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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extensive, comprehensive, fascinating
At some point in the late 60s and early 70s a handful of young wargaming geeks in Wisconsin and Minnesota - almost by accident - found a new way to create and explore imaginary worlds, realities and lives. It was like nothing they'd experienced before, bringing pleasures and excitements far beyond anything people normally associated with "gaming." In a few short years,...
Published 21 months ago by Dylan Horrocks

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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tome of Knowledge
At 720 pages in length and weighing enough to use in case of zombie apocalypse as a bludgeoning tool, Playing at the World is an immense book. it is filled with the history that examines how Dungeons and Dragons came to be, the strategy games that came before, and the utter lasting effect that all of these play experiences have on our media today. The author goes into...
Published 20 months ago by MailOrderNinja


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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extensive, comprehensive, fascinating, November 24, 2012
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At some point in the late 60s and early 70s a handful of young wargaming geeks in Wisconsin and Minnesota - almost by accident - found a new way to create and explore imaginary worlds, realities and lives. It was like nothing they'd experienced before, bringing pleasures and excitements far beyond anything people normally associated with "gaming." In a few short years, this new immersive fantasy experience spread from these tiny local wargame clubs to become an international phenomenon that changed the world.

Playing at the World is a study of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons (first published in 1974), and the birth of fantasy role-playing games. Like a methodical archaeologist, Peterson painstakingly uncovers D&D's origins in the theory and subculture of wargaming, in fantasy literature and fandom, and in the wider social context and subcultures of 1960s-70s America. For anyone interested in role-playing games (as a cultural phenomenon and as a narrative/world-simulation form), this book is an inexhaustible treasure trove of information and insights. The depth of Peterson's research is extraordinary and his prose style is confident and enjoyable (and the presentation, editing and design prove that self-publishing is no barrier to absolute professionalism). It's true that some casual readers may be put off by the (deliciously nerdy) comprehensiveness (Peterson is determined to identify and analyse every conceivable source for and influence on D&D's development), but for someone genuinely fascinated by the subject, that is merely another of the book's many pleasures.

But looking beyond the breadth and detail, there are plenty of important larger themes here, which Peterson does a better job of exploring than almost anyone else I've read on the topic. I've long felt that the rise of Dungeons & Dragons was a significant turning point in the culture: a shift in the content, structure and uses of fiction. D&D coalesced various emerging trends and brought them together to provide an imaginary experience that was immersive, exploratory and interactive - in effect providing a template for many of the wider cultural developments since. It offered a new kind of relationship to fictional stories and realities, one that I often think has come to dominate the contemporary world.

Peterson sees this too, and underlying much of this book is his search for a deeper understanding of what made such a shift possible and of what it might mean. He undertakes that search not by making sweeping generalisations or launching into academic cultural theory, but by methodically and fastidiously sifting through the detail: who said, wrote and did what when? And why? What did this mean to the people involved at the time? How was all this shaped by the context (both at the micro level of the Lake Geneva and Twin Cities wargaming scene of the early 70s, and also at the macro level of 1970s America)? Along the way - often in very quiet, subtle ways - Peterson draws out some rich and intriguing connections, resonances, meanings. I love this kind of historiography, where broad themes and profound insights emerge out of a careful nuanced reading of complex concrete factual details. It sometimes demands a degree of patient effort on the part of the reader but the rewards can be tremendous.

Add to that the pleasures of nostalgia (of which there's plenty to be enjoyed here) and personal drama (albeit less than some might like, thanks to Peterson's determination to be judicious and fair and avoid gossip), and Playing at the World is one of the most satisfying books I've read in a while. It was clearly an enormous task, and I'm very grateful to Peterson for what he has achieved. There will be more books by other authors on the invention of D&D, and there will be many more insights and pleasures to be enjoyed. But we should count ourselves lucky indeed to have such a thorough, carefully-researched, solidly written and thoughtful book among the first.

P.S. If Playing at the World leaves you hungry for more, Peterson also maintains a hugely enjoyable blog which extends his research into the minutiae of RPG history: [...]
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and Comprehensive, July 28, 2012
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
Full disclosure: The author and I have been friends since 1995; we met when I was in college. I had the pleasure of reading an early draft as well as the final version of the book.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in how modern board games, role playing games, and computer games came to be. The book traces the evolution of three separate ideas over centuries -- playing a role, games of chance, and fantastical fiction -- and shows how they crystallized into Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s. It's easy to underestimate the significance of this event: it is the progenitor of all role playing games today and therefore modern video games such as World of Warcraft, Halo, board games such as Descent, and card games such as Magic: The Gathering.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of Playing at the World is how it answers questions I'd never thought of, despite playing D&D since I was 7, questions which in retrospect are puzzling. Why are Clerics called Clerics? Why does the Magic-User spell list include Dimension Door and Mirror Image? Why do Thieves have the particular set of skills they do, and why is there Thieves' Cant? Why Hit Dice, Hit Points, and a d20? All of these details suggested a world which the early books only peripherally explained. Why is there an omnipotent Dungeon Master? By comprehensively examining the fantasy literature and the history of chance in gaming and wargames, the book is able to show the origins of each of these ideas and how they were combined in Dungeons and Dragons. More recently, places such as The Forge have examined the theory of role playing games, their types and abstractions, with tradeoffs between drama, game, and simulation, tensions which the book explores in the historic evolution of Prussian wargames and the RAND Corporation's work on the prisoner's dilemma during the Cold War.

Finally, the book includes an excellent investigation and explanation of the formation of TSR and the historic split between Gygax and Arneson, and how the circumstances of Gygax's first game of Blackmoor led to D&D's model of players with a Dungeon Master.

All in all, a fascinating and tremendously insightful read.

Philip Levis
Associate Professor
Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
Stanford University
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for anyone interested in the history of gaming, August 1, 2012
By 
JPD (Webster, NY) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
I received an advance copy of this book, immediately recognized its importance, asked our librarian to purchase two more copies, and began recommending it personally to many people. The author unearths and explores the deep history of wargames, role playing games, and simulations. I have not seen any other work on this subject that combines such in depth historical research with such a clear, pleasant writing style. Anyone interested in understanding the origins of these games, why these games assumed the forms they did, who the key developers were, and what impact they have on the games we play today (including video games) should read this book. These games are profoundly impacting the way we play, learn, and interact with one another today, and this book explains their origins.

It's not a quick read, but it's a supremely rewarding one. I highly recommend it.

Jon-Paul Dyson
Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games
Vice President for Exhibit Research and Development, National Museum of Play
The Strong
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Standard Work on RPG History, August 23, 2012
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
What an amazing book, it immediately becomes the gold standard on the history of roleplaying and war gaming. The sections on the 60's and 70's and development of such games as Dungeons & Dragons (soon to become the world's best selling game of any type in the 80s) is fascinating. Although the subject matter is a little niche, anyone interested in the history of gaming should enjoy this very well written and well-researched tome. Highest recommendation!
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tome of Knowledge, December 11, 2012
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
At 720 pages in length and weighing enough to use in case of zombie apocalypse as a bludgeoning tool, Playing at the World is an immense book. it is filled with the history that examines how Dungeons and Dragons came to be, the strategy games that came before, and the utter lasting effect that all of these play experiences have on our media today. The author goes into every facet in incredible depth with the most minute of details being brought to light. This is both the books greatest asset and it's weakest. To those seeking the origins of their favorite role playing game and want to know every little detail than this combination of knowledge will be an utter godsend. However, to those approaching from the outside in with an interest in the topic and the need to read a good book will be intimidated and put off by the sheer amount of content and it's delivery.

When Playing at the World grabs your interest it truly does with intriguing and little known facts that give us glimpses into the foundation of some of our favorite works. There are answers in this book to questions you didn't even know you wanted the answer to: until you read the question that is. Intriguing things like the naming of various classes, the idea of hit points and twenty sided dice, where the dungeon master steps in, what truly came before Dungeons and Dragons and who created it and why? All of these are answered in detail leaving no stone unturned. The amount of research alone that went into this book alone is impressive, but collecting it and combining it into a decently written book is downright awesome.

However, as I stated before the entry fee into such a glimpse into the history of our gaming culture is a high one indeed. The intro alone goes into such minutia that it becomes redundant, stating out in pages of information what you will read at a later time, detailing every chapter. There are times within the book that the writing become incredibly dry and is more attuned to reading the phone book than an interesting history written by an engaging author.

That being said there are also times where the book absolutely soars and the passion shown by Mr. Peterson absolutely shines through. These moments within the book, the ones that are interesting to read and provide incredible insight into a wonderful pasttime, make the read absolutely worth it. By the time you reach the end you'll be glad you stuck it out and all the more rich because of it.

Also, this book will come in super handy as a improvised bludgeoning tool if need be. Something for everyone!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Did the author read what I wrote?, June 12, 2013
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This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
I have this book on order and I think I will enjoy it from looking at the pages available online here.

However, on page 35, the author mentions me and an article I wrote for the May, 1966 issue of Avalon Hill's The General magazine. He mentions it in conjunction with his claim that gaming clubs were tiring a bit of AH's approach to "control" over gaming. The article had nothing to do with displeasure at AH but at the preponderance of "perfect plan" setups for games which other authors were discussing in the magazine. For a couple games, I noted that over 70% of the articles on each (85% for one of them) were on perfect setups. I was calling for more articles on general game play strategy.

My "is it all over for AH" article title was intended to grab attention as I was concerned that, if the trend in articles kept up, we might find fewer people wanting to play for fear of losing quickly and not getting much enjoyment out of the social aspect. I did not mention the latter, but my feeling behind writing the article had that sentiment though I could not properly recognize/verbalize it at the time. However, the intent of my article was easy to determine if one actually read it and it was not about AH "bashing."

So I am rating the book lower than I might because of the accuracy of something I know about and how I feel it is misrepresented in the book. It remains to be seen if there are any more such things. I doubt I found the only such thing in the book, though.

There does seem to have been a lot of effort and research done, and other things I read do ring true. So I don't believe I will be sorry I have ordered the book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding book on gaming and the figures behind it!, August 28, 2012
By 
M. Winn (Wisconsin, USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
Jon Petersen has done an excellent job detailing role-playing games, their origins, the people involved and their respective contributions and ideas. This is an amazing resource and very well documented. The time and research spent compiling historical sources, letters, fanzines etc. is very commendable and comprehensive. Clocking in at 700 pages, this will take some time to read all the way through but well worth your time if you are interested in the origins of role-playing games and Dungeons and Dragons. I can't recommend this enough. It is THE definitive book out there and the author is worthy of accolades for researching and publishing this for the enjoyment of gamers everywhere. Easily a five star effort, what are you waiting for? Buy it now!
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This will become *the* definitive text for the early history of RPGs, August 17, 2012
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
Author Jon Peterson was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new book Playing at the World, which bears the wordy subtitle of "A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Games".

In a word, if you have any interest in the early history of Dungeons and Dragons, wargaming, Gary Gygax, or role-playing games in general, buy this book now.

I am an historian by training and avocation. I'm used to reading large books filled with footnotes. I like reading large books filled with footnotes. And this book is that. But it reads lightly, and for me, who thought he had a passing familiarity with the subject matter, this book is a revelation. The level of detail is simply astounding, and in uncovering all of the salient facts of the state of gaming in the 1960's and 1970's that led to the advent of Dungeons and Dragons, Jon Peterson does something that warms the cockles of my heart. It's exactly what I do when digging into some obscure piece of lore, whether it be related to the World of Greyhawk or Norse mythology.

He relies on primary sources.

The importance of that fact cannot be understated. One of the great achievements of this book is that it doesn't rely on the memories and reminisces of those people involved. Peterson double-checks every date, every assertion, and every faded memory against the actual text of the myriad of fanzines, club newsletters, magazines, and other primary documents of the period (the tale of how he amassed such a treasure-trove is probably worthy of a story unto itself). He also cross-references this material against other works that claim to give histories of the period and material involved, and often enough points out where they are contradicted by the actual sources.

It's a phenomenal achievement. If you are interested in the history of RPGs, you must get this book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You don't need to have played D&D to enjoy this book, September 12, 2012
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I've never seen the game or played D&D, but am immensely interested in the intellectual and social history, development, and future evolution of successful simulation games. This book had me irrevocably hooked after the very accessible preface/forward/intro and 2 chapters. Very readable, both new and rescued in-depth content, respect for the subject and the reader. Since others have already adequately and accurately reviewed the quality of the information included, I can only add, that even if you're not a D&D player, this book is a don't miss scholarly work about game development, and as important to me, a quite enjoyable read.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful in some areas, worthless in others., September 26, 2012
This review is from: Playing at the World (Paperback)
Jon Peterson has written a huge, very ambitious tome. As far as historical data goes, the work is incredibly devoted, including almost-unnecessary minutiae, but there is good reason to include it all, in order to give credit where due and to debunk myths in other places. The author has done a massive amount of work to provide as much information as possible.

However, the minute Peterson starts speaking of the influence of rules on play, narrative, and especially immersion, the fact that he is almost totally ignorant of existing research shows through. I therefore found the book very valuable (5 stars) on some parts, harmfully oblivious on others (barely even one star).

For anything beyond exacting details of the early years, Michael J. Tresca's "The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games" is the weapon of choice. For the precise history of how and why it all began (and that alone), Peterson's absolutely great.
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Playing at the World
Playing at the World by Jon Peterson (Paperback - August 1, 2012)
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