Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review - The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca

Short review: An academic look at fantasy gaming tracing its roots from Tolkien through wargaming, table-top role-playing, CRPGs, MUDs, MMORPGs, and LARPS.

All use Fellowships

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Evolution of Fantasy Role Playing Games is an academic look at the development of fantasy role-playing across multiple gaming platforms from its earliest iteration as a variant on table-top wargaming, through pen and paper role playing games (RPGs), to computer role playing games (CRPGs), to multi-user dungeons (MUDs), live-action role-playing (LARPs), and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). He even delves into the somewhat obscure topics of play-by-mail games and interactive fiction (such as the Choose Your Own Adventure books) As one might imagine, this is an enormously broad range of topics to cover over a fairly substantial period of time. In many ways, the book tries to cover too much, and as a result, is only able to give a fairly perfunctory examination of any one subject.

Tresca starts the book by introducing his primary theme: the idea of role-playing games as a vehicle for playing in the form of a "Fellowship", as described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring. The major theme of the book is identifying how roleplaying games built themselves upon the idea of a diversified team of individuals of differing backgrounds and disparate skills working together towards a common goal. And to this end, Tresca works his way through the full panoply of game types and assesses each in turn, devoting a chapter to each overall area. But because he devotes only ten to thirty pages of text to each topic, he is only able to cover the history and development of each one in a modestly superficial manner. For anyone who is a gamer already, the treatment given to these topics will probably be only moderately informative, covering material they probably mostly know, and for anyone who isn't a gamer the limited amount of material is likely to flash by so quickly that they won't be able to understand what arguments Tresca is making.

The book has a few other niggling problems. One is formatting, which I hope will be fixed in the final version: there are several references cited in the text, but they are merely cited by author and year, omitting the work that the reference cites to which is quite frustrating. The book also contains a fair number of pages discussing fantastical races and professions in role-playing games (heavily slanted towards the ones found in the Dungeons & Dragons game), which seemed to me like a poor use of the space. This section seemed somewhat unnecessary, and it meant that less space could be devoted to discussing the historical development of role-playing games. It seemed clear to me that Tresca was trying to support his Fellowship theory by including these descriptions to show how the differing roles players could take would complement one another, but the book is too short to fully explore this and give a historical overview of the development of gaming. Either the book should have focused on one or the other, or it needed to be substantially longer to cover such a broad range of topics.

One final weakness, which also turns out to be a strength of the book is the intensely personal nature of much of the experiences related by Tresca. Interspersed throughout the text are anecdotes about his personal gaming experiences or the gaming experiences of people he knows personally. Tresca also includes some fairly extended discussion concerning his experiences with RetroMUD, a MUD that he has participated in as a player and an administrator for several years. This adds a level of immediacy to the text without which might have been a dry and uninteresting experience to read. The drawback is that by relating these very idiosyncratic experiences, Tresca runs the risk of having the reader wonder exactly how generalized the applicability of his observations might be. After all, it is very interesting on a personal level that Tresca has spent many years helping keep a MUD going, but MUDs are fairly rare now, and even at the height of their popularity were not all that common a form of gaming. On the whole, this element enhances the effectiveness of the book, but it does come with some drawbacks.

But these moderate problems do not detract from the fact that the book identifies exactly why so many popular presentations of gaming so completely misrepresent it. By focusing on the element of collaborative play, Tresca has identified and explained the element that makes role-playing games different from so many other endeavors, and what makes them such a valuable experience for so many of the participants. In most popular fiction, where role-playing games are presented, they are usually presented as being turned into some sort of competitive sport - as an example, a scene in The X-Files in which a collection of D&D players were placing wagers on whether one of them could roll a natural twenty on his twenty-sided die - as if the writer could not imagine a game in which the players worked together towards a common goal. This is not to mention those somewhat deluded religious zealots who imagine that the players participate in order to derive some sort of occult prowess, once again the idea that people would play a game in order to work together collaboratively and for no other reason seems to be beyond the ken of non-players.

For anyone who is looking for a definitive history of the development of role-playing games, this book is likely to be a little bit of a disappointment. For anyone looking for a comprehensive treatment of the social aspects of role-playing games, this is also likely to be a bit of a disappointment. This book is neither of those things. It is a kind of hybrid that gives a rough outline of the history of role-playing games, and a brief glimpse of the social framework that these games engender. This book is more the first salvo in the effort to take on role-playing games as an academic subject, rather than the final word. As a launching point for a more complete treatment of either, this is an excellent beginning.

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  1. Love your blog name..nice colors too.

    I see you are on the Blog Tour for Lost in Shangri-La....I am too.

    Stopping by to say hello and to let you know I am having a giveaway on my blog for DANCE LESSONS by Aine Greaney.


  2. @Elizabeth: Good to meet someone else on the Lost in Shangri-La blog tour. Your blog is beautiful.