- Paperback: 720 pages
- Publisher: Unreason Press; 2nd edition (August 1, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0615642047
- ISBN-13: 978-0615642048
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.6 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 66 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Playing at the World Paperback – August 1, 2012
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"A must-read for gaming geeks." - Wired
"Highly recommended for role-playing game enthusiasts." - Games Magazine
"The first serious history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons... there's much here to fascinate even readers with only a cursory interest in the game." - Village Voice
"Playing at the World is a must for gaming and popular culture history collections." - Midwest Book Review
"Playing at the World is the best book I've ever read about games and gaming - not the personalities that play, but the history of games. The author is an absolutely meticulous researcher, and you will learn more about where role-playing games came from than you ever knew before - because I did, and I was there at the beginning, and I still learned more!" - Tim Kask, early TSR employee and original editor of Dragon magazine
"If you are a roleplayer, or a gaming historian, or a fan of D&D, you have to read this book. That simple." - Jeff Grub, former TSR staff designer, author of Manual of the Planes
"I'm a bit embarrassed thinking of how many times I've talked about the history of D&D, thinking I knew the story - now I realize how little I knew. Playing at the World applies a higher standard of research than any other work on the history of role-playing games I've seen. Check out this awesome book!" - Peter Adkison, founder and former CEO of Wizards of the Coast, owner of Gen Con
"At long last, the cultural phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons gets the in-depth historical study it deserves in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. Here, compellingly told, is the fascinating story of the prehistory and origins of the first and greatest role-playing game, and how a group of unlikely American nerd-gods imagined something new and brought it into the world." - Lawrence Schick, editor Deities & Demigods, author of White Plume Mountain and Heroic Worlds
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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: [...]
Peterson lays out the origins of the hobby in exhaustive detail, while keeping it interesting and fresh through hundreds of pages. He covers pretty much every angle you could ask for: early wargaming history, rules iterations, popular fiction influences, you name it. For me, the most pleasant surprise was how interesting each and every topic was, as presented by Peterson. I have never been much interested in pulp fiction from the 50s, nor did I ever think I would care about hundred-year-old Prussian war simulations. And yet, the author writes about it all with such fervor and ecstatic detail, you can't help but get sucked in and fascinated.
The only reservation I have is that the physical copy is quite unwieldy: it's a massive brick of text and the layout could have been much cleaner. I found the large page size and tiny margins to be a bit imposing, and the Kindle version was a lot easier on the eyes. But I feel guilty even mentioning this, because the actual content is so far past amazing that it's worth the eyestrain, I promise. I seriously cannot recommend this book enough.
D&D was built on a foundation of many influences, but at the same time a true innovation greater than the sum of its parts. Peterson has made an exhaustive effort to disentangle all of the varied influences (fantasy & sci-fi, military wargaming, board-gaming, role playing psychology, strategy etc.) to convincingly identify the unique breakthrough. The true new thing developed in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was an open ended game based on each player building and advancing a character to identify with in repeated play. This character building element had not been done before and made gaming attractive to a much broader audience than serious gaming previously had. This aspect has appealed to millions of games and probably tens of millions in all of the various computer games that use this format.
One of the great parts of this book was it demonstrated how important the local community of gamers in St. Paul and Lake Geneva was toward the development of the campaign. The book illustrates the parallel development of like games in the UK which was retarded by the absence of a necessary critical mass of players.