Saturday, December 26, 2020

REVIEW: Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity (2020)

REVIEW

Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, US$35.00.

Did you think that there was an original Dungeons & Dragons style of play that can be recaptured and revived?

Did you think that D&D (or Blackmoor, or Braunstein) was the first game in which players adopted individual imaginary roles described by numerical statistics for ongoing campaigns?

Did you think that the first role-playing games were only one step away from tabletop wargames, and that storytelling and acting out a role were secondary developments in role-playing games, and possibly even untrue to the original concept?

If you have thought any of these things, you need to read this excellent book, which demonstrates in 310 pages, with a gentle, witty tone, that all of these views are false--although the book is not written as a corrective, to its merit. It nevertheless does so on the basis of irrefutable primary sources, including plenty of first-person player accounts and a bunch of obscure early role-playing games, some scarcely heard of even when published, that the author has carefully examined over years of study.

Jon Peterson presents a thoughtful, learned, well-researched study synthesizing and explaining what the first players of fantasy role-playing games thought they were doing and what it all meant. The focus of the book is on the years 1975 to 1980, the first period of wild experimentation after the appearance of D&D. This was when players went right through the gateway of D&D and created something bigger: FRP, "fantasy role-playing." Readers who want to know about the emergence of D&D itself should read Peterson's much denser book Playing at the World (2012). The Elusive Shift, by contrast, is an account rather about what the first fantasy role-players thought their games meant and the explosion of creative experimentation that ensued.

The account begins with earlier context, with wargames of the '60s that already included role-playing individual characters. The epilogue discusses games and their designers in the '80s. The focus of most of the book, however, is specifically the late '70s. That focus is the key to the book's effectiveness, combining little-known sources to reveal the exhilaration of the first players of the new form of entertainment and their divided opinions and drawn-out debates about what fantasy role-play could be and should be.

The book succeeds wonderfully in its goal. Peterson's unmatched knowledge of early RPG zines and other sources from the period is clearly based on carefully scrutinizing thousands of pages of materials from the '70s, often badly typed and faded, as well as materials from before and after. This is a lot of work but Peterson makes it look effortless, moving fluently from one gamer's personal account to another, tying together the threads of their discussions, lightly assembling for us the dramatis personae of the first RPG philosophers who wrote to each other beyond their local play-groups, noting who was responding to whom in each instance. The reader can easily follow the first evolution of debates about just what role-playing games were and players' hopes and fears for their destiny.

The book does not aim at larger historical context. It deals with English-language materials only, which makes sense of the period in question. Something similar might be done for the reception of role-playing games in other languages, though non-English receptions will probably post-date the early period in which fans and not game corporations called the shots. The world awaits such studies. Other large-scale factors such as economic considerations and broader cultural tendencies are not mentioned. The strength of the book is its close focus on the personal views of the gamers who first documented their D&D games and who created and developed house rules, variant systems, and the first fully-fledged separate games that moved beyond D&D. This was the elusive shift that players sensed underway, but could not pin-point: when D&D gave way to an entirely new field of immersive social entertainment, and when participants in that new form of entertainment found themselves stumbling on something more profound and affecting than the games they had known before. But what was it? A new form of art, a new form of performance, of collective story-telling, of psychological self-revelation? Or was it merely a problem-solving game blended with strategy played through tokens given personal names? From the start, thoughtful players acknowledged that this was something thrilling and radically new, but they could not agree on what it was. This book explains those debates, as far as players back then documented them, before role-playing games became an industry.

The Elusive Shift fills an especially significant hole in RPG hobby lore that is otherwise lost in old limited-edition zines and similar scrappy, sometimes literally crumbling materials unavailable to most today. For decades, the same philosophical issues in gaming have been debated over and over, but a fun past-time hobby like this lacks institutions of the kind needed to transmit complex theoretical and historical knowledge of early cutting-edge ideas. Combine this with the tendency for experienced players to teach their new players that their way is "the right way," and we are left stuck in hobby-wide amnesia. I would add to this another factor not discussed by Peterson: the effectiveness of TSR and the RPGA, both instruments of Gary Gygax in the early '80s, in controlling the narrative of what role-playing games were supposed to be, a narrative that newbies absorbed as foundational. With successful marketing in the first commercial boom of D&D, Gygax's concepts eclipsed the immediately prior, often brilliant and experimental independent fan-created ideas of the first players. Peterson does explicitly discuss this generation gap, showing how even in the early '80s new players were debating afresh the same issues that had been thoroughly discussed just a few years before, in the late '70s--but there was nobody to tell the newcomers how it had gone. The seasoned players of the first wave were mostly aloof from the "munchkins," their disdainful term for RPG newbies around 1980. Accordingly, they did not transmit well their realizations and arguments. Ever since, players have been reinventing the wheel with each new wave of newcomers, and they continue to do so today. The Elusive Shift should go some way toward undoing the effects of this amnesia for the present.

The book will not tell you, nor does it intend to tell you, how to play in a purported original way, but rather proves decisively that there was no single original play-style. Peterson rightly argues (p. 218) that "the radical pluralism of approaches to role-playing games demonstrates the futility of trying to define or optimize such a diverse practice," and (p. 280) "Attempts to recapture some single originalist philosophy of role-playing games... will therefore always be representative of only half the story of how these games were played by the first adopters." Read the book to find out why that is true. On the way you will encounter ideas for play once taken seriously but now forgotten, or that you thought of before but never dared to try, or that you thought meant one thing but can be used to mean another. This reviewer's sense is that role-playing game play-styles at large today are, generally, much more homogenized than they were in those first years. Has anything been lost? That depends on the individual player and player group, and matter of preferences which is at least as elusive as the shift named in the title of this book.

Anybody interested in the history of role-playing games must read this book. Anybody interested in what is happening when we play role-playing games must read this book. Peterson has done a great service to players and historians alike.

Monday, December 7, 2020