The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow University, in collaboration with the univeristy’s Games Lab, have run an online event about the origins and history of Dungeons and Dragons. It was fun, and really heartwarming to see so many young people who love RPGs watching the event. As history, however, it could have been better. That’s one of the things about having been there when it happened. You remember stuff.
John D Rateliff, who was the principal speaker, used to work for TSR, and for the company we tend to refer to as Wizards of the Cost, so he knows his stuff. But he didn’t start playing D&D until 1980 so he missed a lot of the frenzy of development in the early years. Heck, Runequest was two years old by then.
Rateliff did mention a book by Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift, which chronicles the early history of the hobby with some reference to fanzines. A quick scan through shows that the fanzines referenced were mostly American (many of them from Bruce Pelz’s collection), but I did see a few names that I recognised. Peterson does mention postal Diplomacy quite a lot, and En Garde!, all of which is very familiar.
When it comes down to it, there are basically only two main debates about RPGs. The first one is about whether the game should be set in a closed world (e.g. a game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or on the Arthurian legends), or in an open one where GMs are free to create their own world. D&D started off open-ended, went through a phase where the owners were trying to lock people in, and has now apparently gone back to being open-ended again. Given that Tékumel is older than D&D, you can argue that this debate has been raging from the start. I was pleased to see Rateliff cite flexibility as D&D‘s key selling point. Back in the 1970s we all used say that we played “D&D“, even though most of us had tossed those first edition rulebooks and made up our own rules.
The other main debate, which has absolutely been with us from the start, is the narrative v rules debate. Those on the narrative side see the game as what we used to called Improvised Freeform Theatre (a term I think Paul Mason may have coined), and the rule-players see it as a form of wargame where knowledge of the rules is crucial to success. I’m delighted to see that the young gamers at the event were pretty much all on the narrative side. Maybe that’s because all of the rules-players have gone off to do Warhammer.
Rateliff, who is a highly-respected fantasy fiction scholar, was very solid on the fictional roots of the game. He seemed to know a bit less about the wargaming side. I was a bit surprised to see no mention of Tony Bath’s legendary Hyboria campaign. But the two elements have always been side-by-side. I bought my first D&D set thanks to an ad in one of my father’s copies of Minature Wargames. I played my first game thanks to friends who had discovered it through the Tolkien Society at St. Andrews.
With all this academic interest in roleplaying, I hope that someone will one day write a history of the early days of the hobby in the UK. Most of us are still alive. They could interview Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Marc Gasgoine and so on, and a lot of us hobbyists.
In the meantime, you can watch tonight’s show below: