Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages: Photography in the SCA

As a recent immigrant to the Knowne World of the Society for Creative Anachronism and a fairly new convert to LARPing one of the potential issues I’ve encountered is taking pictures at costumed events. While many can disregard a camera pointing at them (and in fact, want their pictures taken), some participants at LARPs and SCA events find the mere presence of a camera to be jarring and a disruption. If Alexandre Franchi and Mark Krupa had to disguise their movie camera at the Bicolline site in Canada for The Wild Hunt, what might be expected of me at an SCA war? Fortunately there is an eBook on the subject, Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages: A Quick Guide to Photography within the Society of Creative Anachronism, available for Kindle readers on Amazon.com

That is, once the reader successfully makes it through the number of glaring spelling errors and typos that riddle Soul Stealing. Perhaps author Carl Trinkle, or as he is known in the SCA, William “Cookie” Barfoot, will be able to edit the multitude of errors out. One early sentence reads, “There are probably thousands deferent types, models and formats of cameras out there.” Another reads, “That lens has limited zoom capabilities and you there is no option for you if you want to improve your lens.” There is the misspelling of the birthplace of the SCA as “Berkley” instead of Berkeley, and then “out” for “our”, “cleaver” for “clever”, “grantee” for “guarantee”, and so on. Not to belabor the point, but, “There is hundreds of photo sharing website out there.” is just one of the many dozens of errors that permeate this 44-page work and speak to the lack of editing. Even the title differs from the Amazon store to within the eBook: Soul Stealing in the Current Middle Ages versus Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages.

Getting past the myriad typos and grammatical errors, Trinkle has a breezy, conversational tone with the occasional humorous aside. For the most part it works, but in reality, the “book” could really better be considered several in-depth blog posts or the sort of how-to that tends to appear pinned to the top of a board in online forums. From what I can see in the 22 photographs accompanying the text, Carl Trinkle is a talented SCA photographer, but the pictures are too tiny (generally around 320 by 200 pixels) and too few in number. The digital medium of Kindle would seem to be perfect for reproducing full color pictures that might be costly to print in a traditional book. There are also no comparisons between two similar pictures diagramming what is good about one picture’s lighting or composition and what is wrong with another. Even at only $2.99 for its 44 pages, this is just too little.

Small SCA pictures of children fighting and text from eBook Soul Stealing

Relative Size of Tiny Pictures to Text in Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages

Sections in Soul Stealing

What Trinkle does include are sections on cameras, light/aperture/ISO, equipment, and etiquette. Trinkle admits to being an anachronism himself because despite owning an iPad and advocating having a smart phone, he still shoots in 35mm and 120mm film. After going over his own cameras (including plastic disposable cameras which Trinkle employs for their ability to occasionally get surprisingly great shots), Trinkle leaps into exposure, f-stops, aperture, and ISO. Here he uses a truly SCAdian analogy to explain “how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together” that goes on for pages using terms like “ISO War Band”, “House of Aperture’s shield wall”, and “Autocrat Meter”. I found it bewildering, but his love of the SCA is always apparent.

The Kit: Equipment

Linen three-buttoned Jas Townsend and Sons haversack from 1800s

The Jas Townsend and Sons Linen Haversack

Trinkle’s section on equipment is where he really shines, though he worries aloud about advertising specific products, writing that he does not “mean to sound like a commercial”. He shoots with a 28mm-75mm zoom lens and a 75mm-300mm telephoto lens. He keeps these lenses, his film, iPad, and snacks in a “natural linen harvest sack” from Jas Townsend and Sons “that passes for a pilgrim’s bag or whatever you want to call it. Yes, it is strictly not period for the SCA timeline, but it is close enough for most people besides Laurels to not take notice.”


He also suggests a note pad to record subjects’ contact information and photographic settings, an 18% grey card to find the right exposure setting, and UV filters to protect the expensive lens in the event of a camera fall. There is the humorous suggestion of a dagger (“What if you are attacked by barbarians or corsairs or a bear or something?”) as well as many other mundane objects like Ziploc bags, duct tape, and a flashlight. He covers the basics, but then suggests possibly bringing the intriguingly-named “slave lights” without explaining just what slave lights are. Trinkle does wax poetic though about the flexible JOBY GorillaPod and points out that “the knock offs of the GorillaPod are not worth wasting your money on.”

Etiquette, Camera Disguises, and More

Trinkle next weighs the merits of the perfect photo versus ruining the moment for others at a event by the use of flash photography. Curiously he doesn’t touch upon blocking other photographers’ shots or the views of the attending populace, but he does point out possible legal issues for some members’ photos being taken including professional performers and those in law enforcement. Trinkle advises, “if you have to take that picture because every photographic fiber in your body says this is the picture of all pictures, I say take it. Then learn how to grovel really fast.”

Picture divided into nine sections to illustrate rule of thirds

Trinkle’s Example of the Rule of Thirds

Trinkle briefly mentions that other photographers use disguises for their cameras, but eschews the practice himself. Detailing that some people dress up their cameras and tripod as very skinny women is entertaining, but there is no photographic evidence of the practice and besides suggesting hollowing out a book to use as camouflage, Trinkle disappointingly has little to offer in this area. He moves on to actually taking pictures, making the most of early light near dawn, and gives an example of the Rule of Thirds using some household banners or personal devices. If Soul Stealing stuck closer to such examples, it would be much more useful.

Trinkle rounds out the book with an admonition to practice and experiment, as well as the suggestion that would-be photographers learn the rules of Heavy Combat to be able to take the best pictures (and avoid danger). Rapier combat should not be neglected though, Trinkle warns, as well as Arts and Sciences projects. Night time photography and portrait photography are also touched upon as well as photo-editing software. His parting advice is worth repeating: “Take pictures of all your events, we love to see them. Just remember not to ruin the dream for anyone by your picture taking. Sometimes it is better to miss the picture, but keep the memory.”

Final Thoughts on Soul Stealing

As it stands, Soul Stealing is an incomplete and error-laden work. Actual members of the SCA will benefit more from collegium classes on photography if available or by joining a photographers’ guild than by purchasing Trinkle’s work. Even an experienced photographer with a detachable lens spotted at an event will probably yield just as much valuable information. This is, after all, the SCA; members are generally friendly, courteous, and love to help others. However if none of those resources are available or you are the photographer in a LARP group struggling with how to take better pictures, Soul Stealing may prove to be helpful. At only $2.99, it will be one of the lowest costs you will incur in the SCA (or in LARPing for that matter).

Ultimately the most important question for any informational book or video has to be asked: has Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages increased my understanding or knowledge of photography in the SCA? No, not significantly. It is a $2.99 reminder of what I learned in an hour-long SCA photography class, but it did point me towards several useful pieces of equipment that I might soon acquire.

Photographs and text from Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages are copyright Carl Trinkle and used without permission under Fair Use doctrines of criticism and commentary.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Book cover with medieval illumination for TIme Traveller's Guide to Medieval EnglandI’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot out of my world travels, but in my visit to Japan, Shinto shrine blended into Shinto shrine. European castles vary, but only so much. Is one walled town so different from the next? Don’t get me started on Baroque and Rococo palaces. There is always a sense of place, but not necessarily of those who lived and died there. How did these people actually live? In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer provides a captivating answer for the English living from 1300 to 1400. Mortimer writes of Geoffrey Chaucer, that “he can make the people come alive, with all their desires, fears, deceitfulness, lustfulness, and cheating.” But Mortimer’s description is just as apt for his own writing and because he does breathe life into 14th century England, I recommend his guide to any English teacher aiming for a better understanding of Chaucer, student of history, or fan of Braveheart, as well as to any tabletop gamer or LARPer.

Beginning with his description of Shitbrook, the refuse-laden stream on the outskirts of Exeter, Mortimer unlocks the door to a treasure trove of medieval body functions. How one goes to the bathroom in a different place or time is really one of the most common questions we all have. In the case of medieval lords, Mortimer remarks, “wherever you go, a neat pile of wool or linen will be provided for you to “wipe your nether end.” Some great lords insist on cotton but it is not always available.” Life is different aboard a ship with Mortimer outlining diversions at sea, but he returns to the subject of relieving oneself and concludes that below decks on a ship, “Every storm has seen men and women emptying their stomachs, souls, and bowels down here in darkness and fear.” Occasionally Mortimer gets a little dry, such as when cataloguing merchants’ town house goods, but he gets juicy when describing surgeons, such as John of Alberne who pioneered surgical cleanliness as well as a method of “curing anal fistula, a nasty affliction following abscesses in the colon which particularly affects men who have spent too long riding in wet saddles…” Another medical highlight is provided in a quote from the physician John Mirfield on a remedy for tuberculosis: “take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water…” On the whole, Mortimer’s writing retains a conversational and informative flow with some occasional humor. In his chapter on medieval medicine he writes:

So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning, and the extreme violence you should live a long time.
All you have to worry about are the doctors.

Role-Playing and Gaming Connections

Besides a brief mention of popular medieval games, Mortimer’s book has little to do directly with gaming itself. But since medieval Europe – England in particular – is the basis for most of Western fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a great study in improving the earthiness and sense of reality for role-playing games. Even within the first paragraph of Ian Mortimer’s introduction he poses questions familiar to any role-player after first setting the scene of a dusty London street:

The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant’s purse near the traders’ stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As for those medieval games and pastimes Mortimer details campball (football/soccer), tennis, archery, and wrestling. More intriguingly he categorizes cockfighting as an interest of boys and girls and describes cockbaiting as “throwing sticks and stones at a tethered chicken.” This is the child’s version of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, in which adults attack those animals with sticks and sic dogs on them. As for dice games, Mortimer states that they, “are are enormously popular”, which is also indicative of his present-tense style used throughout the guide to present the facts of medieval England to the reader as if he or she were really present. The last games described are board games including an early form of backgammon called tables, nine men’s morris, and checkers. Mortimer points out to his modern audience that the rules of chess differ between then and now with queens only moving one square and bishops moving only two squares at a time. These pieces were also known by different names, prime ministers and elephants respectively.

World Building for Fantasy Authors and GMs

Back in 1989 TSR released Cities of Mystery for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, featuring several dozen card stock buildings and double-sided city street maps. The box also came with a great city guide written by Jean Rabe for GMs to design their own fantasy towns and cities. How did the town come to be? How has it grown? Who guards it? The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great compliment to Rabe’s hard work. Both cover much of the same ground, but in different veins with Rabe quantifying and randomizing a town’s dimensions and occupants in true D&D percentile fashion. Mortimer is much more personal and personable, putting a human face on many medieval problems. Rabe’s prohibition on the smellier occupations, like tanning, are best explained by Mortimer. His Borough Ordinances of Worcester list includes “The entrails of butchered beasts and pails of blood are not to be carried away by day but only by night.” and “No saddler, butcher, baker, or glover, nor any other person, may cast entrails, “filth of beasts’ dung”, or dust over Severn Bridge. Also no one may shave flesh, skins, or hides but above the bridge…” In our sanitized world it is easy to forget how leather gets created or how steak gets to the plate, but in medieval society neighbors affected by the processes of tanning and butchering had to deal with their side effects on a daily basis. That the medieval English were concerned about hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness despite ignorance of germ theory is shown by their laws and ordinances. It’s also one of Mortimer’s few reoccurring themes: the similarities between past and present and withholding judgement on our ancestors. As he puts it, “Of course they are not all filthy. Many are proud of the clean state of their houses – like their modern counterparts – regardless of the judgments of people in six hundred years’ time.” After reading through Mortimer, a GM will probably question and improve on many of the basic realities of his fantasy setting. To put it more bluntly, he or she will have to decide where the high elves crap. Do prostitutes denote themselves with a special color (yellow hoods, in the case of the historical English)? Fantasy rules for peace-bound weapons abound, but what about gate and bridge tolls?

The Time Traveller’s Guide has a more specific use for GMs as well. Those dry tables of 14th century values collected from tax reports listing folding tables, brass pots, and basins are reminiscent of the equipment sections of any Player’s Handbook. While there are only a handful of weapons and armor priced out, Mortimer has the appraised values covering many other areas. A GM (or even a fantasy author) could compile the values in a spreadsheet and compare the prices to arrive at a ratio-based understanding of how a sword’s price (1-2 shillings) compares to a roast goose (7 pennies) compared to a packhorse’s price (5-10 shillings). Mortimer also details wages, inn stays, and quite importantly, fines. Don’t worry, the odd monetary system of the English is covered in Mortimer’s chapter on measurement so you can convert between pounds, shillings, pennies, and stranger denominations with a little effort. Keeping in mind the economic turmoil created by the Black Plague and many other factors, an industrious Game Master can create a table of ratios for use in any fantasy RPG with a setting like medieval England.

Food and Clothing: Medieval England for LARPs, the SCA, and Re-Enactors

While tabletop GMs will reward their players with close attention to Mortimer’s chapters on clothing and food, the two chapters are essential reading for Society of Creative Anachronism members and LARPers. Besides the costuming, most good SCA/LARP events feature food. Great events feature drink of the alcoholic variety! Throughout his guide, Mortimer presents information on the three estates of England, the peasantry, townsfolk and gentry, and the nobility. The nobility are further divided into the clergy and the secular, with occasional special mention of royalty. Just like your clothing or domicile, what you would eat or drink in 14th century England is based on your estate. Wine and spirits were limited to the well-off while the prices of ale and bread, as staples of townsfolk, were heavily regulated. Rural peasants made their own. Mortimer focuses a lot of attention on the rarity of meat, which was normally limited to four days a week due to church edicts, and the corresponding association of meat as a status symbol. While his descriptions might make a chef drool at the variety of spices and fruits on offer, what was actually included in the category of fish caught my attention. Besides whales, “seals, porpoises, dolphins, barnacle geese, puffins, and beavers are all classed as fish as their lives begin in the sea or in a river.” The prohibition on eating meat was taken quite seriously, Mortimer notes, so these sources of protein were “eaten gleefully” on the 194 or 195 days of the year when only fish were allowed.

Mortimer’s 19 pages on medieval clothing are the most engaging that I’ve read on the subject, having thumbed through a dozen or so costume books. Using the same structure of the three estates, Mortimer notes the contrasts between the dress of paupers, yeomen, and noblemen. More importantly, he lists the clothing regulations established by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 which actually restricted the lowly-born from dressing above their station. Mortimer also traces the considerable changes in both men’s and women’s fashions in 14th century England. Ever wondered about those odd pointy shoes so similar to those worn by court jesters? Read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Mortimer will satisfy your curiosity and introduce you to the ridiculous twenty-inch Crackow, which was the footwear equivalent of a Humvee in its day.

Celebrating Board Games by Nina Chertoff and Susan Kahn

Artwork from Go to the Head of the Class featuring Sis and Cowboy Joe on cover of Celebrating Board GamesNow out of print, Celebrating Board Games was originally part of a collection by Sterling Publishing that included Celebrating PEZ, Celebrating Snow Globes, and Celebrating Christmas Ornaments. Heavy on full color pictures but light on any substantial text, Celebrating Board Games’ most lengthy passage is the three-page introduction. Otherwise its authors simply present a board game with its name in bold lettering and provide a brief description of the game’s context, content, or advances. These descriptions can be maddeningly vague; the authors write “At right is the Game of Louisa, introduced in 1888 by McLoughlin Bros. It was a variation of Parcheesi. Its artwork is particularly noteworthy.” Why its artwork is just so noteworthy is not a topic that the authors care to discuss.

To me the perfect recipient of Celebrating Board Games would be any nostalgic sort of adult who grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which is where the bulk of the book’s roughly 105 games are drawn from. If your mouth waters when you see advertisements in old magazines or recorded TV shows and you enjoy flipping through catalogues, then Celebrating Board Games is right for you. It originally retailed for $10, but can be found on the secondary market via resellers like eBay, Amazon, or used book stores.

Celebrating Board Games in the Classroom and as History

Chertoff and Kohn are also quick to point out games that are politically incorrect, such as the 1950s Cherry Ames’ Nursing Game, which is just on the wrong side of political correctness; a game card advises “Dr. Wylie said to Cherry, “Wipe that rouge off your face!” Move back 4 spaces.What Shall I Be? from 1972 is more overt, offering girls only six career outlets it would seem, becoming either a ballerina, an airline hostess, an actresses, a nurse, a teacher, or a model. However it’s just these sorts of games in Celebrating Board Games that make it so worthwhile as a tool to get a glimpse into the past. As the authors write, “Our interests, our imagination, and our values are reflected in those simple boards and the pieces that move across them.” Part of those historical values is the role of race and the book features two racially charged games with the authors describing Little Black Sambo as “not only politically incorrect, but offensive.” The game Snake Eyes is subtler, but Chertoff and Kohn note that it “is another period piece that has racial graphics that are unacceptable today.” Even though there is little text in the book, it still might be helpful to teachers or students wanting to explore the pervasiveness of racism or sexism in the mid-20th century. Middle school and elementary school teachers will have a harder time making use of the book, but it is possible with greater supervision.

Fantasy Gaming History via Celebrating Board Games

While almost every board game could be considered a fantasy game in which one has to use one’s imagination, what really caught my eye in Celebrating Board Games was the emergence of representational military and fantasy games. Milton Bradley’s Siege stands out for its inclusion of a plastic castle out of scale with the game’s nine plastic miniatures: four mounted knights and five footmen. 1977’s Carrier Strike featured aircraft carrier models battling over a hex grid with torpedo dive bombers. From the picture, it looks like the torpedos might detach from the plane carrying them, which would be a neat mechanic. The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game makes use of cardboard playing pieces to represent the Fellowship and the Naz-Gul and represents Rivendell, the Mines of Moria, the Black Gate, and Mt. Doom on its board and takes it artwork from the Ralph Bakshi animated film. John Hill’s Panzerforce makes an appearance with its six HO scale plastic tanks, though the box art’s boast of its “18” x 30″ Full Color Realistic Game Board” seems laughable given how poorly drawn it appears using today’s standards.

If a certain theme begins to emerge in the book, it’s that Milton Bradley sure had a good design team that enjoyed playing with little toy soldiers as 1981’s Dark Tower reveals. It was fairly novel in that it featured electronics with a keypad built into the physical model of the Dark Tower at the center of the game. The game also came with plastic knights, a dragon, and various buildings. Milton Bradley’s contributions to gaming in the book really culminate with Broadsides & Boarding Parties, which the authors note as having a board that “is beautifully designed”, which is almost meaningless to me compared to the glorious shot of the miniature pirate ship with about two dozen sailors on it and something like eight separate cannon as well. It came with two of the awesome ships and was part of the same Gamemaster Series that brought us Shogun, Axis & Allies, and Fortress America.

Tony Elam’s Role on Celebrating Board Games

At the end of the 144 page book, the authors thank Tony Elam for allowing them to photograph his collection of board games and “graciously providing us with so much fascinating information about their history.” At the time of publication in 2006, Elam was the Director of Games in Education for GAMA (Game Manufacturers Association) and the Associate Dean of Engineering at Rice University in Houston. I had more luck in tracking Elam down than I did the book’s authors and asked him if he had any of the interior photographs and whether he could provide any additional information on the book.

Elam was able to help with the latter part, since, according to him, he
came up with most of the book’s content
. The authors, Elam says, “tweaked” the introduction he wrote a “little bit” before including it. As for the book’s actual composition, a photographer and a graphic designer came out to his home in Houston and spent three days photographing his collection with great visual results. As each game was covered, Elam was questioned about it and according to him, he even wound up editing and correcting the brief synopses. Elam is “very pleased” though with the end result and I have to agree with him that the book is a “nice little set of photos”. Some of Elam’s personal favorites from his collection now numbering around 7,500 games that didn’t find their way into the book are Hero Quest and Space Crusade. Besides filling his home with his games, he also has two climate-controlled storage units for his hobby. The crown jewel of his collection is a British kriegspiel game from the 1800s, complete with wooden case and ivory or bone measuring instruments. He came across Settlers of Catan fairly early compared to other Americans in 1996 which started him on Euro games. While Elam has since left GAMA, he has close connections to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, sits on the National Toy Hall of Fame board, and dabbles in games for serious applications like business or medicine with the Houston Serious Games Research Consortium.

Games Photographed in Celebrating Board Games In Order of Appearance:
Grandma’s Game of Riddles, Uncle Wiggily, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Old Maid, Standard Authors, Logomachy, Komical Konversation Kards, Grandma’s Game of Riddles (again), The Game of Snap, Game of Louisa, Pollyanna, Eddie Cantor’s Game, Clipper Race, Monopoly, Cargoes, Finance, Bulls and Bears, Pirate and Traveler, Parcheesi, The Lone Ranger, Bizerte Gertie, Gusher, Little Black Sambo, Touring, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (again), Snake Eyes, Calling All Cars, Clue, Cootie, Lobby, Uncle Wiggily (again), Hopalong Cassidy Game, Park and Shop, Police Patrol, Stadium Checkers, Astron, Dunce, Frontierland Game, Merry Milkmen, Prince Valiant, Old Maid (again), Rin-Tin-Tin, Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland Rocket to the Moon Game, Walt Disney’s Fantasyland Game, Trapped!, Around the World in 80 Days, Fearless Fireman, Thrills ‘n’ Spills, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Game, Star Reporter, Alfred Hitchcock Presents WHY, Casper the Friendly Ghost Game, Have Gun Will Travel, Cherry Ames’ Nursing Game, Risk!, Steve Canyon, Go to the Head of the Class, The Game of Life, Camelot, Tally Ho!, Lucky Loopy, Combat!, Sorry!, Camp Granada, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., chess set featuring Napoleon, Siege, Fu Manchu’s Hidden Hoard, Regatta, Kreskin’s ESP, Dominoes, Masterpiece: The Art Auction Game, The Godfather Game, the Pincchio Game, Ouija, Hare and Tortoise, What Shall I Be?, Checkers, Chinese Checkers, Creature Features, Cracker Jack, Carrier Strike!, The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game, Panzerforce, Winnie the Pooh, The Mad Magazine Game, Candyland, Dark Tower, Broadsides & Boarding Parties, Barnum’s Animal Crackers Game, Looping Louie, Wadjet, Elvis, Nyout, Aeronautika, Mississippi Queen, Dinosaurier, Clue (Simpsons version), TurfMaster, Can’t Stop, Battle Cry, MotorChamp, Hamster Rolle, Monopoly (different versions), Mall of Horror, Niagara, Cash ‘n Guns, Parcheesi (another version), Villa Paletti

Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture From Geek to Chic

ORange and blue cover for Dungeons and DreamersWritten by Wired contributor Brad King and CNET’s John Borland, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture From Geek to Chic traces the development of computer gaming from Dave Arneson’s and Gary Gygax’s tabletop Dungeons and Dragons up until 2003, when Dungeons and Dreamers was published. The majority of the book focuses on Ultima-creator Richard Garriot, followed by attention to John Romero and Eric Carmack of id software responsible for such hits as Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, and Quake. When not focused on these three gaming gods, the authors take a look into the world of the orginal MUD (Multi User Dungeon) developed in Britain by Richard Bartle, foray into Will Wright’s Sims titles, explore LAN parties and the rise of professional gaming, and touch upon computer video game violence. Almost everything else is left out of the book. There is no Monkey Island, no reference to Sid Meier’s Civilization, nor mention of King’s Quest or X-Wing, much less Oregon Trail. Almost absent are any real time strategy titles like Warcraft I or II, Starcraft, Total Annihilation, and Command and Conquer. Everquest is mentioned multiple times, but its creators are absent from the authors’ narrative. Meanwhile World of Warcraft was still in development and released a year later. Missing too is any explanation of how computer game culture has actually gone from geek to chic, as well as a close look at what actually constitutes computer game culture. For example, there is nothing about l33t speak, energy drinks like Bawls, or Penny Arcade, to name three of the more visible aspects of computer game culture already in existence in 2003. To pick up where King and Borland leave off with Dungeons and Dreamers, I suggest Peter Ludlow’s and Mark Wallace’s Second Life Herald, which follows the story of Will Wright and his Sims Online and explores the rise of Second Life, as well as details griefing a bit more than Dungeons and Dreamers. However I actually read King’s and Borland’s book more to see what it has to say about tabletop gaming, but even there I found it slightly missing the mark.

Namely, to Brad King and John Borland, Dungeons and Dragons is a “paper game”. I have never heard of an RPG referred to as a “paper game” in over 20 years of playing. I would actually think someone was referring to the Paper Mario game possibly, but knowing what they were writing about, I could easily stretch it out to a pen and paper game, which I’ve certainly heard of before. Otherwise the authors are fairly succinct. D&D was hugely influential to almost all early computer game programmers and the authors begin the book with the fateful second meeting of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax at Gygax’s house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1972 and the first heady game of what would become Dungeons & Dragons. As Dave Arneson describes the origins of D&D, “We were having a tremendous amount of fun, but we figured we were crazy, we had no inkling that this would turn out to be something so big.” King and Borland go on to substantiate the influence of D&D on programmers and just how influential the game was.

From King and Borland we learn that among Dungeons & Dragon’s earlier players was Richard Garriott who first played D&D at Oklahoma University at a computer programming summer camp in 1977. The son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, he would go on to write the Ultima series of games. I literally got goosebumps when the authors described his first meeting with his fellow summer campers, when one of them says “You must be from Britain, so we’ll call you British.” If you’ve never played an Ultima game, Lord British is the head of the realm and plays a huge role in the series. He pretty much is Ultima and is only surpassed in importance in the series by the player-controlled Avatar and frequent companion Iolo. King and Borland reveal that Garriott also developed his Lord British persona in Society for Creative Anachronism events in Austin, a passion which he shared with another gamer turned SCAdian named Steve Jackson. While Jackson went on to create and publish OGRE, Illuminati, Car Wars, and GURPS with his namesake Steve Jackson Games, he never got into video gaming because as Jackson is quoted as saying in the book, “I have always been very interested in the computer game world, but through bad decisions, bad luck, or both, I never got very far into it.”


The D&D players who did get into computer games included Willie Crowther with his Colossal Cave, Richard Bartle who developed the original MUD, and some of the creators of Zork with King and Borland tracing the lineage of these text-based games over the internet-forerunner ARPAnet in the 1970s. In terms of first person shooters, King and Borland tap gaming superstar John Romero and the subdued Eric Carmack. Quake was originally a character in one of the “long-running, epic” D&D campaigns that Carmack GM’d, but few other details of his tabletop past are provided. The authors note that increasingly for modern gamers, a shared history of playing D&D is not as typical as it once was, with the “new” generation of gamers in 2003 “knowing only the modern, complex digital game worlds”. Aside from these few references to RPGs, Dungeons and Dreamers has little else to do with tabletop games, but is well worth reading if you are a video game player and want to understand your hobby’s roots or if you’re an academic and want an introduction to the rise of computer gaming. Originally published by McGraw-Hill/Osborne, Dungeons and Dreamers is now out of print. The authors appear to be planning a second edition of the book to commemorate its 10th anniversary and more information can be found at dungeonsanddreamers.com.

Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way by Philip E. Orbanes

Book cover to Philip Orbanes Monopoly book with Monopoly-patterned backgroundMonopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How it Got That Way is aptly named. Author and Monopolyphile Philip E. Orbanes traces the roots of Monopoly from Elizabeth Magie Phillips’ Landlord Game in 1903, following its course up to 2006 when the book was published by Da Capo Press. Like most middle-class Americans, I’ve played dozens of games of Monopoly in my life and have even won a few. I have to confess that once I became aware of role-playing games and board games like Axis & Allies and Heroquest, I mostly put Monopoly aside and scorned it, but Orbanes’ writing makes me rethink my anti-Monopoly stance and I now want to try playing a few games of it competitively. Other than knowing its playing spaces and basic rules which have become engrained in Western culture (Get Out of Jail Free Card, Do Not Pass Go, Community Chest), I only knew that Parker Brothers was Monopoly’s manufacturer. The last time I “played” Monopoly involved McDonald’s playing pieces for the fast food giant’s annual promotion, so even learning that Monopoly’s playing spaces are named after real streets and neighborhoods in Atlantic City was quite a revelation for me.

Besides learning that basic Monopoly fact, I was also pleasantly surprised to find so much American and world history in the history of a single board game. Orbanes explores the presidential policies and the underlying economies of the years during Monopoly’s development, mostly glossing over the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon administrations, but otherwise framing Monopoly’s growth with changes in our nation’s leaders. He also ties interest in Monopoly to the real world spread of monopolistic businesses, as well as the resulting antitrust actions, bankruptcies, and the move towards business conglomerates including Parker Brothers’ absorption by General Mills. IBM and AT&T also figure into Orbanes’ narrative. Monopoly’s role in WWII is particularly engrossing. British license-holder John Waddington Ltd., the publisher of card games, theater bills, and Monopoly, mastered the art of silk printing, with silk maps being useful to supply British pilots and ground forces with a stronger, more tear-resistant, lighter-weight map that didn’t rustle when unfolded. But Monopoly had a more direct link to the war effort according to Orbanes.The British intelligence service M19 had copies of the game distributed to Allies serving in Axis P.O.W. camps by the Red Cross. John Waddington Ltd. concealed escape tools like abrasive files and compasses embedded into the boards. Real world currency was hidden in the game’s playing money. Orbanes cites 35,000 Allied POWs who managed to escape Axis camps, but so highly classified was the secret operation that the actual number of POWs aided specifically by Monopoly is unknown.

While much of the book is a well-written history of the game, Orbanes also tackles the U.S., Canadian, and World Monopoly Championships, which he played a large part in organizing and judging himself. Orbanes joined Parker Brothers in 1979. At this point in Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way, his account of Parker Brothers’ practices becomes somewhat weaker rather than stronger. Orbanes provides little in the way of an insider’s insight into Parker Brother’s operations, much less any criticism of his employer. The entire book is similarly free of any criticism or negativity despite Monopoly’s involvement in lawsuits and disputes over who its actual creator was. The most critical reception that Monopoly gets in this history is a banning from the Nazis and other fascist governments and from the Communists during the Cold War. I have to imagine that some grognards or game critics might have taken issue with the company’s publication of Monopoly: The Mega Edition in 2006, in which the game’s spaces are expanded from 40 to 52 and a new movement mechanic is introduced, but Orbanes is silent on such a point. However one of the developments during his tenure that really stood out was the Franklin Mint’s $600 version of the game with over 100,000 copies sold! Do the math.

As for who actually created Monopoly, Orbanes attributes it to Elizabeth Magie Phillips, but the game went through many changes and iterations in between Phillips’ 1903 patent for the Landlord’s Game and its eventual publication in 1935 by Parker Brothers. From Phillips the basics of the game had spread among socialists, academics, and other fellow proponents of the single tax, which had originally been championed by Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. As Orbanes narrates the spread of Monopoly through college campuses via handmade versions of Phillips’ game, he notes changes introduced. These are well-illustrated with graphical examples of the design changes over the years, early advertisements, and photo inserts of the game’s contributors, as well as an appendix of rules changes. These changes reached their culmination in the form of the unemployed Charles Darrow who first played the game in 1932 and who had 500 games produced in 1934, eventually selling his “rights” to Monopoly to Parker Brothers in 1935. The rules were then further distilled and formalized and the game of Monopoly was truly born, selling two million copies within two years during the height of the Great Depression.

If you’re looking for an answer on why Monopoly’s play money has its characteristic hues or why particular playing tokens were chosen, you’ll have to find them elsewhere. Orbanes does provide an excellent list of sources to find those answers though and I found his coverage of Monopoly collectors fascinating. Some collectors have over 400 different editions of the game or of the affinity editions, which are the Star Wars or NFL-themed versions replacing the familiar Board Walk and Park Place with each setting’s exclusive property. These collectors trawl eBay regularly looking for rare versions of the game. Orbanes is also no stranger to publishing previous works on Monopoly, having authored The Monopoly Companion (1999) and The Game Makers (2003). He lists the following among resources for fans of the game: World of Monopoly, Hasbro’s own Monopoly site, Tim Walsh’s The Playmakers, and Albert Veldhuis’s research.

I doubt I need to suggest that an existing fan of Monopoly should read Orbanes’ book, but whether you’re a board gamer or a role-player, I do suggest Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How it Got that Way. For any student who finds 20th century American history dull, especially its economic history, Orbanes’ take on Monopoly may be just the right enlightening avenue of approach.

Book cover copyright Da Capo Press, used with permission.

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange

Book cover for Elfish Gene depicting red cartoon dragon and character sheet for Dungeons and DragonsThe Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe is just as much about growing up in Britain in the 1970s as it is about early Dungeons and Dragons and a few other select RPGs. It is also a very quick and entertaining read. Barrowcliffe lays out the premise of his book on the second page, explaining that he lived and breathed RPGs (and fantasy) from the age of eleven to sixteen, followed by twice-a-week sessions until he was twenty. The Elfish Gene captures this impressionable time in his life, as well as how he transitioned out of role-playing. If you are expecting an old timer’s feelings on World of Warcraft or the move from 3.5 to 4th Edition, look elsewhere, but if you enjoy reading about the Arduin Grimoire, the Empire of the Petal Throne, and numerous juvenile D&D arguments, The Elfish Gene is a must-read. The book is also exceptional if you like occasionally poignant films and books about adolescence and an author’s reflections on his youth. If the characters in Stand By Me were D&D players of the 1970s I think you would have something close to Barrowcliffe’s book.

Barrocliffe’s Style

Barrowcliffe’s writing in The Elfish Gene lends itself to the reader imagining and predicting where a particular chapter is headed. When a chapter has a title like “The Gathering of the Clouds”, the reader can imagine what problems might befall the young Barrowcliffe and rain on his life. This is usually a good trait in writing. In most chapters though, Barrowcliffe writes a few paragraphs or pages about a development in his role-playing life, but then meanders off on some side quest explaining a facet of British society in the 70s before the main quest is rejoined. While such delays build anticipation, they can get quite frustrating. Aside from minor issues with him getting to the point though, his style in The Elfish Gene is quite strong with ample explanations of RPG terms when needed and layered references to preceding portions of the memoir. The Elfish Gene is thoroughly engaging, even if the author’s eventual move away from role-playing in university had me shaking my head and left a bitter taste in my mouth. I am grateful though that Barrowcliffe’s departure from RPGs allowed him to pursue a course in journalism and to take up writing, eventually producing this memoir that I have enjoyed so much.

Barrowcliffe’s Humor Gene

Perhaps more importantly than his ability to tell his own tale, Barrowcliffe’s writing is full of humor. No, I didn’t laugh uproariously as I read The Elfish Gene, but I was generally entertained and chuckled through a good portion of it. While he was getting into D&D in 1977 and I first played it in 1989, I immediately recognized a number of his gamers as familiar from my own junior high friends. The personalities of gamers have not really changed in the intervening twelve years – or even thirty – and Barrowcliffe brings these personalities across with humor, even if a character only persists for a few paragraphs. There’s the overly-literal, argumentative characters who make such perceptive statements as “Football is for morons and thugs … Superior people play Dungeons and Dragons.” There is the loquacious DM Steve who introduces a Strider-like character, “His cloak is of motley, and his breeks are spattered with the mud of a hundred journeys. Tall if he, and imposing of stature, though he sits unassumingly. Perhaps you might not remark him on first glance until your gaze lingers a little longer and you see the burning coals that are his eyes!“. Then there is the frustratingly brief Dave who is always “A man in a cloak.” Barrowcliffe doesn’t spare himself though. In fact, he’s the main source of humor. His pride in obtaining the nickname of Spaz is just the start of his social obliviousness that pops up again and again throughout The Elfish Gene.

This ignorance and boorishness make for some of the best moments of his memoir, which I was dying to share with my wife. Almost every role-playing layman he meets is subjected to interrogations on Dungeons & Dragons and Barrowcliffe’s evangelism for the gaming hobby that consumed his life. When he writes that “I knew far more about the wants and needs of a golden dragon than I ever did a girl,” Barrowcliffe goes on to demonstrate that with example after embarrassing example. When presented with the chance to go to second base with an older girl at the age of 11, Barrowcliffe instead expands on D&D’s appeal, “Look. It’s the best and most sophisticated wargame ever devised”. Incredibly, he doesn’t drive her away and a humorous exchange about her Charisma score of 6 ensues. This sets the stage for later encounters. When first visiting a proper game store, Barrowcliffe introduces himself to the proprietor thusly:

‘I’m Spaz Barrowcliffe,’ I said, ‘I called you earlier on. D&D magic-user level 25, EPT priest level 4,’ (Billy was a bit of a martinet when it came to seeing the rules were followed) Traveller marine with a pretty good platform of skills, if I say so myself.’

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ I said. ‘Elves can’t go beyond ninth level as magic-users, so why have I got one of twenty-fifth level? In one word, “Wish spells.”‘

The owner is understandably non-plussed and a bit confused and the boys later speculate that the shop owner plays a “Fiftieth-level human cleric, no races… probably with the Mace of Cuthbert and some other one-off magical items. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be overly laden down with potions. Invisibility maybe, but he’d have CLW and CSW as spells so he’d more than likely trade them in for something more magic usery.” The book abounds with such humorous encounters and I found most of them to be on the light-hearted end of the spectrum. Barrowcliffe reserves most of any negativity or venom for himself, but again, he is also the most comical character in the memoir.

Further Thoughts on the Elfish Gene

The Elfish Gene is quite meaty and also surprisingly thought-provoking for a book about RPGs in the 1970s. I know that I will be returning to it for his insights on RPGs, gamers, and gaming, but the following immediately stuck out to me about the book.

The Pursuit of the Supernatural and the Occult

By the time I got into D&D, there were still murmurs of charges alleging ties from RPGs to Satanism and the occult in Dragon Magazine’s Forum section and in letters to its editors, but I had missed most of the furor of the 1980s. Barrowcliffe ironically was one of those players who actually was trying to cast spells and summon demons. As he writes, “When I say I thought I could be a wizard, that’s exactly true. I really did believe I had latent magical powers, and, with enough concentration and fiddling my fingers into strange patterns, I might suddenly find how to unlock the magic inside me.” Barrowcliffe was inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and his own desire for untold untapped power hiding within him. While I have to confess to still trying to move things telekinetically from time to time, Barrowcliffe really went a lot further with humorous results as he tries to perform a magic ritual in an English graveyard with his aptly-named friend Rat, who once tried to summon Cthulhu. As Barrowcliffe surmises, “Summoning Cthulhu is roughly the same as trying to summon Peter Pan.” Instead, Barrowcliffe attempts a Golden Dawn ceremony after studying Aleister Crowley’s teachings and having experimented with magic mushrooms. As he demonstrates though (and Rat too), there are a number of role-players who try to tap into the supernatural. Whether they really proportionately exceed other children or adolescents trying to do the same, is a matter for further research. In Barrowcliffe’s view on his obsessive interest, “D&D didn’t encourage my leanings towards trying magic of my own at all. In fact, it frustrated them.” He argues that instead D&D gave him a more stimulating outlet for his interests, but this doesn’t quite explain why he persisted in trying to cast spells as he got older.

British Politics and Class System

I think students of classism and domestic British socio-politics of the 1970s would benefit from a read of The Elfish Gene due to Barrowcliffe’s anecdotes and observations. Aside from the role-playing and coming of age aspects, class and politics really make up the rest of the book and were a huge part of Barrowcliffe’s teenage reality. Soccer or football might get a line or two, but there are pages and pages on socialism, communism, and fascism. Barrowcliffe grew up working class and later flaunts it when he arrives at university and his classmates long for any sort of street cred. Earlier though, his Nazi-admiring gamer friends who are pretentious and think of themselves as upper class get a firm reminder that they are instead very much working class and are merely being pretentious twats. I do think this third element of the book might turn off other American readers or be a bit incomprehensible, but in saying that I might be the pretentious twat.

Further Readings and Games to Explore

While I do plan on rereading The Elfish Gene again, it has also opened up other books to explore, starting with Barrowcliffe’s other novels. I did read through the first several chapters of Girlfriend 44 before abandoning it and didn’t even make it that far into Infidelity for First-Time Fathers before quitting it too. Deprived of references to RPGs and fantasy, his characters are just too nasty, mundane, and British for my tastes, but I will be trying Lucky Dog as well as his M.D. Lachan books. As he explained in his April interview on this site, M.D. Lachan is Barrowcliffe’s fantasy pen name for a historical fantasy series involving werewolf Vikings. He also has a similarly historical fantasy series forthcoming under the pen name Mark Alder about the Hundred Years’ War.

Elric looms so huge in The Elfish Gene and was such a massive inspiration for Barrowcliffe’s RPG characters, campaigns, and world settings that I will have to read Michael Moorcock. Similarly I now want to read Le Guin’s Earthsea series to see what the fuss is all about too. Then there is Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT). While the vast, vast majority of The Elfish Gene is about D&D, maybe ten to fifteen percent is about EPT, created by linguistics professor M.A.R. Barker. In one very entertaining chapter of the book, Barrowcliffe and GM friend Billy play through a session of EPT while Barrowcliffe’s parents watch a quiz show. As Barrowcliffe characteristically explains EPT to a London shopkeeper as an adult, it’s “The original role–playing game,’ I said, ‘published just after D&D in 1975, though after Chainmail. You have heard of Chainmail? First available through the Owl and Weasel fanzine, precursor of White Dwarf?'” Barrowcliffe celebrates EPT for its novelty and linguistic and economical detail, including its own language and the chlen pack animal whose hide forms the basis of game’s economy.

Barrowcliffe’s Supportive Friends and Family

Earlier I mentioned that the book could be the Stand by Me of 1970s English D&D players. While there is no dead boy by the train tracks, The Elfish Gene has its share of emotional moments and friendships being strained and reaffirmed. Barrowcliffe’s parents appear from time to time and when he is exiled from his D&D group by the older boys, it is Mrs. Barrowcliffe that makes her son a Kermit the Frog stuffed animal which he later uses as a lizardman which he names Krrrllkccr and it is Mrs. Barrowcliffe who finds her son a new wargames club to join. They rather tolerantly allow their son to host 20+ gamers for Saturday gaming with an evening’s notice, which has his mom baking 60 scones and making sandwiches to host them. Other tolerant parents also appear including Billy’s father, an avowed fascist and gun collector with a live hand grenade in his collection. Billy himself is a larger than life character, both literally and figuratively and the loss of his friendship is keenly felt both by Barrowcliffe and the reader. For all the gamers in Barrowcliffe’s life, RPGs were an outlet to be something other than what they were at the time (just as RPGs are now), but the gamers’ friends and family also allowed their obnoxious loved ones to have some respite from the real world to even be able to explore their imaginations. Like some of my friends in junior high (and perhaps myself), Barrowcliffe was particularly obnoxious. It says a lot that his family and friends were supportive and nurturing enough to see him through to less obnoxious times.