The Elusive Shift (2020) is Jon Peterson’s second book on the history of roleplaying, following his foundational Playing at the World (2012), which is tragically out of print. Produced for MIT Press’ “Game Histories” series, The Elusive Shift is at least as academic as its predecessor, presenting a scattered look at design philosophies and communities of the industry’s first decade.
The Contents of the Book
What is the Elusive Shift? The tin reveals the answer: it’s “how role-playing games forged their identity”. It’s the story of how roleplaying reached maturity through an action-reaction. Or, if you prefer it’s a look at a lot of different thoughts in the late ’70s, most of them appearing in fanzines and APAs, which ultimately proved that roleplaying was its own thing.
It’s divided into six chapters.
Chapter One, “The Two Cultures”, concentrates on how roleplaying grew out of two communities: wargaming fans and science-fiction and fantasy fandom.
Chapter Two, “How to Play”, talks about the back and forth of a “dialogue” as a central play structure for roleplaying.
Chapter Three, “Designing for Role Play”, starts to scatter the discussion by talking about lots of elements of characterization and roleplaying, including characteristics, alignments, and experience.
Chapter Four, “The Role of the Referees”, reveals the many varied ideas of what a referee was called, what he did, and if he was even necessary.
An “Intermezzo” discusses freeform play as a distinguishing element of RPGs and highlights Greg Stafford’s “Sartar High Council” in Wyrm’s Footnotes #7 (1979) as a foundational LARP.
Chapter Five, “Toward a Philosophy”, overviews the big arguments about the definition of roleplaying which continued to build on the original rifts in the industry, now divided even further by the advent of “native” gamers.
Chapter Six, “Maturity”, covers what Peterson sees as the defining moments in the maturity of roleplaying as a form: the publication of AD&D (1977-1979) and the discussion of the Blacow Model starting in The Wild Hunt #50 (1980).
What We Learn About Milestones in The Industry
One of the most interesting things in The Elusive Shift is the suggestion of a chronology of events that together led to the development of roleplaying as its own gaming and art form. Some other sources discuss some of these points individually, but The Elusive Shift may be the first book to really show how they built on each other.
The Origins of the Form
1. The roleplaying hobby formed out of the communities of wargamers and of fantasy and science-fiction fans. Though roleplaying grew out of wargaming, its earliest fandom included not just wargamers, but also F&SF fans, many of whom had previously been united through early APAs.
2. The unfocused OD&D rules led to widespread house ruling. Much has been written about how vague the original OD&D rules were, and how hard it was to actually learn the game from them. Combine this with the openness originally preached by Gygax and you have a recipe for house ruling and variants, which filled the discussions of new RPG APAs for years.
3. The term “role-playing game” appeared. We know that “roleplaying game” rose up as the preferred term for these games of ours, beating our “wargaming” and “adventure gaming”. Peterson talks about a lot of early confusion over what roleplaying was or wasn’t, but his most interesting point is that perception of our hobby was ultimately shaped by what it was called. If the term “adventure gaming” had stuck, our hobby might have been quite different.
The Popularization of the Industry
4. The hobby became popularized by the media hysteria over the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Though the lies and misrepresentations in things like Mazes and Monsters (1981) ultimately let to cultish assaults on D&D throughout the ’80s, the hoopla also massively popularized roleplaying.
5. A third cohort of players, the munchkins, appeared. New players appeared as a result of that popularization, mostly younger than the existing players. I’d never realized this was where the term munchkin likely originated, literally talking about the smaller (younger) players. I’d also never thought of them as a third cohort of players, what Peterson calls “native” players, but they definitely were, not sharing any of the preconceptions of the wargamers or the F&SF fans.
6. Gary Gygax closed the D&D rules for the publication of AD&D. Meanwhile, Gary Gygax was also revamping the OD&D rules into AD&D, and these rules were not just more extensively written, but also purposefully closed. This was a dramatic change from the open nature of OD&D.
The Elusive Shift
7. Native roleplayers accepted closed gaming as the true form of roleplaying. The first part of the shift comes from the fact that the new native gamers accepted the closed nature of AD&D as the way RPGs were supposed to be: games of rules, not rulings. That’s because they had nothing to compare with: AD&D was the game they met, not the previous community of rules hacking. So this shift wasn’t a shift in existing fans, but rather a demographic-led shift.
8. Creators rebelled against the closed nature of AD&D. Meanwhile, creators were unthrilled by this change. They were invested in being an open community of mechanic hackers, and they intended to continue. This was another part of the shift, as Gygax lost control of the roleplaying industry.
9. Glenn Blacow suggested a categorization of players. Parallel with all of this, but not necessarily linked to the other milestones, was Blacow’s division of gameplay into four types: role-playing, wargaming, ego-tripping, and story-telling. This touched back upon the earliest divisions of the industry between wargamers (wargaming), F&SF fans (role-playing & story-telling), and now munchkins (ego-tripping, later called power gaming). The shift came from the fact that after years of arguing over what roleplaying was, under the Blacow model, all of these sorts of gamplay could be accepted.
And that’s how Peterson suggests the industry matured: as creators rose up against the strictures of Gygax to create their own view of the industry, and as they simultaneously recognized that the industry could serve a lot of different types of players in a lot of different ways.
What We Learn About Design Battles
The other intriguing thing in The Elusive Shift is that it reveals how long-lived some of the arguments in gaming are.
- In “System Does Matter” (1999), Ron Edwards pushed the controversial GNS theory, which suggested that RPGs could be games, narratives, or simulations, and got a lot of flak for his proselytization of storytelling. But storytelling had been discussed as one goal of roleplaying back to the ’70s, including in the Blacow model.
- The classification of gameplay, and thus gamers, thus goes back to the ’70s as wel.
- GM-less RPGs have been a big innovation of the indie industry, but the early industry argued about whether referees were a defining element of RPGs or even necessary, with GDW’s En Garde! (1975) being an early example of a refereeless game.
- The linked question of player agency goes back at least Top Secret (1980).
- Players argued about whether alignments were proscriptive or descriptive at the dawn of the industry, mirroring decades of arguments that followed over mental and emotional stats.
As Peterson says, “a lack of institutional memory seemed to doom the community to reinvent many concepts in design and theory”.
Hopefully the history books of the 21st century, of which The Elusive Shift is one of the newest, will start to overcome that, and allow our industry to move forward by looking back.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #61 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.