Sunday, February 12, 2012

Project RTFM

I've been doing some more reading, as part of what I'm calling Project RTFM (getting round to reading my unread books), and I've read a few RPG-related ones. Firstly, "Ready Player One", a novel by Ernest Cline. I've been reading quite a few novels lately, but this is by far the most entertaining.

It's a sci-fi story set in the mid-21st century where almost everyone spends most of their time in OASIS, a virtual reality world that's like Second Life, Facebook, and World of Warcraft all put together. The creator of OASIS died an eccentric recluse with no friends or family, and his public will left his vast fortune to the first user to find the Easter Egg he hid inside OASIS. The catch: the Egg is hidden behind layers of crazy-hard obscure puzzles, the only clues buried in the trivia of his lifelong obsessions: classic videogames and the pop culture from his teenage years - the 1980s. A subculture of egg hunters ("gunters") immerse themselves in the lore of these subjects hoping to find the jackpot, but several years on, none have made any progress at all.

The story's about a teenage gunter who figures out the first puzzle, becomes the first name on the online scoreboard, and finds out that with so much at stake it's not just a game anymore. The novel is as much a homage to the 80s and geek culture (including D&D) as it is a virtual-world treasure hunt, and has a feel like the action-adventure movies of the era that it references (and the references are many - Ghostbusters gets quoted just a few paragraphs in and it keeps going from there). To any gamer old enough to remember the 80s, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

I'm currently reading "Designers & Dragons" by Shannon Appelcline, a history of the RPG history. The research and scholarship that's obviously gone into it is astonishing, and the writing style is pitch-perfect, with enough opinion and personality to keep it from being dry, but not so much as to detract from it's credibility as a proper historical text. The only major weakness is the editing, with too many typos, and in one case I noticed a sidebar-quote had been duplicated (thereby erasing whatever the second quote was supposed to be). The book has no index, but that has apparently been released free online. It's a bit on the pricy side, but the reason becomes clear upon seeing it: it's a weighty leather-look black tome with a visual style somewhere between an encyclopedia and a grimoire.

The book is organised by company, and of course I began with the first, TSR, with their rollercoaster from founding the whole hobby and making D&D a household name, to being run into the ground and falling - twice - to the brink of bankruptcy. I already knew some of the specifics, but the book filled in plenty of gaps that I didn't know about. I've found myself wondering what "might have been" when reading a lot of this, including the story of West End Games, who nearly avoided their demise in the mid-90s (and what might have then happened to the Star Wars licence), and of course the young Wizards of the Coast (before Magic: the Gathering) who just barely survived the infamous lawsuit from Palladium with the help of mediation from within the gaming industry, and what would've happened if Wizards hadn't been around in '97 to save TSR with their CCG money.

I recommend Designers & Dragons to readers interested in the history of RPGs, specifically the business side. The details of the actual games themselves are fairly thin, but the stories of the companies and people who made them make fascinating reading in their own right.

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