Role-playing games seemed to appear of nowhere in the early 1970s and have been a quiet but steady presence in American culture ever since. This new look at the hobby searches for the historical origins of role-playing games deep in the imaginative worlds of Western culture. It looks at the earliest fantasy stories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at the fans–both readers and writers–who wanted to bring them to life, at the Midwestern landscape and the middle-class households that were the hobby’s birthplace, and at the struggle to find meaning and identity amidst cultural conflicts that drove many people into these communities of play. This book also addresses race, religion, gender, fandom, and the place these games have within American capitalism. All the paths of this journey are connected by the very quality that has made fantasy role-playing so powerful: it binds the limitless imagination into a “strict” framework of rules. Far from being an accidental offshoot of marginalized fan communities, role-playing games’ ability to hold contradictions in dynamic, creative tension made them a necessary and central product of the twentieth century.