Monday, 14 October 2019

Anything May be Attempted - Jon Petersons 'Playing at the World'

First - my ridiculous Gawain poetry Kickstarter is this close to the finish line and has 17 days left


Playing at the World

"On March Fifteenth Nineteen Seventy Two, at approximately six fifty eight A.M. Gary E. Gygax rose from his bed in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in the United States of America (more commonly referred to as the "U.S.A.") and got to his feet: knobbled bony handlike appendages which he found at the end of his two legs, a profile typical of the bipedal longitudinally symmetrical biostructure he had inherited from his humanoid species-plan.

As Gary opened each of his twin eyes (orblike lumisensing organs packed with transparent gel and complex molecular packages responding to varying wavelengths of electromagnetic energy focused through the flexing lenses at the front of each "eye" - as discussed in Chapter 5.7), his brain (a hand-sized chunk of supermeat clamped in his cranial structure, see chapters 10.56,10.57, 10.58 & 10.59), incorporated near real-time sensory information from a layered spectrum of embodied biotransmitters with a long-term reality-orientation memory matrix (product of the processes of "childhood" and "culture", as to be discussed in later chapters) with a so-far un-analysed ghosting reiswitzian meta-cognitive entity bearing the hallmark of consciousness.

Gary was now in the state 20th Century American Humans would commonly refer to as wakefulness, and he was about to receive a series of timed electromagnetic pulses, not from his immediate senses, as we have previously discussed (see above text), but transmitted via a copper-cored vulcanised tube at the speed of light and re-coded by in-situ solid-state mass-produced 20th century technology into coherent wave of sound which Garys audio-sensing organs would transmit to his comprehending heuristic mind. This would in turn, rapidly meta-cognate the analogue pattern of that signal into that of a voice.

Not the voice of another American human entity in the same three-dimensional space as Gygax, but a signal from an equally-alive equivalent human male named Dave Arneson, who was real, but far away.

"Gary" the biotechnological hypersignal resolved within Gygaxes metacognitive array "I've kind of invented D&D but I'm a massive flake."

"Don't worry Dave." Gygax replied, in a pattern all-too typical of his species, culture and socioeconomic matrix, "I have contracts for that"."


The above is not from Jon Petersons book "Playing at the World", but it does describe the feeling of reading it. Get ready for the Kung-Fu info-spike from the Matrix, except it’s not about Kung Fu and Peterson won't turn it off.


Guys, we’ve invented wargaming culture – LETS ACT LIKE NAZIS FOR FUN;

"However, despite the best intentions of the staff, the community that emerged from the "Opponents Wanted" column proved more confrontational than Avalon Hill intended...

.... it was not long before "Opponents Wanted" featured ads that flaunted a "SIEG HEIL!" to lure indignant opponents into battle. Clubs emerged with names like "Fourth Reich", entire advertisements appeared in German and protestations of invincibility became hyperbolic. The staff of The General quickly downplayed any literal interpretation of these neo-Nazi blurbs, noting that "chest-beating before battle has a sound historical basis; it’s been a human trait since the dawn of time and is found in many cultures."



I didn't buy this myself, instead I was given it by a Doctor of Mathematics who was unable to get past the initial chapters.

"I feel like it’s trying to kill me with detail." he said.

There are several books inside this book, only a few of which are the book you probably thought you were getting.

None of these books are bad. Much of what they say in extremely interesting. But there are a lot of them. And they are dense. Collectively they do probably about as much as any single human could do to trace every single idea, event and concept that lead up to, and out from, the creation of Dungeons and Dragons.

In doing this, Peterson goes from a history of D&D, which may have been what he started with, to effectively writing the first book in what will probably be a multi-volume history of complex, organised parallel play-worlds.

Chapter One: A Prelude to Adventure (1964-1974)

The 'Main Story' the socio-cultural and ludic immediate background that informed the creators of D&D. What you probably thought you were getting.

Chapter Two: Setting - The Medieval Fantasy Genre.

A Sub-Tome going deep into the development of the Fantasy genre, largely set within the 20th Century where the phrase 'Fantasy Genre' starts to make meaningful sense to describe something.

Chapter Three: System - The Rules of the Game.

A Sub-Tome following every. single. rule. in D&D and trying to trace its intellectual evolution, which usually goes back to Kriegspiel, which itself traces itself back to chess and yes we do go all the way back to chess.

Chapter Four: Character - Roles and Immersion.

A kind of combination of the 'main story' about the creation of D&D, with a subject-based book about the growth of role-playing and shared paracosms in the West. Because this growth was focused around the same period as the mid-to-late 20th century, and because it really amped up in the same time and social circle as Gygax & Co, it also forms a kind of parallel but merging tale to the main theme. This is also the bit with some of the freakiest factoids. Fritz Lieber with a sword yo.

Chapter Five: The Dawn of Role-Playing (1974-1977)

We are back to the main series with a thrilling, and typically, detailed, blow-by-blow of the beginnings of D&D and its first few years of existence. DRAMA.

Epilogue: Role-Playing and Reality

Peterson, slavering at the mouth and let loose from any overstructure, goes wild like a Mink in a henhouse and desperately tries to squeeze another entire book into the epilogue, this one about the beginnings of electronic simulated computer worlds. His editors raise their shield-wall and, focusing a shotgun on the whites of his rabid eyes, bravely force him to actually end this book before publishing another one inside it like a wasp-egg in a caterpillar.

Selected Bibliography:

About twenty five pages of stuff that I did not read.

It is a very huge book which defeats, easily, the capacity of my memory to comprehend it perfectly, as a whole. That is something of a waste as I am certain, to Peterson, every single piece of information was entirely relevant to his total argument and process of discovery. He is essentially writing the history of this massively encultured cognitive form and process of human parallel world creation and mutual inhabitation and he is trying to get as close as he possibly can to comprehending the whole thing or at least as much as can be discovered.

I cannot tell you about the whole of the book, all I can do is take you on a handful of paths through it, winding my way through, if not a ruin, then an intimidatingly large palace.


If you’ve played a lot of wargames and never cried – you are LYING;

"Geddes spent most of his spare time for several years in elaborating this game, ending up with a 45-page book explaining the rules... Thirty minutes of play constituted the equivalent of a day's fighting; during the 20's, Geddes and his friends played it every Wednesday from eight in the evening until midnight. Some wars lasted two or three years... The game occasionally took a tragic turn. Rear Admiral William B.Fletcher, long a regular player, lost eight capital ships one night and was so humiliated that he never returned. Another friend, after being court-martialled one evening for losing an entire army, lay on a sofa and cried."



Inherent to D&D is a powerful and unavoidable polarity in role-playing between centralised systematisation and individual creation. This is a Faultline Gygax found himself sitting right on top of but versions of it may have existed right back to Reiswitz.

Once a handful of people have played a few games of D&D, they really don't need to buy a lot of extra crap, or even more copies of the rules. It calls out to be modified and added to and people start doing this immediately on its publication, some of them after only hearing about the existence of the game.

So this is one end of the polarity - D&D as a form of folk art, made by individuals and social groups for those particular individuals and social groups. Independent, anarchistic and freeeeeee.

At the other end is D&D as both a product and a coherent system of rules, owned, distributed and publicised by a central authority.

The game as it exists in reality, continually draws energy from both ends of this irresolvable polarity.

In terms of Capital; by managing to turn D&D into a product something which could be owned, Gygax almost certainly added a huge amount of energy and drive to its existence and growth.

The money D&D makes goes into paying Gygax & Co, and it also goes back into printing more D&D, advertising it, spreading it, evangelising and proselytising it. This feedback loop acts as a kind of cultural amplifier. Once there is a corporate entity with a direct interest in maximising the growth of the product, it’s like having a tiger draw your chariot. It may be terrifying and destructive and occasionally eat people but holy fuck it goes fast.

Imagining the growth of D&D if it was only ever a hobby, without capital feedback loop to drive it, I think it might come close to barely existing at all. I think there would be a mild sheen of low-level RPG-like systems growing from the 70's on, but nothing like what we have now.

But more realistically, something other-but-equivalent would have taken that space as, Peterson strongly argues, (or more truthfully, his evidence seems to argue) it was very much "steam engine time" for D&D.

In terms of System; systematisation annihilates individuality, and it is open, and largely fair.

The same wave of sameness which rolls over much of the nascent RPG scene, which turns everything into D&D and which tries as hard as it can to make sure everyone is playing something like the same kind of D&D, is also fundamentally democratic and levelling. Everyone gets the same predictable experience and ruleset which everyone can understand equally and use equally and which is open to almost everyone in exactly the same way.

This reminds me a lot of the simultaneous beauty and horror of modernism, and of the terror-love of watching singular languages wash over and annihilate smaller in-nation languages and multilingual culture.

It’s awful and monstrous, because it’s the annihilation of human cultural diversity and of individual ways of looking at the world, of peoples particularity, character, ways of thought and experience, and all over a huge and tragic loss for humanity as a whole.

And it’s very fair.

Multi-lingual societies, after all, must by-necessity favour multi-lingual individuals, which almost always means middle-class people with the free time and free cognitive resources to learn multiple languages.

And in layered societies where people speak different languages, people have differing access to the law, to the processes of government, to the language of employers, to the varying languages of different kinds of power. People are secret to each other.

But annihilate that and everyone from every level of society and from every culture group and every ethnic group all speak the same language which is understood in the broadly same way, so everyone reads the same rules and speaks the same language as the judge and their lawyer and can, if they want to, read the same newspaper, scientific paper, books, menus, instructions.

So Gygax-D&D spreads across the U.S. meeting, consuming and in some sense, annihilating many pre-existing paracosms, and making them all fair. Because everyone knows what D&D is, and how it should be played, because TSR will tell you what it is and Gary will tell you how to play it. And this opens up the possibility of interaction between wide varieties of different people to a staggering degree.

Issues like this seem to exist right at the start of wargaming, with the first theoreticians making boutique gaming sets for princes, because only they can afford them. Kriegspiel is spread through the Prussian military as its expensive and complicated enough that it really takes a governmental organ and pre-existing structure to afford it.

Things become mass-culture when they become product. When they can be owned, sold and replicated, this simple process of replication, to a mass market, is what allows something to become a cultural element of a democratic largely-level society.

Many, many, many people invent bits and pieces of wargaming and role-playing before D&D exists and primary reasons for them not exploding into “D&D” is because they are not systematised and are very hard to sell.

At least one British fantasy wargamer proto-roleplayer opens up their ruleset for democratic review, so each rule is voted on and brought into consensus. This takes so long, and so many editions of the zine they are publishing through, that they Tristiam Shandy their own game and it never starts.

The beauty and monstrousness of authority, systemisation and capital is at the heart of Dungeons and Dragons and it is something which I think cannot be resolved. This is the most human of possible games, it calls most deeply upon the widest range of human expression experience and interpretation, more than almost any other game. It is a highly personal game. It is warm. You don't need a company or a product to run it. And it is tied by an uncuttable umbilical cord to exactly those nightmare processes of alienation which dehumanise our world.


Early west-coast Paracosm culture starts to get weeeird;

"For fans susceptible to its peculiar allure, however, Coventry seemed to offer a veritable reinvention of fandom, a deeper level of engagement in which fans literally became characters in a science fiction story. Pelz exemplified this radical interpretation of Coventry. He wore a Bruziver of Heorot costume to LASFS club meetings, and sometimes even on public streets. To many outsiders it seemed that the core Coventranians never left character - a difficult charge to refute, given that everyone in Coventry assumes the role of their resurrected future selves.

Pelz openly hypothesized about "using hypnosis and drugs to actually put the mind into a preselected fantasy world (e.g. Coventry], and maybe even leave it there," a project which he called "Operation Flip-Back" - which along with other perceived excesses of Coventry, provoked a backlash from the community. The reaction began early in 1961 with the appearance of "We, the Guardian," a character controlled by an anonymous player, and one not to be confused with the guardians inhabiting the Krell underworld in Stabery's canonical account.

This guardian attacked the canon of Coventry, and more particularly ridiculed the notion that anyone old enough to participate in fandom would find a game of "Lets Pretend" compelling.

To emphasise these points, the Guardian brought his propaganda into the real world - culminating in an incident involving the appearance of the Guardian Symbol (a stylized blue trident) at the USC library, and more disturbingly, the defacement of a driveway and sidewalk outside of Stabery's home with anti-Coventry graffiti."



A benefit, and something Peterson would (probably) be pleased about his obsession with detail is that by following all the many and varied intellectual filaments that lead to D&D he gives us a picture of the nobility of human culture.

Everything is based on what has come before. Role-Playing, or at least, systemic, replicable game-based roleplaying like D&D, needs a massive intellectual and cultural superstructure to feed off.

In its rules its essentially adapted from wargaming, which has its own deep history, and reaches back to a somewhat abandoned concept of the Umpire, a human mind which knows the 'rules' and whom governs the imagined world. It’s this existence of a human mind, an Umpire, which means that "anything can be attempted"

"In order to manage this world, the dungeon master keeps maps and notes, but the credibility of the world depends on the dungeon masters imagination and wits, the manner in which the unexpected is resolved. A player can always peek underneath a cabinet, insult a local fisherman or set fire to the forest. Through this collaboration, the players and referee can become so immersed in the world that events flow naturally, details leap to mind spontaneously, rather than from the prepared page. Where does this world come from? It seems to be fundamentally the same as the literary worlds created by authors, simple an impulse of human imagination. While the improvisational nature of characters and scenarios is rarely as honed or polished as literature, players manage to fill in the details for themselves, or settle contradictions naturally, as if acting in a fictional world were something innate in human nature."

Though, as Peterson points out later on, this isn't really tactical infinity as its still based on the capacities of mutually-comprehending human minds, but it is Human Tactical Maximum.

On the various strolls through Wargaming we come across Robert Louis Stevenson, HG Wells and (later in the Paracosm section) the Bronte siblings. And if you want to read a comic about all these people playing Warhammer against each other, boy does Kieron Gillen have a pitch for you!


The Victorian Nobility literally cosplay as their former selves;

"In 1839 however, the feudal establishment experienced a fleeting resurgence when Sir Archibald Montgomeries, the 13th Earl of Eglington in Scotland, announced a chivalric tournament, one largely intended to compensate for the many honours the aristocracy lost in Victoria’s coronation - the Earls stepfather, not coincidentally, would have held the prestigious position of Knight Marshal in those ceremonies had they transpired.

Under the influence of Sir Walter Scotts Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1815), as well as the same Gothic stories that captivated the Brote children around a decade after, Eglington hoped to restore chivalric values to their rightful place, and to demonstrate that the noble stock of the British Isles still instantiated the same virtues espoused by the medieval epics. The tournament conformed to medieval tradition as best as its designers understood it: young noblemen of the day equipped themselves with arms and steeds for jousting, while noble ladies donned sumptuous garments and paired themselves with champions who would fight in their name. Training for the event took the better part of a year, as the employment of thse arms hardly came naturally to the idle rich of early modern Europe.

The young knights adopted personae that might have some straight out of Spenser: The Earl of Craven, for example, styled himself as the knight of the Griffin, Viscount Alford as the Knight of the Black Lion, the Marquess of Waterford as the Knight of the Dragon. While staying at Eglington Castle in preparation for the event, the Knights were obligated to call one another by these pseudonyms, which apparently occasioned the few jests: the Knight of the White Rose, the joke went, ran the risk of turning pink after consuming s surfeit of claret."


For its cultural strata, D&D is a 20th century fantasy Gumbo, which is based on Sword and Sorcery, Tolkien, Comics and a range of other stuff. These things themselves drew from 19th century popular culture and so-on.

For its role playing and embodiment D&D draws upon the ambient paracosms of the in-vitro U.S. zine scene, and on the game Diplomacy, which itself draws on the RAND corporation. RAND gave itself the job of wargaming for the U.S. military. The existence of the Atom Bomb made most of its wargames somewhat pointless (one individual suggests modelling the effect of a tactical nuke by bringing a hand grenade to the wargame and throwing it onto the table).

Searching for a model for its simulations, RAND strips more and more rules out and makes its sims less and less tactical. They end up with nerds in rooms pretending to be Presidents and nations, communicating via letter with central nerds plying the role of global Dungeon Master. Again, the simulation becomes mind-to-mind and again "anything may be attempted"

The point here is that all of these tiny individual, and individually flawed roots, these minor tragedies and small personal dramas, great ambitions, bankruptcies, friendship groups and odd ideas, all of them are necessary. All of these people were building something together.

That's not the only thing they were doing, it’s not that the existence of D&D justifies the existence of the Brote siblings or the RAND corporation, but that the intellectual superstructure they created added to the world and made new things possible.

This may be true of all things, but Petersons obsessive, relentless and sometimes headbanging attention to, and obsession with, detail, SHOWS us this in irrefutable truth. You may pick up any thread of thought and follow its individual development back as far as records show. He is not just stating an idea, he makes the case in inarguable terms no jury could deny. After all, he has the recrods.

There is something fundamentally, and blindly, noble about this great, and specific, accumulation of human thought and imagination. Things don't always necessarily improve but human culture does make new things possible.


As promised, Fritz Lieber, with a sword;

"The SCA did some amount of early proselytizing outside the Bay Area, most notably at WesterCon 20 in Los Angeles, where they formed the first ties with LASFS. Marion Zimmer Bradley serves as the guest of honour at the convention banquet. _Tournaments Illuminated #3_ reported on "a fascinating fight between Siegfried von Hofflichkeit and Fritz Leiber, who must be approaching sixty" years old, attributing to Lieber "an ability with standard sabre that is sheer joy to watch" as well as unusual proficiency fighting "broadsword to broadsword with no shields" against his younger opponent. The writer Harlan Ellison also fared well in the tournament that day, though the Bay Area veterans, including Poul Anderson, dominated the finals."


  1. Hi Patrick, glad you finally got a chance to check this book out! What you write about here on the sensation of it being this document of an ultra-diffuse, blind attempt by many humans to build, define and explore the same thing, or variations of it, with all the trivialities and incidental details being crucial to that process, is exactly how I felt when reading it - and I think you're right that it perhaps wasn't the intention. I wonder if there's a relationship between the often indiscriminate minutiae of some actual play reports - events containing scattered character motivations, banal lists of treasure accumulated, order of limbs chopped off, etc etc, and the way Peterson writes. Your thoughts on the centralising power of D&D and the necessary acceleration it granted is a very nice take which I hadn't really considered before. If you ever have more to write about PatW I'd be very happy to read it.

    1. Thanks very much. There is so much to write about though that its hard to pick out one single strand.

      The classic Intovert/Extrovert thing with Arneson and Gygax, with Arneson essentially inventing the core of the thing and Gygax building the culture and the company is fascinating.

  2. Fantastic book. Read it cover to cover & loved every minute of it, even when it required effort. Maybe because it required effort at times. I wish he did a follow up history of RPGs for the 80s & 90s.

    1. It seemed at the end like he was building up to another book.

  3. Great post. This might be my second favourite of yours after that weird ostritch photo one.

    1. What is the link to that ostrich one? I can't find it.


    3. The greatest blog post known to the OSR.

  4. I love this book and have read it cover to cover twice. I am seriously considering reading it a 3rd time. I felt the last chapter was the weakest.