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Designers and Dragons

Designers and Dragons. Shannon Appelcline
Original Publication: 2011
Current Availability: Print and eBook

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared at RPG.Net in November of 2011 and appears here and in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.

Shannon Appelcline should need no introduction to deeper readers of RPG.net, as one of one the movers and shakers of this great web resource. His columns on Traveller and his gaming advice all piqued my interest over the years that I have been visiting this site. Not to mention his work over at Skotos Tech Inc. should let anyone know that he is “one of us”. Thus, when I started reading his columns on gaming history I was intrigued and interested to read more. For often one reads about one company’s history in tiny blurbs that the company together, otherwise it is hunting and finding and piecing together multiple documents sometimes based on little more than hearsay or worse written by former employees with a need to lash out at their former employers. Then there were some solid volumes that were written in the heyday of tabletop Role Playing (the 1980s) by outside “experts” – these were often pedantic and dry but nothing much has been written save scholarly treatises on gaming theory in recent times. One notable exception was Dietz’s Horsemen of the Apocalypse but that was written over a decade ago. Thus, I read Appelcine’s history of gaming columns with great interest but always felt cheated somehow – that is because they were laying the ground for a book.

And, boy, what a book! From its faux leather binding to its clear renditions/scans of games gone by was a trip back to my youth. Upon reading this book, it more than a trip down memory lane but a comprehensive and complete history right up to the publishing date of Summer 2010 (and supported beyond with a web page). The fact that is so up-to-date gives its distinction from other books and its depth is unparalleled by even earlier volumes. Some companies get more attention than others but scarcely could I find a company that even had a vague recollection of not covered. So, if you ever wondered what happened to company X...look no further than this impressive volume. Furthermore, the language is crisp and nothing is wasted in terms of flowery purple prose. Accurate brief descriptions of lines and gaming systems go hand- in-hand with gaming histories. Mongoose/Appelcline has done an amazing job in editing his web columns and transferring them into book form. For the book both reads like a conventional text but also has embedded in hypertext that would lead the reader to other sections (nice although if included page numbers – if one is looking to nitpick). Although, I found this made this book very fun to read and re-read as a result of its superior layout.

So, if you like Designer Notes, you will find the offerings here meager but meaty enough to get you want to read more by tracking down some of these obscure references. For this work has been meticulously researched and references many out of print volumes – making any gamer worth their salt jealous of Appelcline’s gaming collection. Interspersed throughout the text is interesting quotations from company founders culled from interviews. What I found so fascinating is how egotistic and narcissistic many of those early game companies were in protecting their Intellectual Property. One wonders if role playing games would not be more popular if there was not more collaboration and cooperation in those early days. It tries not to pass judgement but occasionally bias creeps in, such as the catastrophic effect that the CCG industry had on tabletop gaming or TSR/WotC/Hasbro’s domination of the industry.

However, these biases must be understood, as this is an accurate reflection of what was/is the state of the industry today in North America...a severely fragmented and fractured marketplace hampered by a credit crunch and diminishing consumer spending power. Nonetheless, this is not the whole picture – for maybe I am wrong but it would seem centre of gaming has shifted away from North America and been inserted into Europe. This is somewhat covered in tracts dealing with British companies but there has been a venerable explosion of role playing in Germany, Spain, France and Sweden – all of which several magnitude better quality than some of the offerings currently available in North America. Furthermore, gaming conventions are proliferating across Europe – and here’s the kicker – the lingua franca still remains English.

The other limitation of this work is the lack of a comprehensive index – both a subject index and a name index – this is perhaps the books greatest flaw. There is also a need for more illustrations. Several fans of the gaming columns took it upon themselves to create elaborate maps tracing out the developments of their favorite company’s fortunes and waning periods as well as their critical mistakes (a pity that some of these maps were not included) – but that can be done for 2nd edition. Sometimes, I found myself lost in memory lane, so more details about products that I spied in the gaming store but never having the money to buy would have been welcome – but that would be a book of reviews and not a history of the industry. Also, something that was rather surprising is how short thrift the Old School Gaming companies got. Maybe, it is my locale but old school gaming is actually bringing people back into gaming.

All said and done, this is a fantastic and invaluable work but not for the faint of heart, it took a good 10 days to read it and another 5 days to re-read and digest it. It is the perfect gift for the lifelong gamer – those geeks and freaks, my wife likes to call us. I look forward to a second edition that would rectify those minor drawbacks noted above and also provide some histories of the preludes – wargaming, interludes – CCG and possible futures – virtual tables.