The Game Wizards

If you're about my age, you may remember a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a new kind of game appeared - the role-playing game, an adventure in pure imagination. Far from the wholesome depiction on TV's Stranger Things, it was often seen as something insidious, on the fringes of the acceptable. But the appeal to players was undeniable - the game at its best creates community and combines tactics, storytelling, improvisation, mystery and cooperation - in short, the best tabletop games have to offer - and it steadily grew in popularity and has never fully faded from relevance; it's more popular today than ever.

With the mark it has made on both tabletop and digital games, it is no exaggeration to call Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) one of the most influential and innovative games of the 20th century, if not of all time. But how exactly was this groundbreaking game created? Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons and Dragons delves into this mystery and exposes the infighting and drama surrounding the birth of this pop culture phenomenon that revolutionized gaming.

Creative partnerships are rarely equal. History is littered with the detritus of two-person teams in which one half of the unit is grandiose and outspoken (especially where getting credit is concerned), and the other remains in the background. Until very recently, Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman, whas completely obscure. Also in the comics world, consummate showman Stan Lee has been in the spotlight forever as the creator of countless iconic characters, while Jack Kirby actually did most of the design work. Former carnival barker Nolan Bushnell saw Ralph Baer's idea for a game playable on a TV set and ran with it, founding Atari and generally being credited as the origin point for videogames. Of the two Steves who started Apple Computer, it was the charismatic salesman Jobs who people thought of when they thought of the Apple II, despite Wozniak's engineering genius - without which none of Apple's success would have been possible. 

 A similar situation is revealed in the history of D&D. In the early 1970s, gregarious Wisconsin-based wargamer Gary Gygax conceived of a system for playing medieval wargames with miniature figures (rather than the more recent settings that were popular at the time). In the twin cities, Dave Arneson used this fertile ground to develop a completely new concept - fantasy adventures in which each player controlled a single character, whom they could design and customize themselves and which would improve in skill and abilities over time ("levelling up"). Arneson contacted Gygax and the idosyncratic auteurs collaborated on what became the original D&D. Since there was no demand for such games at the time (as there had never been anything like it) they estimate the value of the idea and the game at no more than 300 dollars. Thus began a roller coaster ride of meteoric creative and critical success and tragic business missteps - and to this day, outside of the hobby, only one name is generally ever mentioned in relation to the creation of the game.

For more details on what happened next. I highly recommend reading Game Wizards. Jon Peterson is a true devotee of the history - his Playing at the World is the definitive tome on the D&D and the larger subject of role-playing and simulation games, but will be too weighty for most casual readers. The Game Wizards provides a much better introduction and is compulsively readable - night after night, I could not wait to see what happened next. The book's subject matter is fascinating and dramatic on its own, and the story is well told. Cleverly, Peterson leads off with a decisive moment to hook the reader, then lays the tale out chronologically. Neither of the brilliant authors of D&D comes out looking very good, but their genius is also on display alongside their flaws. More than anything else, it feels like an honest telling, without taking sides or exploiting its subjects. I won't spoil any of the surprises you'll find between the covers of this fine book. Obtain a copy and discover them for yourself! Your quest awaits!