Old School, New Histories

Two pieces on this site that I’m rather proud of are my essays on the secret history of tabletop roleplaying games: Dungeon Master Zero, on the eccentric Indian fighter, pyramidologist, and Anglo-Israelite who brought refereed wargaming to America, and R&D, on Cold War simulation gaming at RAND. One of the things I’m not proud of is that it’s been two years and I haven’t completed what was to have been a trilogy of posts, not to mention a long-promised article for Jonathan Walton’s journal PUSH. The idea for the trilogy came when I read that David Wesely’s Braunstein, a seminal proto-roleplaying game from 1968, was inspired by three books: Charles Totten’s wargame Strategos, the RAND Corporation’s Compleat Strategyst, and Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense. And it seemed to me that each of those three books could tell us something unexpected and as yet untold about the roots of the roleplaying hobby and maybe something about geek or gaming history more generally.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my third post: two years went by! And in those two years, the whole landscape of information and interest in the history of roleplaying has been transformed. A renaissance in “old school” gaming, that is, gaming that tries to emulate the feel or philosophy of the hobby in the 1970s, has brought with it a new interest in the early history of tabletop rpgs.

The immediate reason I never finished that tryptych of posts, apart from my own fecklessness, was that I was approached by an editor at a major American newspaper (ie, not the NYT, but you’ve heard of it) and asked to write up the deep history of roleplaying games for their weekend Ideas section. Which was an opportunity so ridiculously excellent, so clearly just what I had been put on this earth to do, that I botched the job. I dropped almost everything and spent way too much of Summer 2007 trying to tell the complete history of roleplaying in 1500 words. In my defense, that’s what the editor asked me for. The idea was to tell the story of the 1960s-70s origins of D&D, but also to go way way back into the deep history of wargaming–to medieval carosella and ancient Indian chess and more–but also to tie it all to something of immediate contemporary interest, a “peg,” like the popularity of Warcraft or Second Life. (You remember Second Life, don’t you? In Summer 2007, major media outlets were required to print at least one item a week on Second Life. It was like Twitter with feet.)

I struggled with this dream assignment for weeks. I got some tough but smart feedback from the editor on my first attempt, but my second submission received no reply. Maybe it dropped into some electronic void. Maybe they could see that it just wasn’t going to work or that I wasn’t the guy for the job. I live in a world where people take 1500 words to clear their throats, and where you get in trouble for pegging things to the contemporary. I think what I wrote was serviceable, but it wasn’t all I’d hoped, and the experience soured me on the untold history of gaming for a while.

A year later, something else happened: Gary Gygax died. Now there was a peg: the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons levels on up to the GenCon in the sky. If I’d been smart and feckful (oh, it’s a word), I’d have pounced on that, reworked my essay, and shopped it around. I didn’t, but others did. And one silver lining of Gygax’s passing was a burst of good to great writing about D&D and its legacy, in Blogville and the mainstream media both. Of course it wasn’t all good. NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” did a cringeworthy mock-the-nerds segment. Right, like Peter Sagal and Mo Rocca were star quarterbacks in high school… But after Gygax’s death, a lot of writers and journalists outed themselves as former gamers, and there was sweet, reflective stuff everywhere from Wired to the New York Times. (Though my favorite MSM piece on Gygax and D&D remains Paul La Farge’s 2006 Destroy All Monsters.) The death of Dave Arneson last week has provoked another boomlet of media notices.

The impact of Gygax’s death on gaming bloggers was even greater. For one thing, it inspired James Maliszewski to launch his blog Grognardia, which has become the soul and center of the old school gaming renaissance. Ken Hite calls Grognardia “tetchy, diamantine, opinionated, finely-researched, and downright amazing,” and I cannot but agree. My own gaming has mutated in the past few years, from cutting-edge indie storygaming to nonexistent to an OD&D game so old school Maliszewksi would yell at me to contemporize. I don’t really feel any stake in the rivalry between different subspecies of gaming. Again, I agree with Ken that “the indie elves and the old-school dwarves” share deep similarities. What I love about old schoolers like Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, or Elliot Wilen (I hope none of them mind the label) is their respect for and interest in the history of the hobby–their commitment to carefully reconstructing not just a sequence of published texts, but something far more ephemeral: forgotten styles of play, unarticulated philosophies of gaming, what it felt like and meant to be present at the creation of seminal unreal worlds. And thanks to guys like James and Jeff and Elliot, there is now far more, far smarter, and far more accessible information available on the history of the hobby than there was just a few years ago.

(Don’t get me wrong: I think there are plenty of guys from the indie-elf side of the spectrum who care about early gaming history too. The threads that drew me to the Forge were history threads; and if anyone has advice about forums where this material is addressed thoughtfully, I’d love to hear.)

So while I would have loved to be published in a major newspaper, I’m thrilled to see the flourishing of gaming history online. It encourages me to return to the topic, and actually frees me from doing work I don’t want to do, like ruling on which modern styles of gaming are apostasies, or parsing out how many experience points worth of credit are due to Gary Gygax and each of the Midwestern Daves.

The most careful criticism of my earlier posts came from Elliot Wilen and some other regulars at a forum called the RPGsite. Elliot was a little irritated at the inexact way with which I approached questions of priority and intellectual lineage. If I call Charles Totten “Dungeon Master Zero,” am I really claiming that he invented roleplaying, or that he was the only possible link between the Prussian wargame and the modern hobby? Not intentionally, but I see how you can read me that way. If I say something like “Braunstein begat Blackmoor which begat Chainmail which begat D&D,” one contingent of gamers will nod in agreement, but another contingent will gnash their teeth in fury at my lies. So I’d be wiser to stay away from such minefields. And now I can! With the internalist history of gaming in such good hands, it’s plain to me that what I really wanted to write is a more externalist history: one that looks for unexpected links between this thing we do and the wider world around it. It may offer some idea where I’m coming from if I tell you that I’ve spent a decade (geez!) researching the early history of the telephone–an invention whose parentage is one hundred times more contested than roleplaying games–and I actually don’t care if Alexander Graham Bell invented it or not.

So DMZ tackled Totten, and R&D examined RAND. The next essay, at least if I get to it before the baby’s born, should consider Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense and the silence in the history of roleplaying games around the war in Vietnam. I have no idea if old schoolers or indie punks or bewildered nongamers who inexplicably read this far will love it or hate it. (Unless I’m distracted by this other post about a great old book I found, a kind of Anthology of American Folk RPGs.)

Big picture? One commenter on my much-linked election post saw the line on my About page about being a “geek historian” and was much offended at the very possibility of such a beast. I don’t want to get too grandiose here, but there is a history of geek culture in America waiting to be written. People are nibbling around the edges, in memoirs like Extra Life, novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and pop ethnographies like American Nerd, not to mention fan culture studies, where the origins of fandom keep being pushed farther and farther into the past. But we’re in the adolescent stages of the subject. Can we connect our internalist, hobbyist histories to broader narratives and bigger questions?

[Crossposted for old times sake to The 20′ By 20′ Room.]


  1. Hi, Rob. I just came across this–I’ve been very busy with non-gaming aspects of life for a while. Also, a completely technological effect: much of my web-reading has switched from computer to iPod, which means that posting is a much greater effort than it used to be.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to your next piece but your phrase ” silence in the history of roleplaying games around the war in Vietnam” has me wondering what this will be. Have you heard of Palladium’s Recon? The original, pre-Palladium version was published in 1982–around the close of the period when RPGs, wargames, and other “unconventional brainy games” (such as Cosmic Encounter) were all pretty much a single hobby–and games could straddle what would later be fairly fixed boundaries. Wargames did deal with Vietnam, and even earlier I might add. A quick search of boardgamegeek turns up a Gamescience game published in 1965 (!), and two early SPI games, Grunt and Year of the Rat, in the early ’70s.

  2. Hi Elliot. Good to hear from you. Totally understood about non-gaming aspects of life. I’m in the eye of the storm between end of term and birth of baby but that will change any day.

    I remember Recon well – I owned and played it. I also played the big Avalon Hill (I think?) wargame of Vietnam. As I find counterexamples I’m already backing away from my original idea about there being a “silence” around Vietnam, but what I meant was not that there were no games about Vietnam, but rather that the history of gaming almost never talks about the war. Which I think is a little odd for a hobby populated so much by U.S. military, college students, and draft-age young men during the Vietnam years.

    Not to mention the importance of gaming and simulation techniques to the conduct of the war itself. In the halls of power, Vietnam was likely the most “gamed” war ever.

  3. Yes, the history of gaming doesn’t talk much about the war.

    On a related issue, I don’t think enough is made of the impact of the ongoing draft in the 50’s & 60’s combined with the GI Bill. Effect: many educated young men with military experience clustered on college campuses. Jim Dunnigan and David Weseley were part of this phenomenon (more or less, I don’t recall their exact personal histories).

    About the “AH” game I think you’re referring to the one by Victory Games, Vietnam: 1965-1975, published in 1984.

  4. Although come to think of it, AH did publish “Platoon” under their own logo, in 1986. (Victory Games was a semi-independent subsidiary made up of SPI exiles.)

  5. Yes and yes. That’s a terrific point about the GI Bill and men with military experience on college campuses. And yeah, Vietnam: 1965-1975 is the game I remember. A friend had the big hex map up on his bedroom wall in high school.

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