was a LARP in the University of Southern Maine that I went to as well as any random events I could find around New England. We actually ran a couple of games in Boston. That's when I'd really gotten obsessed. This group was also playing a heavily hacked 2nd edition D&D game. I started playing with them and really that group is who I played with through the ‘90s and ‘00s. Up until I started doing research on Playing at the World(1).
This sounds like a dream, getting in all the fun games as well as LARPing! So what precisely was it that inspired you to think - I need to write the definitive book about RPGs?
I was a huge fan of the Warcraft franchise. When World of Warcraft came out, I was in on zero day. I was in a top raiding guild on one of these servers, I was at the release party for Warcraft 3 when it came out... I got so into it in those first few months that I think it would be fair to say that some friends of mine staged an intervention!
I actually managed to step away from the game when I went to All Tomorrow's Parties, a rock festival in the UK. One of my favourite bands, Slint, had reunited and was playing there. That was what it took to get me out of the chair and go to England!
While we were in London beforehand, we went to the British Museum. I was rooting around and saw a display case containing first century AD Roman 20 sided dice, and these polyhedral dice, with Greek letters on them. I had a moment then. I was just sitting there looking at these dice, asking myself, "How far back did everything go?!"
It occurred to me that there must have been somebody in history, who was the first person to roll a die or use some kind of implement of chance, compared to some statistical model of reality, to decide the outcome of a fictional event. I thought that there has to be a way to pinpoint that.. there are prerequisites for that, you need to understand statistics for example, so you can kind of broadly see when that could have been possible, but who first did it?
That’s a pretty big question!
Well that was the initial question that I set out to answer, but it was in a broader context. Just how far back did everything that it takes to make anything like WoW, D&D and vampire LARPing and such happen? I wondered was this something ab initio that a couple of people in the 70s thought up or, or is this contextualised in broader cultural and scientific history?
That's when I started looking into books about this. Lawrence Schick, (TSR staffer, editor of Deities and Demigods and author of White Plume Mountain), had written Heroic Worlds that had come out in 1991. It contained a historical introduction, and had some quotes from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and Greg Stafford, founder of the Chaosium.
Another book was Sean Patrick Fannon's, The Fantasy Role Playing Gamer's Bible. It had a historical section and talked about Dave Wesley and the Braunstein game(2) he had run and how Arneson and Gygax got together on this, but the more I read, the more it became clear to me that this was interview based work. I started to sense that there must be a way to hunt down documentary sources that would set basic parameters like dates and sequences.
For instance, the wargame called Chainmail that Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren put out, had sources suggesting different dates for it’s publication, some as early as ‘69, some as late as ‘72. It also had a fantasy supplement tacked onto it with rules for wizards who could cast fireballs and lightning bolts, but I’d find disagreements there too, was that in the first edition of Chainmail or was that added later? I thought, well this problem is solvable - you just need to find this stuff, look at it and then write down the date it had come out and what was in it. It was like, how hard could this be?
About then, that's when it started to get ugly..
Can you describe a little bit of your process? Were you calling people asking to rummage through their archives or are you going to libraries?
Absolutely. Anything it took! There was a guy named Bruce Pelts, a Los Angeles science fiction fan, who had amassed an enormous collection of science fiction fanzines that included a lot of gaming zines that were donated to the University of California, Riverside, when he passed away. His collection was enormously valuable to my research.
Another example is Walter Buchanan, who was big in the Diplomacy fandom. He had a massive amount of gaming zines that ended up in the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. I even had a student on my payroll at one point, just going through cataloguing and scanning stuff, because it wasn't even catalogued at the time.
I’ve travelled to get my hands on sources too. I needed a copy of a very important text, Anleitung zur Darstellung militairische Manover mit dem Apparat des Kriegsspiel, or "Instructions for Displaying Military Maneuvers with the Wargame Apparatus”, which was written by Georg von Reiswitz in 1824. There was only one complete copy I could find in any university archive in the world so I headed to the University of Kassel, in northern Bavaria, Germany to get a look at it.
Another time, I wanted to see a copy of a very rare word game from the 17th century that was at the National Library of Sweden. I showed up in Stockholm and they told me, “We don't really let people have access to this.” It took them three or four days while I was hanging out in Stockholm to figure out if they would let me see it. Eventually they did and I got to work from that copy of that book. So I mean, yeah, I just did whatever had to be done!
I bought a lot of it myself and I'm now one of those collectors with a large collection! It's taken 15 years to create something that I consider to be a credible archive.
“It's taken 15 years to create something that I consider to be a credible archive”
When you’ve uncovered everything, how do you decide what goes into the narrative?
There’s a quote from a philosopher, Wittgenstein, who talks about trying to understand religious phenomena. He suggests that sometimes the attempt to find an explanation is wrongheaded, because if you just lay out the facts perspicaciously the satisfaction you hope to get from an explanation will come of its own accord. That’s kind of a guiding principle for what I do. Lay out the stuff we do know that seem to be the facts. The broader judgements and generalisations become unnecessary because you can see the raw material of history in front of you.
Have all your investigations given you any insight? Any tips on how to successfully build a game or are there any pitfalls that you'd know to avoid?
The Elusive Shift does a bunch of different things but one thing it's definitely intended to do is to show what paths you can take as a creator. The book looks at the Blacow Model which suggests that the feel of a game is determined by the interaction of four elements, role playing, wargaming, ego-tripping and story-telling.
The main pitfall that we discover when we look at the history of gaming is simply that it’s not going to work if you don’t know your audience. Know what you're trying to make, know how you want to mix those different game elements together to tool them into a particular experience, think about the kind of experience you want people to have and focus your rules around that. But there's no there's no right or wrong in that - it really is just a matter of customization tailored for the audience that you want your game to target.
Right now Dungeons & Dragons is riding a huge wave of popularity - so where do you see this going?
These pendulums swing historically. This unbelievable year over year growth we’ve seen reported for D&D, in particular under Hasbro's shepherding, is it sustainable? Are we going to hit a wall when we're done with the pandemic and we don't have to be on Zoom anymore? Is that gonna make us play tabletop? More in person or less?
There are so many societal and cultural factors that go into this and fashion comes into play too. In 2015, we talked about the new generations getting into the game. Well those 16 year old kids are now in their 20s. Is the next generation of 16 year old kids gonna think what the previous generation of 16 year old kids were doing is cool?
Historically, that typically hasn't been true. It's things like that that make it so hard to predict. I certainly think the game is going to continue. A lot of people are incredibly dedicated to it. Whether it's going to continue to grow in this fashion...that's a real challenge for Hasbro and for the people who are sitting around wondering what a sixth edition could look like.
Speaking of which, how do you anticipate RPGs will continue to evolve?
Back when the work was done on Fifth Edition, we didn't all have devices that we can talk to that can talk back to us. Things like Alexa didn’t exist. Just imagine, in a game that's about talking - what could it become if you began to explore the possibilities of integrating this kind of tech. There's some very interesting potential in what you could do with talking with AI's that can record what players are saying and understand it.
I could imagine it going that direction but I could also imagine it going even more primitivist! People may just want a totally tech free set up because that's the original primal experience. Who knows what the right tack is? In the industry at large, I'm sure we'll see the same creativity we've seen throughout. Lots of new voices are coming in, lots of new perspectives are coming in. I think every generation will find a way to make this practice their own.
“every generation will find a way to make this practice their own”
Can you tell us what you have coming up next for you?
Yeah, so Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons is my new book (out now in fact - Ed.).
It’s a book length expansion of a previous essay that I wrote, called The Ambush at Sheraton Springs. That essay was exploring how Gary Gygax ended up being ousted from TSR, the company where he was a majority shareholder, he was president, Chief Executive.
I got really interested in the question mechanically how that happened. Since that essay was written around eight years ago I just kept accumulating more material around internal TSR corporate staff, until I got a pretty good picture of how TSR got started, what the main conflicts were that Gary faced trying to run this company that he never imagined he was going to have to run and then ultimately, how he lost it. So that’s coming up next!
(1) Playing At The World was Peterson’s first book tracing the origins of Dungeons & dragons from its historic wargame roots.
(2) Wesley refereed this Napoleonic wargame set in the fictional German town of Braunstein when the players began using their characters to talk to one another. When two players unexpectedly challenged each other to a duel, Wesley found it necessary to improvise rules for the encounter on the spot.
Though Wesley thought the results were chaotic and the experiment a failure, the other players enjoyed the role playing aspect and asked him to run another game.
Both ‘The Elusive Shift’ and 'Game Wizards' are out now via The MIT Press
Keep up to date with all Peterson’s ongoing research at playingattheworld.blogspot.com
This interview originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2