The following short essays were written in response to the prompts from #RPGaDay2020, with the intent of using each prompt to focus on some topic in roleplaying history. There were inevitably influenced not just by my work on history over the previous decade but also by the articles I was writing in 2020 for Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories, Designers & Dragons: The ’10s, and Designers & Dragons Origins. Thus, you can see influence from some of the ’10s articles I drafted in 2020 such as Fria Ligan, Järnringen, and Monte Cook, as well as a short excerpt from a product history in Origins. It went both ways: the Tower article immediately found its way into Origins, as it’s full of trope histories of that sort.
These articles can also be downloaded as a PDF file, also containing content from other #RPGaDay challenges. —SA, 11/12/23
One of the wonders of the roleplaying industry is that it has so many beginnings. Twenty years ago, a knee-jerk response might have been to say that its beginning was Gary Gygax. But we’ve fortunately developed a much more nuanced understanding of our industry’s origins since then. We know that Jeff Perren created a medieval miniatures game that Gary Gygax turned into Chainmail (1971), that Dave Wesely ran Braunsteins and that Dave Arneson brought together Braunsteins and Chainmail in Blackmoor, which Gary Gygax then developed into something publishable.
But even that’s not all of our industry’s origins. Ken St. Andre proved that lightning could be caught in a bottle again with Tunnels & Trolls (1975). Marc Miller (and friends) marked the beginning of popular science-fiction games with Traveller (1977). George MacDonald & Steve Peterson similarly brought superheroes into the limelight with Champions (1980). Meanwhile, new beginnings for D&D were created by J. Eric Holmes, Tom Moldvay, Frank Mentzer, Zeb Cook, and so many others. It goes on and on.
There are so many peoples’ creative visions within our modern industry. Every one of them a beginning, and every one of them part of what we play today.
The OSR focuses on the changes in roleplaying between the ‘70s and the ‘00s, and they’re very right that there are meaningful changes there: in how players view their roles, in how GMs view in their roles, in how challenges were constructed, and in how challenges were solved.
But those are just two points on a much larger timeline, because the roleplaying industry has always been changing.
The ’70s were a time of personal puzzle solving, depending on player intuition and intelligence. It was also a time of do-it-yourself work from everyone.
The ’80s became a time of increasing professionalism and growth, where polished products were more the norm and where prepackaged supplements were increasingly desired by players. It’s also when the hobby went from being a college pastime to something also directed toward kids.
The ’90s for the first time reimagined both the tropes and mechanics of the hobby, resulting in everything from diceless roleplaying to comparative dice pools to deconstructive games like Earthdawn (1993): it was a sign of the maturity of the industry that its origins could be redefined.
The ’00s made complexity the core of many games, but at the same time opened up the hobby to new voices, to new mechanics, and to old styles of play alike.
Finally, the ’10s have cranked up ideas of player agency and diversity that first appeared in the previous decade, while simultaneously returning to some of the simpler mechanics of decades past.
Every decade has offered its own ideal methodology for roleplaying … and in every decade, that ideal has changed. We can only wonder what the ’20s will bring.
One reviewer of Designers & Dragons commented that he was surprised that it was the same few people working their way through the entire industry. That’s an exaggeration, but there’s also a strong true component to it — which is one of the fun things revealed by Designers & Dragons, especially since its format of a company-at-a-time makes it easy to shift the spotlight back and forth across thousands of talented artists and designers working across hundreds of companies.
One of the earliest Designers & Dragons articles talked about how a single company, Chaosium, threaded across the industry. Pagan Publishing, Fantasy Flight Games, and Modiphius Entertainment are three of the most notable companies that got their start thanks to threads of products from Chaosium — but Chaosium also created the whole Swedish roleplaying industry with a license for Worlds of Wonder (1982)!
Designers can thread their way through the industry too. The story of Gary Gygax is particular well-known: how he founded TSR, then ended up banished and so founded New Infinities Productions, which didn’t do too well due to a TSR lawsuit. He then moved on to GDW, resulting in another TSR lawsuit, before getting a bit of peace at Hekaforge and Troll Lord Games.
Settings also thread their way across the industry. Tékumel is one of the hardest to follow. It started at TSR before moving through any number of small-to-mid-sized companies, including Different Worlds Productions, TOME, and Guardians of Order. (Different Worlds was a Chaosium spin-off; TOME was a Chaosium licensee; and Guardians of Order was named for an Amber Diceless Roleplaying game. More threads!)
Why are these threads important? Because they merge creativity in a constantly evolving set of ways. The roleplaying industry is stronger for the many vibrant creators within it, and for the many creative communities, but also for the fact that they’re interacted and collaborated in many different ways over time. Every unique joining of the creative threads in our industry results in something never seen before — something probably never imagined by the collaborators without each other.
So, thread is another of the strengths of the roleplaying industry, just like beginnings and change before it.
Our industry is blessed with so many visionaries, each of whom offered their own unique answer to a question that other people hadn’t considered:
- Jeff Perren: “What if we played wargames set in the Middle Ages?”;
- Dave Wesely: “What if players took on individual roles in wargames?”;
- Dave Arneson: “What if we explored the dungeons beneath the castle?”;
- Gary Gygax: “What if we produced a fantasy roleplaying game for the public?”;
- Ken St. Andre: “What if there was another FRP other than Dungeons & Dragons?”;
- M.A.R. Barker: “What if fantasy roleplaying had a science-fiction basis?”;
- Greg Stafford: “What if fantasy roleplaying had a mythical basis?”;
- Dave Megarry: “What if fantasy roleplaying was a board game?”;
- Bob Bledsaw: “What if we could produce roleplaying supplements?”;
- Bill Owen: “Yeah, what if?”; and
- Tim Kask: “What if we published an independent roleplaying magazine?”.
And that only takes us to 1976.
Part of the reason that the roleplaying industry has constantly grown and evolved is because of the visionaries that it has attracted, people who continue to expand it day by day, year by year, decade by decade.
It’d be easy to offer a tribute to those greats of our industry who have passed. And, it’s wonderful that we recognize them and their accomplishments and what they’ve done for our hobby.
But it’s perhaps more meaningful to offer tribute to those who are still with us. So, if you’re Facebook friends with a designer who created a game that meant a lot to you, or you know their Twitter handle, or even if you just have an email address, perhaps even a company email address, use it. Tell Them.
No one’s in the roleplaying industry to make a buck. They’re in it because they love what they’re doing. That makes it so much more meaningful when you tell them that you love what they’re doing too.
Forests were places to avoid in the Middle Ages. In Europe they were home to wolves and bears. They were places where one could be lost. If a peasant were to name one place he feared, it would not be a ruin, it would not be a cavern, and it would not be a dungeon. It’d be a forest.
So, it’s somewhat surprising that forests aren’t the heart of more roleplaying campaigns — but that’s because of how the hobby developed. Dave Arneson had characters delve beneath his model castle, Gary Gygax repeated that in his own Greyhawk, and the future of the industry was writ.
Which is why it’s great that foreign-language companies are making their breakthrough into the international scene in the ’10s. They bring with them different world views and different assumptions about the hobby. As a result, we finally have a roleplaying game all about a dark and dangerous forest: Symbaroum (2015). It’s from Järnringen, one of the four Swedish companies to burst onto the international scene in the ’10s (the others being Fria Ligan, Helmgast, and RiotMinds). If we see more of this in the ’20s, it will richen our hobby.
The roleplaying industry started out being about big groups: ten or twenty people. Which shows how the first incarnation of D&D (1974) was more a wargame, a puzzle game, or a tactical game than a roleplaying game: there’s no way 10 or 20 people could get fair spotlight!
In recent years, roleplaying games have instead developed mathematical formulas around groups of four or five players, presuming that’s the sweet spot for gaming.
But one of the most intriguing player numbers has always been two: one player and one GM.
The idea might have first been writ large in “Quest for the Fazzlewood” (1978), a tournament at WinterCon VII (1978) where John and Laurie Van De Graaf designed a 30-minute tournament adventure for pairs of players. TSR published it as O1: The Gem and the Staff (1983), which was probably the mainstream’s first exposure to the idea. A few more “one-on-one” publications followed from TSR in the AD&D 1e era, then they published a total of eight HHQ head-to-head adventures (1992-1995) in the AD&D 2e era.
In the 21st century, two-player games have been more often directed toward couples. Kirk Johnson-Weider wrote a long-running column at RPGnet called “Duets” (2009-2014), which was meant as advice for any two-player game, but which he himself most frequently played with his wife. The indie movement has also allowed for the publication of games specifically meant for two players. Some are romantic, and some are about relationships, which are nice genres for the playstyle. But, it’s in no way limited: there are two-player games about fantasy, myth, science-fiction, and horror too.
White Wolf usually gets all the credit for the splatbook revolution, and they certainly turned the idea of individual species or class player books into an industry. But, there were many who preceded them, including Chaosium, GDW, Lion Rampant, and even TSR. Of those publishers, Chaosium may have produced the best splatbook of the early industry: Trollpak (1982), a book about the darkness-worshipping Uz of Glorantha.
Trollpak was amazing because it gave one of the most in-depth looks at a truly alien species in early RPG supplements. The trolls weren’t just monsters (as they might have been in most RPGs), but they weren’t just humans in funny suits either. These were critters with bizarre relations to the world and to other species, whose strange anatomy was reflected in a strange worldview.
Greg Stafford (with Sandy Petersen) did a truly wonderful job of imagining how trolls could be different. And that wasn’t all they did. Though there’s no Elfpak or Dwarfpak or Duckpak or Dragonnewtpack for Glorantha (yet!), one can easily imagine how those splatbooks would have been as intriguing and as original, just from the briefer descriptions of those species that appeared elsewhere. (Actually Mongoose did publish splatbooks for all of the major Elder Races of Glorantha, but they’ve dropped into the realm of semi-canon.)
It should be noted that one of the ways that Trollpak differed from later splatbooks is that it had much more GM information; one of White Wolf’s innovations was splitting that material out.
The ’80s was surely the high tide of humor RPGs.
Paranoia (1984) was the most successful, in part because Greg Costikyan, Eric Goldberg, and Dan Gelber laced it with devastating social satire, a trend that Ken Rolston later continued. But humor in Paranoia worked not just because the authors and developers were clever, but because the game taught GMs and players how to replicate that humor. Catch phrases (“Keep Your Laser Handy!”) and ridiculous situations ensured that players would be humorous too, and that’s likely the hardest part of a funny RPG: translating the humor from the designers to the players. Unfortunately, not all humor is created equal: as the original creators left, Paranoia of the ’90s became increasingly obvious parody instead of subtle satire, and then it unsurprisingly died.
Mongoose’s Paranoia has been more successful than some of their other reboots, and that’s because they recognized the different sorts of humor, and thus their Paranoia covers everything from Satire to Slapstick. (Now how well that translates to play is a different question.)
Other light humor RPGs of the ’80s include Alma Mater (1982), Toon (1984), Ghostbusters (1986), Creeks & Crawdads (1986), Teenagers from Outer Space (1987), Macho Women with Guns (1988), and edging into the next decade, Tales from the Floating Vagabound (1991). In many ways, the last feels like a curtain call for a decade of comedy roleplaying, as it was the last to be sold largely based on its humor and to be well supplemented.
There have certainly been humor games since. Hackmaster (2001) leaned heavily on D&D parody, and drew from the undeniably funny Knights of the Diner Table comic, but it’s since backed off from its parody with its fifth edition (2011). Mongoose’s Paranoia had its productive height in the ’00s. Cartoon Action Hour (2002) is another popular game that trends in that direction, though it doesn’t require humor.
But in general, the ’00s and ’10s have been much more serious about their roleplaying. Where has the lightness gone?
One of the challenges of the roleplaying industry is that some fans want things that don’t match the practical reality of producing games.
We want games to be cheaper, even though the prices are fundamentally set by the costs of design and production.
We want eBooks to be a bare fraction of the cost of a printed book, even though at least half of the design and production costs remain present for eBook publishing (and even though eBooks often lose their economies of scale).
We want our favorite books to be well supplemented, even if the economics of the market might not support that.
We want our books to be in print, even if PDF is all that’s cost-effective.
The disconnect often feels both fundamental and unbridgeable: there is a segment of roleplayers who feel like RPG publishers are evil profiteers if they sell a book for $50; while there is a vast majority of designers who are either working in the evenings, between their real work hours, or else are working full-time to produce games, at starvation wages, without health insurance.
But, we fans who want things, aren’t in any way bad people. We all want stuff. The author of these histories has ticked off at least one of the checkboxes above (I want my stuff in print, to read at the beach and look lovely on my book shelf!) and probably others at various times.
There’s hopefully one want we can all be unified in: we want the books we love to be produced, and the designers and artists we love to be successful, and in the end, that has a cost that we should want to pay if we can.
One of the most innovative mechanics ever in a roleplaying game shows up in a little horror indie called Dread (2005) by Epidiah Ravachol. Its action-resolution mechanic is a Jenga tower. You take out one or more blocks when you attempt a task, and if the tower collapses, you fail and your character dies(!).
The perfection of the design comes from how this mechanic complements the game’s theming. On the one hand you have uncertainty, which is pretty common in RPGs, but on the other hand, you have tension, which is not. That combination feels pretty critical for the design of a great horror RPG.
The Jenga tower is the jump scare of mechanics.
Generally, the ’00s and ’10s have been a great time for mechanics that match their themes, after increasingly simulationist designs in the ’90s. In fact, seeing how Fria Ligan revamped the simulationist-heavy Mutant (1984) and Coriolis (2008) into the neotrad Mutant: Year Zero (2014) and Coriolis: The Third Horizon (2017) is a game design course all on its own.)
But we shouldn’t forget the game that led the way: Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon (1985) was in many ways the founder of the whole story game and indie movement: it was a pitch-perfect game design for its setting before anyone else even realized that was a good idea.
Another innovative indie game of the ’00s is De Profundis (2001) by Michal Oracz. The game was originally published by James Wallis through Hogshead Publishing’s New Style Line, which was producing indie games before indie games were a thing. The central innovation of the game is that it’s played through players writing letters to each other.
As with Dread (2005), this is a game where the mechanic shines because it so perfectly matches the theming. That’s because it’s a Lovecraftian game, and not only was Lovecraft frequently writing messages to his other Weird Fiction peers, but his protagonists were often writing letters too, some times up to the very second they were killed (or driven insane).
Correspondence games also recall the origins of the industry, with correspondence Diplomacy bringing many gamers together, then Gary Gygax creating The Great Kingdom for a correspondence wargame, all while PBMs paralleled the industry and even led to the founding of some companies, like Flying Buffalo.
There are perhaps a half-dozen modern correspondence games like De Profundis. Surprisingly, some are solo, such as Scott Malthouse’s Quill (2016) and English Eerie (2017).
The Regency/Victorian era seems another setting where the mechanic could really match the theming, as in the 2018 winner of the 200-word RPG challenge, Dear Elizabeth. Todd Crapper’s By the General’s Hand (2018) is yet another theme-appropriate use of the mechanic.
One of the weirdest results of classic D&D (1974) play has to be the 15-minute-workday, a phrase that describes the way that a party would (theoretically) go into a dungeon and turn back after just a few rooms because their clerics and magic-users had blown through their spells. It then required a night’s rest to get the party back up to full power.
How often this actually happened is a different question, but there’s definitely a problem if there’s a tight resource limitation on engaging in the activity that is the main activity of a game. D&D 4e (2008) certainly treated it as a real-life problem with its focus on ensuring that all the classes had fun, reusable powers that were constantly available.
D&D isn’t the only game to have weird side effects because of its mechanics. RuneQuest (1978) was similarly renowned for the way that characters would carry around piles of weapons and switch them out to earn experience checks in everything. (Again: real-life mileage may vary.)
“Murphy’s Rules”, from Steve Jackson Games, was a hilarious cartoon in large part because it highlighted many of these weird player activities that were encouraged by the mechanics (and more widely: weird extrapolations from rules). If there wasn’t a cartoon that showed a RuneQuest warrior reaching into a quiver of weapons for his next check, there should be
Of course, great RPG designs move in the opposite direction, encouraging players to do game-appropriate things via their mechanics. For example, in Robin Laws’ Dying Earth Roleplaying Game (2001), players are encouraged to speak in florid prose by the very simple mechanic of an experience reward — but it worked!
Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon (1985) was one of the most influential and important RPGs of the ’80s, though you might not have known it at the time. Its publisher, Chaosium, was at the time of its publication waning, having licensed out the rights to their top-selling RPG, RuneQuest (1978), in what one would have to call a bad deal, and so Pendragon never got quite as much attention as it might have otherwise. In fact, the second edition of the game was announced but never appeared because of Chaosium’s financial problems at the time. Instead, they’d jump straight to third edition (1990) without even realizing that they’d missed one.
Nonetheless, Pendragon was supported for about 15 years. More importantly, it was seen by future designers, and its innovations were recognized and replicated. As such, it was one of the crucial forefathers of the storytelling/indie movement, along with other games of the ’80s such as Paranoia (1984), Ars Magica (1987), and Stafford’s own Prince Valiant (1989).
What made Pendragon so great? Quite simply, a pitch-perfect fidelity to its source material. Stafford made Pendragon all about knights. There were no thieves here, no clerics, and absent a misstep in the fourth edition (1993), no magic-users. Just knights striding bravely forth under their banners. More than that, Pendragon was all about knightly virtues, vices, and passions, replicating the literary view of knighthood, especially as seen in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485).
Stafford wasn’t content with that one innovation. He also envisioned the greatest roleplaying campaign ever, an 80-year story that would take players through the life of a character and his sons and grandsons, that would reveal the entire tale of Arthur from its chaotic beginning through its hopeful middle to its tragic end. It took Stafford years of his own to make the whole vision concrete, through the outlines of The Pendragon Campaign (1985) to the partial chronology of The Boy King (1991) to the complete Great Pendragon Campaign (2005). But the end result was a book that stands as one of the most notable accomplishments of the entire roleplaying field — perhaps as great as Pendragon itself.
Recently, Pendragon was recovered by Chaosium after a trip through a few other companies in the industry, so there may be more greatness ahead.
Do narrative devices have a place in RPGs? They certainly seem to have been used to good effect in the 21st century, with various (mostly indie) games supporting narrative concepts like flashbacks, smash cuts, in media res, and cliffhangers.
Framing stories are a narrative technique that’s somewhat more limited in its usage, but which can open up interesting new possibilities for a roleplaying game.
In a frame story, you’re telling a story within a story. This could be literal (in which a character in your main story narrates the substory) or it could be implied (often with a future scene framing a past storyline).
One of the places that frames have shown up is in games about telling stories, one of the earliest being The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1998), one of Hogshead Publishing’s New Style RPGs, but Meguey Baker’s A Thousand and One Nights (2006) may have been the first RPG to really embrace the idea of narrative framing, by allowing stories within stories within stories, and by having players take on new roles in each.
When plotted RPG adventures first started appearing in the ’80s, some complained that they railroaded players. Techniques like frame stories (and flashbacks and smash cuts and in media res and cliffhanger) can introduce the advantages of plot narrative while still enabling player agency as long as they’re done right — such as in A Thousand and One Nights where the plotting lies entirely in the hand of the players.
Another way to introduce narrative techniques into an RPG is to model narrative flow, and that tends to have a pretty interesting effect on a game. Whereas modern games, with their focus on encounter balance, can settle into an eternal string of successes, a game built around narrative flow instead purposefully intermingles successes and failures, creating a more dramatic storyline.
Robin D. Laws is the master of dramatic narratives of this sort.
HeroQuest 2e (2009) is the game that most closely mimics narrative flow, thanks to its pass/fail cycle. Its conceit is very simple: the more successes a group has, the harder contests get, and the more failures, the easier contests get. It turns out to be a really notable reinvention of roleplaying, and one that some can find disconcerting, as there are (for example) no NPC stats and no monster manuals. Instead, adversarial abilities are assigned based on pass/fail (and/or credibility and/or dramatic necessity). There are also a few other narrative elements in HeroQuest, such as the fact that climatic confrontations result in larger consequences.
Laws’ Hillfolk (2013) is so focused on narrative techniques that its mechanics are called the DramaSystem. Everything about the game is about narrative, from the sorts of scenes that are used to the way dramatic scenes unfold. Here, Laws uses resources to more organically simulate narrative flow, with characters giving up drama tokens when they gain concessions and earning them when they make concessions.
Laws has also written a few books on narrative flow: Hamlet’s Hit Points (2010) and Beating the Story (2018).
Similar mechanics can be found in Fate (2003) and other modern games, though often they’re less core to the mechanics. The Year Zero games from Fria Ligan offer a more freeform example: in Mutant Year Zero (2014), for example, players tend to earn mutation points from failures over the course of the game, then blow them in the climax to make sure they overcome the final foe.
This first trend of the ’20s may be a focus on making a variety of players more comfortable when playing RPGs.
This builds on a trend from the ’10s focusing on making players comfortable at their own table via tools like the “X” card, which allows players to note when something doesn’t feel good to them.
It’s now making its way into the professional mainstream.
First, there’s been an effort to embrace diversity among creators. This year’s Diana Jones Award for “Black Excellence in Gaming” (2020) both showed the excellence in game design among black creators and demonstrated how limited their representation is. Embracing creator diversity, in turn, has the advantage of giving us supplements that detail diverse viewpoints, such as Chris Spivey’s award-winning Harlem Unbound (2017, 2020).
Second, there’s been a look back at materials that might have been insensitive, with TSR’s Oriental Adventures (1985) one of the first to come under scrutiny, though that’s only seen a warning while the upcoming Curse of Strahd Revamped (2020) is retconning the Vistani — the long-lived Romani equivalents in the setting.
There is considerable complexity in this issue and in its solutions. There have been complaints about demonizing past players, about rewriting our history, and about the possibility of a single player controlling what everyone else does at a table. But there are also considerable advantages in finding a solution that is more widely comfortable, the best being the welcoming of a larger number of people to our tables and the assurance that they everyone is having fun — which is ultimately the purpose of these games.
This will probably be an ongoing issue that will reverberate throughout this new decade, as we find the proper balance for everyone’s levels of comfort and fun.
Conventions have always been the great meeting places of the roleplaying hobby. They’ve shaped it in ways that are almost impossible to define, but which have obviously been crucial to its continuation.
D&D was practically birthed at Gen Con, whichcreated some of the first crucial connections in what would become the roleplaying industry and gave some of its creators their pivotal ideas.
Any number of companies found their first success at conventions, including small companies like Rider Fantasy and big companies like Judges Guild, both of whom got their start unofficially selling products at Gen Con. Any number of games saw their first releases at conventions, some successfully such as Champions (1981) and some less so such as Nephilim (1994). Which is to say nothing of the many personal connections made at conventions, from personal friendships to business development to romantic links.
Gen Con, Origins, DunDraCon, MaineCon, Continuum, PAX, Borås Spelkonvent, GothCon, EternalCon, Essen, Winter Fantasy, Gary Con, Ropecon, Big Bad Con, Games Day, UK Game Con, GloranthaCon, Dreamation, DexCon, Pacificon, KublaCon. The list of past and present conventions goes on and on.
Which is part of the reason that the pandemic has been so hard on roleplaying: meeting is in our lifeblood, and for the moment it’s not possible.
A tower is just an upside-down dungeon, which makes it a great locale for classic delving. Or so you’d think: it turns out they’ve been used less often than you’d expect.
The roleplaying field recognized the evocative nature of towers pretty early on: the sample dungeon in Holmes’ Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1977) is more widely known as “The Tower of Zenopus”. Except it turns out there’s no tower to explore in Holmes D&D: the sample dungeon lies beneath it!
The Howling Tower (1979) by David Hargrave for Arduin was one of the earliest supplements to contain an actual tower adventure, but its six levels are much, much smaller than the three levels of dungeons below. And that’s a problem with towers. They just aren’t that big unless they’re really, really tall.
Judges Guild’s Dark Tower (1980) by Jennell Jaquays is a bit better. Though most of the delve is once more through a dungeon, it’s cleverly interconnected with two towers.
That brings us to The Ghost Tower of Inverness (1979, 1980) by Allan Hammack. It initially appears that this is going to be a dungeon delve beneath a ruined tower, just like “The Tower of Zenopus”, but the module subverts that expectation by taking the characters back in time to journey up through the tower before it was destroyed!
A full listing of tower adventures would go far beyond these primordial examples, from the sorcerous towers of Dragonlance (1984+: but much of their adventure was actually in a nearby forest or in the minds of magic-users taking a test) to Rudy Kraft and Jennell Jaquays’ Legendary Duck Tower (1980: it turns out to be a citadel). Many more would follow, and some of them would feature more extensive adventures in the towers themselves — but they’ve always been plagued by the relatively small size of their cross-sections.
Investigation means one thing in the roleplaying industry: Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu (1981), by Sandy Petersen. Almost forty years on, it may be hard to envision how revolutionary Call of Cthulhu was — but it certainly was.
Throughout the ’70s, the roleplaying field was almost entirely focused on combat, because it still lay near its wargaming roots. Certainly, the western field opened with Boot Hill (1975), the superhero field with Superhero 2044 (1977), and the science-fiction field with Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) or Starfaring (1976), depending on what you count, but none of those changed the fundamentals of roleplaying.
Maybe Traveller (1977) did, but it took until the release of Scouts (1983) and Merchant Prince (1985) for the full potential of other career paths to be recognized.
So, instead one turns to 1980 for notable divergences from the conflictive norm. Maybe that was Dallas (1980), a card-driven soap opera, and maybe it was Thieves’ Guild (1980), which opened up caper play, or Top Secret (1980), which introducing espionage play … but other than the slightly far-fetched Dallas, the others tended toward combat too.
Which brings us to 1981 and Call of Cthulhu, a game that not only focused most of its energy on investigation, for the first time ever (or at least much more so than an action-driven game like Top Secret), but which also made combat very, very bad for its participants.
It was a game-changer.
There have certainly been other investigative games of note since, with the GUMSHOE (2007) games being the most important, because they offered a very different formula for play, where investigation success was an expectation, not an option.
But Call of Cthulhu led the way.
One of the most interesting elements in Fria Ligan’s Year Zero system is its push mechanic. It’s very simple: if you don’t like the results of a roll, you can “push” to reroll your dice. This gives you a new opportunity to succeed, but now any “1”s that come up cause trauma (or alternatively degrade equipment). This is player agency in its purest form. Players get real choices over whether they succeed or fail.
This sort of agency has been around for a while, but it’s been slowly increasing as RPGs have aged and (perhaps) matured.
Top Secret (1980) offered one of the earliest player agency mechanics with its Fame & Fortune points, which could be used to avoid death. This type of resource-based agency has continued and expanded in many modern games, including Savage Worlds (2003) and its bennies and Fate (2003) and its point economy, where the points can be used more extensively to alter results.
Other games have embraced resource-management even more fully, forcing players to decide when to use their best resources (to succeed) and when to instead fall back on their worst ones (to fail). TSR’s SAGA system (1996) was one of the most interesting, with players having to decide when to play high cards and when to play low ones.
But the agency mechanic in Year Zero is very different from all of those. Where they’re resource-management, it’s risk-management, which is the sort of thing that can create wonderful tension in roleplaying games.
What are the biggest rarities in the roleplaying world? For D&D collectors, The Acaeum has a list. It’s generally what you’d expect: items that didn’t make it to the mass-market. The first two printings of OD&D, and some products that were TSR-only or tournament GM-only top the list, but the most valuable standalone product for D&D with actual (albeit limited) distribution is ST1: Up the Garden Path (1986), at a jaw-dropping $4,272 for a near-mint copy.
Here’s a bit on the product, from Designers & Dragons Origins:
I: The National Garden Festival. From 1984-1992, the British government held a series of five biannual garden festivals, which were intended to reclaim derelict (and often contaminated) areas within the country’s industrial districts.
The second of these Garden Festivals was the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival, which ran from May 1 to October 26, 1986. The festival occurred on land reclaimed from the Shelton Bar steelworks (1830-1978) — an area that had been heavily contaminated. Approximately 300,000 trees were planted and a railway with five stations was built around the area. Today, the locale still exists as a public area, now called Festival Park.
II: The National Garden Module.. TSR UK choose to produce a “special game adventure” for the 1986 National Garden Festival. We don’t know why: perhaps it was intended as an unusual bit of marketing or perhaps someone at TSR UK had a tight connection to the Garden Festival. They produced an adventure whose map is based directly on the map of the Garden Festival — down to the railroad!
The Acaeum reports an estimated 600 copies of the module were printed and that perhaps 100-200 were sold, possibly for £2.50, with the rest being pulped — which makes it one of the rarest D&D books around. The module was initially sold at the Garden Festival and might have been made available to some local retailers, but it definitely made it to one other convention …
III: The Games Day. Games Day is one of the oldest gaming conventions in Britain. The first was run on December 20, 1975 by Games Workshop. It became a yearly convention after it returned on February 12, 1977. In 1986, Games Day was run on September 27 at the Royal Horticultural Society Hall in London — an appropriate locale for a garden-festival adventure. This is the only other place that Up the Garden Path was sold.
The average fan would probably be more interested in rarities that made it to the mass market, because they’re more approachable. A list of Holy Grails for those fans could include: Deities & Demigods with Cthulhu (1980), the Last Unicorn Games Dune (2000), Chaosium’s Ringworld (1984), and Spherewalker (1996) for Everway. Every fan probably has their own list of books they’d love to get. Many are more likely to go for a few hundred dollars than a few thousand.
At least two recalled adventures probably fall somewhere in the middle: rarer than the average RPG release, but less so than con, club, and fanzine exclusives. Those rarities are Wings of the Valkyrie (1987) for Champions and the original B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981) for BD&D. Also in the middle of the rarity scale are small-press publications from decades past. Alma Mater (1982), Bifrost (1977-1982), Spawn of Fashan (1981), and many, many others would all be pretty hard to find today! Our industry, now in its fifth decade, is full of rarities.From Designers & Dragons Origins in Draft
The indie branch of roleplaying was seeded in the ’80s with games like Paranoia (1984), King Arthur Pendragon (1985), Ars Magica (1987), and Prince Valiant (1989). But there’s one game from the start of the next decade that’s at least as crucial: Jonathan Tweet’s Over the Edge (1992).
Part of that is Over the Edge’s setting of Al Amarja and the playstyle it suggests. An urban environment with conspiracies, supernatural weirdness, and secret agents implied a game that was unlike anything before it and was so far from the dungeon delves, superhero fights, and science-fiction adventures of the industry’s origins that it might as well be a different category of play.
But Over the Edge really broke ground with its wide-open gaming system, which allowed players to freely write down advantages and flaws without consulting any set list of skills. This sort of open play practically laid the foundation of the indie game category, influencing everything from Hero Wars (2000) to Fate (2003). If Pendragon was the lesser known game of the ’80s that influenced the designs of innovative RPGs in the ’00s and beyond, Over the Edge was that same game for the ’90s.
Whimsy Cards (1987) were the first product produced by Lion Rampant, and they were thus the first product in the amazingly innovative sequence of projects headed by Jonathan Tweet and/or Mark Rein•Hagen that would later include Ars Magica (1987), Vampire: The Masquerade (1991), Over the Edge (1992), and so many others.
The idea was quite simple. Players were randomly dealt cards that said things like “Bad Tidings”, “Tables Turn”, or “Ulterior Motive”, and when they played the cards, they described a narrative change that resulted. (Some players inevitably used them to try and improve the position of their characters, but the best realized that it was all about creating a better story.)
This was a clear extension of the ideas of troupe-style roleplaying that were proselytized in Ars Magica, but the cards were focused on player agency: giving everyone the ability to shape the story, no matter who the current GM was.
Despite their innovation, Whimsy Cards quickly faded out. White Wolf rereleased them as StoryPath Cards (1990), and that edition was failed by its production. The core idea was great: releasing genre-specific decks of cards, which would have allowed for a very extensible set of cards that could have been specialized for each adventure. But they were printed on paper-thin card stock and they were perforated: players had to rip them apart! The results weren’t pretty. White Wolf never got past the first two sets, and then the rights ended up with 3 Guys Gaming, where they pretty much died.
Only in recent years have Whimsies reappeared. Nocturnal Media has a print-and-play version of the cards available at DTRPG and put out both Whimsies and Storypaths through a Kickstarter in the late ’10s. Paizo released the somewhat similar Plot Twist Cards (2010) around the same time — albeit, with more mechanics than the original. They were both in the family, as the companies were then each owned by White Wolf alumni.
Are Whimsy Cards still relevant today? Definitely! There are now many GM-less games, as well as GM-led games that tend toward more player agency than games of the ’80s or ’90s, but there also are plenty of games with a more traditional GM-player format, and they can sometimes benefit from the fun, humor, and empowerment allowed by giving everyone a voice.
The scattered indie ideas of the ’80s and ’90s, spanning games from Paranoia (1984) and King Arthur Pendragon (1985) to Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991) and Over the Edge (1992), became the indie game movement of the ’00s, but what’s even more amazing is that many of those ideas re-entered the mainstream in the ’10s to reinvigorate the roleplaying form.
Take Leverage (2010), a game from Margaret Weis Productions that could have been pretty simulationistic. It’s a heist game, after all, so it could have been very similar to games like Top Secret / SI (1987). Instead, it well reflects how the roleplaying genre evolved in those intervening two decades.
To start with, some of its traits are freeform, allowing players to generate dice for anything, an element dating back to Over the Edge. This is part of a risk-management system. Players can often choose to add traits to rolls as dice, but every time they do increases the chance of complications — since they appear when “1”s are rolled. There’s also an awful lot of player agency. Plot Points (which are a part of an economy including those complications) can be used by players to generate assets.
But Leverage goes beyond that, leveraging narrative elements that you usually find in only the indiest of indies. In particular, the flashback is a crucial part of Leverage that can also be used to generate assets by rewriting the past. There are also spotlight scenes, which give each player a chance to shine.
Overall, MWP’s entire sequence of “Cortex+” games trended heavily toward the indie side of things, really showing how much indie ideas of player agency, narrative techniques, and game systems that closely aligned with their themes had infiltrated the mainstream.
When the history of roleplaying in the ’10s is written, there’s no question that Monte Cook Games will be one of the stars. That’s in part because it’s headed by Monte Cook, one of the more influential game designers of the 21st century, but also because MCG produces games that are uniquely strange.
Much of that strangeness comes from the fact that MCG has focused on science fantasy in most of its games. Certainly, science fantasy has been around since the earliest days of the industry, and in fact was a lot more common in those primordial days. But Cook has once more put science-fantasy front and center, and it doesn’t feel like the aliens and crashed space crafts of the industry’s early days, but instead a weirdly organic, almost post-human sort of science fantasy — the “new weird” that you find in the works of China Mieville and the four-color Heavy Metal stories of Moebius and others. (And maybe it’s also Zothique and the New Sun and Granbreton too, but MCG’s science fantasy is often much, much larger than life.)
Each of MCG’s three major releases has blended that science fantasy with our own world in unique ways.
Numenera (2013) is Earth a billion years in the future, after the collapse of eight previous civilizations. The ruins that are iconic of fantasy roleplaying are everything that’s ever lived upon the Earth. It’s a reinvention of fantasy tropes just like in Earthdawn (1993).
The Strange (2014) is science fiction in its ultimate conception, as a multiversal game of dimension hopping, but every week it can be set in a different genre and a different reality, from Oz to Wonderland. It’s a new take on Planescape or Fringe or The Eternal Champion.
And finally, there’s Invisible Sun (2018), which blends multiple worlds in a totally different way, this time creating a web of magic that stretches from our modern day to beyond, itself inspired by surrealism, and by surrealist comics like Promethea and Doom Patrol, mashed up with Philip K. Dick.
Monte Cook Games is psychedelic roleplaying. It’s strange, it’s innovative, and it’s unique in the best of ways.
Wizardly magic gets a lot of attention in fantasy roleplaying games, but in many ways it’s pretty staid. Wizards learn spells or draw upon innate powers, and they use it to do miraculous things. The variation is usually in what those miraculous things are.
Divine favor, on the other hand, tends to be much more varied, in part because it introduces another actor: the divinity. Suddenly it’s no longer about a magic-user drawing upon his personal resources, just in a slightly different way from fighters or thieves, but instead about a character drawing upon a relationship.
D&D (1974) obviously offered the earliest example of divine favor, and it’s pretty mundane. Its deities are largely spell vending machines, no different from a wizard’s spell books.
Instead, RuneQuest (1978) was the first great example of how to model divine favor so that it felt very different from sorcery. Oh, RuneQuest gods are still spell vending machines to a certain extent, but the spells are so powerful that they feel divine (something that is balanced out by the need to go to some effort to retrieve them after they’ve spent). The game also offered a lot of opportunities for characters to model their gods, first by requiring appropriate skills to rise within a cult, and more recently by tying that together with passions. The pages and pages of history and mythology about each god, and their unique divine spells, in products like Cults of Prax (1979) and Cults of Terror (1981), also helped to characterize deities in ways that the short paragraphs in D&D never did.
King Arthur Pendragon (1985) doesn’t actually seem to place religion front and center, but it nonetheless does through its focus on religious traits. If a character acts in the ways appropriate for a religion (whether it be Christian or Pagan), he’ll eventually get an in-game bonus for doing so. Nothing enforces roleplaying of a specific sort like an in-game bonus, so this was a very strong model for creating religious adherence — and pretty surprisingly, it appeared in a game without an actual clergy role.
Another model for divine favor is a simple bonus for participating in worship, which has spanned games from Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) to Coriolis (2008). This divine favor is more about building a setting and a feel of a game.
There are certainly also games focused on religion without having much in the way of divine favor, but divine favor is interesting because it’s a mechanic that can be developed and explored in many different ways (and has been!).
Everything ends. Of the 13 companies covered in Designers & Dragons: The ‘70s, not one of them exists in its original form.
But it should be no surprise that in an industry as innovative and creative as the roleplaying industry, things change and are reborn. When Designers & Dragons was last published in 2014, five of those 13 companies were still around in some form, and that count may still be same today. Some of those companies like Gamescience and Judges Guild are hollowed out, but Chaosium is a fine example of a company that’s come back stronger in a newest incarnation.
Moreso, as companies have closed, many of their worlds and games have appeared from other publishers, often in new and different forms — allowing for innovation and creativity.
So, GDW is long gone, but Mongoose has produced a new iteration of Traveller (2008) that returned to the game to its classic roots; and Space: 1889 (1988), a brilliant setting once held back by its game system, returned first in a sprightly new Savage Worlds version called Red Sands (2010) and then in a third edition using the Ubiquity rules (2014); and Twilight: 2000 (1984) too should be soaring once more, under a Year Zero system from Fria Ligan.
So has D&D (1974) been reborn again and again to suit the moods of each decade. So has Mutant Chronicles (1993) seen new life under Modiphius (2005), and Lord of the Rings under Cubicle 7 as The One Ring (2011), and Ars Magica (1987) under Atlas (1996, 2004), and Paranoia (1984) under Mongoose (2004, 2009).
Everything comes to a close in the fullest of time, but the RPG industry has seen enough creative rebirths that, looking back from the ’20s, we can now say that worlds and stories are not lost forever, but may be returning in joyous new forms.
Simulationistic games can be very complex. In fact, that was a major gaming trend as the ’80s turned into the ’90s: make simulation systems more complex to better simulate. Games like Aftermath! (1981), Phoenix Command (1986), and the Rolemaster Standard System (1994) were the result. But, that’s not a requirement for a simulation system. In fact, the best have perfectly elegant rules that simultaneously simulate and are obvious.
RuneQuest (1978), it must be admitted, has some complexity of its own. But it also has two of the most perfectly elegant simulation rules in roleplaying. They both have to do with riding.
The first rule cuts through the Gordian Knot of fighting while mounted with an extremely simple answer: your fighting skill is limited to your riding skill. This is the best type of simulation: no complex charts, just a rule that feels like you always knew it.
The second rule presents a brilliant methodology for using lances, which are often a puzzle to roleplaying designers, because they have to figure out how to model a weapon that’s only particularly dangerous when mounted. In RuneQuest, every character has a “Damage Bonus” based on their STR + SIZ. When using a lance mounted, you use the damage bonus of your mount (which is usually large and strong), not yourself (who are usually much less so).
Neither of these rules is groundbreaking, but that’s the point. Instead, they’re quiet and unassuming, but make things work just like you think they should. (Whether what they simulate is reality or not is a totally different question, and to a certain extent, irrelevant.)
Portals were an important part of the early roleplaying worlds of the ’70s.
We know that Gary Gygax’s players visited the wild west, World War II, and The Warden. Portals in Castle Greyhawk’s dungeons led to Wonderland and Skull Island. Meanwhile, J. Eric Holmes ran a seminar called “D&D on Barsoom”.
Bob Bledsaw’s early roleplaying campaign was set on Middle-earth. When he was ready to introduce The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, he transported the characters through a portal that they found on Weathertop. There were then gates scattered throughout the Wilderlands of High Fantasy (1977), one of which led to the entry (and crash!) of a MIG fighter jet.
These portals reveal a different focus for world-building in the early games of the industry. Designers like Gygax, Bledsaw, and Holmes clearly saw their D&D games as part of a fictive universe. There wasn’t the same attention toward verisimilitude of world design. There didn’t have to be an internally consistent “secondary world” that felt every bit as true as reality. No, it just had to feel every bit as true as Barsoom or Wonderland. Compare that to the reams of history created for worlds like the Forgotten Realms or Hârn or Glorantha. It’s a different mindset, neither right nor wrong, but leading to different results.
Certainly, there are portals in latter-day roleplaying games. The gate spell is a portal. Sigil is the City of Doors. But those trend more toward the internally self-consistent fiction-world designs of the ’90s and beyond than the seat-of-your-pants game-world designs of the ’80s.
Perhaps it’s time to see some of those older worlds once more.
Experience is a defining element of roleplaying games, so much so that when the original Traveller (1977) appeared without experience, it was considered a grave absence in the game.
Experience works because it’s fun. Obviously, no player character should be static, and obviously some of that change is going to be character growth as characters evolve based on what they experience and what choices they make. But mechanical growth is very satisfactory too, because it gives players goals and allows them to see their alter egos improve over time.
Experience can also influence how games are played. If the original D&D (1974) was about killing and looting treasure, that’s because players got experience points for slaying monsters and collecting gold. Mind you, it’s a bit harder to say what behavior Rolemaster (1982) encouraged, since it gave big-time experience points for getting critically hit.
In the ’00s and ’10s there’s been a trend toward just leveling up characters when the GM feels the time is right, and although there’s something to be said for the simplicity of that (another trend of the ’10s), it feels like it leaves a lot of options on the table — denying both the excitement of personal advancement and the possibility to shape gameplay.
Many of the most interesting roleplaying games reward roleplaying itself. In The Riddle of Steel (2002), players get points for playing their personality, and in The Burning Wheel (2002) they do so for accomplishing long-held goals and embodying their instincts.