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I recently picked up Playing at the World by Jon Peterson. This book is a history of the game Dungeon & Dragons.

Since many of my readers are Wiccan, I'll use an analogy that will make sense to them: Playing at the World does for D&D what Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon did for Wicca. It explores the different elements and influences that resulted in D&D, and follows the chain of influence forward as D&D affected the world around it. [1] [2]

In the last third of the book, Peterson explores the relationship between fanzines and the evolution of D&D up to the time when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was published. I was surprised and pleased to see the 'zines and APAs included, especially since I read and contributed to amateur magazines such as Alarums and Excursions and The Wild Hunt; even APA-DUD is mentioned. [3] I knew these people, gamed with a few of them.

But I was floored when I turned a page and saw the name "P. E. I. Bonewits."

Those who know Isaac would assume that he'd be mentioned in connection with his book Authentic Thaumaturgy, a set of rules for role-playing games based on "Real Magic" (in more ways than one). AT is mentioned, but that's not why Isaac's in the book. He's introduced as part of a description of the Third Gnostic Aquarian Festival, as written up in Playboy. [4] Peterson asks if the participants in the festival actually believed in the in their roles as magicians, or whether they were playing in a shared world. [5] This naturally leads into a discussion of the claims that people playing D&D were losing their grip on reality and believed that they were their characters.

Seeing Isaac's name in an unexpected context made me think about my stalled biography of Isaac. [livejournal.com profile] sabrinamari had assigned me the task of writing a blog post on how to get my "mojo" back. In my previous post on the subject, I failed; I could only describe why the mojo had gone.

This post may be the one she wanted me to write.

Peterson's book is well-researched and he has many footnotes, but Playing at the World is not a dry academic work. His footnotes are tangents or parenthetical material. [6] He doesn't try to justify every sentence he writes with a reference. That is how I approached Isaac's biography (treating it like a physics thesis), and it's part of what got me bogged down.

This doesn't mean I still don't have a lot of research to do. It tells me that I don't have to get everything right, nor tell everyone exactly how I got it wrong. The art of history is creating a narrative out of a chain of facts; the science of history is to demonstrate those facts are correct. Would it be so bad if my work were more art than science?

There's another mojo-inducing event in my life right now.

I've worked at Nevis Labs since 1985. As part of a series of lectures on the scientific work going on at the lab, I've been asked to give a talk on the history of Nevis, from the Revolutionary War to the present. I'm going to give the talk at the lab's holiday party; the family and friends of the scientists will be there. That means I don't have to make the talk technical nor get bogged down in details. [7]

As I've prepared for the talk, I've encountered the same issues as with Isaac's biography: incomplete information; contradictions; gaps in the narrative; uncooperative sources. But there's no lack of mojo. I just skip around the problems I can't solve, and stay focused on the goal: an entertaining 45-minute talk with slides. If I can do that with a history talk, why not with Isaac's biography?

None of this is new. Folks like [livejournal.com profile] sabrinamari, [livejournal.com profile] spiffnolee, Deborah Lipp, and Jimahl di Fiosa have said this to me before. Their advice is finally beginning to sink in.

So reading about Dungeons & Dragons helped me get my mojo back. Who says D&D isn't magic?


[1] This may seem trivial; it's not. D&D spread the concepts of having a tabletop game moderated by a referee, and using numbers to create a sense of personal agency. These shaped the developed of computer games: first-person shooters that keep track of your avatar's health; massive multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft; exercise motivation games like Zombies, Run!. All these are based on concepts that originated with or were popularized by D&D.

[2] I bought the book because I have a three-minute summary of how D&D came to be that ends with a joke: "Gandalf personally invented fantasy role-playing." I wanted to see if my story was correct. It's not. Now I have to come up with a better summary, and possibly a better joke.

[3] My contributions at that time were utter dreck. Peterson mentions my name twice (probably three times too many). This means that in addition to reading insightful and important commentary from fine writers, Peterson had to slog through my self-important verbiage. Mr. Peterson, I'm sorry!

[4] An excerpt from the Playboy article describes a failed weather-control ritual performed by Tim Zell and Carolyn Clark. There's more focus on a man who claimed to astral project into a friend of Johann Sebastian Bach, yet in trance could not speak German. I can't fault someone for having a negative impression of magical work from those experiences.

[5] As someone who's practiced magic for a couple of decades, I can supply a definitive answer: yes.

[6] Like the footnotes in my last four blog posts, including this one.

[7] If you want to hang around a bunch of scientists and listen to me talk, let me know. I might be able to get you an invite. [8]

[8] That leads to another Isaac story: In May 1997, my mother arranged for a Ph.D. graduation party at Nevis. She invited both my physicist friends and my Wiccan friends. The two groups hung out on opposite sides of the picnic field; it was like an elementary-school dance at which the boys and the girls don't want to mingle. Except for Isaac: he cheerfully went between the two groups, trying to engage the scientists in a discussion of magic. Years later, the Director of Nevis would occasionally mention the Druid he met at that party.

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William Seligman

March 2014

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