Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games  (Unreason Press, 2012)

Jon Peterson ’93

By Darrel Plant ’90

If you ever whiled away a beautiful afternoon populating dungeons with orcs, beholders, gold, hidden passages, trapdoors, paladins, thieves, and taverns where players could find a quest or a fistfight (perhaps both!), this history of role-playing games (RPGs) is a gem. A big one.

Through years of painstaking research, Jon has traced a path from ancient chess variants to bygone German war games to obscure zines of the ’50s and ’60s whose readers played with “toy” ships on the floor. The trail finally meanders to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where a wargame enthusiast named Gary Gygax—one of the first people to introduce fantastic elements into medieval combat games and to codify rules where players took on the role of a single fighter rather than an army or fleet—turned a badly illustrated booklet into a game empire known as Dungeons & Dragons.

Thanks to D&D, the concept of individual characters with unique abilities who evolve over multiple sessions—basic elements of RPGs not found in previous types of games—have been staples of both tabletop and computer-based games for decades. D&D changed the way people play and had a huge impact on the media through video games and movies made from video games (well, maybe not that DOOM movie).

One of the book’s advantages is that Jon had access to major principals such as Gygax and D&D cocreator Dave Arneson, who have since died. The sheer density of this volume—it weighs in at 722 pages—may spook some readers, but its near-microscopic view of events is likely to make it the most comprehensive work on this area of game development for a long time.