Friday, December 21, 2012

Gary Gygax on Christmas and Christianity

A note from Gary Gygax in the IFW Monthly of February 1969. A topical historical curiosity, yes, but what does it tell us about who Gary was back then? First of all, he strongly self-identified as a Christian, an important counterpoint to the fundamentalist backlash against his later fantasy-themed games. Gary approached Christianity as a system with rules, which he researched and explored through a strict historical lens. If his readings differed from mainstream conventions, he was never one to bow to popular opinion. Sometimes he took things too seriously, sacrificing fun for accuracy. He was never shy about sharing his ideas and defending his position in public, but respectfully acknowledges the existence of dissenting views. These are all qualities we see reflected in his subsequent career as a game designer.

Speaking as someone who is not particularly religious, but nonetheless celebrates Christmas with a tree, gift-giving and feasting, I also find in Gary's words here a welcome reminder that Christmas and Christianity are not as tightly coupled as one might think. Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gaming is Now 100 Years Old

Gaming as we know it - that is, a hobby surrounding commercial games that simulate conflict, marketed to the general public for entertainment - began one hundred years ago, in December 1912. That's when H.G. Wells published the first installment of his Little Wars in the Christmas issue of Windsor Magazine. Wells was already famous for the science-fiction novels he had published in the 1890s, but his more recent work focused more on the present day, and the looming shadow of war that hung over Europe. By going beyond just writing about war, and instead providing seminal rules for simulating it, Wells laid the groundwork for all of the twentieth-century gaming that would follow.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Early Works of Gary Gygax

The beginning of Gary Gygax's career as a game designer is generally marked by the publication, through Guidon Games, of three Gygax titles early in 1971, including Chainmail. In the preceding few years, however, Gygax had released a number of games which reached the wargaming community through less professional channels such as his first gaming venture, Gystaff Enterprises. Some were stand-alone titles, others were revisions of prior efforts, and still others were variants of existing games. Since the exact nature and order of these titles has been a subject of some confusion for historians, the following list sheds light on the early works of Gary Gygax.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Source of the Chainmail Cover Art

It is widely known that much of the art that graced games of the 1960s and 1970s derived from prior sources. The original cover of Dungeons & Dragons came from a panel of the comic book Strange Tales #167 (which I reproduce in Playing at the World). Don Lowry, who published the Guidon Games line of rules and frequently provided cover illustrations for the International Wargamer, also drew on pre-existing pictures: as we see here in perhaps his single most famous drawing, the cover of Chainmail. The original appeared on page 114 of Jack Coggins's self-illustrated The Fighting Man (1966), at the start of the chapter "Crescent and Cross" about the Crusades. Gygax mentions this volume in Domesday Book #7.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Playing at the World: Now in ePub!

A number of people have requested a DRM-free ebook version of Playing at the World for all of the Nooks, iPads and so on out there. After having a nice exchange with Stewart Wieck about it, I made one available through You can acquire it here:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Armor Class in Chainmail

The man-to-man combat system of Chainmail contains a number of elements that anticipate but differ from  Dungeons & Dragons. As originally specified in the first edition of Chainmail, the chance to hit in combat depended upon both the sort of weapon used by the attacker and the type of armor worn by the defender. This led to an accuracy system that may seem counterintuitive in hindsight - a halberd, for example, is less effective against a target in no armor than it is against one attired in chainmail, presumably because the unencumbered defender can dodge more easily. When Gygax added a table for bowshot in the August 1971 issue of the International Wargamer (about four months after first edition Chainmail), he provided a more recognizable precursor to the Dungeons & Dragons concept of armor class. This same table would eventually turn up in the second and subsequent editions of Chainmail.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Playtesting Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1973)

While researching Playing at the World, I spent years looking for a playtesting edition of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Early sources suggested that some of kind preliminary draft was circulated; as Gygax in 1977 remembered, "we began serious play-testing in Lake Geneva, while copies were sent to the Twin Cities and to several other groups for comment." If such a draft was indeed so widely distributed, the failure of any copy to survive seemed hard to explain. The problem, however, was that we didn't even know what we were looking for. There were only vague references to a title, like "The Fantasy Game," but no one turned up anything meeting that description. It is therefore not surprising that a document like the Dalluhn Manuscript could, for so long, hide in plain sight. It seems to be nothing less than one of these long-sought pre-publication editions of OD&D.

[EDIT: I've left this post up to reflect the beginning of my research; for my complete analysis of this document, see this post here and further confirmation based on the discovery of a 1973 Gygax working draft here.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Blackmoor, in the Era of Loch Gloomen

By 1972, the Blackmoor campaign had evolved many of its signature characteristics: dungeon exploration, gathering experience to advance in level and a heavy emphasis on gear and money. The system, however, remained perpetually in flux, as it would for years to come. We will never uncover a document that comprises "the Blackmoor system," but we can see glimpses of some characteristics in contemporary sources. Sometimes, as with the excerpt from a late-1972 Corner of the Table shown above, we can learn a lot from just a battle report. This one describes the beginning of the Loch Gloomen phase of the campaign.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Don't Give Up the Ship, in Manuscript

Before they collaborated on Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax and Arneson first worked together on a set of Napoleonic naval rules called Don't Give Up the Ship (1972). By looking at surviving manuscript drafts of the game, we get an unusual level of insight into their individual methods as rules authors, and how their interaction eventually resulted in print products. Here we see the first draft of the rules produced by Dave Arneson early in 1971. These would be serialized (with minor editorial clean-up) in the International Wargamer, beginning in June of 1971.

Monday, August 20, 2012

GenCon 2012 and 1968

I'm back from GenCon 2012 in Indianapolis. I had a great time hanging out with many of the folks from the Acaeum, with Tavis Allison, and with the trio of documentarians working on the new film Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary (definitely pitch in to their Kickstartr!). I placed a faux-vintage full-page advertisement for Playing at the World in the convention program, one disguised as a history lesson - or perhaps it was a history lesson disguised as an ad. For those of you that didn't have a chance to attend, here it is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gygax's "The Thief Addition" (1974)

As I make my way to GenCon this week, I can't help but think back to thirty-eight years ago, to the first GenCon after the release of Dungeons & Dragons. Bill Hoyer reported then that "this year's convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons. On Saturday at least a dozen games were in progress and as soon as one ended another was started." Players must have been especially enthusiastic because many saw there for the first time something entirely novel: "thief additions to D&D were previewed with this providing more fun to an already excitement-packed set of rules." Yes, nearly a year before Greyhawk, the Thief class was on display at GenCon VII.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974)

One of the perennial questions about the history of role-playing games is this: which came second, Tunnels & Trolls or Empire of the Petal Throne? Deciding between the two is largely a question of semantics, of whether you count various small-run amateur publications as releases or not. Fortunately, historians don't need to choose between the two, because Craig VanGrasstek's Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974) beat them both handily. Weighing in at eighteen pages, and released late in the summer of 1974, Rules to the Game of Dungeon seems certain to be the second published role-playing game.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Midwest Military Simulation Association (MMSA)

An acknowledgment in the front matter of the original Dungeons & Dragons game made the name of the Midwest Military Simulation Association (MMSA) immortal. At the time that Dungeons & Dragons came out, the MMSA was a sizable gaming club in the Twin Cities, which, as this summer 1974 flier shows, played a number of different types of games, not just fantasy. The name "MMSA," however, was of relatively recent origin.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Great Kingdom (Domesday Book #9)

Since the first copies of my book have trickled out, I've noticed that the coverage of the Great Kingdom as described in Domesday Book #9 has garnered a lot of attention. Several early commentators have pointed out that the map prefigures the later development of Gygax's world of Oerth. Initially, we see little hint of that in the Domesday Book, however: this map was distributed as the basis of a wargame that Gygax hoped would involve the entire Castle & Crusade Society. While he only provided a sketch of the intended system, it is worth studying to see both what it includes and what it omits.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The LGTSA Medieval Miniatures Rules

Before the LGTSA Medieval Miniatures rules appeared in Domesday Book #5 - and indeed, right on the edge of the time when the LGTSA came to be called the LGTSA - a set of "Geneva Medieval Miniatures" rules by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax showed up in the fanzine Panzerfaust, in April 1970. The five pages of rules differ in some particulars from the July version that would surface in the Domesday Book, but, as the introduction to the rules suggest, this transitional publication documents the first step that Gygax took in adapting the local medieval rules for print.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1

The year before Domesday Book #13 ran part one of Dave Arneson's article "Points of Interest about Black Moor," Arneson circulated a one-page campaign newsletter called the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger. Like "Points of Interest," the BMG&R does not tell us a great deal about the system of Blackmoor, but it does give significant insight into the setting and the state of the campaign at the time of its publication.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Domesday Book #1

To start off a series of important documents in the history of wargames and role-playing games, we take a close look at Domesday Book #1. As collectors are extremely concerned about forgeries of these rare and valuable issues, I've added a pretty intrusive watermark, but nothing that obscures the main content. The historical context of this and subsequent issues is covered in my book Playing at the World, but here follows an overview.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Heresies of the Domesday Book

I think there has been something of an informal conspiracy of silence about the contents of the Castle & Crusade Society's famous 1970-1972 fanzine Domesday Book over the years. I suspect this has been driven by a perfectly natural tendency on the part of collectors to create a mystique about rarities in their possession - though really, I'm not pointing fingers here, and even if I were, I'd probably have to start by pointing at myself. People are also starting to get serious about the history of D&D, however, and this secrecy really is doing the historical community a disservice. I think we need to shatter a few myths and shed a bit of light here. I spent the better part of five years trying to assemble enough evidence to be able to say what really happened in the early history of role-playing games, and it was a near-constant process of discovering that widely-held beliefs are inconsistent with documentary evidence.

So, to kick off with some heresy, I don't think the Domesday Book is very important as a historical resource.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

After completing a seven-hundred-page book, an author can only feebly protest that there was not sufficient space to include all points of interest on the matter. The argument weakens further when the subject lies within the realm of popular culture, and still further when it is games. To have reached such an unnatural girth, any work on so light a subject must have been stuffed with superfluities, and if any digressions landed on the cutting room floor, for that readers should give thanks.

Playing at the World is not free of sidetracks, but as a history of wargames and role-playing games, it raises only the scaffold of a narrative, the barest support structures necessary to give the course of events a foundation and a shape. It relies only sparingly on visual illustrations. It anchors facts in a source, but rarely in a chorus of corroboration.

Work of such intensity and duration builds a momentum, and carries the author forward even when the text must become fixed for release. To glide the author gently to a halt, to clear his cutting room floor, to collect the inevitable corrections and to give more definition to the unworthy scaffold, this blog will present additional matters of interest in the history of simulating wars, people and fantastic adventures.