Jon Peterson is the author of Playing the world, widely regarded as the definitive story of Dungeons and dragons, as well as co-author of visual history Dungeons and dragons: art and arcana and the D&D recipe book Heroes Day. In his new book, The elusive change, he explores how D&D and similar products have been called “role playing games”.
“This is the story of who the people who picked these games were and saw this ‘role-playing’ property in them, and how that label first got attached, and what people thought. that it meant, “says Peterson in episode 446 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast.
Studying Dungeons and dragons is not all the fun and games. Peterson spent five years writing The elusive change, which includes 16 pages of footnotes and quotes over 50 fanzines, many of which are rare collector’s items.
“It’s a pretty crisp book,” he says. “Compared to things I’ve worked on like Art and arcana and Heroes DayI would say it’s a lot less accessible. It is published by MIT Press. It targets the very, very hardcore audience that loves RPGs a lot more. If you’re designing RPGs I think it’s potentially interesting, but it’s probably not for casual readers.
Dungeons and dragons was originally released as a “wargame,” but became a “role-playing game” a few years later due to its character-driven free-form nature. Debates over the ‘right’ way to play have become increasingly moving, with writers like Douglas P. Bachmann arguing that D&D could help guide players on a real spiritual quest. “You don’t see people looking at a wargame and claiming it gives you access to the Fairy Kingdom, which this guy said,” Peterson said.
The greatest debate took place between the wargamers, who saw Dungeons and dragons as a strategy and success game, and for fantasy and sci-fi fans, who saw it as a space to tell stories and try out different personalities. Peterson notes that despite the endless ink spilled on such arguments, they remain ongoing.
“I guess the goal of The elusive change is to show how these tensions have been incorporated into the role-playing games from the start, and they will probably never see a satisfying and definitive solution that will work for everyone, ”he says.
Listen to Jon Peterson’s full interview in Episode 446 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Jon Peterson on Dungeons and dragons: art and arcana:
“I had never done anything like this [book tour]. We were at Pixar. They were working on Forward then, who has this huge RPG component, and so it was really cool talking to them, and they really engaged with us on that. We were at Lucasfilm, we were at Google and just a lot of good bookstores. … Maybe it was a bit exhausting. We bounced back a bit that week, across the country. It was like being in a group. Our friend Joe manganiello, who wrote the foreword to Art and arcana, to this Death Saves company that makes heavy metal streetwear, and so he made us a tour t-shirt that listed all of our tour dates on the back.
Jon Peterson on Heroes Day:
“In the early 1980s, TSR, which then published Dungeons and dragons, they were licensing everyone, and they decided to Oscar mayer– like in Oscar Mayer’s sausages – and so they let them produce D&D branded meat products. It was only for the European public so these were available in Spain mainly and that included bacon. There was that Dungeons and dragons branded bacon they sold there. Internally, TSR staff called it “orc bacon”. … And so I was like, ‘OK, we have to have some orc bacon. There’s no way we don’t have orc bacon in this book. We will find a way to do it. ”
Jon Peterson on RPG rules:
“The more you believe that there is a deterministic world that is responsible for assembling the things that the referee describes to you, that there is a model nailed down, it helps you not always to hesitate, not to always be uncertain. why events happen, because you experience them the same way you experience a real world, where there are physical laws and physical rules our brains are used to. And bumping into something that looks like that, whether it’s total papier mache or a well thought out system, we just have to bump into something that looks like that for us to believe in the fantasy.
Jon Peterson on the role-playing game:
“When I played a lot of Vampire: the masqueradeI had a friend, and he and I used to walk around Boston in the wee hours of the morning, and whatever we saw we sorted out in the dark world. Anyone we saw, we speculated if they were a vampire and what clan they belonged to. All the buildings that we saw, we were saying, “The Ventrues obviously live here. If we saw a manhole, we would be talking about Nosferatu. These are things that are just starting to permeate the way we perceive reality. Now I don’t mean that in the sense of child steam tunnel, that we weren’t sure if these games were real or not, but they kind of shaped that conceptual dimension that helps you understand reality in a more interesting way.