“Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Industry” sounds like a boring concept. A history of table-top RPGs? Even to a long-time gamer like me it sounded more like a tedious textbook than something fascinating to read. Yet, during conversations on the history of D&D and its original designers, the book kept coming up. After several people recommended I read it, I decided to pick up the first volume (which covers the 70’s).
Although not something I couldn’t put down at times, I have to say this historian’s perspective on RPGs was a lot more fascinating than I’d thought. The first thing I noticed was this didn’t just discuss the gaming industry in the 70’s; instead, it discussed the histories of a dozen-plus important game companies and their influences on the industry. These histories often span decades, from the origins of the companies (or their founders) through their endings or current whereabouts. This provides a far more interesting look at how RPGs have progressed and influenced each other.
Probably the most interesting aspect of this history was the stories of the main figures in gaming. Although wargames (the predecessors to RPGs) had been around for decades, the current industry and hobby was populated by a limited number of key enthusiasts. These individuals helped design and drive a scattered industry into a nationwide (and worldwide) phenomenon. Friends, opponents, mentors, students, etc., “Designers & Dragons” was almost like being in the midst of that sort of drama. You saw people work together, split apart on ideological lines, and then fight with each other over rights and copyright issues. Newer designers would arrive on the scene, mentored by the experienced or simply trying to outdo them and “fix” what they felt was wrong with the current trends. There was probably as much drama and politics in the gaming industry as the fantasy worlds they wrote about.
Another fun part of the book is watching table-top roleplaying games change in style and theme. Starting with the origins of D&D and other 70’s RPGs as antagonistic wargames, where a single referee purposefully pit his players against challenges in a restricted area; characters were stats on a sheet, death was common (and expected), and any story was secondary. Then the 80’s brought about open worlds and story-centered games, where gamemasters acted as both antagonist and support in the hopes of creating “fun”; characters become more in-depth, story became more important than “winning”, and death was a far bigger event. Sadly, as this book focused primarily on companies that arose in the 70’s (few of which made it to the 90’s and beyond), the progression ends there until the next volume. I cannot wait to see as RPGs become more focused on drama and complex moral themes.
This book also helped fill in several gaps for me, as I didn’t start gaming until a decade after the industry took off. Many of the used games I saw were from the 70’s; like syndicated television, I would pick them up without realizing their importance or influence. “Designers & Dragons” allowed me to watch the industry and games move into the era I was familiar with, and to better understand where my hobbies came from and how they would move on.
For my fellow gamers out there, I have to recommend picking up these books. Admittedly, I’m only finished with the first volume, but I can’t wait to watch as more familiar designers appear in the 80’s and how they interacted and changed tabletop-gaming. This is no boring textbook, but a fascinating look into the past (and future) of a favorite pastime.