Review: The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity

Jon Peterson’s book Playing At the World and his blog of the same name earned him a reputation as a deeply knowledgeable and thoughtful writer about early role-playing game history. Playing At the World is the definitive work on how wargaming hobbyists created the first role-playing games (probably) with Dave Wesley’s Braunstein, Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, and Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk.

The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity published in 2020, picks up where Playing At the World left off. It casts light on the dark passageway of the early days of role-playing games after D&D emerged but before there was any real understanding what it was.

I’m a little embarrassed that I allowed it to sit on my shelf unread for far too long. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend it to you.

Who’s it for?

This book is for anyone who has an interest in game design, the history of games or wants to understand the underlying philosophies that inform today’s game designs.

What’s it about?

As it says in the sub-title, The Elusive Shift describes how role-playing games came to be defined by hobbyists in the first years after Dungeons & Dragons was released. Many people who played Dungeons & Dragons in the early days of the game realized that this was something different than they had ever played before. It fixated and intrigued them. This fascination led to a great deal of theorizing, experimentation, indie-publishing, and arguing.

The essence of The Elusive Shift is the conversation between Dungeon Masters (many who went on to be well known game designers), Gary Gygax, TSR, and TSR’s competitors about the many questions that Dungeons & Dragons provoked. That conversation took place in now obscure Amateur Press Association publications, ‘zines published by college students, wargaming magazines, White Dwarf, The Dragon, Different Worlds, and the games produced competing with D&D.

These conversations were “How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity.”

What’s it for?

The first sentence of the introduction is, “What is the thing that we call a role-playing game?”

I’ve put my mind to that question and while I am satisfied about my definition of RPG’s, I’ve always had the intuitive sense that it might not be complete. The Elusive Shift did nothing to improve that sense of incompleteness.

Jon’s purpose was not to answer the question but to describe the discourse that was provoked by the game D&D and led to that question. Dungeons and Dragons was not initially called a role-playing game but a wargame. The term was only applied after the fact and to new games being produced in the medium. The conversations about role-playing games were complex, varied, and much deeper than most of us realize. Jon fills us in on that debate and the leading voices involved in it.

Does the book achieve its aim?

Oh yes. Yes indeed. Jon takes us on a tour of the most important APA’s, ‘zines, and magazines and the thinkers writing and publishing them.

The structure of the book was brilliant. He begins by telling us the sides in the first campaign of battles to understand what D&D was. It the wargamers vs. the sci-fi/fantasy fandoms who were the first major factions in the argument, “Is it a game? or Is it a story?”

Each section of the book presents the next stage in the development of the RPG conversation. How do you play? Is there a right way? If there is what does it look like? How do you design a game to do X? Is D&D a failure? Is D&D a game or a tool kit to make your own game?

As I read the book I found myself agreeing or disagreeing with a quoted author and writing down notes, “Yeah, but what about…” only to find the response to my objection from another commentator just a few pages later. Jon guides us through the many lines of thought about how RPGs work, how they can be played, and one of the most important realizations of the era. Different people like different games. The implications of that statement are quite deep if you think about them for a while.

Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.

The Fellowship of the Ring (film)

Many of the questions Dungeon Masters and game designers were thinking about in 1975 have persisted for 50 years. These old essays are not easily gotten a hold of and many game enthusiasts don’t realize their value in the current discourse about games. In some ways, we lost the scaffold of the hobby and seem to be rebuilding it every decade. I see some of the same topics that appeared in those homemade ‘zines being battled over on Twitter every day. Those same arguments were had in the 1990’s on Usenet, email lists and message boards. Many of the new crop of gamers don’t know about the conversations taking place on the early internet any more than they know about The Wild Hunt or Strategic Review.

I appreciated that Jon didn’t insert his own opinions into the narrative to any significant degree. Anyone who really cares about RPGs and sees how important they are in the pop-culture of today would be tempted to showcase those ideas that most closely match their own. He stayed on the side lines and presented the different arguments as fairly as I think you could.

There were a few sentences here and there where he subtly slips in some commentary but it isn’t overdone nor does it interfere with the overall intent of the book.

What I took away.

I decided not to write a deep analysis about the content for this review. I will limit my commentary to a few key items that I took away from the book.

I have never had an original thought about role-playing games and every design theory and game mastering blog post I’ve ever written was preceded by a better article in a ‘zine or game published 40+ years ago.

Our predecessors in the hobby were brilliant and thought about this stuff just as hard as we do. They also played, tinkered, and designed games to test their ideas. Still living in an analog world; they weren’t distracted by social media, blogs, or binge watching streaming TV shows. They had the time and focus to really put their minds to RPGs, and they did.

If we want to understand RPGs, we would do well to put our hands on some of those old games, magazines, and books to see what they figured out. We could save ourselves a lot of time and brain sweat by starting from the foundations they laid.

The distinction between “new school” and “old school” is less clear than I thought.

One of the more surprising revelations I had while reading this is that many ideas that I associated with games published more recently were explored in the ’70’s. Concepts such as RPG’s without a GM, giving players more narrative control over the game setting, “free form” RPGs, a focus on storytelling over game play or simulation, categorizing games with models that rank them on spectrums between “role-play and wargame.” Much of what is deemed “innovative” by indie RPG designers today was attempted in the 1970’s and then forgotten.

While I do think that there are some distinctions that make a game more “old school” than other games, it has a lot more to do with the current culture of play than the mechanisms or conceptual frameworks of the games themselves.

Some arguments are never going to be resolved.

It was striking to me that on nearly every page of the book I saw a topics that are still being argued today. Often these ideas are being discussed by the participants as if they were new fresh ideas and not 50 year old arguments or concepts tried in the 1980’s by a defunct game company that most of us never heard of.

It is simultaneously frustrating, humorous and fascinating to see the same concepts being arrived at by people having a sudden Aha! moment 40 years after someone first wrote about it.

Conclusion

I don’t know if we will ever be able to establish a clear set of foundational works that are easily acquired and form the basis for further thought and development. It would be nice to be able to have a canon of role-playing game design so that we don’t have to revisit the same ground over and over.

The Elusive Shift is an excellent start toward the creation of such a canon.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity

  1. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #146

  2. Pingback: How Does a 5E DM Get Started With OSR Games? : Part 1: The Key Concept – Grumpy Wizard

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