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Tracking Down the Elusive Shift: A Review

In Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, he correctly pointed out that Dungeons & Dragons, despite being known as the first role-playing game, didn’t actually explain how to role-play. His follow-up, The Elusive Shift, explains how RPGs came to define themselves.

In Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, he correctly pointed out that Dungeons & Dragons, despite being known as the first role-playing game, didn’t actually explain how to role-play. His follow-up, The Elusive Shift, explains how RPGs came to define themselves.


Anyone familiar with Jon’s earlier work knows that he’s an extremely thorough RPG scholar with access to vast resources. Peterson draws on these resources for his book, including fanzines like Alarums & Excursions, but also role-playing game competitors and offshoots like Chivalry & Sorcery, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Bunnies & Burrows. In addition to the fanzine commentary, where big RPG ideas were grappled with in a public forum, these competitors demonstrated how nascent game designers decided what a role-playing game actually was. The results are not necessarily surprising but are, in an era where we are still arguing about the same topics today, enlightening.

Two Different Audiences​

Gygax was staunchly from the wargaming world, but he understood the marketing opportunities of an audience that could zero in on the adventures of an individual instead of an army, and he found that audience in the fans of Conan and Fafhrd. Sci-fi fans are a broad group however, and as Peterson pointed out in Playing At the World, also included ancillary gaming and hobbies like live action role-players (before they were formally known as LARPs):
…the authors of D&D appreciated that there were two distinct markets. “From the sampling of wargame players I have spoken to about fantasy and SF,” Gygax wrote in the fall of 1974, “and this number runs into several hundreds, it appears that there is a correlation between interest in imaginative writing and imaginative game playing. Some 90% of the sampling declare an interest in fantasy and SF”.
The good news for D&D was that, thanks to an audience that went well beyond wargaming, the game was a huge success with both audiences. But sci-fi fans engaged differently than he anticipated. The rest of The Elusive Shift looks at each element of D&D through the lens of these two (admittedly broad and imprecise) groups.

The Original Goal of D&D​

Part of what made Original Dungeons & Dragons so compelling was its free-form nature. Gamers inferred from D&D's levels, experience points, and increasing attack abilities that the goal of D&D was to become a "superperson":
D&D does not specify any ultimate objective of its play—unlike its close imitator Tunnels & Trolls, which would state quite bluntly in its 1975 edition that “the true object of this game is to accumulate as many experience points as possible and by this means advance your first level character into as much of a superperson as you can.” Gygax in 1976 would say much the same of a D&D campaign: “progression, rather than winning per se, is the object”…The progression system of D&D implies a character arc: characters begin as inexperienced, weak, and undifferentiated yet will over time grow in power, gain confidence, and develop a personal history, if not a legend.”
But not all players were satisfied with this conclusion. Many wanted a story to go along with it; some gamers expected a character arc that might not even fit the superhero narrative. This is what made Call of Cthulhu so innovative in comparison, because its flipped the superhero arc, giving players a limited time to tell a good story before their character died or went insane. This concept, incidentally, was proposed as early as 1975 in fanzines and predated the Call of Cthulhu RPG by several years.

There's another game in D&D that Peterson identifies, and this one is for the Dungeon Master. This "DM game" is to make a challenging dungeon for the players. The dungeon puts the DM in clear opposition (but not too much opposition) to the players, but it was not without controversy. If the DM is merely an arbiter, he sets up the dungeon and lets the results play out, good or bad. If the DM is storyteller, the dice rolls are up to interpretation, molding but not defining the outcomes.

Neither approach was right or wrong, because D&D never came down on one side or the other.

How Do You Play D&D Anyway?​

Peterson pointed out in Playing At the World that the original D&D books didn't explain exactly how to play D&D. Without a clear means of playing, players brought their previous gaming experience with them. Wargamers approached D&D as a wargame; that is, a simulationist military exercise featuring man-to-man combat in a dungeon. D&D's rules, with its reliance on combat, supported this approach because that was Gygax's's experience.

But other gamers took an entirely different tack. It's sometimes difficult to imagine through the lens of the Basic and Advanced versions of D&D, but the Original game's framework was so loose that players interpreted not just the rules themselves but the definition of role-play. Some dungeon masters didn't let players roll dice at all and just asked the players what they wanted to do, so that their responses were filtered entirely through the DM.

A Question of Control​

The lack of definition of how D&D was supposed to be played meant that inevitably, different play styles would evolve. TSR realized that if D&D was to be a viable business model, the completely open, "play a dragon if you want" style of play wouldn't lend itself to repeat purchases. Worse, reports from fanzines demonstrated the friction between groups of play styles that largely incompatible. For TSR to thrive, the company would need to define the game more sharply.

This explains the shift in tone from OD&D to AD&D, which leaned much more on simulationist rules. But in a nod to players who wanted to not just run a simulation but play in a story, Gygax admitted in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide that the dice did not decide everything and could even be fudged once in a while to keep the game moving along. This was Rule Zero: The DM can throw out any rule.

At its heart, Rule Zero reinforced the idea that D&D was a game created by group play, not by any one publisher, including TSR. Because OD&D’s rules set wasn't particularly robust to begin with, the game invited this kind of tinkering. Each game was unique to the table, with a dizzying variety of house rules and customizations.

Are the dice tools for the DM and players to tell a story, or are they inviolate arbiters of circumstance? Some game designers were unhappy with the answer, which would eventually develop into its own branch of role-playing focused on storytelling. As Russ reported, this is the origin of 5E's inspiration and countless other "spend a point to change the game" rules that gives more control of outcomes to players.

I Was a Teenage Munchkin​

Much ink was spilled about a younger generation of players coming into the hobby without the benefit of the OD&D free-form approach. These players would learn D&D from the Basic and Advanced versions and, the thinking went at the time, would see the rules as inviolate. The focus of who dictated the rules would shift from the DM at the table to whatever TSR published. The original gamers from OD&D who valued their improvisation were coined "grognards" and the young upstarts who were focused on using the rules to “become a superperson” were termed "munchkins."

I was introduced to Basic D&D at seven-years-old (my mom DMed my first game) and, when I later introduced it to my neighbors, had no idea that there was an "Original" version much less an "Advanced" version. My own gaming group split once we discovered there were more advanced rules to play with, which we eventually embraced. It wasn't until high school that I finally gamed with an older player from college, who was so horrified by how chaotic our game was that he quit on the spot.

In short, I was one of the munchkins that grognards complained about in fanzines. Peterson sums this generational conflict up nicely:
Many of the earliest adopters of D&D had begun playing as teenagers and were by the end of the decade college graduates. We inevitably lash out most harshly at the failings in others that we know we have exhibited ourselves. With sufficient exposure to the game and with the maturity of age, the early adopters of role-playing games fervently renounced the desire for power that many readily confessed had motivated them when they first began playing.

Pinning Down the Elusive Shift​

The shift Peterson writes about is so elusive that it's hard to pinpoint when it happened. There isn't really a specific moment where the industry decided what it wanted to be as it matured. Different designers went in different directions, rejecting or refining the initial premise of D&D to create their own games with their own fans. Similarly, The Elusive Shift's final chapter segues to the next generation of designers (like Robin Laws, Jonathan Tweet, and Mark Rein-Hagen) who would further develop their own ideas about what role-playing should be.

But the old arguments are never settled. The battles over how to play D&D that played out in the opinion section of fanzines--whether dice should rule or be ignored, whether D&D's goal is to play a superperson or tell a good story--are indistinguishable from the same arguments that take place on the Internet today.

Peterson's goal then is not to answer the question of what caused a shift in role-playing but rather to frame the conversation. In that regard, he lays the framework for understanding how we've made so much progress and how far we have to go. But for answers to what was next for the role-playing industry and D&D in particular, we'll have to wait for his next book.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

I think that's in no small part why early on it was so dependent on word-of-mouth and gamers evangelizing the game - you needed someone else to explain what the game was, because the books weren't always that clear on the matter.

Peterson pointed out in Playing At the World that the original D&D books didn't explain exactly how to play D&D. Without a clear means of playing, players brought their previous gaming experience with them.

Looking forward to reading The Elusive Shift - it's sitting there in my to-read pile.


The EN World kitten
I'm halfway through The Elusive Shift now, and it's absolutely fascinating to read. I've already put in a pre-order on the Peterson's next book!

Elusive Shift was probably my top RPG(-related) book of the last years. Having started playing only in the 90s, I never realized how long some of these debates and tensions have been going on. Definitely a recommended read for anyone remotely interested in a meta perspective on RPGs.

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
It's always fascinating to me at what conclusions or observations people reach about those early days of Tabletop rpg game play. For me back then, I was just caught up in the wonder and fun. Sure playing various board games, including war games was fun. The big sea change though was when DnD, Traveller, Runequest and Tunnels and Trolls were coming out, they changed everything.

We'd still play various board and war games sure, but we definitely started spending more time on these new rpgs. More time talking about them, more time designing our own adventures and worlds and a lot of time spent trying to understand the rules of those original books and then the AD&D 1st edition rules as they started coming out. We still played the board and war games though.

Star Fleet battles, Napoleonic's, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, Cosmic Encounter, Squad Leader and quite a few others that have slipped my memory over the decades. Personally I never counted myself as just a tabletop rpg gamer or war gamer. I was simply a gamer and loved to game. I loved going to the game shops growing up in the 1970's in southern California and hanging out and gaming in the game room. Fond, fond memories of late nights gaming at the shops, sometimes until dawn. They'd close up the front and lock the doors and we'd game on.

Anyhow I find these articles deeply fascinating, in the same way I find it very interesting to listen to the podcasts from players in other places and counties. The Grognard Podcast is one of those examples, they started a few years later and were younger than I was when I started in California in the 1970's but their stories about what they experienced are never boring and often very amusing.

They apparently didn't have multiple groups of players or easy access to multiple game shops. They also had some amusing if odd rules within their group, like who ever first bought the rules book was the only one who could have it. I thought back to some of the groups I played with and tried to imagine that rule being tossed into the mix and had a good chuckle. Nope, never gonna happen.


“the true object of this game is to ... advance your first level character into as much of a superperson as you can.” (slightly snipped to accommodate milestone levelling)

I think this perfectly encapsulates my gaming philosophy both as a player and when I'm writing adventures. If I ever publish the solo paladin campaign I'm working on, I should state this upfront.

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
So that's where the OSR came from. I just figured people got sick of all the rules, but apparently there was a preexisting base of players who had played the free-form version of the game. Thanks!

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