Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson founded the roleplaying industry with Dungeons & Dragons (1974); Ken St. Andre proved that the feat was replicable with Tunnels & Trolls (1975); but it was Steve Perrin who broke the mold of D&D and proved that fantasy roleplaying games could be more than just variants of that primordial game with RuneQuest (1978).

However, Steve Perrin’s story is so much bigger than that. He affected so many different people with so many different projects that it’s impossible to remember him as anything but one of the Giants of the Industry. So here’s to the memory of this great man, who passed away last week.

Early Innovations: 1966-1977

It all started on May 1, 1966 in Berkeley, California. Steve Perrin was at a Medieval-dress party at Diane Paxson’s house that led off with a Grand Tourney and proceeded to parade down Telegraph Avenue, the most infamous street of that city. That’s how Perrin became one of the founding members of the SCA, or the Society for Creative Anachronism. There he engaged in his first light roleplaying, as his alter ego, Stefan de Lorraine. He would be married to Luise of the Phoenix at the organization’s second Twelfth Night celebration.

Roleplaying games proper, out of necessity, came a little later, but Perrin was an early adopter there too. He was introduced to first wargames, then to D&D, by Steve Henderson — his former SF State dormmate, who he’d met through the letter columns of Marvel Comics. Soon, Perrin was helping two other friends, Clint Bigglestone and Adrienne Martine, to produce a D&D convention in the California Bay Area. The result was DunDraCon (1976), the beginning of what would become the longest continually running convention on the West Coast.

The con also saw Perrin’s first big contribution to the larger roleplaying community: he gave away a small set of precise rules for adjudicating D&D combat, which would become known as “The Perrin Conventions”. Two years later, at Origins ’78, when Perrin sat on his first FRPG panel for a national convention alongside early luminaries of the industry such as Dave Arneson and Marc Miller, it would be because of those rules.

Already a prolific writer for comics fanzines, Perrin soon joined in the early roleplaying hobby’s world of APAs, beginning with Alarums & Excursions #12 (June 1976). He was intent on producing usable game material in his ‘zine, “Tuesday Morning Report”, saying: “Each one will attempt to be something someone can copy or abstract from the issue and use or enjoy”. His first issue thus included variant elves, hit probabilities, and strength charts. Much more would follow including new classes for barbarians, bandits, church militants, mystics, and spell singers (often riffing off of ideas offered by others). From the start, it was obvious that Perrin was delving into a deep well of creativity.

Perrin had one other contribution of particular note to the early roleplaying scene. With Jeff Pimper, and with contributions solicited from A&E, he produced a series of three monster books, called All the Worlds’ Monsters (1977), All the Worlds’ Monsters Volume Two (1978), and All the Worlds’ Monsters Volume Three (1979). Because it predated TSR’s Monster Manual (1977), the first All the Worlds’ Monsters is often credited as the first monster book in the hobby. As it happens, there was actually one predecessor, The Book of Monsters (1976) by Little Soldier Games. But All the Worlds’ Monster was larger and more mass-market, the closest competitor to the Monster Manual before its publication.

Steve Perrin’s work from 1975-1977 — the creation of popular variant rules for D&D, the staging of what would become one of the most notable RPG conventions on the West Coast, and the co-authorship of the one of the first monster books — would have been enough to cement his place as one of the founders of our industry.

But it was just the start.

The next step would come about due to the publisher of that book of monsters: The Chaosium. At the time, they were a wargame publisher, with their core release being a fantasy wargame called White Bear and Red Moon (1975), set in Greg Stafford’s mythical world of Glorantha. Perrin had met Stafford through first D&D and then playtests of Stafford’s next wargame, Nomad Gods (1977). That was what had led to Chaosium’s publication of All the Worlds’ Monsters, which was their first digression into the young roleplaying field.

Now, Stafford was looking to also bring Glorantha to RPGs.

RuneQuest & A Family of Games: 1976-1985

Another date of note comes just more than a decade after that march down Telegraph Avenue, on July 4, 1976. While the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, Steve Perrin and Clint Bigglestone were playtesting a new roleplaying game set in the world of Glorantha. Art Turney, Ray Turney, and Henrik Pfeiffer were the designers of the game, taking over after a first attempt by Dave Hargrave; the playtest was the result of Greg Stafford asking Bigglestone and Perrin to look in on how the game was going. It turned out to be a lot like D&D, down to the fighters, mages, and thieves (who might perhaps have become Lords, Priests, and maybe Merchants in “The Glorantha Game”).

But the game had one innovation of note: “Any character [could] do anything”: though there were classes, characters could pay premium costs to gain the abilities of the other classes. Perrin loved the idea and as a result soon took lead of the project, which would eventually be credited to “Steve Perrin & Friends” when it was finally published as RuneQuest — the friends being Ray Turney from the previous team, as well as two SCAers, Perrin’s housemate Warren James and his by-now best friend, Steve Henderson. There were also a number of others who contributed in smaller ways. What they would produce was sufficiently far removed from D&D (and thus the original design) that it created an entire second category of FRPG play.

The biggest innovation of Perrin’s RuneQuest was that it eliminated classes entirely and instead transformed class abilities into skills. The concept of skills had appeared previously in a sprinkling of other early RPGs, but Perrin’s decision to separate them from classes was what created a new school of RPG design, breaking from the tropes laid out by D&D for class-based play. It also helped to move RuneQuest away from the D&D trope of experience points; RuneQuest instead adopted new ideas of paid training, in part derived from a “sage” character class that Perrin had published in Alarums & Excursions, with help from yet another local gamer, Jerry Jacks.

There were numerous other innovations, each reinventing D&D’s roleplaying ideas, proving that a roleplaying game didn’t have to be based on D&D’s mechanics or even its conceits. Many of these innovations came in the combat system, which worked to adopt the pseudo-realism of SCA play. The individual hit locations of RuneQuest as well as the back-and-forth of attacks and parries both came from the SCA. The idea of strike-ranks determining order in combat also originated with SCA combat, but Perrin had previously adopted it for D&D play before it came to RuneQuest.

By the time RuneQuest (1978) debuted at Origins ’78 (1978), Traveller had already been released with its own take of skills, but RuneQuest would nonetheless be the prime mover in the category — both because it entirely abandoned classes (while Traveller maintained the vestige of careers) and because it incorporated ideas of training (while Traveller had no room for skill improvement).

Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha often gets the lion’s share of the recognition in the success of RuneQuest, which quickly became the industry’s number two fantasy roleplaying game, but the mechanics of Steve Perrin’s design were no less innovative. It would take D&D itself ten or twenty years to catch up with RuneQuest’s innovative mechanics

The success of that game system is obvious by the fact that it soon became the heart of a whole series of “Basic Roleplaying” games at Chaosium. Following on RuneQuest’s sucesss, Perrin moved over from his job at Blue Shield to work full-time for Chaosium for a few years. There, he wrote Worlds of Wonder (1982), which turned the game into what may have been the industry’s first generic roleplaying system, as well as Superworld (1983) and Elfquest (1984).

Meanwhile, Ken St. Andre used BRP to create Stormbringer (1981), Sandy Petersen Call of Cthulhu (1981), and Sherman Kahn Ringworld (1984), the first two being the industry’s first two licensed RPGs to find good success (following smaller scale releases from Heritage Models and SPI for Star Trek and Dallas, respectively). If there’s a game that surpassed RuneQuest, it’s Call of Cthulhu, which would be Chaosium’s evergreen RPG for most of the company’s life, but it all came back to Perrin’s original design.

That’s the second way in which Perrin was one of the founders of our industry: as the lead designer behind not just the foundational BRP game system, for one of the industry’s leading publishers, but also behind a new style of play that totally renovated and reinvented the tropes propagated by D&D, tropes that had previously seemed unassailable.

Super & Wild: 1982-Present

Steve Perrin’s work on Superworld deserves some additional discussion, both because of its origins and because of what came of it.

Perrin’s interest in comics dated back to the ’50s, but he was ready to give it up at the age of 13 until he stumbled across The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960), which debuted the Justice League of America. Reading it, Perrin realized that there was a connected world underlying the superheroes of his youth. His interest in comics reinvigorated, Perrin began regularly writing to letter columns and from there to other fans, some of them with quite notable names, such as Roy Thomas and George R.R. Martin. Perrin’s first publication was thus the comic-fan magazine Mask & Cape #4 (1964), which introduced a black superhero named The Black Phantom years before Marvel debuted The Black Panther. Comic fandom continued to be Perrin’s most notable hobby before he met wargames and roleplaying games in college.

Shortly after Perrin began working full-time at Chaosium, it was thus natural that his Worlds of Wonder box would include a “Superworld” booklet, and that he’d afterward develop it into a full game of its own. Unfortunately, Superworld had the disadvantage of both coming after Champions (1981) and being influenced by its point-buy system. Combine that with Chaosium hitting hard times in the mid ’80s, and Superworld never had the impact of its predecessor, RuneQuest.

Except for one connection that spoke to the creative influence of Perrin’s design.

There’s one more date of note here, this time not quite a decade on: on September 20, 1983, George R.R. Martin, formerly one of Perrin’s youthful comic correspondents, received a copy of Superworld as a birthday present. Two years of intensive gaming followed in Albuquerque before Martin decided that he needed to make some money off of his hobby. He considered writing a campaign book for Chaosium and also a novel, but eventually settled on creating a series of shared world anthologies, as had been popularized by Thieves’ World (1979-1989). The result was Wild Cards (1986-1995+,2008-Present), the most long-lived shared-world series in existence, running 29 books to date. Steve Perrin contributed characters Cyclone, Digger Downs, and Mistral to the early Wild Cards stories and was one of the coauthors of the most recent volume, Joker Moon (2021).

Though Superworld never made a big splash in the roleplaying world, it demonstrated how Perrin’s work affected the larger world.

Freelancing Across the Industry: 1986-1989

Steve Perrin left Chaosium after a few years and became one of the industry’s first wave of professional freelancers. Cleaving to his earliest passion, he did comic-related work for Hero Games and DC Heroes as early as 1986, including the Hero Games RPG, Robot Warriors (1986). However his most notable work came over the next few years when he was invited to write for the industry leader, TSR.

After some smaller work early in 1987, Perrin authored N5: Under Illefarn (1987), the first freelance project for TSR’s brand-new setting, The Forgotten Realms. More than that, it was the first original adventure written for TSR’s Realms, reflecting the prestige that Perrin already possessed within the industry.

Perrin would author a few other Realms books over the next few years, often working with notes from Ed Greenwood, making him one of the founders of what would become the industry’s biggest and most detailed fantasy world — revealing his position as a founder of our industry one last time.

Computers & Beyond: 1988-2021

The roleplaying industry was unable to hold on to its best creators in the ’80s and ’90s because at the time they were able to find more lucrative and stable work in the computer gaming industry, and that was the case for Perrin who moved on to more than a decade of work in computer games, from supporting the rules in Pool of Radiance (1988) to designing games such as SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor (1992) and Descent to Undermountain (1997).

In more recent years, as with many of those other designers of the ’80s and ’90s, Perrin returned to roleplaying. Though he’d always remained somewhat connected to the industry thanks to his work with DunDraCon, the smaller presses of the modern-day allowed him to easily fit in work for a scattering of publishers while meanwhile working on his own game system, “SPQR”.

Then, when Chaosium was reborn in the ’10s, Perrin returned to his alma mater as a creative consultant. He was part of the design team of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018), the newest version of his classic game, and wrote new adventures for it: “The Lost Valley” and “Urvantan’s Tower” for The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories (2019) and “The Pairing Stones” for The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (2020) — the last being an adventure set in a locale in Glorantha that Greg Stafford had named for Steve and Luise Perrin some decades earlier.

Unfortunately, Perrin’s new work on RuneQuest was cut short.

Though Perrin is now gone, he left a considerable mark on multiple industries, with RuneQuest, The Forgotten Realms, and Wild Cards being just the most prominent works to bear his imprint.

Thanks, Steve.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #54 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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