Donald Featherstone (1918-2013)

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News is being reported today that famed British writer and pillar of the 20th-century wargaming hobby Donald Featherstone (pictured above, right) has died at the age of 95. While by no means a household name, Featherstone was the author of more than 40 books and countless articles on the subject of wargaming, beginning in 1962 with his seminal book Wargames and the launch of his Wargamer’s Newsletter that same year.

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Heavily-influenced by H.G. WellsLittle Wars, Featherstone played a central role in the post-WWII development of the wargaming hobby. This was the era when a small group of armchair historians knit together the first loose networks of gaming groups, self-printed newsletters and early gaming conventions like the first one in the UK organized by Featherstone in the mid-1960s. Featherstone’s lifework was devoted to promoting the hobby of wargaming as a way of understanding military history, writing broadly on naval, land and air combat as well as specific military campaigns and eras. Many of Featherstone’s books are available in modern reprints via The History of Wargaming Project and the early editions of his books are highly-sought by collectors.

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For more on Featherstone’s influence on the growth of wargaming into the eventual worldwide phenomenon which would give birth to Dungeons & Dragons and modern gaming of all kinds, I can’t recommend enough Jon Peterson’s excellent Playing At The World. Anyone who plays a strategy game today — whether on the tabletop or on a video screen — owes a little something to Donald Featherstone and the little wars he started more than a half-century ago.

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Gaming Wars In The 21st Century

I was pleasantly surprised to open the back page of this past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review section to an article on the 100th anniversary of H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars.” The book’s Edwardian-era style, classism and occasional not-so-thinly-veiled sexism is mixed with the mechanics of a gaming system which makes it a relevant read even today.  Before “Little Wars,” wargaming had largely resided in Europe’s war colleges and in the parlors of the ruling elite. Even with its English intellectual, upper-crust trappings, “Little Wars” sought to expand the popularity of wargaming. As the article points out, “Little Wars” is an important foundational document and should be required reading for those who are interested in how we’ve arrived at the business of gaming on the tabletops and screens of the world today.

“Little Wars” is widely available for free online and for e-readers today, and “ownership” of gaming is largely the subject of a post today on BoingBoing about Dungeons & Dragons retro-gamers. Whether driven by nostalgia or as a reaction to corporate ownership of a beloved game of their youth, “old school” D&D gamers stress what they believe to be a truer game style more focused on role-playing and less-so on action-driven play. To stay relevant to a new generation brought up on CGI special effects, so the argument goes, the now-owners of D&D Wizards of the Coast have increasingly made the game more combat-heavy (read: more like video games). In reaction to this, retro D&D gamers have created an increasingly-active community of story-driven gamers who look to old rules for inspiration. The ability to share thoughts, opinions and out-of-print rulesets online has only fuelled the movement.

Old school gamers are just the latest combatants  in the war over gaming. The history of wargaming rules development winds its way from military schools and H.G. Wells to postal games and strategy boardgames in the mid-20th century. Games and rules were more fluid in the 1940s-60s where there was little profit to be had in wargaming, and a big part of the gaming community was in the debates over what rules were the most realistic or playable. With a few exceptions, ownership in those days was based more on pride and ego than copyrights and profit. This timeline is well-documented in Jon Peterson’s “Playing At The World” which finally arrives at the early days of D&D.  Even before D&D made the great leap into a world-wide phenomemon there were arguments and accustaions over copyright and ownership. Peterson’s recent analysis of a transitional draft of D&D (the Dalluhn Manuscript) not only adds greater nuanace to the development of the rules themselves but I think also provides another chapter on the concepts of evolutionary, intellectual and legal ownership of games.

Much of the digital conversation today — whether about games, photos, movies or music — hinges on the topics of openness, control and copyright. Along with the free and independent gaming forums and sites, we’ve now been given a new frontier of games on Kickstarter. What used to take years (or even decades) of slow development and debate by word-of-mouth fanzines and postal newsletters, Kickstarter achieves in weeks or days. Players vote with their wallets in support of games which can now easily garner six and seven-figure funding levels, all but guaranteeing a fanbase that literally buys-in at the ground floor. Sites like BoardGameGeek can help make or break the success of a new game and then go on to serve as R&D for game expansions, rule variations and subsequent editions.

A hundred years after “Little Wars” pulled the ownership of wargaming out of the fists of Europe’s elite, we’re still warring over our games. Copyright laws, digital distribution and individual financial investment will continue to shape the next hundred years of the ownership conversation, but gaming is certain to remain a very personal investment for some time to come, too.

The History of Games in Western New York

I grew up in Western New York State about 40 miles South of Rochester. To my childhood self, going to Rochester was “going to the city.” Rochester was where I headed for big touring concerts, independent movies and museums. On my rare trips home these days, one of my favorites and one of the more unique museums to visit in Rochester remains the National Museum of Play.

Opened in the early 1980s, the National Museum of Play grew out of the Strong Museum and the collection of industrial heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. The museum originally housed the enormous doll and toy collection Strong acquired over decades of worldwide travel in the first half of the 20th-century. In the past 30 years, the mission of the museum has evolved to be one of the preeminent repositories and exhibitors of toys, games, video games, dolls, action figures, children’s books and all things devoted to occupying the childhood development of children through that most basic of juvenile pursuits: play.

Among its collections, the museum has risen to prominence in the past few years with the opening of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The ICHEG publicly displays some 140 playable classic video arcade games and also maintains an archive of hundreds of thousands gaming systems, games, advertisements, manuals, corporate documents and other ephemera devoted to video games from their earliest development to their contemporary innovations and cultural dominance.

The museum made news this past week with the announcement of the temporary display of the “Dalluhn Manuscript” (photo at right) in their newest permanent exhibit called Game Time! This space will eventually devote the entire second floor of the museum to the history of American play through a series of interactive exhibits. The Dalluhn Manuscript is important as what is the earliest know draft of what would eventually become the world-changing game Dungeons & Dragons. The manuscript is on loan from Jon Peterson whose massive book “Playing At The World” took the scholarly investigation of the history of strategic gaming to new heights when it was published last year. Peterson has updated his book with a free appendix available through his blog that delves deep into the significance of the manuscript on display in Rochester. If you’ve read his book or have any desire to take a rare peek into the minutiae of how D&D came about, seeing this piece of gaming legend is a must-do over the coming months. Think of it as the Magna Carta or a first draft of the Declaration of Independence for gamers and you’ll have some idea of what a treasure these few pages are.

In general, I would urge anyone interested in games and play to visit the National Museum of Play in Rochester. It’s one of those rare museums where people of all ages will truly find something that speaks to them. If you can’t make it to Rochester, take a spin through their online archives where thousands of photos of toys, dolls and games are on view. With centuries of play behind us and unknown adventures ahead, a trip through our shared history is almost as enjoyable as a few hours of play itself.

Downloading: The General

       

In our highly-digitized world of everything fandom, it’s hard to remember there was a day where a primary lifeline for fans was via the mail. While gaming enthusiasts played games by post and created their own newsletters for small cliques of fellow gamers, it was game publisher Avalon Hill that created the first widely read and regularly published magazine for the strategic wargaming hobby.

Beginning in 1964, The General served as the bi-monthly house newsletter for AH. The General provided regular space for articles on new AH products, debates on variant rules, announcements of gaming conventions and a place where gaming fans could connect with each other on a regular basis. With games like Outdoor Survival, Tactics, Gettsyburg, Blitzkrieg and Panzerblitz, AH ruled the early years of the nascent gaming hobby through their formula of bookshelf games of hexagonal maps, cardboard markers and detailed rulesets full of charts. It was not until the arrival of TSR and their culture-changing Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1970s that AH would face serious competition as gaming shifted from board games to role-playing. By the time AH was acquired by Hasbro in the late 1990s, the world of gaming had changed considerably and The General was shuttered.

In Jon Peterson’s masterful book “Playing At The World,” he tracks the development of the wargaming hobby using The General, TSR’s own Dragon magazine and dozens of smaller lesser-known newsletters as primary sources. For those of us who have wished for a deeper view into the early days of our hobby, the Internet Archive has now made PDFs of The General available. With just a few cursory early looks, having access to this archive of our own history is certain to be an incredible asset for wargamers.

Downloading: Dungeons & Dragons Classics

I just finished reading Jon Peterson’s epic history of wargaming, “Playing At The World,” this past week. Reading through several hundred pages of gaming lore centered around the development of Dungeons & Dragons by TSR, I’ve had a yen to track down some of my old D&D rule books from those glory days of my early adolescent years in the late 1970s and early 80s. Well, as if the gaming gods themselves were reading my thoughts, the now-owners of the D&D franchise, Wizards of the Coast, launched a partnership just this week with DriveThruRPG to begin offering every piece of classic D&D as digital downloads.

The new web store, www.danddclassics.com, launched with more than 80 classic bits of D&D, from whole rule sets to module campaign adventures to detailed expansions. With a few downloads initially available for free and dozens more in the $5 to just under $20 range, the site promises to eventually release more material long-since out our print from the 1970s-90s. The site struggled under the massive weight of countless rabid fans and crashed over and over again on its first day, clearly demonstrating the pent-up demand for long-lost D&D material only to be found at the bottom of abandoned teenage closets and on eBay at inflated prices.

After multiple site time-outs and crashes, I managed to download a free file today: 1979’s B1 module “In Search of the Unknown.” For new players like me just getting into D&D as 1980 and my teen years neared, “In Search of the Unknown” and B2 “The Keep on the Borderlands” (available online now for $5) were our first forays into the professionally-developed D&D modules that showed us the way toward creating our own adventures. These self-contained adventures allowed players like my friends and me to jump right into a few hours of gaming with story background, maps, treasure and monsters neatly set forward in about 20 pages. These books also served as teaching tools as we learned to craft our own elaborate adventures in our childhood bedrooms, basements and classrooms after school.

With the release of 1979’s “blue book” Basic Rules (shown at right), TSR presented a serious clean-up and consolidation of the D&D rules which had been slowly released in multiple pamphlets throughout the early to mid 1970s. Though D&D had already established itself as the king of the role-playing game world, it was the release of the Basic Rules that roped-in hundreds of thousands of new players like myself. From these rules onward, a constant flow of modules, new iterations of the rules and expansion books became one of the most exciting aspects to me about D&D while also being much criticized by many for TSR’s strategy of extracting every last dime out of its faithful fans.

And so, here we are again some 30+ years later with D&D waging melee combat on our wallets with the spectre of a full-compliment of its back catalog coming soon. Already I see many module favorites of mine available like G1-3 “Against the Giants” and Q1 “Queen of the Demonweb Pits.” Hardcover classics such as the ancient religions and mythologies compilation of  “Deities and Demigods” and the odder European-themed monster compilation “Fiend Folio” are also currently available. I credit “Deities and Demigods” in particular for providing me a sort of independent study comparative religions primer at the age of 13. A few years later, this interest would lead me to Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” as well as his earlier writings. Three decades on, my life-long interest in the intersection of the stories of faith in the world’s societies — what I commonly refer to as the “holy mish-mash” — continues to shape my outlook on life. D&D is just chocked full of these kind of rippling memories for me.

The re-release of this material seems obvious for a whole host of reasons as I and my fellow first-generation D&D players are entering mid-life with our own children and a load of nostalgia for a pre-video game world in tow. Then again, as I scrolled through all the D&D titles again this week, I was reminded of the precedent D&D set in so many ways for today’s electronic gamers. Of course the basics of hit points, armor class, found items, completed missions and skill advancement laid out in D&D provided the foundation for today’s popular video gaming universe. But with each of these additional D&D modules and rules expansions, TSR also provided an early blueprint for the constant version updates and downloadable content of maps, missions, skins and characters that any inhabitant of the world of the Xbox and Playstation finds every day.

As always, what is old is new again, and I’m slowly getting to a place where I want to unplug my kids for a few hours some afternoon, help them roll-up a couple characters and blow the digital dust off these D&D treasures now just a click away.

“Playing At The World” by Jon Peterson

Since its release in the middle of the year, I’ve been nibbling away at Jon Peterson’s monstrous 720-page history of wargaming, “Playing At The World.” Peterson’s book takes the broadest swipe I’ve yet seen at tackling the true history of games. His opus work covers ancient games in Egypt to the early development of chess, 18th and 19th century Eastern European wargaming, the rise of simulations in the colleges and think tanks of Cold War America and into the birth of Dungeons & Dragons and eventually video games in the latter part of the 20th-century.

The book is daunting, and only for the true scholars of gaming. Whole chapters are devoted to concepts of randomizing results in gameplay, the rise of miniatures wargaming with toy soldiers (with early support by the likes of H.G. Wells and his book “Little Wars”), basic concepts of fantasy character development and the minutiae of gaming mechanics. The latter half of the book focuses on how a small group of gamers in Wisconsin, led by the now-famous Gary Gygax and David Arneson, created the worldwide sensation that became D&D in the late 60s and early 70s.

As both a gamer and historian, my love for this book flows from its slow-building narrative that firmly places the importance of games in worldwide culture. With immense detail, Peterson clearly shows games not to be the often-maligned pastime of nerds and misfits but an important device through which we’ve developed our modern worldwide approaches to military policy, economics, international diplomacy and social interaction.

The book is certainly enough on its own, but Peterson also runs a blog which adds insight into his ongoing research. “Playing At The World” is such an achievement of singular vision, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we play beyond the four corners of our gaming tables.