Friday, December 24, 2010

Book Review: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games


I've just finished reading Michael Tresca's new book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, and I wanted to share my thoughts. It's a grand history of both role-playing in its many forms and Tresca's own games and explorations over the last several decades. His love of games and imagination rings clearly throughout his perceptive analyses and clear, cogent descriptions of games, ideas, and behavior. He brings a thoughtful, theoretical background, based in his own wide experience in gaming and his graduate work examining the behavior of online gamers.

Tresca and I are about the same age, so it was a fond parallel reminiscence to follow his stories of white box D&D, early computer games, and the possibilities and frustrations of various forms of role-playing, but I was most fascinated by the academic frameworks that he discusses in his Introduction and then applies throughout the rest of the book. He presents ideas about Media Richness (p. 5), Anonymity (p. 7), Frames of Reference (p. 8), Time (p. 11), and Culture (p. 12) and then goes on to employ these ideas succinctly for at least eight, depending on how you categorize and count them, different forms of role-playing.

Tresca spends the first chapter exploring the narrative elements of The Lord of the Rings and fantasy literature in general as a foundation for Dungeons and Dragons and the other early tabletop role-playing games that drew inspiration from it. There is brilliant literary analysis here. Some of this chapter, especially the sections on classes and such, reads at first as if Tresca is applying structures not natural to Tolkien, but in doing this, he nicely elucidates the elements within the master's work that flowed directly into modern role-playing games.

The next chapter incongruously discusses miniature wargaming and collectible card games in almost the same breath. While I found the chronology a little hard to follow, it did illuminate me to the similarities, co-evolution, and convergences of these two seemingly different types of games. The interactions of the various branches and types of games is a theme Tresca returns to again and again in later chapters. Some might argue that these two kinds of games are not really role-playing, but another focus in Tresca's work is to view games on various spectra of media and engagement.

The third chapter examines tabletop role-playing, my favorite form, in the greatest detail, focusing primarily on the ongoing development of Dungeons & Dragons. Again, he casts links back to Tolkien and miniatures and forward to the evolution of computer, online, card, and live-action games. He also demonstrates the ways in which this game has expanded from its wargaming, victory-based roots to be a platform for many kinds of games and game settings. In the twenty-first century, with its fourth edition, Dungeons & Dragons has returned to some of the elements that founded it. Tresca cites Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson many times, allowing for their massive influence on the game's origin and development but also acknowledging the many other hands that have affected role-playing. Dungeons & Dragons is the big game, but while a few other games like Tunnels & Trolls and Chivalry & Sorcery receive mention, I would have enjoyed a careful exploration of the various developments in the wider field of tabletop role-playing games. Perhaps that is for another book.

Subsequent chapters explore play-by-post and browser-based games, gamebooks and computer-based interactive fiction (IF), multi-user dungeons (MUDs), computer role-playing games, massive muliplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), and live-action role-playing games (LARPs). My own background does not include some of these areas in any meaningful way. Sure, I've lived in the hobby world during the last forty years, but I have found plenty enough entertainment and intellectual challenge in traditional, tabletop role-playing. I do write academic LARPs for my own classroom and others, and my work with GAMA in the past has exposed me to many wonderful ideas in everything from dice games to console scenarios, from miniatures to massive online games, but Tresca is able to bring his deep experience to bear on this wide range of game types, illuminating their interrelated and distinct qualities and showing how role-playing continues to evolve.

An aspect of role-playing that Tresca explores only briefly in his introduction (p. 12) is the way in which one's native culture affects the development of role-playing. He cites Britain's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and elements within Japanese computer role-playing games, but this would be a fascinating topic to discuss further. It would probably take collaborators from many countries, looking at their own and each other's games for insight. Again, another book.

I highly recommend The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games for both its historiographical content and its exploration of the theoretical boundaries of various forms of role-playing and our sprawling hobby overall.

Tresca has a wonderful and frequent blog, where you can read more of his diverse ideas on a daily basis. You can reach McFarland Publishing on the net or by phone at 800-253-2187.

Have fun!


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