My first role-playing game (RPG) was Traveller from game Designers’ Workshop back in 1979. In the same little store where I discovered my first wargame, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979), I found a small, very plain black box with three Little Black Books inside. So started my RPG adventures which would parallel my wargame experiences. As I was a solid military history reader and generally avoided fantasy science fiction in those days I never felt the urge to play Dungeons & Dragons like a few of my friends. But that was OK; we played the heck out of Traveller for RPGs and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979+) for wargaming back in those days. All of which means I entered the world of RPGs without realizing that I was amongst defining moments of the hobby. The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson provides a “lost” history of how Dungeons & Dragons and other games came to define a new genre of gaming – the role-playing game.
As Peterson points out, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) did not call itself a role-playing game. Indeed, the cover stated it was, “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns” (Peterson, 15). Starting from this observation, Peterson in The Elusive Shift takes the reader on a historical survey of how role-playing games came to be defined; or, as Mr. Peterson says:
It is not the ambition of this study to settle on a tidy dictionary defintion of role-playing game but instead to show historically how the game community came to grapple with agreeing on one.Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 19
A Munchkin Grognard Traveller Perspective
Like I already stated, my first foray into RPGs was through Traveller, not D&D. At the same time I was entering the wargaming hobby. Forty years later I consider myself a wargame Grognard, that of an “Old Guard” of players who have been involved in the hobby a long time. So it was interesting to realize that in RPG terms of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that I was a “munchkin.” As Peterson relates:
It was around this time that the pejorative term munchkin entered the role players’ vocabulary. The Wargamer’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (1981) defines a munchkin as “a young wargamer, generally under 14 or 16 years of age,” in contrast to a grognard, “a wargamer who has been in the hobby a very long time.”Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 232
As I was 12 years old when I got my first wargame and RPG, I was actually a very young munchkin which is probably why I missed out on so much of the background fighting over what the RPG hobby was; I simply did not have the money to subscribe to all those newsletters or magazines where the discussion was taking place! Even if I did subscribe, as a sixth-grader the discussion may even had gone right over my head (figuratively and literally).
Through reading The Elusive Shift I also came to discover just how much of an influence Traveller has on my definition of an RPG. Peterson goes so far to call Traveller a “transcending design” (p. 173) and devotes an Intermezzo in his book to the game. Since Traveller was my first, and for several years my only, RPG* when I read the “rules” I accepted them as “the way” without question. Peterson points out that how one plays Traveller is a matter of player preference; “There are three basic ways to play Traveller: solitaire, scenario, and campaign. Any of these three may be unsupervised (that is, without a referee; the players themselves administer the rules and manipulate the situation” (Traveller Book 1, p. 3). To this day I have no problem playing an RPG solo; it has always been an option from the beginning. I also have no problem setting up a one-shot scenario or digging into a campaign. Again, that has always been “just the way it is.” I also was very happy to see Jon Peterson call Traveller, “perhaps one of the most adaptable of the designs of the 1970s” (p. 173) though he says that because the game exemplifies the extremes of both open-ended (with a Gamemaster) and close-ended (no referee) systems. Without trying to ignite an “Edition Wars”
argument discussion here I’ll just say that these days I am very happy with the Cepheus Engine version of Traveller which is very similar to the original Little Black Books Classic Traveller from decades ago.
In The Elusive Shift Peterson shows how Dungeons & Dragons grew out of both the wargaming and science fiction fan communities. Again, as I entered both genres of hobby gaming at the same time I didn’t really see any “legacy” issues . All of which means I never really got into the whole “D&D is a wargame”
controversy discussion because RPGs and wargames were always two related-yet-distinct facets of hobby gaming to me.
To this day, the wargame community constantly grapples with the age-old question “What is a wargame?” Heck, even I took a stab at answering that question in an episode of the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast for the Armchair Dragoons. Peterson’s The Elusive Shift shows us how a closely related community grappled with a very similar defining issue. This book won’t give wargamers an answer to their question but it certainly can promote understanding of how the RPG community came to some agreement.
Coming together. In agreement. What a novel concept!
Peterson, Jon, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021 (Apple Books electronic edition)
*I’m not sure what my second RPG was, but it may have been Commando by SPI (1979) which Peterson notes is both a wargame AND and RPG. I know my copy has marked up charts where we tried to convert Commando tables for use in our Traveller activities. Behind Enemy Lines (1st Edition, FASA 1982) is clearly my next RPG after Traveller, though some might argue that it is more a skirmish-level wargame adventure guide than a “true” RPG.