Jon Peterson has done it again, my friends. The author of Playing at the World, arguably the most comprehensive history of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons on the market, has released another book. While Playing at the World covered anything and everything that led up to the first publication of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, Peterson’s second book, The Elusive Shift, focuses narrowly on the time it took for ‘role-playing game’ to become an established medium. The story of how D&D and indeed the tabletop RPG itself matured in this roughly five year period is fascinating, eye-opening, and ends up asking a lot of questions about the state of the hobby some forty years later.
The Elusive Shift is a shorter read than Playing at the World, but equally as dense and carefully researched. Without needing to carry a historical section which covered hundreds of years of wargaming and paracosmic writing, The Elusive Shift gets right into the RPG weeds and stays there, all the way through the significant number of endnotes. Like the previous book, The Elusive Shift is built on the back of significant primary source research; the acknowledgments include the names of several people who either lent or helped track down obscure and barely published zines. As a result, this book paints a picture of RPG discourse from the 70s that would otherwise be very difficult to get; that picture is one that looks uncomfortably familiar.
The content of the book is split into two broad sections, the first more on design and the second more on discourse. These sections flow from one to another in a semblance of chronological order because the play and design approaches naturally came before the discussions of said approaches did. The four chapters of the first section cover several large design questions that were central to the differentiation of the RPG: First, there is a discussion of RPGs as an intersection of two almost entirely distinct (at the time) fandoms, wargamers and science fiction and fantasy readers. From there, the discussion moves to basic mechanics, namely the establishment of play as a dialogue between players and referee. Then comes the big debates that players today would understand: The role of a referee (Is the referee first beholden to the rules or the story? Can referees fudge dice? Is a referee working for the players, against the players, or completely impartially?), and the mechanisms and intent of character creation (Should attributes be assigned or rolled randomly? Does character competency level matter? What is the intent of alignment?). The second section has only two chapters, but these pack a punch; the story of the RPG community beginning to settle on definitions and norms is interrupted by an unforeseen event which resulted in a massive influx of new players.
While The Elusive Shift is shorter than Playing at the World (significantly so, the text before the epilogue is less than 300 pages), it is just as dense, reporting on primary sources in the same comprehensive, precise, and somewhat academic style that was seen in Peterson’s first book. Peterson also chooses to jump between sources in order to stay on topic which, although preferable to the reverse for a book being read cover-to-cover (as opposed to a reference text), still makes for sections which I felt the need to re-read to ensure I knew what was going on. This is not a criticism per se, more a reminder that this is a text intended for the transmission of information first and foremost. Just like in his previous book Peterson keeps the commentary to a minimum, instead letting the sources speak for themselves and tying these sources together into a definitive record of the era.
And what an era it was. Even though the book covers barely more than five years of time, there’s a cogent argument to be made that “the role-playing game” became its own medium within this time. Peterson’s recounting of the time is a unique view on the few moments where the RPG medium felt completely fluid; five years passes all too quickly when the discourse is conducted primarily in the pages of monthly or even quarterly zines. While some of the questions introduced will seem oddly quaint to a modern reader (how are we supposed to converse with a DM, anyway?), others are still quite unanswered (commentary on the nature of rules one might associate with a particularly navel-gazing Twitter account originates, roughly, in 1976).
One thing of interest is how much the discourse around games was divorced from game design itself. When D&D was released it was for all intents and purposes the only role-playing game, and while by 1977 the form factor of the RPG had broadened from its roots D&D was still the most popular game and there was still a solid two to three years where any game approaching something like popularity was a D&D imitator. Adding to this was the fact that the rules of D&D back then were so ambiguous that every group was basically playing a different game to begin with. Peterson does bring in and note other early and influential games, like Chivalry and Sorcery, Tunnels and Trolls (the Nouns and Nouns naming convention would take a couple years to diminish), and later Runequest and Traveller, but there’s really no question that D&D was the lingua franca of the RPG hobby for this entire time.
Even though D&D was the closest thing the hobby had to a common language, common was not a word to describe gaming tables at the time. Games were run on a spectrum from completely adversarial to completely narrative, with house rules being so expansive and diverse that the biggest source of new games was arguably home tables deciding to bind and sell their house rules. Being as new as it was (and, frankly, as ambiguously written as it was), D&D was enough to stoke plenty of debates, with its alignment, experience, and numerous other systems being equally foreign to both the wargamers trying to dissect them and make them consistent and the fantasy fans trying to make them drive good storytelling. It ended up being TSR and Gygax himself who tried to put the kibosh on how far afield D&D play had gone; this was one of the reasons given for releasing AD&D.
As we all know now, the release of AD&D didn’t put the genie back in the bottle. It also coincided with another event which had a much bigger impact on the hobby. In the summer of 1979 James Dallas Egbert disappeared, an event which made national news and was falsely believed to be connected to role-playing games. Although his later suicide would be one of several events that would help lay the groundwork for the Satanic Panic later in the decade, the initial to-do brought a massive amount of attention to the hobby, followed by a massive amount of new players. It was in this way that the era of The Elusive Shift ended; not by a consensus reached within the hobby or a detente between the wargamers and fantasy fandom, but by the walls being knocked down by a wave of new gamers who had never before been a part of a fandom, instead coming to the hobby from a red box that may very well have been sold at a toy store.
The author of this article, the vast majority of people who read this article, and indeed the vast majority of people in the RPG hobby period, are what Peterson calls “native gamers”. We were not in any way present when the RPG hobby developed from the perspectives of the two existing fandoms that adopted it. This is important because it informs how we view RPG design, and what parts of it we see as ossified. This in turn makes good history of the era prior to the popularization of D&D and other RPGs important because ultimately, at the end of the day, someone made the whole thing up and we should have a record of that.
Peterson’s primary theses of The Elusive Shift are focused on what the core debates that formed the role-playing hobby were, and which players had lasting impact. The secondary questions raised are, to me, more interesting. Where Peterson offers several key debates in the role-playing hobby, I see the implied question of why these debates are still, in the 2020s, being re-litigated. When he names up theorists like Glenn Blacow, one of the first gamers to offer a schema for defining play style, I see the implied question of why contemporary theorists and taxonomers aren’t moving forward (call GNS and the Big Model what you like, but the most common reaction they elicit nowadays is “not this again”). While these secondary questions don’t have good answers, the fact that they are valid questions serves as evidence that historical texts like this one are necessary.
At the end of the day, history has its own value, and the only response Jon Peterson needs to give if ever questioned about why he writes RPG histories is “no one else is doing it”. Other than the much earlier work of Gary Alan Fine (cited in this book) and the broader survey of the hobby done by Shannon Appelcline, there’s not much history being recorded in the tabletop RPG world. As the hobby both hurtles towards its 50th birthday and sees many historical items brought back through the magic of PDF, more context is needed for us native gamers.
What The Elusive Shift brings to the table, more than anything else, is context. Even as RPG design has slowly but surely gotten more broad, more sophisticated, and more inclusive, some of the biggest debates and schisms within the hobby are little more than old battlefields from the bygone 1970s. With D&D well into its Fifth Edition and still holding on to more than a little of the character and design thinking from its original version, the lines between what is historical and what is modern in the RPG hobby are blurred, making these debates even stranger. Still, that’s what makes tabletop RPG history so vital. Jon Peterson makes the early days feel real, so that angry letters in concurrent issues of Alarums and Excursions hit just like a withering Twitter thread from only two days ago. It also, just like Peterson’s first book, leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What did happen to the hobby after its Eternal September in 1979? How did everything change with arguably the most popular RPG publication of all time, the Basic D&D red box? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know how to change that: Jon Peterson clearly needs to write a third book.
The Elusive Shift is published by MIT Press, and available from a number of booksellers linked at their site.
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