Friday, 5 March 2021

[Friday Faction] The Elusive Shift

It is commonly agreed that Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1974 by TSR, Inc. was the first roleplaying game, but was it? If not, what then was Dungeons & Dragons and where did roleplaying come from? How did roleplaying evolve and develop into the widely accepted practice that we accept today and that we see proliferated into other media? When did what we know of today as a roleplaying game, actually become a ‘roleplaying game’? These are the questions which Jon Peterson, the author of Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games, the highly regarded early history of Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, explores in his new work, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, published by The MIT Press
In this new tome, Peterson delves back into that fabled ‘Golden Age’ at the dawn of the roleplaying hobby and beyond to examine the precursors which would influence E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in their creation of Dungeons & Dragons, the debates between the players of Dungeons & Dragons and between the players and Gygax himself about how Dungeons & Dragons should be played and refereed, and ultimately the shift that occurred in the widespread understanding and acceptance of what a roleplaying game was.

Peterson’s starting point is that Dungeons & Dragons was not marketed as a roleplaying game, nor identified as one. It was a wargame—a wargame in which each player controlled one character or wargaming figure and there was Referee who would moderate the actions of each character and their outcome. Although it had an example of play, it did not explain how to play the game and certainly not how to roleplay, an issue which would beset the hobby for years to come. Instead, players had to learn by example, perhaps drawing upon their experience in the two cultures and communities which Dungeons & Dragons drew from and Gygax would market to. One was wargaming, with its history of refereed battles and then more recent focus on simulations using one figure per player, whilst the other was Science Fiction, with its rich source material and its tradition of telling refereed stories. Both would inform how Dungeons & Dragons would be played, but none of the new wargame’s adherents could agree as to exactly how. This would lead to a discourse which proliferated throughout the hobby over what was the right way as players and Referees grappled with such questions as to the role of the Referee, was he impartial or did he game against the players and their characters? What was the right way to create characters—adhere to the strict roll of the dice or adjust as necessary? How far should character competency factor into play versus player competency? Who should roll the dice—the Referee or the players? How much should the player know about the game’s mechanics? How should Alignment work and affect a character? And what is the point of play—to acquire Experience Points and become superhuman, to explore and tell a story, or a combination of the two?

These questions would be first answered and debated around the table, through actual play of the new game that was Dungeons & Dragons—and then later through other roleplaying games such as Tunnels & Trolls, Bunnies & Burrows, Traveller, and Empire of the Petal Throne, but first and foremost, always Dungeons & Dragons. As the first ‘roleplaying’ game, it provided both the first terminology and a common language for the hobby. In the years to come the resulting debates would subsequently be played out in magazines, such as White Dwarf and Different Worlds, and in more recent times, the Internet. The difference between then and now is that the discussion itself was new and the ideas behind it were being formulated, rather than necessarily reiterated. To explore these debates, Petersen notably draws heavily upon the fora readily available in the nineteen seventies to discuss roleplaying, what its was, and how it should be done—fanzines and amateur press association titles. Thus, in the pages of The Elusive Shift one can read about Lee Gold’s approach to in-character roleplaying, how Steve Perrin had his players roll up their characters, and how Greg Costikyan had implemented a ‘sex affiliation’ system instead of the traditional Alignment system of Dungeons & Dragons. The focus though is constantly on the first five or six years of the hobby following the publication of Dungeons & Dragons and the debate between the leading adherents of the differing philosophies in the ongoing debate over whether the first roleplaying game was a simulationist wargame in which the aim was to accumulate power, magic, gold, and more to become superhuman or a means to tell stories of fantastic adventure.

Ultimately, as thoroughly researched as The Elusive Shift actually is, it cannot quite identify when the shift of its title occurred. That is, when the roleplaying hobby identified itself as such rather than as a variation upon wargaming or Science Fiction fandom’s storytelling. Instead, it sets out the landscape for and highlights a number of shifts. One is the maturing of the discourse, undoubtedly fierce at times, but a discourse which would culminate in Glenn Blacow’s ‘Aspects of Adventure Gaming’ which appeared in Different Worlds #10 which suggested a model with four basic categories into which roleplayers could be put—‘Roleplaying’, ‘Story Telling’, ‘Powergaming’, and ‘Wargaming’. (An examination of the model can be found here.) This model would go on to form the basis for other models and inform the discussion henceforth. Another shift is the move from open sets of mechanics and games to closed sets of mechanics and games, at the forefront of which was the commercial move by E. Gary Gygax from the openness of Dungeons & Dragons where the Dungeon Master had the freedom to run the game as he wanted and to import or devise whatever rules or mechanics he liked (and was a widely accepted practice, but would also add to a debate as to whether Dungeons & Dragons was a design toolkit or a game) to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which was closed because it was not designed to accommodate ‘unofficial’ content from elsewhere. Lastly, there is the shift in generations, when the growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons brought in a wave of younger, immature players, who had not had the benefit of the five years of discourse that had helped form and inform the hobby. Most of whom of course, would be locked into the closed world of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and its orthodoxy, but who of some would go on to have the same conversations explored by The Elusive Shift and greatly influence the hobby today.

The Elusive Shift is a dense and not always an easy read. As an academic work it is not necessarily a casual read, but it is a fascinating one, capturing a history that few of us remember or have access to. It also throws a spotlight on the leading contributors to those first debates—Glenn Blacow, Sandy Eisen, Kevin Slimak, Mark Swanson, and others. (If there is perhaps something lacking in its pages, it would have been pleasing to least include some details on each of these figures in the pages of The Elusive Shift.) Ultimately, there is the sense that the debate as to what a roleplaying game is and what roleplaying is, is never going to be settled, but reiterated and explored again and again, but in the pages of The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity that debate is examined when it was wholly new and captures it for posterity. Perhaps it might be worth examining this first debate before engaging in the next?

1 comment:

  1. Good review! If found the Elusive Shift an interesting read, though I think the generational divide was a bit overstated, mostly because at that time, it was still easy to purchase back issues (or, in many cases, trade photocopies) of the older magazines years after they came out. In my small town, remember junior high school age gamers c. 1980 driving with their parents to larger cities that game shops and coming back with dozens of old copies of fanzines like Alarums & Excursions... some of the folks I knew who ended up contributing to them c. 1988-1989 had been READING these zines, or at least back issues of them, since the 80s...