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Fiction: 'The Shadows on the Wall' by Mary Wilkins Freeman

Underground Reading: Dicing with Dragons and Shared Fantasy

Spurred, I suppose, by my middling opinion of Of Dice and Men, I've picked up a pair of books about gaming: Gary Alan Fine's Shared Fantasy and Ian Livingstone's Dicing with Dragons. Although both have the same broad topic - an introduction into tabletop RPGs and the people that play them - the two books are, unsurprisingly, very different.

DicingWithDragonsMr. Livingstone's book is about the games themselves. Dicing with Dragons (1982) is more of an overtly commercial volume: an introduction to the ways and means of games for a reader that is presumably interested in having a go themselves. 

Dicing with Dragons is a exhaustive survey of the 1982 gaming scene, and includes all the options available for the interested gamer (there are hundreds! It takes a whole chapter!). For the 'big' games of the era - D&D, Runequest, Tunnels and Trolls and Traveller - he even provides more in-depth comparisons. Dungeons and Dragons, he finds slightly unrealistic, but grants that as the first of them all, is prone to the most criticism. Tunnels and Trolls is interesting primarily for its accessibility to the solo gamer. And Traveller, he concludes, requires a good grounding in scientific topics (which, Livingstone believes, all science fiction readers will have). It is essentially a catalogue... but one written by a great of the genre. And Livingstone's criticism is genuinely interesting - above all, this is one of the most influential game designers ever, busily reviewing contemporary (and now arguably 'primordial') games.

That said, collectors are mostly interested in Dicing with Dragons because of the solo adventure it contains (apparently a must for Fighting Fantasy completists!), which is also nice (I got squished to death).

Charmingly, there's also a long section about how computers (oooooh!) and their impact on the RPG world, although, at the time of writing, their immediate benefit was in rapidly calculating 'play by mail' results. Independent play is actually a theme throughout the book. RPGs weren't quite as ubiquitous in 1982 and, presumably, the reader buying this book didn't have friends to explain the games to them. As someone that grew up and played D&D during its era of wildest popularity, solo play was very rarely mentioned in game materials, magazines or references. And now any chapter on one-person RPGs would presumably be two words: "Buy X-Box".

Given Livingstone's importance as a designer, the section on 'how to create and run a game' is also particularly significant. Since I mostly know his work as the creator of Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery - games that are, by their nature, extremely structured - I was surprised to see that he was of a fairly modern, "shared storytelling" perspective. He urges Dungeon Masters not to over-extend themselves, but to keep things simple, as players will invariably start going in their own direction. And even in the  most linear dungeon crawl, DMs should be "neutral" - a stark contrast to the deliberately antagonistic stance reputedly taken by Gary Gygax (see Of Dice and Men and "Destroy All Monsters").

Mr. Fine is a noted sociologist, and, although Shared Fantasy (1983) is one of his first books, it is one in a 'series' of studies of small group dynamics - including Little League baseball teams, restaurant staff  and mushroom hunters. 

Shared FantasyShared Fantasy is dry stuff - although Fine immersed himself into the world of gaming, he's less interested in selling it as a pastime. Instead, he is interested in the interactions between the players, and what sort of behaviour is encouraged (or attracted) by fantasy role-playing. Rather than detailing the games, he parses seemingly every statement uttered by the players, looking for trends and patterns. I only had two quibbles, neither of which were actually even within the scope of Fine's work:

  • Fine is, ultimately, drawing his conclusions from a microcosm of a microcosm - his experiences in one (geographically localised) gaming community. I don't think this invalidates his conclusions, but, as he himself notes, every gaming 'group' has a different personality. A community of multiple groups would (or may?) as well.
  • Fine is actually playing some really awesome games. He has, for example, astounding access to M.A.R. Barker and games set in the world of Tékumel. It is a shame that he's not paying more attention to the mechanics and session details. Obviously that is beyond the scope of this book, but as a historical document, it would've been rather nifty.

Quibbles aside, and, once I got used to the dry presentation, Shared Fantasy was - as intended - a wealth of fascinating information. As a book about gamingShared Fantasy is underwhelming, but as the record of a skilled sociologist poking around one facet of geekery, it is particularly enlightening.

A few of Fine's observations that seemed particularly pertinent:

  • The (for lack of a better word) increasingly granular loyalties. All gamers felt that their group was different - and better - to every other group. More fun, more diverse, more open and more "normal". Gamers believed that, as a community (that is, 'all those who game'), they weren't the social norm. But their individual fragment of it was. 
  • Everything about the gaming scene was uncomfortable for women. The 1980s games themselves were institutionalised sexism - Fine notes that the rulebooks had things like attribute penalties for female characters and contained comments that noted "adventuring" was a male pursuit. Women were recruited to gaming as "plus ones" - wives and girlfriends, brought into games at the request of their partners. Not only were women not invited in their own right, those were that were invited weren't given agency or the implicit power to recruit (e.g. women couldn't bring in more women). And, finally, the "escapist fantasy" of the games was seen as permission for male players to indulge in shared fantasies regarding the sexualisation (and occasionally debasement) of women. Female NPCs were presented as victims and trophies, for the male-run characters to 'use' as they saw fit.
  • Which leads into the final resonant point: the groups protect their own, often through inactivity. Fine noted situations that, even by 1983 standards were simply "not OK". For example, some players chose to have their characters commit sexual violence. Even if the other players were discomfited, they chose not to comment - instead telling Fine that "well, that's just [name]" (what a card!) or "he's just blowing off steam". Fine credits this with a natural conflict aversion - no one wants to 'spoil' the group or be seen as ruining the shared 'fun'. But the false loyalty to group 'balance' can lead to an unwelcoming, distasteful and even dangerous gaming environment. The immediate and most striking parallel is Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen revelation  - another situation in which a section of the SF/F community deliberately turned a blind eye to rather than upset the apple cart.

And there are more. What struck me was the familiarity of these patterns in 2014, and across other SF/F communities and fandoms. For example, even as tabletop games have improved as an institution, but we're now in the midst of a tumultuous discussion about sexism in computer and console games. Has Fine stumbled on a fundamental and immutable truth about the greater nature of SF/F communities, or are we squashing all our orcs one at a time, across all platforms? I suppose it depends on whether or not you're feeling optimistic.

To conclude with really sweeping generalisations: Livingstone's Dicing with Dragons is interesting because it is so dated - a peek at the formative years of role playing games. Fine's Shared Fantasy is interesting because it isn't: the games may have changed, but the players remain the same.