Friday, 14 August 2015

RPG Book Review - Designers & Dragons: The ’70s

Designers & Dragons CoverBy Shannon Appelcline
Published by Evil Hat Productions

I've only ever delved into the history of the tabletop roleplaying history a few times, and this was mainly snippets of information gleaned from books and interviews over the years. I’ve always been fascinated by the early days and the way the industry grew and continues to this day, and I’ve always enjoyed learning about the early days of the hobby. However, I’ve never really had the chance to really find out how it began and what happened to the individuals, games and companies involved.

Thank goodness, then, for Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry.

This first volume of the series covers the 1970s, early days of the RPG scene and it's a glorious if depressing read - glorious in that it's amazing to see how these first firms kicked the whole thing off, their attitude and approach to the fledgling hobby and the almost off-handed way they handled new product. Depressing in that I wish I had been around to appreciate that initial burst of energy and passion.

After the hefty entry on the giant of the hobby, TSR, the book then covers Flying Buffalo, Games Workshop, GDW, Judges Guild, Metagaming Concepts, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Chaosium, Gamescience, Heritage Models, Grimoire Games, DayStar West Media and Midkemia Press. This is followed up by some neat little ‘Did you know?’ comments about the nature of roleplaying in the 1970s – which I found fascinating, as the attitude to gaming really has changed over the decades – and then a bibliography and acknowledgements.

There’s a real charm to this first book as it takes you back to the beginning and it’s not always a nice read; disagreements, rivalries and lawsuits rear their ugly heads as well as the stories of people reaching milestones, enjoying successes and pushing the hobby forward. It was great to read about the beginnings of the hobby but it was just as good to read about the approach that most companies had towards this new pastime. It almost comes across as clueless, sometimes, but the hobby was young and directionless and, coming out of the structured worlds of boardgames and wargames, many of the people involved had no true guidelines on how to approach this new and peculiar hobby.

It’s a solid read and while there may be moments when I felt that the book was simply listing facts and figures – which can’t be helped considering that it is trying to be complete and sometimes the detailed information just isn’t available – I honestly felt I learned something about my hobby and it’s origins. The book doesn’t take sides or root for any single person, game or company (although it does refer to some possible evidence or widely-regarded opinion on certain matters) and it gives the facts as cleanly, and as entertainingly, as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, there may have been times when I felt that the book was just calling out statistics or just reeling off product lines for a certain company’s production period, but even though I may have passed over these periods with a lot less interest than other points in the book, at no point did I feel completely bored or dissatisfied. These were fillers, information blurbs that took me through the workings of the company to make the history complete. All the time there’s cross-referencing and notes on what to read next, sidebars on details about certain things that readers might find interesting and notes that add flavour and background.

Well written, well laid out and, apart from the few rare moments where I felt I was reading material just to get to the juicier parts of the history (everyone loves a bit of gossip, don’t they?), I seriously enjoyed this book. I can't wait to get into the next book, the 1980s, which was my era, the decade when I entered the hobby.

Highly recommended.