Thursday, November 17, 2011

How the Industrial Revolution Inspired the Original Fantasy Game: A Brief Timeline

As a graphic designer and a teacher of graphic design history, I've been familiar with William Morris (no, not the Hollywood agent) for quite some time, but only recently discovered his connection to the roots of the original fantasy game. What follows is a brief timeline of documented connections that links the Industrial Revolution to the birth of RPGs.

c. mid-to-late 1800s: The Industrial Revolution
Due in great part to the development of steam power (fueled primarily by coal), many jobs that were previously performed by manual labor become mechanized. And, as it seems to go in "industrialized" nations, the continuing goal is to get costs (and prices) lower and lower. The long and short of the Industrial Revolution... speed goes up, costs go down, and quality gets thrown out the window. (There's a saying in the business world, "Good, fast and cheap. Pick two.") Like many other products, book design becomes a casualty in the growing world of mass production.

November 1888: Emery Walker Gives an Illustrated Lecture on Printing
Present at the lecture was William Morris who, though interested in printing for quite some time, was inspired both by the lecture (focusing on a return to the quality and dedication to the craft of pre-Industrial Revolution printing) and Walker's collection of 16th century typefaces (from the masters at the birth of the printing industry as a whole.) This evening became the catalyst for Morris's founding of the Kelmscott Press.

1891: William Morris Founds the Kelmscott Press
More important (for this discussion anyway) than Morris's contributions to book and typography design (like the typeface Chaucer), was the subject matter of the books Morris published, some of which were written by Morris himself. In this context, the most important of them is The Story of the Glittering Plain (written and published by Morris in 1891), which is possibly the first modern fantasy story to unite the ordinary world with the supernatural. More importantly, by doing so, Morris broke with a tradition in these types of books, in that they were previously based in real worlds and time periods. Morris was one of the first writers to have his novels take place entirely in a land of fantasy.

c. 1910s: J.R.R. Tolkien Takes Up Writing
Among his many inspirations in poetry, prose and subject matter alike, Tolkien cites the work of William Morris. It was some of these works from which Tolkien took hints for names like "Dead Marshes" and "Mirkwood." Tolkien particularly cites The Well at the World's End (sounds like the name of a module, doesn't it?), written and published by Morris in 1896.

c. 1937/1954-55: The Hobbit is Published/Lord of the Rings is Published
If you're not familiar with this part, you've either been living in a cave under the Misty Mountains or you never venture further than the edge of your shire.

1966-1970: Chainmail, Gygax, Arneson, Yadda, Yadda, Yadda
And this is the part where everybody else comes in.

FOR FURTHER READING (I feel like Lavar Burton should be here for this):
The Story of the Glittering Plain - William Morris, 1894 Kelmscott Press edition
The Well at the World's End, Vol. I - William Morris, 1896
The Well at the World's End, Vol. II - William Morris, 1896

Pictured at top, a Walter Crane illustration from The Story of the Glittering Plain (1894 edition.)

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