Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Diving into D&D

Assorted Dungeons & Dragons artifacts (I) The novel I’m writing involves, in part, a group of friends who reunite after 25 years to restart their old game of Dungeons & Dragons. That game has been close to my heart since 1978 or so when I received my first boxed set as a gift. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder I felt rolling those exotic polyhedral dice and creating my first character. During my amazing week as a Mary Valentine and Andrew Cosman Research Fellow at The Strong, I was able to dig deeply into the origins of D&D and gain a rich understanding of what makes it so enduring.

Back before we had blogs or even pencils and paper, humans told each other stories in caves and around the cooking fires. Epic poets would recite their tales from memory and for hours at a time, and these tales would be retold and embellished in much the same way the fish I caught a few summers ago has grown progressively larger every year since. That’s how stories work.

Along the way, we found ways to record our stories (for instance, on clay tablets and papyrus) and eventually to mass-produce them (such as in printed books and on Atari cartridges). As a novelist and author in this day and age, I write stories that are easily reproducible in book form—and yet I remain fascinated by the pre-literary forms of storytelling and by the ancient traditions of performed stories.

What on earth does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?

There are countless things I love about the game, from the creativity it requires and inspires, to the time it provides away from my electronic devices. But the most vital thing about D&D to me, which I hope to make clear in my novel, is that with a great session provides a unique method of collaborative storytelling. I don’t know of another activity that so effectively brings us back to those ancient days of epic oral storytelling.

Dungeons & Dragons Supplement I: Greyhawk At The Strong, I was able see how the game derived from a 1971 game called Chainmail, a set of “rules for medieval miniatures” by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Taking inspiration from the oeuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien, Gygax’s friend Dave Arneson adapted Chainmail for a fantasy setting and the two of them collaborated on a set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons. The emphasis changed from moving armies across a tabletop to role playing individual characters instead.

In The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I was able to read vintage issues of gaming periodicals like The Dragon, The Dungeoneer, and Alarums and Excursions and with them follow the monthly progression of the game from subculture to the commercial phenomenon it is (again) today. The archival documents I consulted included old hand-drawn maps and even Allan Hammack’s handwritten first draft of what became “Ghost Tower of Inverness,” one beloved of all the D&D adventure modules.

Assorted Dungeons & Dragons artifacts (II) The opportunity to hold a pristine copy of the very first D&D boxed set in my hands was one of the highlights of my fellowship. In fact, sitting in the library one morning, I pulled a set of dice from my bag and rolled a new character from scratch using those early, simple rules. Back then, a character could fit on an index card.

To create a character in Dungeons & Dragons isn’t all that different from creating one in a novel. In fact, if my week at The Strong taught me anything, it’s that my life as a writer may very have begun with my first boxed set as a kid, and with my first set of colorful dice. (It would be amiss if I didn’t also cite the importance of Star Wars figures too.) The lesson here, for me, is that the games we play as children may very well make us who we are as so-called grown-ups.

I also discovered that the success of The Strong’s mission can be most clearly witnessed, I think, at the museum’s exit. That’s where the visiting children scream and bellow at the prospect of leaving such a remarkable place. It’s quite a racket. At the end of my fellowship, not quite ready to return home to Philadelphia, I understood exactly how all those children feel.

A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees

Read more >

Making Things and Making Things Last

Read more >

The Paper Airplane Soars into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Historians debate the origins of paper airplanes. Early attempts at constructing flying machines fascinated children and adults alike. The success of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 fostered renewed hope of powered flight and no doubt contributed to the purported invention, in 1909, of the paper airplane.

Read more >

Quite a Character

“Victoria? I have to tell you something… And you’re definitely going to roll your eyes.”

I stare at my stepson and brace myself for whatever words are about to follow. We are sitting around the table at my in-laws home eating spaghetti and he’s looking a bit worn out from the NHL hockey game he attended earlier that day in Montreal. I set my fork down in anticipation.

“Hit it,” I prompt.

Read more >

Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

Read more >

Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

Read more >

Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Read more >

What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

Read more >

Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

Read more >

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Read more >

Pages