Rob Runs RAND

July 9, 2007

While we were all sleeping, Rob McDougall secretly posted another section of his Secret Pre-History of Roleplaying thing. It’s super interesting, since it’s tangentially related to my day job.

Also, in other news, Timothy Burke, of Swarthmore and Terra Nova, has this to say about the possibility of writing something for Push:

    I loved Rob’s article and the publication, and I’ve been thinking about material that might well suit what you’ve got in mind. I recently wrote an essay for a volume on games and politics that was primarily about how players try to influence developer actions. One of the minor arguments in the essay is that the “grammar” of player-developer politics has been historically influenced by the relation between players and GMs in pen-and-paper role-playing, that there are structural inheritances. Let me think a bit on this and come back at you with an abstract…

So we might have Tim Burke dropping some science about MMORGs in Push 2 or, if deadlines are extra tight, Push 3. Exciting!


Meet Madeline

July 6, 2007

So I met Maddy through my brother a few years back and it just so happens that she’s a BNF (that’s Big Name Fan) in the online freeform Harry Potter fandom roleplaying scene, which has probably more total people involved in it than any tabletop roleplaying game. She’s working on an article for Push 2 and, using Thomas Robertson’s interview with Sarah Kahn as a starting point (unfortunately, it’s not available on the web anymore), we talked a bit about her experience with HP-based online play. Read the rest of this entry »

Rough Contents of Push 2

June 21, 2007

This is what things are looking like right now, based on the articles that I’ve actually seen finished or partially finished drafts of, and the stuff I’m currently in negotiations about.

Full Drafts

  • Eero Tuovinen, Ludi Imaginationis (game)
  • Bill White and Dave Petroski, The Persuaders: Pedagogical Game Design in Progress (game+)
  • Timothy Walters Kleinert, Jazzing It Up: Improvisation and Thematic Play

Partial Drafts

  • Jason Morningstar, Improvisation and Roleplaying
  • Rob McDougall, The Reverse Secret Pre-History of Roleplaying
  • Eirik Fatland, Nordic Larp 101
  • Sarah Kahn, topic: “online freeform, remix of Thomas Robertson’s interview”

Confirmed, But No Draft

  • Madeline Klink, topic: “online freeform”
  • Keith Yim, topic: “roleplaying in Greater China”

I Would Like to Include

  • something by Jess Hammer, which I need to talk to her about
  • something about roleplaying in virtual worlds, which I’ve emailed Timothy Burke about, hoping for suggestions on possible authors, and plan to mine Second Person for other possibilities

Woohoo! Inching steadily closer.

Rob on the Prehistory of Roleplaying

May 30, 2007

Rob MacDougall has begun to post previews of the article he’s writing for Push 2. I am ever so excited.

Timothy Burke and I at the AHA in January:*

Me: It seems like 2006 was the year that a lot of academic bloggers came out of the closet as online gamers.

Tim: Definitely. There used to be a real social stigma attached to gaming in academia, but now with World of Warcraft and Second Life and so on, it really can’t be denied that online roleplaying games are a social phenomenon worthy of serious critical study.

Me: I’m just waiting for the same thing to happen to tabletop roleplaying games.

Tim: You mean like Dungeons & Dragons?

Me: More or less.**

Tim: Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen… loser.

It’s not much of a secret, if you’ve read my LiveJournal or just triangulated from my other interests, but from 1980-1990 and then again from 2001-2005, I played a lot of roleplaying games. Which today are called tabletop roleplaying games or pen-and-paper games, in the sort of prefix addition (think dial telephone, snail mail, liberal Democrat) that generally implies the object in question, while once the norm, is well on its way to the boneyard.

I’m writing something on the history and pre-history of tabletop RPGs for Jonathan Walton and his excellent journal Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying. You can see my original sketch of the article at the top secret Push forum, but it keeps getting longer and weirder than I’d planned. And although I just emailed Jonathan to tell him I’m going to miss his already generous deadline, what follows is something I’m not sure I can fit into the article and that I wanted to share right away.

Some Daves I Know

It’s impossible to name any one inventor of tabletop roleplaying, but it’s fair to say that in the Midwest, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of guys, many of them named Dave, started doing some very innovative things with miniatures war gaming. One of the Daves was Dave Wesely, who ran a game in Minneapolis in 1967 or 1968 about the fictional village of “Braunstein.” The Braunstein game was Napoleonic miniatures on acid. Each player had one figurine representing one character, and rather than recreating some grand military battle, each character had a personal goal to be pursued by means of negotiation and intrigue.

Braunstein begat Blackmoor which begat Chainmail which begat Dungeons & Dragons, but that tale has been told elsewhere, and will be part of my Push article besides, so I won’t repeat it here, except to remind you (since I’m sure you’re all up on this stuff) that one of Wesely’s key contributions to tabletop roleplaying was the re-introduction of an impartial, all-powerful referee who devised the scenario for the game and adjudicated the results of each conflict: i.e., a Dungeon Master. (Except that Braunstein featured no dungeons as yet; Wesely’s friend Dave Arneson would introduce that wrinkle in 1970.) I say re-introduction, because complicated war games had long enlisted neutral referees. The “thinking the unthinkable” nuclear war games that Herman Kahn ran at RAND in the 1950s and 60s had similar game masters–but that’s a story for another time. Wesely got the idea for such a referee from a dusty old book he found in the University of Minnesota library: Strategos: The American Art of War, published in 1880 by Charles Adiel Lewis Totten. (You can pick up your own copy at that URL, complete with dice, compass, maps, and hundreds of playing pieces, for a mere $7,500.)

The First Dungeon Master?

Charles Totten ca. 1892

Who was Charles Adiel Lewis Totten? Now the fun begins. Totten (1852-1908) was a West Point graduate and a professor of military tactics, first at the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (today U-Mass Amherst) and later at Yale. He probably developed his war gaming system from the Kriegspiel conducted by Prussian military officers, which puts a funny spin on that subtitle, “The American Art of War.” As a lieutenant in the U.S. Artillery, Totten fought against the Paiute Indians in the Bannock campaign of 1878 and the Apache in the Chiricahua campaign of 1881. He also seems to have founded the U-Mass Amherst fencing program. But “the ruling motive of his life,” according to a biographical (and I suspect autobiographical) sketch written in 1890, was “the desire to get at the root of all that savored of the mysterious.” Totten, the grandfather of Dungeon Mastering, was himself a walking Suppressed Transmission, an old, weird American of the 33rd degree.

“His chief idea in going to college,” Totten, or his biographer, reported in 1890, was “to find out the secrets of some representative American fraternity.” He succeeded in joining the Delta Psi, known in the nineteenth century as the most secretive of college fraternities, through which he made the acquaintance of Henry Steel Olcott, founder and first president of the Theosophical Society. (In later life, Totten adopted the pseudonym “Ten Olcott” for some of his works.) After flirting with German “freethought” and giving a Fourth of July oration at West Point that earned him a reprimand for its atheistic implications, Totten became a Swedenborgian, a Cabbalist, a numerologist, and a pyramidologist. Oh, and a Freemason, but that almost goes without saying, and he soon left the Masons in order to pursue his own studies “upon independent and rather transcendental lines.” Ahem.

Totten was the chief American promoter of Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Scottish astronomer obsessed with the Great Pyramid who found in its every measurement some prophecy from God. Totten, like Smyth, campaigned against the Metric System in favor of the “god-given” pyramid inch. He wrote a book about the Great Seal of the United States (and you know he didn’t give a shit about the eagle–it was all about the you know what on the reverse) which I came upon, without recognizing his name or making the Braunstein connection, in MIT’s Archives of Useless Research. He wrote another book “proving,” through astrological calculations, that the Earth was twenty-four hours “out of schedule” as a result of the biblical Joshua making the sun stand still. (If you Google Totten’s name, among the first hits will be articles about a rumor that NASA computers in the 1960s had “discovered” the same thing.) And he left Yale in 1892, predicting the imminent arrival of the Antichrist and the end of the world in 1899. But Totten’s most ardent cause was the theory of British Israelism, the pseudohistorical belief that Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel and therefore the true chosen people of God. I guess that anti-atheism reprimand at West Point really stuck. He published twenty-six volumes on this subject in a series entitled Our Race: Its Origin and Destiny, still refererred to by modern “Christian Identity” groups.

Which is where the fun ends, I’m afraid. Because while it might be possible to regard 19th-century Anglo-Israelism as quaint Gilbert-and-Sullivanian crackpottery, since at least the 1940s this belief has been the province of racist, anti-Semitic thugs. This is a recurring problem for students of historical oddballs: what looks whimsical and eccentric from the distance of a century gone by can be quite unpleasant at closer range.

So Dungeon Masters and former Dungeon Masters like myself might not rush to embrace Totten as a forefather. And I know it’s anachronistic to refer to him as “the first Dungeon Master.” Still, the gamers I know will recognize his type, the tell-tale markers of geek DNA: a war gamer, keen on secret societies, a prolific writer of pseudohistory, given to drawing intricate maps of pyramids and tombs. (And didn’t I say before that modern geek culture is all shot through with a discourse on Jewishness?) Totten was wrong about the Israelites, it’s more than safe to say, but he was clearly one of our tribe, and his blood, metaphorically speaking, still runs in the hobby’s veins.


*Paraphrased from memory, and possibly embellished. Tim is way too nice to say that last part out loud.

**Gamers have spilled billions of pixels debating how best to define or describe the hobby, but we’ve yet to come up with anything that says as much to as many as quickly as, “you know, like Dungeons & Dragons.”

Push Has Arrived

May 23, 2007

The time has come. Form blazing sword!

Bleeding Play, the new blog and online home of Push, is now in existence. This is part of the larger blog-consolidation effort that I have been making recently, but also reflects changes in how I think it’s best to get things done on the internet.

Over the last few years of trying to put Push 1 and 2 together, I’ve come to the conclusion that a forum, like our old haunt on The Forge or the current Plays Well forum, is not really supportive of the kinds of things we need to accomplish. Forums need a minimum amount of traffic and regular posting to get things going. Putting Push together often involves kicks and starts, irregular periods where posting happens frequently followed by long droughts where nothing happens. Also, I spend a fair bit of time trying to fight spam on the forum, rather than accomplishing stuff. We need an alternative method.

I also think that structuring Push development as a group blog creates a different kind of working environment for contributors, commentators, and the other people who help put Push together. If the social environment that surrounds Push can be more like The 20 x 20 Room has been in the past, I think that can only be a good thing.

I also like the idea that Push development can be a public process, so people can get a clear sense of how we put a volume together. The final, edited version of all the articles will still only be available in Push or from the individual contributors, but putting the working drafts up for open comment does some good things for us as well, I think. Articles can start as simply a blog post or a posted outline. Then that can be moved to it’s own designated page and future posts can slowly expand the original until an entire first draft is developed. This is the way I’ve been working on some recent design projects and the way Shreyas and I set up Secret Wars to run. Our success in that format leads me to believe this is a better model for running Push.

That said, putting a volume of Push together is clearly a collaborative process, so the preliminary plan of action I’ve sketched out here will doubtlessly be altered once other people start arriving and doing there thing. Any creative collaboration (including playing a roleplaying game) is all about the process of negotiation and I will continue to see my role as facilitating the negotiation and creation process.

Future news and development of Push will all take place on Bleeding Play. Move your bookmarks and feeds now, so you don’t miss it!

Push 2 Underway

January 3, 2007

Proposal guidelines for Push 2 are posted here. I don’t know why they haven’t been posted here yet. My bad. Get additional proposals to me soon, please! I don’t need much. Just a paragraph or so.

Basic planning for Push 2 has already begun in the new Push forums. Those of you who’ve read some or all of Push 1, I’d especially love to have your comments in this thread, so we get feedback on the first volume and learn how to make the second one even better.