Although Designers & Dragons is a book about companies, through these individual publishers you can see the changing culture of gaming. This month, I decided to highlight that culture, by looking at many of the unique ways that it existed in the ’70s. —SA, 7/14/12

This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #18 & #19 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 70s.

In the 1970s, roleplaying was different. It was still growing and evolving, still finding its feet. And thus, much of the gaming culture that appeared in that era was quite different from what we know today. Things would change pretty abruptly around 1980, as the industry ascended to a higher level of professionalism. But back in the ’70s, the industry wasn’t really big enough or long-lived enough to be professional. Besides that, there weren’t a lot of rules about how things should be done.

Thus, things were often done differently.

1. Roleplaying Still Lay Very Near Its Wargaming Origins

The original 3-volume set of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) was labeled, “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. A modern roleplayer might actually classify that original rule set as a wargame rather than an RPG. It assumed players would be moving their figures step-by-step and turn-through-turn through dungeons and battlefields, and even fell back on the Chainmail rules (1971, 1972, 1975) to resolve combat.

This wargaming focus was clearly reflected in the more amateur early dungeons that appeared in places like The Dungeoneer (1976-1980). These dungeons were often simple lists of room, each noting the monster that the room contained and nothing more.

Publishers clearly didn’t see much distinction between wargames and RPGs either. Some of the other earliest RPGs that followed D&D hewed even closer toward the combative side of things — not placing much emphasis at all on the new possibilities offered by “roleplaying”. Among those pseudo-RPGs are GDW’s En Garde! (1975), TSR’s original Boot Hill (1975), and Metagaming’s Melee (1977) and Wizard (1977).

Although roleplaying would better define itself as its own creature during the ’80s, artifacts of the wargaming of the ’70s remained until at least the publication of Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1989). Prior to that, movement in AD&D was still described in inches, with a typical character moving 6″, 9″, or 12″, depending on encumbrance. Players of the ’80s who discovered that an inch was 10 feet indoors or 10 yards outdoors were probably entirely befuddled. (I was!) It only made sense if you presumed that D&D would be played with miniatures moving across a table, just like those wargames of old. The Second Edition of AD&D kept the standard movement rates of 6, 9, and 12, but got rid of those confusing inch marks.

2. The Games were Competitive

Given their origin in the wargaming field, it should be no surprise that RPGs were originally quite competitive. One only has to look at the games that were run as convention tournaments to see the heavily competitive nature of early gaming. These adventures were about players maybe succeeding or maybe failing and doing so with the deck stacked heavily against them.

Two early tournaments — later published by TSR — clearly show this competitive nature. S1: Tomb of Horrors (1978) is of course the classic — full of no-chance death traps like a sphere of oblivion that you could walk right into. A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981) — which strips characters of all their equipment and then lets them fight their way to freedom — offers another example of a game solely about the PCs trying to survive in a difficult environment.

The competition in early RPGs wasn’t just confined to tournament; it was a factor in many local games as well. You just need to listen to the war stories of a gamemaster from the era like Dave Hargrave, who talks of killing hundreds of characters. Alternatively, one can looks at the hundreds of tricks and traps suggested by players in the many RPG magazines of the time. Most of these traps weren’t very fair, but most did give players a hard time — and thus something they could excel against (or fail ignobly). Grimtooth’s Traps (1981) was in some ways the culmination of this early, competitive mindset, but by the time it was published (and especially by the time its sequels appeared), it was more a humorous meta-RPG book than something that might be used in games. The same would not have been true just a few years earlier.

In the modern day, RPGs have moved over to a model of facilitated play, but that was surely not the case in the ’70s.

3. The Rules were Guidelines

The original Dungeons & Dragons game openly stated that its rules were guidelines and that gamemasters should feel free to change them as they saw fit. TSR almost immediately put its money where its mouth was by publishing three books of variant rules. Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) included an alternate combat system and made many changes to characters — forcing magic-users to learn limited spells and giving fighters exceptional strength. Supplement II: Blackmoor (1975) introduced hit locations. Finally, Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976) threw psionics into the pot.

Out in the wild, among actual play groups, variants were even more common. It’s hard to find a story of an OD&D game today without also finding a description of the variant rules it used. Some of these variants became their own game systems in time, such as The Arduin Grimoire (1977), The Complete Warlock (1978) and The Palladium Role-Playing Game (1983). The tales of variant D&D systems that never got published, such as Midekemia Press’ “Tome of Midkemia” and Gamelords’ complete “Fantasy System” are at least as common.

By the time Gary Gygax was drafting Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977-1979) TSR had decided that their rules should actually be rules — not guidelines after all. This alternate philosophy was stated in the new AD&D books. The rules were also more comprehensive, so that fewer off-the-cuff decisions were needed on the part of GMs. The reason for the change, according to TSR, was to better support tournament play — which was an increasing interest throughout the time period. However, it took a while for the players to accept the change. During the ’80s there’d be a running war fought between Gygax and others in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere, as to whether it was OK to use variant rules, or if AD&D had to be played as it was published.

4 D&D was the De Facto Standard

Though players felt empowered to create their own variants of D&D, nonetheless D&D was the standard that nearly everyone was playing. It was so ubiquitous that players were able to move their characters from campaign to campaign to convention and back — all without even thinking about which game folks might be playing. Campaign worlds might even interact; one early article on the industry describes David Hargrave’s Black Lotus Society (in the San Francisco Bay Area) planning an attack on Deanna Sue White’s world of Mistigar (in Los Angeles). Despite the existence of early alternate FRPs like Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) and Tunnels & Trolls (1975), D&D remained the gold standard.

Even more FRPs — such as The Arduin Grimoire (1977) and RuneQuest (1978) — appeared in the later ’70s. Slowly, some of these alternatives began to take up some of the roleplaying mindshare. There were old-timers, however, who regretted these changes. Lee Gold discussed the loss of the industry’s early ubiquitous game system when she said: “San Francisco runs ‘high entropy’ worlds — lots of magic and power; Long Beach and Boston, ‘low entropy’. RuneQuest is talking strike rank; D&D is talking dexterity rolls. They can’t talk to each other. It’s like the Tower of Babel … The trend is to closed-world campaigns.” (New West magazine, August 25, 1980)

5. Science Fantasy was a Heavy Influence

Though we today use the acronym “FRPG” to describe D&D and what followed, in the earliest days it seems like “science fantasy” was as important as pure fantasy.

OD&D (1974) kicked off a focus on science fantasy by referencing Edward Burroughs’ John Carter novels. A few years later — in the lejendary “Appendix N” of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) — Gygax listed several science fantasy works on his inspirational reading list, including: Burroughs’ Mars series, Burroughs’ Venus series, Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers series, and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth; together they offered up a wide cross-section of science fantasy writing.

This science fantasy emphasis also showed up in the early adventures of TSR. We know that Rob Kuntz’s “Machine Level” for Greyhawk Castle was full of robots and other machinery. Kuntz also offered some inspiration for Gygax’s S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980). The latter adventure — focusing on a crashed alien ship in Greyhawk — is today the best-known example of the science fantasy of the ’70s … but it was really the tip of the iceberg.

Other designers presented many more examples of the science fantasy of the early industry. Dave Arneon’s Blackmoor had its own crashed starship lending technology to the world — though full information on it wouldn’t be publicly published until years later in DA3: City of the Gods (1987). The idea of aliens coming to a fantasy world was also one that Dave Hargrave included in the second Arduin GrimoireWelcome to the Skull Tower (1978).

Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) took a different tactic. It was placed in the far future after a technological civilization had fallen — thus allowing characters to discover ancient technological artifacts.

Many early RPGs also included the idea of dimensional gates, which could bring technology (and thus science fantasy) straight from Earth to your favorite fantasy world. When Bob Bledsaw got tired of his Middle-earth campaign, he let players enter the Wilderlands through a gate; later gates would bring Pepsi ads and helicopters into the Wilderlands. Gates were even more important to Dave Hargrave’s world of Arduin.

Though science fantasy continued as a minor theme into at least the ’80s — with that aforementioned resurrection of Blackmoor and the appearance of Spelljammer (1989) — it was nothing when compared to the ’70s. In those early days, it seems like every primordial FRP realm had a fair amount of science fantasy at its core.

6. Players Made Up Their Own Stuff

Perhaps it’s because they were brought up to understand that the rules were guidelines, and perhaps it’s because not much had yet been released into the RPG market, but for whichever reason the early RPGers of the ’70s made up a lot of their own stuff. As we’ve already seen, they happily house-ruled D&D to the point where it developed into totally new games. They wrote their own dungeons, they created their own monsters, and (perhaps most notably) they explored their own worlds.

The early RPG companies clearly recognized this tendency. That’s why TSR so famously told Judges Guild in 1976 that no one would be interested in supplements. It’s why GDW didn’t bother with a setting when they created Traveller (1977).

Flying Buffalo was a rare exception that started putting out adventures for their own Tunnels & Trolls (1975) almost immediately. However, for D&D, it was not TSR but other companies that led the way — including Wee Warriors (in 1975) and Judges Guild (in 1976). Even when TSR got involved, they published GM tools meant to complement creativity — such as the original Geomorphs (1976-1977) and several pregenerated lists of monsters & treasure (1977-1978).

There were a lot of third-party supplements under the bridge before TSR finally decided that players might be willing to buy some made-up stuff from them. Thus they eventually began to publish adventures, starting with G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978), and settings, starting with World of Greyhawk (1980).

And then it was the start of a whole new era …

7. Players Published Professional Content Too

Players weren’t just creating their own stuff, however. The line between players and professional designers was very fuzzy in those early days, and thus average players were writing stuff for publication too. This was the most obvious in the various gaming magazines.

Judges Guild was probably the publisher that most frequently distributed the writings of entirely average D&D players. This came about largely through their magazines, The Dungeoneer (1976-1980) and The Judges Guild Journal (1976-1980). In the earliest days of the Journal, players wrote up their ideas for “Omniscient Opinions”. Some additional player content appeared thanks to contests, such as a dungeon design contest which generated extensive material for Judges Guild Journal #12 (December/January, 1978/1979) and Judges Guild Journal #13 (February/March, 1979). Over in Dungeoneer, player content appeared through multiple columns, such as “Monster Matrix”, “Booty Bag”, and the trap-filled “Nose Wet? or No Sweat!”. Many other player “articles” were little more than letters that might contain a single item, some random tables, or even a very extensive discussion of enchanting magic items.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that Judges Guild published so much player content; printing as much content as they could as quickly as they could seemed to be their core business strategy. Quality might have been variable, but the same was true of much of the RPG industry at the time.

Even publishers less focused on producing content in volume provided many opportunities for “amateur” players to contribute. Thus, White Dwarf had “Treasure Chest”, full of magic items (1977-1986), and occasional other articles like Brian Asbury’s “The Asbury System” — a new XP system that gave experience for spell-casting, skills, and more. Don Turnbull’s “Fiend Factory” (1978-1986) also contained player content and went on to much greater renown. When Metagaming produced their Interplay magazine (1981-1982), they subtitled it “The Metagamer Dialogues”, with the idea being that it’d be full of player content too.

The greatest sign that players could easily become published designers in the ’70s was the way in which very small press companies were so easily created in the time. Many of the earliest designers — including Dave Hargrave, Kevin Siembieda, and Ken St. Andre — got into the business simply because they’d written up something cool and they were encouraged to publish it.

As ever, we can see the end of this early RPG trend right around 1980. That’s when Judges Guild started discriminating between different sorts of writers by creating variable pay schedules. They offered amateurs $2-8 per full page of copy while they were giving pros $5-20. Of course, all of those rates were pretty low. To put them in perspective, full page ads were going for from $192 for black & white to $240 for the pseudo-color at the Judges Guild.

Today the barriers of entry into the RPG industry have gone way down with the advent of PDFs, but nonetheless the line between players and designers seems much more rigid than it was so briefly in the late ’70s.

8. Companies Didn’t Know What to Publish

Perhaps it’s good that players were so able to produce publishable content in those early days, because to a large extent, the RPG publishers of the ’70s had no idea what would be successful and what wouldn’t be in the entirely new RPG industry. Thus, the sort of thing being produced varied widely from company to company.

RPGs of the Mid 70s
D&D (1974)
Boot Hill (1975)
Empire of the Petal Throne (1975)
En Garde! (1975)
Tunnels & Trolls (1975)
Bunnies and Burrows (1976)
Knights of the Round Table (1976)
Metamorphosis Alpha (1976)
Monsters! Monsters! (1976)
Starfaring (1976)

TSR thought the answer was to publish an ever-growing list of rulebooks, from OD&D (1974) and Greyhawk (1975) through Eldritch Wizardry (1976) and Swords & Spells (1976). No one else really followed the model until Dave Hargrave began publishing Arduin Grimoires (1977-1978, 1984-1988).

TSR published a very early adventure, “The Temple of the Frog”, in Blackmoor (1975). However, they apparently thought little of the form because they didn’t return to it until G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). Meanwhile, Wee Warriors happily published adventures beginning with Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976), as did Judges Guild, beginning with Tegel Manor (1977).

Judges Guild was pioneering campaign settings with the City State of the Invincible Overlord Playing Aid (1977) and The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), while TSR didn’t mimic this sort of supplement themselves until The World of Greyhawk (1980). Chaosium published the first monster book with All the Worlds’ Monsters (1977), though in this case TSR probably already had their Monster Manual (1977) in production.

The examples go on. No one had decided what was successful and what wasn’t, and thus everything might be.

Judges Guild probably offers the best example of how bizarre some of the publications of the late ’70s were — at least to our eyes decades later. At GenCon IX, Judges Guild began offering “subscriptions”, which would provide players with material every couple of months ($12 for six packets). These subscription “issues” were “published” as envelopes contained stacks of cardstock sheets, small booklets, and other looseleaf material. The first subscription envelope thus contained several maps, a 12-page booklet, a one-page reference, and Issue “J” of Judges Guild Journal (December/January, 1976/1977).

Slowly, companies figured out what to publish, and the production of the industry became more homogeneous. TSR produced adventures and settings, and Grimoire Games added dungeons to their Arduin line. Even those strange Judges Guild subscriptions started to look more like what was being produced by the rest of the industry: the envelopes full of stuff were later published under cover sheets to identify them as single products (“installment L” thus became Tegel Manor and “Installment M” became Modron), then around 1981 many of those supplements that still featured separate maps and booklets were instead combined into singular one-stop books.

9. There Were No Editions as We Know Them

Even in the first years of the industry, some of the earliest RPGs were published multiple times. Tunnels & Trolls went through five printings from 1975 to 1979 and Boot Hill went through two during that same period. RuneQuest quickly revved from its original publication (1978) to what would become widely known as “RuneQuest II” (1979). Even GDW’s En Garde went through two iterations (1975, 1977).

En Garde may have been the first RPG to use the word edition — proclaiming its second printing as a “revised edition”. However, neither it — nor most of the other reprints of the ’70s — were what we would today recognize as editions. New printings might be revised, refined, or reformatted. Errata might be incorporated into the games. However, this was nothing like the big revamps seen starting in the late ’80s. Even today you can look back at Tunnels & Trolls first through fourth edition (1975-1977) — to use our modern vernacular — or even much later products like Call of Cthulhu first through third edition (1981-1986) and say, “Those were all basically the same game”.

The exception for the period might have been D&D, which certainly evolved throughout the ’70s, but the reaction of the community as a whole to these changes proves the general rule.

D&D started, of course, with the OD&D 3-book set (1974), which was supplemented by four additional books (1975-1976). These were followed by what today we might call a new edition: the Holmes Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1977), which was really just an introduction to OD&D. When the Monster Manual (1977) was released that same year, it was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but it was freely used with OD&D and Basic Set by players at the time. The Players Handbook (1978) and the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) eventually proved to be a (somewhat) different system than OD&D — but where would you say the editional lines lie, when the evolution from one product to the next was so gradual?

Looking in the magazines and journals of the time, it’s obvious that players didn’t see much difference at all. As late as 1980, most magazine articles just used the words D&D without trying to identify what they meant beyond that, because it was all just one game. There were no editions.

In 1980, things would start to change. That’s when Tunnels & Trolls — which had already been heavily revised for its “fifth edition” (1979) — started carrying the text “completely revised and re-illustrated”. And it had been changed notably under fifth-edition editor Liz Danforth. That’s also when the Tom Moldvay Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1980) appeared, which was more obviously not the same game as either OD&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. And finally, it’s when Metagaming revamped Melee (1977) and Wizard (1977) as The Fantasy Trip (1980).

From there, the first edition wars were just around the corner.

10. Centralization Was Poor

The final thing striking thing about gaming in the ’70s — the final thing that the modern gamer wouldn’t even consider — is how poor centralized it was. When people talk about entering the gaming field in the ’70s, or about finding a new game, they often talk about a long-distance personal connection. Greg Stafford of the SF Bay Area was mailed D&D by a friend in Milwaukee. Lee Gold, who lived in LA, got D&D from friends in San Francisco. Conan La Motte, then at UC San Diego, picked up his copy in Los Angeles.

So many of these games came from personal connections because no game store carried everything. Small distributors like Armageddon covered very geographically limited areas (in this case the San Francisco Bay Area). Others, like Zocchi Distributors, tried to offer many things to all peoples, but they were a far cry from companies like Alliance of the modern day.

One of the consequences of a poorly integrated web of RPG commerce is that companies would often pick up and sell products from other publishers. The most notable of these are probably Games Workshop — who distributed lots of RPGs to the UK — and Judges Guild — who sold an extensive catalog of RPG books and miniatures to their members. However, you’d frequently see such deals on a smaller scale too. If TSR hadn’t picked up Wee Warriors’ books, it’s likely that they would never have been seen outside of California. Similarly, Chaosium sold the self-published Arduin Grimoires (1977-1978) until they were reprinted by Grimoire Games.

Because of the poor centralization, gameplay style varied tremendously in geographically remote enclaves. Some have written about how the game variants were more outlandish in California than in the Midwest — perhaps because of the increased distance from the hub of roleplaying about the Great Lakes. It’s in that sort of environment that a gonzo game like Arduin could appear. Similarly, Lee Gold wrote about “high entropy” games in San Francisco and Boston, comparing it to the “low entropy” games of Southern California.

Conventions in those days were pretty local affairs, and so they tended to support the balkanization of the community. However APAs (and to a lesser extent, letter columns in professional magazines) jumped overs these local barriers — giving ideas about roleplaying one of the few conduits to jump from community to community. Thus the importance of the Southern Californian Alarums and Excursions (1975-Present), the Massachusetts Wild Hunt (1976-1994), and others can’t be overstated.

Today, the role of APAs is largely taken over by the internet, which has done considerably to homogenize gaming (and the world). However, that process was already starting in the ’80s, as distribution of products and information alike began to improve.

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