Review – Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

If you asked me a month ago about the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, I would have been able to tell you a few basic facts. I knew it was co-created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. I knew it was preceded by a fantasy miniatures game called Chainmail. And I knew the magic system, based on spell memorization, came from a fantasy series I’d never read. What I didn’t know could fill a 698-page, heavily footnoted book.

That book is Playing At The World, Jon Peterson’s stunning history of the creation of D&D. Using contemporary sources, Peterson traces the separate paths of two distinct hobbies– board wargaming and miniatures battles– to their intersection with an “anything can be attempted” approach that allowed players to act outside the rules. These influences, along with the burgeoning popularity of fantasy novels in the ’60s, are presented as the accidental alchemy that resulted in a new form of collaborative storytelling.

Peterson is meticulous with his language, and his research documents how fan vocabulary could barely keep pace with these new developments. A short chapter on the evolution of genre fiction explains how we got the term science fiction from “scientifiction” and the struggle of authors writing in the footsteps of Howard and Burroughs to find a classification for their stories[1]. As for D&D itself, it was originally published as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. It was years before “role-playing game” became commonplace, “Dungeon Master” became the title for the game’s referee, and archaic references to characters as “fighting-men” were finally retired.

Playing at the World is a scholarly approach to the subject, but the book has a sense of humor as well. Arguments over complicated critical hit systems and convention attendance inflation are detailed throughout the text. The vague description of spell memorization in the original rules led to vitriolic disputes in mimeographed fanzines. And unsurprisingly, the game took some flak for its tactless representation of women[2]. Like most boy’s clubs, girls were welcome, but there were deliberate barriers to entry. The damage would only take about two decades to undo.

My favorite anecdote also happens to be one of the most unexpected. As unlikely as it seems, there was no thief class in Dungeons & Dragons when the game debuted. The omission was noted by a group in Santa Monica, and they drafted their own class and percentile skill chart to dictate a thief’s abilities. Shortly thereafter, their creation was published in the D&D’s first supplement under Gary Gygax’s copyright. It was an outrageous move, but encapsulates the wild west spirit of the time, as an underground hobby struggled with the reality of becoming a legitimate revenue source.

A first-class cultural history, Playing at the World tracks the development of a new form of entertainment and its larger artistic impact. Peterson argues that in addition to popularizing “victory agnostic” gameplay, the game’s legacy is as a taxonomic exercise of the fantastic. He carefully documents how Dungeons & Dragons drew on all aspects fantasy, history, science fiction, horror, and myth, creating a catalog for future fantasists to draw from. It’s an influence that’s increasingly obvious today, not just in fantasy novels, but in television, film, and videogames. D&D was an attempt to collate everything you could imagine in one place, and Playing at the World is a appropriately epic tribute to its place in our culture.

[1] They eventually settled on “swords and sorcery”, which just goes to prove you don’t get to pick your own labels, nor should you.

[1] A choice response: “I asked Gary what women’s libbers think of the situation, and he told me that he will bend to their demands when a member of the opposite sex buys a copy of Dungeons and Dragons!”


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