Designers & Dragons: The '70s by Shannon Appelcline
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Beware thou weary reader, for herein lies waaay the fuck more than you ever need to know about the beginnings of fantasy role playing games.
But wait up! Before you even get started on rpgs, Designers & Dragons goes even farther back. RPGs began with wargaming, which actually originated around the '50s. Well, if you want to be technical, you could say it started before that. Napoleon used huge maps and figurines representing army and navy units. Such miniature warfare was played in the Middle Ages as well. But gaming as we know it started with those WWII and Vietnam vets who liked to play out war strategies.
The emergence of fantasy literature, such as Lord of the Rings, in the late '60s meant it wasn't long before someone married the two ideas. After all, once a fan was done reading the book, s/he often wanted to continue on with the adventure, to inhabit the fantasy world just a little longer.
Thus was born Dungeons & Dragons. Appelcline's book is heavy on D&D, and rightly so as it dominated the RPG landscape. It was the game all the kids were playing. Other game-makers acknowledged this by attempting to license side products for the D&D system in the early days.
When I was a kid, it seemed like D&D came about around 1979-80. But that was only when the game "went viral". It had already long since enveloped the gaming underground. The original set was put out in 1974 and its true creation really started years before that in the late '60s.
My main interest in reading this was to get a better understanding of the game I knew and loved as a boy. My version looked more like this...
(I go into more detail on it here, if you're interested: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)
However, I prefer to get to know my history from the human perspective. In this instance, I wanted to know who created what or how so-and-so had to sleep in their van while they attempted to get their start-up off the ground. It was a brave new world and these fellows were courageous pioneers. I wanted to hear about them. Appelcline gives you plenty of that good stuff. Unfortunately, the book also gets bogged down in litigation and who licensed what to whom. For instance, owner of D&D, TSR Inc was a big ol' suer-rat. If it moved and there was money to be had, TSR sued it. So, D&D's history is embroiled in lawsuit after lawsuit, and Appelcline goes to great length in explaining it all. Frankly, I tired of it very quickly.
This is supposed to be about gaming in the 1970s, but it goes WAY beyond that. It would feel weird, incomplete in almost every case, to shut the door on a company's history at midnight on 12/31/1979 regardless of the story. So you get the whole story, from start to finish, even if that finish takes us right up to today. It was more than I expected and it gave me the opportunity to get to know all those game-makers I was in the dark about until reading this, like...
Chaosium and their main game Call of Cthulhu, a mindbendingly good time, so I'm told.
There was also Middle Earth-esque Tunnels & Trolls as created by Ken St. Andre, who got in on the ground floor with his simplified version of D&D. T&T never gained the same mass-popularity, but it survives to this day.
And then there was "satellite" creators, like Lou Zocchi, the man behind those enigmatic, odd-shaped dice role playing games are so well-known for.
That was good and all, but it took me a damn long time to finish this one, because it is very put-down-able. By which I mean, many of the company's stories are similar enough that reading the whole thing at once would be overkill. Plus, the book is logically broken into company-by-company sections, so once I was done, say, reading about Flying Buffalo, I'd put the book down before moving on to Games Workshop. Days upon days might pass before I was ready to read more.
One of my main gripes is that the writing is a bit amateurish at points. I guess I've grown used to today's writer's of history (Winchester, McCullough, Philbrick) with their smooth style. It really took me out of the story when I'd hit one of the many lines like "More on that later" or "Well return to that soon." It would be a minor point not worth mentioning but that there were so damn many instances of it. And another thing, if you say that a product was recalled due to its artwork and thus has become a hard-to-find collector's item, you really should explain what it was about the artwork that was so scandalous, because I have a very vivid imagination!
Complaints, yes, I had a few, but all in all this was good, good fun!
As a boy, D&D popped into my world almost as if by magic, so I was thrilled to finally get the chance to really learn about the world of gaming and discover the behind-the-scenes, origin stories that once mystified me. For that, I am grateful this book was created, and created with such obvious love for the subject matter. Appelcline once worked for Chaosium, so clearly this book and everything it stands for is important to him. It shows. Well done!
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