The best books about the history of fantasy role-playing games

Why am I passionate about this?

In the 1980s I was bullied for playing Dungeons and Dragons. Kids like to bully each other, but this was different: The bullies felt they had been given a moral license to pick on D&D players because pastors, talk-show hosts, and politicians were all claiming it was a Satanic, anti-Christian game. Those claims were my first inkling that adults did not know what they are talking about. After getting a PhD in the sociology of religion, I was finally able analyze and articulate why religious authorities felt threatened by a simple game of imagination.


I wrote...

Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds

By Joseph Laycock,

Book cover of Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds

What is my book about?

The 1980s saw the peak of a moral panic over fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Dangerous Games explores the history and the sociological significance of this panic. Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion—as a socially constructed world of shared meaning—can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination that they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role-playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games

Joseph Laycock Why did I love this book?

Peterson is the foremost historian on the history of Dungeons and Dragons. 

To research this book, he tracked down countless documents from the early history of the game––including things like greeting cards from game creator Gary Gygax. But this book doesn’t just cover D&D.  It traces the history of simulation games from chess through nineteenth-century military training exercises and finally into the emergence of fantasy role-playing games. 

This is the definitive source on the history of these games.

By Jon Peterson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Playing at the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explore the conceptual origins of wargames and role-playing games in this unprecedented history of simulating the real and the impossible. From a vast survey of primary sources ranging from eighteenth-century strategists to modern hobbyists, Playing at the World distills the story of how gamers first decided fictional battles with boards and dice, and how they moved from simulating wars to simulating people. The invention of role-playing games serves as a touchstone for exploring the ways that the literary concept of character, the lure of fantastic adventure and the principles of gaming combined into the signature cultural innovation of the late…


Book cover of Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds

Joseph Laycock Why did I love this book?

This was the first sociological study of fantasy role-playing games. Fine was able to detect and articulate what is sociologically significant about these games. 

The book takes dynamics that role-players just “get” and articulates them as sociological concepts. For example, he uses “frame theory” to explain how players verbally transition from the frame of the game mechanics and the story world of their characters. 

He also explains how games like Dungeons and Dragons are “autotelic.” In other words, you do not “win” at and these games, the purpose is “engrossment” or being absorbed into the fantasy world. 

Fine also did a great deal of participant observation for this book and it provides a great historical insight into the culture surrounding these games in the early 1980s––warts and all.

By Gary Alan Fine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shared Fantasy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic study still provides one of the most astute descriptions available of an often misunderstood subculture: that of fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Alan Fine immerses himself in several different gaming systems, offering insightful details on the nature of the games and the patterns of interaction among players - as well as their reasons for playing.


Book cover of The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange

Joseph Laycock Why did I love this book?

Barrowcliffe is a humorist, but reading his autobiographical account of playing D&D in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, you realize humor is a way of coping with tragedy. 

This book contains fascinating descriptions of the early history of D&D outside of the United States. Barrowcliffe is also adept at articulating what exactly is so compelling and fascinating about D&D. Most importantly, this book portrays the brutal culture of toxic masculinity that often existed around this game in its first decades. 

Gen Z players may be shocked by Barrowcliffe’s account of how players treated one another.

By Mark Barrowcliffe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Elfish Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Coventry, 1976. For a brief, blazing summer, twelve-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe had the chance to be normal.

He blew it.

While other teenagers concentrated on being coolly rebellious, Mark - like twenty million other boys in the `70s and '80s - chose to spend his entire adolescence in fart-filled bedrooms pretending to be a wizard or a warrior, an evil priest or a dwarf. Armed only with pen, paper and some funny-shaped dice, this lost generation gave themselves up to the craze of fantasy role-playing games, stopped chatting up girls and started killing dragons.

Extremely funny, not a little sad and…


Book cover of Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It

Joseph Laycock Why did I love this book?

If you want to know about the origins of Dungeons and Dragons but are intimidated by Jon Peterson’s massive tome, this is a good alternative. 

Ewart’s writing is fun and enjoyable to read. This book also came out right before the release of 5th edition D&D. Readers who first learned that edition may be interested in Ewart’s coverage of playtesting and design.

By David M. Ewalt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Of Dice and Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Hobbit meets Moneyball in this definitive book on Dungeons & Dragons—from its origins and rise to cultural prominence to the continued effects on popular culture today.

HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS.

Ancient red dragons with 527 hit points, +44 to attack, and a 20d10 breath weapon, to be specific. In the world of fantasy role-playing, those numbers describe a winged serpent with immense strength and the ability to spit fire. There are few beasts more powerful—just like there are few games more important than Dungeons & Dragons.

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, you probably know someone who…


Book cover of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

Joseph Laycock Why did I love this book?

This book is an exploration of “geek culture” including Dungeons and Dragons but also other aspects of fandom like live-action-role-playing (LARPing), and Harry Potter fandom. 

This is not a theoretically weighty book, but the author did substantial field work trying to explore and understand these subcultures. The throughline of the book concerns the human fascination with imaginary realms and the cultural forms people will invent to connect with these realms and bring them to life. As a religious studies scholar, I see this longing for other worlds as a “religious” impulse.

By Ethan Gilsdorf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An amazing journey through the thriving worlds of fantasy and gaming What could one man find if he embarked on a journey through fantasy world after fantasy world? In an enthralling blend of travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir, forty-year-old former D&D addict Ethan Gilsdorf crisscrosses America, the world, and other worlds-from Boston to New Zealand, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar. "For anyone who has ever spent time within imaginary realms, the book will speak volumes. For those who have not, it will educate and enlighten." -Wired.com "Gandalf's got nothing on Ethan Gilsdorf, except for maybe the…


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four more decades with hope and resilience.

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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