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Sunday, 3 January 2016

Designers & Dragons I

As the gaming hobby reaches middle age, its sense of nostalgia and reflection have not only driven it to look to the past to bring back old games in new editions, but also to take an interest in its own history. Although there have been books about the hobby, they have tended to be minor affairs such as The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible; focused on particular aspects such as 40 Years of Gen Con and Hunters of Dragons; or academic works like First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. A complete history of the gaming hobby, that is, of the roleplaying gaming hobby, did not exist until 2011, when Mongoose Publishing released Designers & Dragons, a buff hardback that would win a Special Award at UK Games Expo and a Judges’ Spotlight Award ENnie in 2012. This single volume collected the ‘A Brief History of Game’ columns written by Shannon Appelcline that ran between 2006 and 2011 on RPG.net. Unfortunately, the book got a limited print run and it was published by Mongoose Publishing, so received neither the push nor the quality that such a book deserved.

Fortunately, a successful Kickstarter campaign and another publisher, Evil Hat Productions, LLC, best known for publishing Fate Core, has enabled the author to not only revisit those columns, but also to expand, revise, and update them. The result is Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry series—not one single volume, but as of 2015, five volumes. The first four volumes each address a single decade of the history of the industry, in turn the seventies, the eighties, nineties, and the noughties, whilst the fifth, The Platinum Appendix is a collection of miscellaneous articles. It should be noted that this series covers only the English speaking market of the hobby, and although that this is where it stemmed from and the one that remains the largest, it ignores the various other language markets. This is not to say they are not important or that they do not have influence upon the industry—as will be seen in later volumes, but the history of the gaming industry in the French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, and other language markets will have to wait for a further volume or at least another history.

The first volume is Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s. Now that suggests that it deals with just the foundation of the hobby and the period between 1974 and 1979 when this is not really the case. It does indeed detail the industry’s beginnings and early development, but it really begins by laying the foundations of the industry in the hobbies of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson beginning with their exposure to Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg wargame in 1958 and thus their interest games and the fantasy genre. Further, what it really does is tell the histories of the publishers that were founded in the 1970s right up to their closure, their bankruptcy, or indeed, their current status, rather than abruptly cutting off in 1979. Thus it gives us the histories of thirteen publishers, seven of which are no longer in business, two are a shadow of their former selves, and four are still in business. These histories are of TSR, Flying Buffalo, Games Workshop, GDW, Judges Guild, Metagaming Concepts, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Chaosium, Gamescience, Heritage Models, Grimoire Games, DayStar West Media, and Midkemia Press. Of these, the histories of Judges Guild, Metagaming, and TSR have been expanded since their appearance in the previous version of Dungeons & Designers, whilst those of DayStar West Media, Gamescience, Grimoire Games, Heritage Models, and Midkemia Press are new additions.

Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is divided into four parts—‘Part One: Founding Days (1953—1974)’, ‘Part Two: The Floodgates Open (1975—1976)’, ‘Part Three: The First Wargaming Phase (1976—1977)’, and ‘Part Four: Universal Publishers (1978—1979)’. The first part is solely devoted to the history of TSR, comprising in total, a quarter of the book. This is understandable, since TSR both founded and dominated the hobby for three decades and more. Now, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World explores this history in more detail, but since the remit of Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is much wider, it is not quite as scholarly or as detailed. Now this is not to detract from the detailed historical overview that is Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s, as this is an immensely readable history. Rounding each of the company histories is set of pointers as to what to read next, further connections to the company's history, and what to read next in order to find out more about its luminaries. For example, the history of TSR suggests that the reader can simply read on to find out about the second RPG publisher, Flying Buffalo; or to find out about its first licensee, read the chapter on Judges Guild; read the chapter on Wizards of Coast to learn more about the later history of Dungeons & Dragons; and to see what E. Gary Gygax did next, read the chapters on New Infinities Productions, GDW, Hekaforge Productions, and Troll Lord Games in this and future volumes in the series. Of course these are hangover from the original presentation of this material as regular online columns accompanied by hyperlinks. As hyperlinks, these only work in the PDF versions of these volumes, but as pointers they are nevertheless useful.

Throughout each chapter, sidebars and lengthy boxed subsections—sometimes lasting several pages, explore particular aspects of a company’s history in detail. So for TSR, sidebars and subsections look at how much early RPGs cost, the history of the Greyhawk setting, the D&D Cartoon, Dungeons & Dragons computer games, and Dungeons & Dragons comics. Other sidebars explain both Steve Jacksons, Judges Guild’s The Wilderlands setting, details Different Worlds magazine, and more. In addition, mini-histories are given of minor publishers such as Wee Warriors and Little Soldier Games.  These are short pieces, but their inclusion is an indication of their influence upon the industry. For example, in the form of The Character Archaic and Palace of the Vampire Queen, Wee Warriors published the first commercially available character sheet and the first standalone adventure respectively.

Rounding out the first volume in the series are the appendices that give ‘10 Things You Might Not Know About Roleplaying in the ‘70s’, a bibliography, and a good index. Physically, the oxblood-covered Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is well written, decently illustrated—though sadly in black and white—and decently organised. It does need an edit here and there, but these are minor issues. The index looks to be decent enough and supports the pointers are end of each write-up.

As a history, Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s is informative and knowledgeable, helped by the fact that the author can draw from a great many primary sources, that is, the many of those who were involved in the early days of the hobby. Unfortunately, the deaths of other significant figures mean that he has instead had to consult secondary sources. Nor is the history an exact one, but the author is open and honest where this is the case, whether due to conflicting stories or sources. This only points to the fragility of our hobby, the industry, and our collective memories—and thus the aim of Designers & Dragons, that is, to have a definitive record. Or at least as definitive a record as is possible.

Having been writing about games for over fifteen years and been collecting for much longer, my knowledge of the hobby is decent enough, but this does not mean that references—old or new—are not useful or unwelcome. For many years, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds has been a useful guide to RPGs and supplements published before the early nineties, whilst more recently, Hunters of Dragons proved a useful reference for Dungeons & Dragons. Now both of those books have been joined by the Designers & Dragons series. On a broad scale, my knowledge of the industry and its history is reasonable enough, but nevertheless, Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s builds on that knowledge, adding greatly to it, especially in its coverage of the new additions to this volume. So even the most informed of gamer—like myself—is likely to find something of interest in Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s, whilst anyone relatively new to the hobby will find it as definite a history of the industry during this period as there is, but whatever their level of knowledge, both will find Designers & Dragons: the ‘70s an informative and thoroughly engaging read.