12 June 2015

History lesson: a review of Designers & Dragons

If you love something you want to learn the history of it. When I bought by first Police album (Synchronicity back in 1983) I knew nothing of them except that Every Breath You Take was dominating the radio and MTV. I dropped the needle on the LP and was hooked. I did not stop there: I hit the record stores, bought previous albums, and even picked up a book about the band because I wanted to know more about them.

The same goes for the role play gaming hobby. If you love to play you just should enjoy learning where the game came from, or if you are an older player like me, relive the past and fill in the many holes in your memory of it.

You want this. Period.
Designers & Dragons by Shannon Applecline is the four books for you, in either trade paperback or e-book. Published by Evil Hat (the FATE people), it covers RPGs from their emergence from war gaming in the 60s all the way to now. This is the second edition and is greatly expanded. The first edition was a single volume, a mere three hundred pages. The second edition is far expanded, becoming a four volume set, one for each of the four decades of the RPG industry: the 70s, 80s, 90s and the '00s (I think it is pronounced "oughts"). The entire series is four times the size of the original, clocking in at 1200 pages (according to the description of the print edition on Amazon; I read the Kindle versions and there is no real page count). Being a niche project of such a large size, a big thanks should go out to all the RPG fans on who backed this project on Kickstarter or it might not have happened..

The book is well researched, with Mr. Applecline interviewing many of the actual people involved, as well as letting people from the companies in question review sections for accuracy. He scoured other books about the industry and sifted through piles of gaming magazines, many long out of print, and any other source he could get.  The result is astonishing.

Each decade tells the story of the major, and some minor, players in the RPG industry, and their influence on it. It takes each company all the way through their history even of it ends after the decade of the book, which is better than breaking up the company histories into different volumes. For example, TSR's history is contained in the '70s, but the story of TSR continues until its demise in the 1990's (to be truthful, the TSR section really begins in the late '60 with an overview of the war gaming crowd that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson came from).

The title is apropos. It is about designers and their dragons. Very few old school companies are still around, defeated by dragons of bad business moves, lawsuits, even weariness claiming its victims. The survivors often show the scars of battle.

Oldest School, baby!
There are stories about the personalities. The writer treats the subjects respectfully, never painting people as villains or heroes, but not whitewashing the controversies and conflicts.

The books are breezy to read, in an easy going style. It is defiantly not a dry, college textbook. It kept me reading because every page there is interesting facts that made me, a guy who thought he knew a lot about this subject, learn something new.

Applecline ends with appendices that include a series of "10 Things You Didn't Know About..." for each era. They analyze the trends that dominated the era. You'll revisit the rise of the splat book, the moral crusades against role playing, and how designers and players felt about how the game was to be played, which has changed over time. To cap it off, Greg "Chaosium" Stafford writes the introduction and comes across as both a designer and fan.

Since history is being made all the time, and new facts from yesteryear are uncovered, Mr. Applecline wants to keep the facts up to date, and has a column on RPGnet about it (in fact, the column was the genesis of the project), though it has not been updated for a while. and has just updated it with a look at the recent history of Chaosium.

To wrap it up, I give this book five out of five long swords. I highly recommend it.

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