Friday, November 4, 2011

Designers and Dragons - only $49.95!

Note: Since I take the subject very seriously, I've decided to replace my original post with a fuller and expanded review.  The contenets are much the same however and the original can be viewed as my post on enworld.

Earlier today on the OD&D forum, and then again on Enworld here

was posted an exciting announcement from Mongoose.  A new history of the RPG industry has been published.  Immediately I wondered if Dr. Rob Macdougall had finally published.  Of course, that wasn't a very logical thought given the publisher in question.  But honestly I've always thought pretty well of Mongoose; at least they seem to be an aggressive success story in the industry and while I only have two of thier Conan books (Betrayer of Asgard and the Stygia sourcebook) I think they are pretty cool.  Unfortunetly it's dead obvious they are out of their depth with this attemp at history.

The book, Designers and Dragons, has available a 7 page preview. I am actually only discussing the prieview here, it was enough for me to see the character of the book.

A history book, in the modern sense, will contain the fruits of carefull scholarship. It will have many references and footnotes in an appendix discussing sources and details. In other words the author will "show the work", behind it. It will also be fact checked. This is when a publisher sends the book to credible readers who will double check, to the extent that they can, the assertions of the book.

Mr. Appelcline and Mongoose Publishing have very obviously done none of these things.

The preview contains several pages discussing the Origin of the Dungeons & Dragons game. As it happens, I'm an archaeologist with an avid interest in that subject and have researched it extensively, including talking with a number of the people involved. So I'm pretty well versed.

There's no question that RPG history owes a great deal to a man named David Wesely, and Appelcline does indeed mention him, or I think it must be him, but Wesely's name is repeatedly misspelled (something a fact checker would have noticead right off)

Imagine a History of the United States starting with Georg Washingtown.

Wesely ran - and still runs from time to time - a game set in a fictional town of Braunstein. Appelcline labels Braunstein as Napoleonic, but then says Dave Arneson - Co Creator of D&D - started running Braunstein and changed it to many types of settings. While Dave did run a Braunstien - he called it Blackmoor - it was Wesely himself who started changing the setting to different locals and set most of his games in a fictional, modern day Banana Republic, not the Napoleonic period.

This may seem like a minor fauxpaux but since nothing is referenced, the reader is left to assume that Appelcline is relaying accurate information.

It gets worse, much worse.

"Various sources describe Arneson visiting Gygax, Gygax visiting Arneson, or the two meeting at GenCon IV (1971)."

This is pure non-sense. All the people directly involved who have said anything about it have told exactly the same story - including, Gygax, Arneson, Kuntz, and Megarry. Megarry and Arneson went to Lake Geneva in late fall of 1972. (November, according to Mr. Kuntz). Megarry went to showcase his Dungeon boardgame and Mr. Arneson went to help him and run "a Blackmoor" for Mr. Gygax. "Other sources", meaning fan speculation and half forgotten comments from third parties, have no credibility in the matter.

This is really basic reasearch 101 stuff. The correct information can be gotten directly by asking the surviving participants or can be found without much trouble using a search engine.

Next we have this lovely sttement:

"Whatever the case, in that 1971 meeting Gygax and Arneson decided to jointly design a game that incorporated their ideas of fantasy realms and individual player characters. They called it ... `The Fantasy Game'."

There is exactly nothing true in any of the above. Gygax asked Arneson for his rules so they could "jointly design" Dungeons and Dragons in the tail end of 1972 after experiencing a delve into Blackmoor Dungeon as a player. They did not put their head together and decide to jointly design a fantasy game in 1971. Far from it, Arneson had been running his RPG for nearly two years before Gygax got involved with the game.

Further - in an interview on the very website that Mr. Appelcline founded and manages - Gygax emphatically denied that "The Fantasy Game" was ever an actual name for the game. Here's the quote "As an aside, I must laugh at some comment I saw about the name for the game being "The Fantasy Game" until someone "wised me up". Having been employed as an Editor-in-Chief, selecting what game rules and games would be published by Guidon Games since the beginning of 1971, I was well aware of the need to use a working title, the need for some caution in regards using the actual name for a a projected game release. So that's the reason for that bland one on the draft works."

Appelcline seems to cavalierly ignore the information on his own website! "They" never called it "The Fantasy Game" Gygax merely put that on an early draft as a placeholder. Arneson, as it happens, had an entirely different title in mind, but that is another story.

Here's yet another unchecked and unsited "fact": We all know - at least those who have seen the circa 90 page reformatted versions of the 3 LBB's - that Gygax's figure of 150 typewritten pages (or 300 !! as claimed in his Dragon #7 article) for the final playtest manuscript of D&D is an um... overestimate - yet Appelcline states it as simple fact without citing any source or giving any hint it might be otherwise.

That nearly ends the preview and its enough for me to shake my head in wonder at what can be published as history with a straight face and a less than inexpensive pricetag. This book doesn't even meet the most basic standards of journalism, let alone historical inquiry.

I imagine there might be a lot of good information in the book, particularly as it gets closer to the present, but with such sloppy scholarship and lack of decent references, who's to know what parts can be trusted?


  1. Yeesh. I was originally looking forward to this book very much. Glad you posted this before I coughed up the fifty bucks.

  2. Hey, if it's printed, it becomes real.

    As it turns out WG7 Castle Greyhawk really WAS Gygax's own campaign setting. Being so distraught over the public reaction to it, he left TSR entirely on his own. No matter how much they begged him and told him of all the money and writers working on projects for the Greyhawk setting, Gygax still refused them and left TSR totally desolated.

    Fortunately, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance came along when they did...

  3. I had a feeling this was going to be sketchy - if it had been well researched, there would have been mentions on forums of the interviews, calls, etc. leading up to its writing and release.

  4. Hmm. Since I thought the company histories Appelcline had posted on way back, I had some hopes for this book. Now I'm happy to have saved 50 bucks, Thanks!