Monday, August 1, 2016

The D&D Syndicated Radio Show Pilot



In the early 1980s, at the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad, TSR heavily promoted the game in mainstream media. This went far beyond mere advertisements: they developed dramatic renditions of D&D as media properties. The most famous result was the Saturday morning cartoon show, though we know of many other projects that never quite made it into production, such as the undeveloped feature film. We must now add to that category a new entry: a syndicated radio program. Unlike the cartoon show or the movie, the planned radio series depicted the actual play of a D&D session rather than dramatizing a loosely-related story: in that respect, it is a long-lost ancestor of contemporary media sensations like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. Today, as a special "audio" edition of Playing at the World, we take a listen to the original pilot for the radio show, and consider its relevance to the game spectatorship culture of today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How Mana Became a Game Mechanic


Together with University of Hawai'i anthropologist Alex Golub, I wrote an essay about the origins of "mana" in tabletop and computer games. Alex previously distilled our work into a popular blog post about this, but people interested in the details of early concepts of spell points and how they came to be attached to the idea of mana will find more information in the academic version. Pioneers here included Greg Costikyan, Steve Perrin, Isaac Bonewits, Richard Garfield and many others.

Our essay "How Mana Left the Pacific and Became a Video Game Mechanic" appears in the newly-published anthology New Mana: Transformations of a Classic Concept in Pacific Languages and Cultures (ANU Press), which you can acquire in print versions or download online here: New Mana.

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Conversation with Len Patt


Following the revelations published two weeks ago here about a set of 1970 fantasy wargame rules that exerted a clear influence on the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement, one burning question was on everyone's mind: who is Leonard Patt? He can be seen in the picture above in an issue of the Courier from 1970, gaming with fellow members of the New England Wargamers Association. Thanks to the almost frighteningly quick work of Internet detectives (especially Casey Harmon and David L. Johnson), the community ascertained that Len Patt is alive today and living in Seattle. I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his sudden historical prominence.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Video Episode on Original D&D

Back in 2014, I expressed my intention to celebrate the birthday of Dungeons & Dragons on the last Sunday of January: since it happened to be January 26th, that is commonly given as the anniversary. But in 2016, it falls on the final day of the month, and to honor the occasion, today I'm inaugurating a new Playing at the World video series. This first episode is focused on the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set; I am joined today by my friend and fellow collector Bill Meinhardt, who graciously provides his hospitality, expertise, and amazing collectibles. Even if you're not in the market for the physical boxes, you can still experience the game, as Wizards recently released PDFs of their eighth printing of the original Dungeons & Dragons books - on January 26th, it turns out.

You can see the video on my YouTube channel here: [Playing at the World Episode #1]

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Precursor to the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement



Chainmail (1971) is correctly regarded as the first commercially-available fantasy wargame system. The Fantasy Supplement that Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren tacked on to the end of Chainmail inspired Dave Arneson as he created the Blackmoor setting, and formed the basis for the original set of monsters and spells underlying Dungeons & Dragons. Something has been forgotten, however, in the forty-five years since Chainmail was published. Chainmail itself drew on a two-page set of rules developed for a late 1970 game run by the New England Wargamers Association (NEWA), which were designed by one Leonard Patt. Patt’s system shows us the first fantasy game with heroes, dragons, orcs, ents, and wizards who cast fireballs at enemies, though his contribution today goes entirely unacknowledged. The picture above shows this system in play at a Miniature Figure Collectors of America convention in October 1970 representing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, a demonstration that won a “Best in Show” award.

[Updated: Now read Jon's conversation with Len Patt about these rules!]

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Samurai in D&D, via Bruce Sterling


Oriental adventures become a part of Dungeons & Dragons long before TSR released a book by that name. The creativity of the vibrant fan community expanded the game far faster than its designers could, and sometimes, when you find out who the fans are, their creativity is unsurprising. One early version of the Samurai class is of particular note because of its designer: science-fiction author Bruce Sterling, whose Samurai rules went public shortly after he published his first novel, Involution Ocean.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

To Hit Armor Class Zero


The die roll value required for an attack to hit an armor class of zero, or "THAC0," is the signature combat mechanism of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Revered by some and reviled by others, THAC0 replaced the combat matrices of first edition AD&D with pre-calculated values intended to be faster and more intuitive. Astute observers have long noted foreshadowing of a THAC0 system sprinkled throughout some first edition AD&D texts. It is however less widely known that THAC0 was in use with the original Dungeons & Dragons game, prior to the publication of the Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide. The excerpt above is from Alarums & Excursions #31 (February 1978), and it describes the contemporary use of THAC0, including the acronym itself.