Between 1979 and 1980, young Dave Nalle, designer of Ysgarth (1979) and founder of Ragnarok Enterprises, wrote a series of three articles for Thrust: Science Fiction in Review, an amateur magazine from the East Coast focused on science-fiction and fantasy fiction. These articles, labeled “Paper Warriors”, appeared in Thrust #13 (Fall 1979), #15 (Summer 1980), and #16 (Fall 1980). They contain some of the earliest commentaries, overviews, and histories of the industry as a whole.

The Contents of the Articles

Nalle’s three articles probably total slightly less than 10,000 words, making them a relatively short overview of hobby gaming. With that said, they’re largely focused on history and game descriptions, and there’s as much of that as what appeared in the non-fiction books of the next few years, such as Fantasy Role Playing Games (1981) and Through Dungeons Deep (1982) — which were more focused on introducing how to play and run games. (Though there’s a little of that here.)

Each of the three articles is focused on a particular aspect of fantasy & science-fiction gaming.

“Part I” (in Thrust #13) offers the broadest discussion of “SF & Fantasy Gaming”. It provides what may be one of the first histories of the industry, running from Kriegspiel (1780) through Tactics (1953) to D&D (1974). Nalle also broadly overviews the top publishers and games in 1979.

“Part II” (in Thrust #15) is all about “Board Games”. It’s probably the least interesting section to a modern reader. It spends an excruciatingly long time describing how Ogre (1977) works, then overviews the top twenty or so fantasy and science-fiction board games.

“Part III” (in Thrust #16) is all about “Role Playing Games”. It includes the obligatory introduction to the gaming category, and then a look at eight top games: six FRPGs and two other notables.

What We Learn About the Origins of the Industry

The most interesting historic element of “Paper Warriors” is Nalle’s focus on a broader fantasy and science-fiction gaming industry, of which roleplaying (and D&D) is just one part. He presents it as a combination of the literary science-fiction and fantasy fields with the wargaming hobby. He states that this fantasy and science-fiction gaming field came of its own with the first mass-market games in the category: GDW’s Triplanetary (1973) and SPI’s Starforce (1974).

Of course, Nalle does mention D&D as the third member of his trinity, calling it “the first fantasy wargame, and the first role playing game”. Obviously, we now look at D&D (1974) as the big game-changer, but Nalle’s view of a larger F&SF gaming field was not unusual for the ’70s, where magazines like Space Gamer (1975-1985) focused on the bigger fantasy & science-fiction gaming industry that Nalle was talking about — not on roleplaying games alone. (It’s notable that Nalle was perfectly comfortable with the “roleplaying” label by 1979; in the ’70s RPGs were originally called wargames, then adventure games, as the field tried to settle on a name.)

Interestingly, Nalle offers one genre distinction between the board games and roleplaying games in the fantasy and science-fiction gaming field: he says that the science fiction genre seems better suited for board games (because of the success of games of future wars) and the fantasy genre for roleplaying games (because of the success of D&D). He also claims that “heroic fantasy” and “chivalric fantasy” are among the most popular RPG subjects, with ‘nary a mention of swords & sorcery. This is likely a nod toward his own interest in more heroic stories, but it suggests that the sword & sorcery focus of the early FRPG scene wasn’t as monolithic as some fans now think.

What We Learn About the Top Games of the ’70s

Nalle states that there were ten major RPGs when he was writing in 1979-1980, six fantasy games and four science-fiction games. It’s interesting that he’d place so much emphasis on science fiction, which in retrospective is a comparatively small slice of the roleplaying industry. Of course, his listing and opinions on each game are interesting too.

AD&D (1977-1979) gets the most attention, though Nalle (who was always quite opinionated) damns the rules for “the intractability of their designer”. He thought that AD&D should have been revamped in response to the rapid development of the rest of the field, and instead described the result of the AD&D revision as “a complex development of a primitive system” that “took away the charming generalness of the original rules, and [tended] to stifle innovation”. Perhaps with tongue in cheek, Nalle noted that D&D still could be “used as a base for developing a personal variant”, which is exactly what he did with Ysgarth, which he called a “VD&D” system.

Tunnels & Trolls (1975) gets kudos for its simplicity and its solo scenarios — which were clearly its selling point even back in the ’70s. Nalle also notes that though it started out semi-professional, it had become an attractive mass-market game by its fifth edition (1979).

RuneQuest (1978) closest out the trilogy of what we too recognize as the top three FRPGs of the ’70s. Nalle recognizes it as “the most completely independently developed rule system on the market” and as the only major game (at that time) to heavily focus on its gameworld. (He lists its down points as its complexity and that selfsame focus on a single gameworld.)

The Arduin Grimoire (1977, 1979) probably wouldn’t go on most modern fans’ lists of independent game systems, let alone major ones (and Nalle does admit that it’s really an expansion of D&D). The fact that Nalle was doing the same himself with Ysgarth probably explains his interest.

Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) is another game that we might not recognize as having been major in the ’70s, but it was put out by a notable publisher, FGU, and it was supported. Obviously there was some personal bias here, because Nalle says that C&S “benefits from being too complex” and from supplements like Arden (1979) which depicted a setting — which seems to be exactly counter to his criticisms of RuneQuest, but Nalle is known to have been a fan of C&S when young.

The Fantasy Trip (1977) is listed by Nalle as the newest RPG, which means that he was thinking about the Advanced variants (1980) that were in the process of being released as a new system. He says the system has good mechanics, but its mechanics were too important for it to appeal as an RPG.

So what does Nalle miss from his list of FRPGs? Not a lot, as that’s actually a fairly likely list of the top six FRPGs on the ’70s. He briefly lists four others: Bifrost (1977-1980), High Fantasy (1978), Dave Arneson’s Adventures in Fantasy (1979), and his own Ysgarth. Perhaps the only game that he missed that was at all mass-market was Bushido (1979), which should have been circulating in the same Washington D.C. circles where Nalle spent his time away from school, but perhaps its release just missed his cut for the articles. (There were also a few smaller press FRPGs at the time, so this list isn’t complete.)

Almost all of Nalle’s SFRPG attention goes to Traveller (1977), and there’s little doubt it was the top game in the genre until at least Star Frontiers (1982). In fact, Nalle at one point says that the designers were expecting it to soon surpass D&D! Nalle enjoyed the game’s detail, its simplicity, and especially its character creation, but said that it was “not too much fun to play”, primarily because of the “unavoidable imprisonment of characters in space ships”.

That clear lack of interest in SFRPGs is probably why Nalle gives sort shrift to the rest of the SFRPG category. He briefly mentions Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), Space Quest (1977), and Gamma World (1978), but ignores piles of others including Starfaring (1976), Space Patrol (1977), Space Quest (1977), Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier (1978), and Starships & Spacemen (1978). Unfortunately, this doesn’t give us much evidence on whether any other SFRPGs were particularly popular, but Nalle is probably right that TSR’s two post-apocalyptic games were the strongest contenders.

Nalle gives strong attention to one other game, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), which he recognizes as a combination of science fiction and fantasy. He says it is “wonderfully detailed”, but with “mechanics [that] are weak imitations of D&D”. That’s a pretty good synopsis of a game that could have been revolutionary, but instead never achieved that level of market interest.

Surprisingly, Nalle doesn’t acknowledge any other genres of RPGs, which means that he omits Boot Hill (1975), En Garde! (1975), Bunnies & Burrows (1976), Superhero 2044 (1977), Gangster (1979), and Villains and Vigilantes (1979). It’s certainly possible that none of those received the attention of the top 3-6 FRPGs or Traveller in the ’70s. It could be that the rise of other genres only really began with the release of Champions (1981), Top Secret (1981), and Villains & Vigilantes 2e (1982).

There’s also, of course, discussions of top board games. Interestingly, Nalle claims there are just two types of SF board games: land combat as exemplified by Steve Jackson’s Ogre (1977) and space combat as epitomized by Metagaming’s WarpWar (1977). He doesn’t similarly categorize the fantasy games, though they tend to be either man-to-man combat like Melee (1977) or mass combat like War of the Ring (1977). Dungeon! (1975), Dune (1979), and Freedom in the Galaxy (1979) are the only games that Nalle mentions which sort of break the conflictive focus of these early fantasy and science-fiction games.

What may be most interesting about Nalle’s listing of fantasy and science-fiction board games is how they’ve almost totally disappeared. Although some of the games like OgreMelee, and Cosmic Encounter (1977) have managed to survive through the decades, the vast majority are gone. Though Nalle says that “Sf/fantasy games are becoming more and more popular”, in truth roleplaying games largely took over the nascent market in the ’80s (though the modern board-game market of the ’00s and beyond has of course seen many fantasy and science-fiction games return, but only as a possible theme in the larger board gaming market than a sub-genre of its own).


David Nalle’s “Paper Warriors” articles are intriguing because they’re some of the earliest looks at the roleplaying industry — with all three perhaps written in 1979, just more than five years past the release of OD&D (1974). Part of that interest comes from the depiction of a fantasy & SF gaming industry that was not yet taken over by RPGs, and part of that comes from Nalle’s listing of top RPGs. Besides including the known top FRPGs of the era — D&DT&T, and RuneQuest — as well as top SFRPG Traveller, he also lists three more FRPGs that could easily have filled ranks #4-6: The Arduin GrimoireChivalry & Sorcery, and The Fantasy Trip.

One way to understand our history is through overviews written at the time. Nalle provides an intriguing one.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #46 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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