have you read Playing at the World yet?

November 16th, 2012 by paul

I thought I knew a reasonable amount of D&D history, but after reading Jon Peterson's Playing At the World, I feel a sort of amused contempt for my past self, that poor ignorant yokel. I no more knew the ingredients of D&D than I did the secret recipe of Coca-Cola. You should read it so you can feel smug too.

Why should a book that's concerned largely with D&D prehistory be interesting to D&D players? My new favorite author Jon Peterson puts it well: "For all its long-windedness, Dungeons & Dragons is hugely underspecified: many of the core principles of its system are tacit ones, so familiar to the authors that they were blind to the need to record them. Only by a very close reading of the earliest rules, and by placing elements in their proper context in the tradition of wargaming systems, can we even conjecture about the intention behind these ambiguities and omissions. As usual, our familiarity with later versions of the game hinders us rather than helps us; we must forget what the game became in order to discover how and why it got there."

Here's how good this book is. Peterson's book is 720 pages, and while I was reading it, I was constantly wishing it was longer.

This book shed light on a lot of things that I've wondered about, sometimes on this blog.

In 2010, I wondered, "What is a midgard?" and wished I could get the rules for one. http://blogofholding.com/?p=265 Now I know a lot about the spread of midgard-style games, the play-by-mail milieu in which they existed, and the reasons that most of them petered out before they really began.

In 2012, I thought, "Look at all these dowels in the Chain Mail rules! That's cool!" Now I know that the use of dowels to mark altitude comes from the Fletcher Pratt naval game, where "airplane models are attached to a notched pole, where each notch measures a level of elevation at which craft may fly."

It's also shocking to see the term "Saving Throw" in Tony Bath's 1966 medieval combat rules (which inspired Chain Mail). "City militia may only attack heavy infantry if they can throw a 5 or 6. If attacked by them they must throw a 4, 5, 6 to stand, otherwise break and are diced for... If fighting takes place, one throw per 5 men, militia lose half total, no saving throw, cavalry lose one-quarter, saving throw of six."

There's lots more good stuff, including many details of Arneson's original game rules. For instance, Arneson said that "players were not intended to become harder to hit and take more damage as they progress. Instead they were to take the same amount of hits all the time (with the exceptions of spells, magic, etc.) while becoming more talented in inflicting hits and avoiding the same. This has a great equalizing influence." Imagine a version of D&D where HP stays the same while AC goes up as characters gain levels.

In short: Grab a copy. If you're a subway commuter reader, like me, get the kindle version: 720 is a lot of pages.

9 Responses to “have you read Playing at the World yet?”

  1. Sam says:

    I’m waiting for my friend to finish his copy!

  2. Mike Monaco says:

    I’m going to have to wait until a library near me gets a copy, given my current finances, but it does sound like an interesting book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I got a copy a couple of months ago and couldn’t agree with you more. It’s absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in the early days of the hobby. Even someone like me, who lived through some of that time as a gamer and scifi/fantasy fan, kept finding mentions of things I hadn’t even heard of, let alone experienced myself. Wonderful book.

  4. imredave says:

    Just finished (well as long as you don’t count the literary analysis in chapter 2 there’s only so much JRRT haiography I can take). For the most part a very good book, however a little over dominant on L.A. scene based on the extensiveness of the Alurms and Excursions records. Was little miffed that he missed crediting the pedit5 PLATO program which my buddy Rusty Rutheford at University of Illinios wrote, and ascribes the PLATO DnD program (which sounds very much like pedit5) to an anonymous source at Cornell instead. However that is price one pays for not writing stuff down. Found a nice interview about pedit5 a few years back, have to post it on my own blog.

  5. Jon says:

    Thanks for the nice write-up!

    @imredave, to be clear, PatW does not assign a name (DnD or otherwise) to the early D&D-based PLATO game that a Cornell student of the era reviewed in the cited 1975 fanzine, nor does it suggest the game was written at Cornell. I suspect the student left out the name intentionally, to prevent drawing administrative attention to it, and its author chose to remain anonymous at the time for similar reasons. I am aware there are disputes about the priority and authorship of early PLATO games, and PatW has a footnote to that effect that points to another book (Barton’s Dungeons & Desktops) where readers can find more detail about Rutherford and his pedit5. My book is based solely on contemporary sources, and in contemporary sources I could find no mention of that particular game. Similarly, Los Angeles had an exceptional culture of documentation (of which Alarums is an offshoot) that made it easy to use the area as a case study of the spread of D&D – if similar amounts of evidence existed for other places, it would be very interesting to put them under the microscope as well. You make do with what you’ve got. Thanks.

  6. imredave says:

    Being 17 and on PLATO at the time I am well aware of the furutive nature of playing games on “Play-Toy”. About the time they gave me the boot for highjacking my fathers account I decided to quit wasting time on computer games and become an engineer instead. Was in the same Boy Scout troop with Rusty’s sons and played D&D, Runequest, and Empire of the petal throne with him many times. Unfortunately the Univesity of Illinois gaming gaming club was not big on writing news letters, so the only documents I have from those times are a few issues of the Wurm Walder, the news letter of the local SCA chapter. I do remember playing many intersting variants of DnD (It seemed every DM I played with had his own rules). I suspect most of those are lost in the depths of time.

  7. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    I’m avoiding reading this until I finish my own memoirs. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

  8. imredave says:

    Here’s a link to the pedit5 discussion I was refering to earlier.

    http://armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1948

    Not actually an interview, but an e-mail “Rusty” sent to Matt Barton the author of Dungeons and Desktops after Matt’s book was published. Matt was kind enough to post the e-mail on his own blog. Perhaps some of the information will be included in the second edition.

  9. [...] Jon Peterson's Playing at the World, I found a reference to a 1975 ancestor of that houserule, published in 1975 by Gary Switzer, the [...]

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