What follows are 31 short essays on roleplaying history, each one suggested by an RPGaDay prompt. These pieces were all written as flash-essays, so they don’t hold to the same standards of research or thoughtfulness as core Designers & Dragons material. Nonetheless, they’re hopefully 31 interesting views on the industry.
This is the second year that Designers & Dragons has participated in RPGaDay. Both year’s articles are available in a free PDF.
It’s shocking how much scenarios have changed from the ’70s to the modern day. From the earliest dungeons, which had terse descriptions such as “3 skeletons, 14 gp”, to the modules of the 21st century, they’re almost different art forms.
And one could certainly mark major milestones along the way, with some of the most notable being the Tracy Hickman adventures that appeared at TSR in the ’80s, from The Desert of Desolation (1982) to Dragonlance (1984-1986), which were some of the prime publications that developed the dungeons of the early industry into full-fledged stories.
But there’s something to be said for just recognizing some of the notable early adventure, so here’s a look at one take on the top scenarios from the first five years that the industry was publishing scenarios.
1976: Palace of the Vampire Queen (Wee Warriors)
Usually counted as being the first standalone scenario, Palace of the Vampire Queen was published by Wee Warriors, back when TSR wasn’t even considering scenarios because they thought that the wargamers playing D&D just wanted rules. TSR quickly picked it up to distribute themselves.
The five levels of the Palace are pretty standard dungeon levels for the era, with big charts simply listing the monsters and loot in each room. A simple page of text at the beginning gave the only background details.
It was a start.
To be fair Jennell Jaquays’ first issue of The Dungeoneer appeared almost simultaneously with Palace, and had a dungeon, but it’s usually not included in lists because it doesn’t meet the “standalone” criteria, which keeps us from having to figure out which technically was sold first.
1977: Tegel Manor (Judges Guild)
Meanwhile, Judges Guild was also recognizing the value of scenarios — and they even had a license from TSR to publish them. They included dungeon maps in the first two issues of their subscription service (1976), but their first true scenario appeared in the fourth: Bob Bledsaw’s Tegel Manor (1977).
In many ways, Tegel Manor is just the next step beyond Palace of the Vampire Queen, in that it’s another funhouse dungeon with little rhyme or reason to its contents. It’s also huge, at 240 rooms.
1978: Apple Lane (Chaosium)
It would be easy to list TSR’s Tomb of Horror (1978) as the top scenario for 1978. It’s certainly the best-known, and its killer dungeon design represents a valid and interesting style of play for the era. However, that style was already fading when Tomb of Horrors saw print, and so it may be the scenario that ended 1,000 RPG groups.
Instead, I suggest Apple Lane, for Chaosium’s RuneQuest game (1978). A year before TSR published Village of Hommlet (1979), Greg Stafford revealed a village from his own campaign, filled with NPCs to interact with: NPCs who even had names. Add in a unique adventure for the time, where the players have to defend a pawnshop from attack, and you have a milestone in the industry. (There are caves to explore too, but there’s also some extra depth here, with a few different storylines intertwining in the caverns.)
1979: Rahasia (DayStar West Media)
Though it was small press, Rahasia by Tracy and Laura Hickman, was still the stand-out adventure of 1979. In many ways it’s a fairly standard dungeon crawl, with a Temple being the site of exploration this time around. But it shows the increasing focus on wrapping stories around those dungeons. So, there’s a curse to break, a maiden to rescue, and a priest to capture.
Mind you, that’s probably less story than appeared in Apple Lane the year before, and it wouldn’t have been that influential on its own, with just a few hundred copies published. But, it showed the Hickmans’ focus on story which they’d soon bring that to TSR, where they’d totally renovate the form for fantasy adventures (and would also republish Rahasia, first as an RPGA adventure, then as a Basic D&D adventure).
1980: The Keep on the Borderlands (TSR)
The most appropriate adventure to end a list of top scenarios in the first five years that the hobby published adventures is definitely The Keep on the Borderlands. It may be the most played adventure in all of RPGdom, as estimates put it at 1.5 million copies printed. It certainly was many players’ first adventure, as it was included in Basic D&D from late 1980 to early 1983, when D&D was seeing its biggest explosion.
Beyond that, the adventure is a clever dungeon crawl. Besides reusing the home base trope from Village of Hommlet (and Apple Lane), it also includes an intricately interconnected series of caverns that players can explore as they see fit, creating a very open sandbox. Though we never got to see the Blackmoor and Greyhawk Castles in their original form, Keep on the Borderlands may be an equally important view into how the open designs of megadungeons worked at the dawn of the industry.
The mapping tropes of the FRPG industry developed pretty quickly … but it wasn’t immediate.
Surprisingly, if you look at the sample dungeon of OD&D (1974), there are no grid and no scale. Square grids did appear for The Temple of the Frog in Blackmoor (1975), but they look like an artifact of the drawing and reproduction process, not something to be used by a GM. You also have to guess at the scale from the text descriptions.
More purposeful square grids appeared in the Dungeon Geomorphs (1976), which were also printed in TSR’s famous non-repro blue, as would be the case for most of their maps over the next decade. TSR’s first adventure, G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) then carried that style to their scenarios.
The Fantasy Trip (1977) was a rare game to use hexes instead of squares for its tactical maps. There was more variation in how to present larger scale maps, but Wilderlands and most later wilderness adventures would settle on those self-same hexes.
Much more interesting than the story of how early FRPG maps standardized is how they varied, which began to occur more in the ’80s, now that a standard had been set.
Dave Sutherland made the first great leap forward for dungeon map design when he invented an isometric mapping style solely so that he could present the vertical dungeon of I6: Ravenloft (1982). It was later used to good effect in many other modules, with DL1: Dragons of Despair (1984) being one of the more notable.
Other very innovative early maps came out of the short-lived TSR UK division, the main sector of TSR at the time that was considering how to push the graphic envelope. UK2: The Sentinel (1984) showed how to integrate multiple maps. By UK7: Dark Clouds Gather (1985), they were becoming full-fledged art pieces. UK5: Eye of the Serpent (1984) offered an intriguing variant: A Flowchart to Adventure.
Obviously, you can find even more map innovation as you go forward, particularly in genres not beholden to the dungeon-delve tropes of FRPGs. But even in the first decade of the industry, even mainly focused on FRPGs, there were a lot of interesting innovations, pointing to a lot of different ways that the industry could have gone.
One could argue that one of the prime innovations of Chainmail (1971) was the introduction of more varied tactics into miniatures wargaming play. Where before units were relatively limited in their choices, with movement, missile combat, and melee combat being the main possibilities, now players could have a wizard unit with almost 20 spell options.
Obviously, these new tactics carried into OD&D (1974), but there they created a balance problem that would bedevil the game (and to a large extent all FRPGs) for decades: a tactic gradient. Magic-users were given a wide variety of options in combat; clerics were given almost as many; thieves were given some interesting possibilities to set up tactical backstabbing situations, and maybe use their other skills, but that was largely based on GM fiat, and the class was otherwise limited; and fighters were back to the move-melee-or-missile options. What worked fine on a Chainmail battlefield had the possibility of also creating a fun gradient in RPGs.
Much of the history of RPGs since OD&D has been about improving these tactical options, to even out the tactic gradient for everyone. The Fantasy Trip (1977) introduced options to combat; while Dragonquest (1980) similarly created tactics on a hex grid. Traveller (1977) focused on creating tactics using 15mm terrain; while RuneQuest (1978) made tactics widespread by democratizing spells. Other attempts have been less successful, such as the introduction of the tactical options for grappling, pummeling, and overbearing in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) … which were so complex that no one used it.
New genres that moved away from the fantasy tropes really opened up the field, as there are vast numbers of tactical options available in a game of Champions (1981), Battletech (1984), or Vampire: The Masquerade (1991). Meanwhile, some newer games in the fantasy genre just embraced the implicit tactic gradient that’s been in FRPGs from the start and focused on those spell-casters, with Ars Magica (1987) being the example that went the furthest in that direction.
The 21st century has gone in a number of different directions, with a lot of new tactical possibilities coming out the indie field. Hero Wars (2000) side-stepped the issue by making extended conflicts possible outside of the combat field, which did remove the typical tactic gradient, but didn’t necessarily offer new tactical options. However, it kind of solved that, in the same way as Fate (2003), by allowing freeform use of skills, including to boost other skills.
Resource management was perhaps the most innovative new way to introduce tactics because it moved them from the game to the metagame. Tactics were no longer about what you did in a conflict, but instead what resources you expended while engaging in that conflict. A few mainstream games like Dragonlance: Fifth Age (1996) and Marvel Universe (2003) were front-runners on the idea, but it appeared more often in indies. When you delve further into indie design you get other mechanics involving scene setting, construction, and resolution that take the idea of tactics in a whole different direction.
Of course, D&D 3e (2000) went heavily into tactics with its revived focus on grid-based combat, with nuances such as more specific rules for thief backstabbing and of course the infamous attacks of opportunity, all creating new options. Then D&D 4e (2008) doubled down on that and additionally removed the tactic gradient from D&D for the first time ever with its powers for everyone approach. However, both games are out of favor now, and D&D 4e was not well-received (on average) from the start, partially due to the extreme changes in its rule system.
Does that mean the tactic gradient is with us permanently? Or at least for FRPGs? Or at least for D&D?
In the epic fantasy and the sword & sorcery that inspired D&D, weapons were almost characters of their own. Fafhrd carried Heartseeker and Gray Mouser wielded Scalpel and Cat’s Claw. Glamdring, Orcrist, and Sting all shone across The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And of course no sword was greater than Elric of Melniboné’s Stormbringer — who truly was a character.
OD&D (1974) spent a full four pages on intelligent swords, items that I’ve rarely seen used in a real game. But it didn’t give them names, which I would suggest was a crucial misstep that kept them from reaching their full potential. Greyhawk (1975) upped the ante with the “Dancing Sword”, the “Dragon Slaying Sword”, the “Sword of Sharpness”, the “Vorpal Blade”, and the ever-evocative “Nine Steps Draining Ability” sword. They’re well remembered, but still proper-nameless.
Instead, if you wanted to see the first weaponry in D&D that truly matched that of its source material, with names and powers alike, that appeared in Eldritch Wizardry (1976), which featured the Mace of Cuthbert, the Sword of Kas, the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, and the Wand of Orcus. (Surprisingly, non-weapon artifacts such as the Eye and Hand of Vecna gained more attention than the weapons.) A few more traditional weapons, such as Mjolnir and Hofud, appeared in Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes (1976).
However, what is probably D&D’s most renowned weaponry appeared in White Plume Mountain (1979), a simple MacGuffin quest for three weapons of note: the trident Wave, the warhammer Whelm, and the sword Blackrazor. Of those, Blackrazor touched back on one of D&D’s influences, as it’s a blatant rip-off of Stormbringer. Author Lawrence Schick would never have included such an item if he’d know White Plume Mountain was going to be published, but at the time he wrote it, it was part of his application for a job at TSR.
Did White Plume Mountain finally get its weaponry “right” by at last giving them names like those in D&D’s source material? Perhaps.
It’s pretty easy for a fantasy game to make its weaponry evocative by just applying a name (and perhaps some special powers), but what about a science-fiction game? Certainly, some people might swear by their PGMP-12, their FGMP-16, or other such weaponry in Traveller (1977), which tended to be carefully considered and well described.
However, I think one of the most evocative bits of “weaponry” in Traveller uses only the names. I’m talking about the Sword Worlds, a confederation of planets in the Spinward Marches settled by Earthers (Solomani). Most of the planets are named after famous weaponry from Earth. Among these planets are: Anduril, Anselhome, Beater, Biter, Bronze, Colada, Durendal, Dyrnwyn, Enos, Entrope, Excalibur, Gram, Gungnir, Hofud, Hrunting, Iron, Joyeuse, Mithril, Mjolnir, Narsil, Orcrist, Sacnoth, Steel, Sting, Tizon, Tyrfing, and Winston. Just figuring out all the name is itself a fun exploration of magic weaponry!
Because we already know many of those names, they give the worlds characters — character that has been developed over the years, but which doubtless originated from the simple term “The Sword Worlds”. It suggests that for all those named and magic weapons that appeared in stories, novels, and then roleplaying games, it was the names that had the power all the time, not the weaponry itself.
When OD&D (1974) was first published, it promised three distinctive styles of play: dungeon exploration; wilderness exploration; and warfare and rulership. The dungeon exploration was available at once, while the wilderness exploration was certainly played in early days, as witnessed in both the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns, but it didn’t really gel into a published playing style until the release of the D&D Expert Rule Set (1981) — though there were some predecessors such as the Wilderlands of High Fantasy (1977).
Which left warfare and rulership.
Unfortunately, through many, many iterations TSR was never able to make warfare and rulership really popular among D&D players, or at the least it didn’t do so continuously: there were a number of attempts that seemed strong for a few years, then faded away.
Obviously, D&D had the mechanics to support warfare from the beginning, since it was built on Chainmail (1971), but even when TSR produced son-of-Chainmail as the Swords & Spells supplement (1976) they weren’t able to make it catch on. Battlesystem (1985) didn’t do much better. It was a hefty and attractive mass-combat system that TSR pushed hard many times for over a decade, and it never seemed to find widespread interest, despite some well-loved Battlesystem modules, such as the Bloodstone Pass series (1985-1988) and the Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-1988).
Maybe the missing aspect was rulership: the throne to go with the warfare. The “CM” Companion adventures (1984-1987), which were the first D&D adventures to really focus on domains, managed nine publications but never received the acclaim of the “B”/”X” lines that preceded it. Birthright (1995-1997), which offered a better-polished and more consistent domain-focused gaming line was certainly the most successful of TSR’s various attempts to sell games of warfare and rulership, but it was cut short by TSR’s implosion.
The inability of TSR to sustain games of thrones for more than a few years at a time suggests that there might be flaws in the core playstyle. Might it keep players too isolated from each other? Might it cause them to turn inward toward their domains rather than outward toward roleplaying with their fellows? Those are certainly concerns with games of this sort, but any number of other RPGs have proven much more successful on the topic.
Chaosium’s Pendragon (1985) was one of the first RPGs to make rulership of fiefs not just an objective of play but also a fully integrated mechanical aspect of gaming. It did so by introducing winter phases to campaigns, where players could temporarily focus on their own concerns before returning to group play when the season ended.
Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica (1987) offered a very different model, where the default setting centered on the players’ mages ruling over a small fortress (a covenant) and its peoples. Like Pendragon, it did so using an interstitial gaming phase, here seasons of covenant play that occurred between the adventurous gaming sessions.
One might think that the limitation was in D&D itself, if not for what we’ve seen in the 21st century. To start with, domain and warfare rules have been popular in the OSR, particularly among players of B/X retroclones, perhaps because B/X never had its own Companion rules.
More notably, one of the most successful games of rulership in the 21st century was built in a game just one short step removed from D&D: Pathfinder (2009). Its Kingmaker Adventure Path (2010), which allowed players to build up a domain over the course of a campaign, was one of the earliest for Pathfinder, and also one that was well-acclaimed. It received a gold ENnie in 2010 and has since been converted into a computer game (2018).
Certainly, we today realize that the possible playstyles of RPGs are not just limited to dungeon exploration, wilderness exploration, and warfare and rulership. Instead, they’re limitless. Nonetheless the control and creativity implicit in a game of rulership make it very tempting, and thus something we’ll likely continue to see in the future.
One of the most amazing things about roleplaying games in the twenty-first century is that they now come in a variety of flavors.
We’ve always had mainstream games, though that’s meant different things at different times. In the ’70s, they were barely professional games, D&D included. But year by year it came to mean more experienced and skilled work, well-polished in both writing and mechanics, and ultimately looking pretty nice. Today, mainstream games are relatively complex mechanically (but nothing like the games of the late ’80s and ’90s) and meant to appeal to a wide audience. The biggest focus is on fantasy, and in particular fantasy with a combat element.
Indies were the second modern flavor of RPGs, developing in the ’00s. They are more likely to delve into far-flung genres and they are much more likely to focus on modern themes such as corruption and romance. They also tend to be mechanically innovative, approaching RPGs from totally new perspectives. The narrative focus of early indies meant that scene-framing and other story-based mechanics appeared early on, but there are also mechanics totally separate from stories, such as freeform descriptions, freeform resolutions, and resource management.
OSR was the third modern flavor of RPGs, developing in the ’00s, a few years after the indies. They tend to focus on foundational styles of RPG play, or at least how those foundational styles of play are interpreted today. So, they are more often about delving and exploration, their rules tend to be simpler, and they depend more on both player ingenuity and GM ruling as opposed to hard and fast rules.
One of the beautiful things about the 21st century as it enters the 2020s is that all of these flavors of gaming, once distinct, are increasing blending together in the mainstream releases, allowing a smorgasbord of designs that combine all the best flavors of the last few decades. It’s exciting to consider what might come next.
One of the most interesting trends of the 21st century is the one-page RPG, which as it suggests encapsulates an entire game onto a single page (or sometimes two, but in any case, they remain small). Out of necessity, one-page RPGs tend to be one-shots. A lot of them are over-the-top humorous.
Now, one can certainly argue their efficacy, as some critics say they reduce content to a single page by putting all the weight on the GM. Even if that’s the case, however, they manage to get gamers rapidly playing on a variety of topics, often with some intentionally focused moral dilemmas.
Although it’s unlikely that he wrote the first one-page RPG, Grant Howitt usually gets attention as one of the most popular one-page RPG writers. As with so much in the hobby, it started by an accumulation of coincidences. Howitt moved to Australia, and wasn’t able to legally work there, so he started a Kickstarter for producing RPGs. He designed larger pieces such as the 132-page Goblin Quest (2015) but found the scheduling too grueling.
Howitt’s wife, Mary “Maz” Hamilton, then suggested one-page RPGs. Howitt embraced this model starting with Force-Blade Punk (2016), which like many one-pagers was as much of an artistic design as a game. Howitt’s most famous design was certainly Honey Heist (2017), a game of animals stuck between criminality and bearness. Multiple Critical Role sessions ensured that the whole world knew about the one-page game. Meanwhile, the idea has continued to explode, with itch.io beginning to run One-Page RPG Jams in 2020.
Just as the gaming designs of the 21st century are divided between indie games and OSR games, so are the new gaming shorts. Whereas one-page RPGs tend toward the indie side of the industry, the OSR instead has one-page dungeons, which are exactly what they sound like, and are often even more artistic designs than the one-page RPGs.
The one-page dungeons appeared courtesy of David Bowman in 2009, with assistance by Michael Shorten. It was then popularized by Philippe Antoine Menard, who together with Shorten organized the first One Page Dungeon contest that year. The One Page Dungeon Contest has appeared every year since. It’s been coordinated by Alex Schroeder (2010-2013), Random Wizard (2014-2016), and Shattered Pike Studio (2017-Present) over the years. With over 150 entries last year, it obviously remains a potent wellspring for small-form OSR creativity.
One of the most wonderful things about the stream of RPG development — now 50 years long, from the release of Chainmail (1971) to this month’s debut of Fallout: The Roleplaying Game (2021) — is that it’s genuinely a stream, with ideas flowing in and out of the mainstream in one of the largest and most long-lived collaborations ever.
As I wrote a few days ago, the OSR and indie games broke into their own niches about 20 years ago, and now they’re influencing major games such as D&D. That’s how it’s always been, with new ideas accumulating and raising the design of these games of ours to ever-greater heights.
Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) introduced rough ideas of skills, albeit with no way to roll against them. Traveller (1977) debuted a full-fledged skill system, but with no way to improve them. RuneQuest (1978) made improving skills the core of its system. D&D itself brought this flow of mechanics back to the mainstream with Oriental Adventures (1985), the Survival Guides (1986), and eventually AD&D 2e (1989).
This pattern repeats across so many other mechanics. There are rough attempts, there are major successes that mainstream the mechanics, and eventually they flow back to the biggest games in the hobby.
Handfuls of dice came via Tunnels & Trolls (1975), then Champions (1981). Star Wars (1987) turned them into a full-fledged skill system, but itself was built on the Ghostbusters (1986) mechanics. Then Shadowrun (1989) introduced a whole new way to roll handfuls of dice, with comparative dice pools, but Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) brought it to even greater success.
Looking at a mainstream game such as D&D 3e (2000), one can see the tributaries that flow into it. The style of tactical combat perhaps originated with The Fantasy Trip (1977) while the die+skill mechanic certainly came from Ars Magica (1987), also by designer Jonathan Tweet. The list of feats was a larger innovation, but one can certainly see precedents in advantage/disadvantage systems such as Champions (1981).
Even flashbacks to the past like the OSR are built upon this stream of development. Shadow of the Demon Lord (2015) and Forbidden Lands (2018) are both old-school games with more modern mechanics, while OSRIC (2007) was an OSR game with reconsidered organization and Old-School Essentials (2019) is built upon next-generational layout, but with ideas going back to at least The Black Hack (2016).
It often feels like the games of our hobby are ever reaching greater heights, and if so, this stream of development is one of the reasons, because it allows us to ever plumb the depths of past designs for the best and brightest that we can bring forward.
Are roleplaying games a medium?
Webster’s defines a medium as “a means of effecting or conveying something, such as: a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment; or a mode of artistic expression or communication”. By that definition, I’d say “tentatively, yes”.
Roleplaying games are built upon two other mediums. Roleplaying rules focus on the medium of books (and PDFs and cassette tapes and CDs and other mediums that convey the same information). Roleplaying itself is then built upon the medium of talking. But, I think the act of roleplaying goes beyond simple talking. There are supplements to the conversation, particularly maps; there are constraints to the talking, based on the success of skills; and most importantly there are nuances to the conversation, based upon the role you are taking. You put all of that together and I think you have “a channel or system of communication” that is sufficiently different from mere conversation to be a medium of its own. It entertains and communicates in a unique way.
However, I believe that the depth of roleplaying games as a medium increases when they are also used to convey ideas. In saying that, I don’t denigrate roleplaying games that are merely about entertainment. Perhaps 99% of every game I’ve ever played has fallen into that category. It’s why I love the hobby and forever return to it.
But roleplaying also has the possibility of casting us in the roles of people utterly unlike ourselves. It has the option of making us think about tough, even unsolvable problems — and then forcing us to make decisions related to them. Moral dilemmas, insertion into other cultures, and revelation of flaws in our own societies are all content that can increase the depth of roleplaying as a medium.
Nordic LARPs and indie RPGs have been some of the prime movers in this category, focusing on topics of inequality, intimacy, romance, death, misery, justice, and much more. They make us think about broad problems; they introduce us to marginalized groups and reveal our shared humanity. They amp up the medium of roleplaying games from just covering communication and entertainment to also conveying information.
Is that required? Obviously not. We play games to be entertained. But that our medium also allows for something different, perhaps something more, is thrilling.
In the infancy of roleplaying, games were very much about trust. That’s because OD&D (1974) in its original form was competitive. The GM was aggressively challenging the players, and the players were often working at cross-purposes. You genuinely had to decide if you trusted the thief to support your group, and not to stab you in the back and take your stuff.
Now, not so much. Part of the evolution of roleplaying over the years has been to change it from a somewhat competitive category of play to an almost entirely cooperative medium. You still have to trust that your fellows aren’t going to do something stupid or unpredictable (and we tricksters ever endeavor to violate that trust), but beyond that, you can generally have faith in your group’s desire to work together, toward the same goals.
Obviously, there have been a few exceptions along the way. Paranoia (1984) was in large part about boosting PvP play to the nth degree. But is it really a question of trust when you absolutely know you can’t trust your fellows?
(Trust the computer; the computer is your friend; keep your laser handy.)
I bet there are also a few indies built solely around the idea of trust. The Mountain Witch (2005) is one such example, built on the risk and reward of trusting other ronin. But even among indie games, trust continues to be an exception in the world of roleplaying.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you accept the modern-day premise of RPGs as cooperative, you can still have trust as a core component of play. I know this because Christopher Allen and I wrote a whole book on cooperative board games, called Meeples Together. Trust tends to be a major factor in games of this sort.
In those games, it often comes down to the question of each player having some unique information. They have to be trusted to act correctly on that information, usually without revealing it to anyone else, or even consulting with them. It’s very real faith.
Hanabi (2010) is one of the most interesting trust-based cooperative strategy games. In it, each player has a hand of cards that he can’t see — but that the other players can. The other players can give them hints as to what the cards are, but can’t quite say anything explicitly. Eventually, the player has to play or discard a card, and in doing so makes an extreme leap of faith, trusting that the other players were saying rational things, and trusting that they understood them.
It’d be wonderful to see more of that in RPGs. Trust is a powerful mechanic.
Obviously, dungeon exploration is the most iconic sort of roleplaying adventure. But I put wilderness exploration right up there. When I dream of youthful D&D, hexes dance in front of my eyes. There’s something about the idea of venturing into blank spaces and discovering what’s there that really appeals to the feeling of novelty and discovery that inhabits my most primordial and nostalgic roleplaying memories. And, the neat thing about wilderness exploration is that it doesn’t even have to be limited to fantasy roleplaying. In Traveller (1977), you can explore entire worlds, they’re just laid out in triangles rather than hexes.
Wilderness adventures have had a number of milestones and a number of greats along the way. I’d rate these as some of the top five:
1977: The Wilderlands of High Fantasy (Judges Guild)
Typically, a later adventure gets credit as the first wilderness adventure, but it really began here. The map in Wilderlands is pretty great. It’s Judges Guild’s first hex-of-hexes maps, which would be supplemented by a number of others over the years, creating one of the industry’s first detailed campaign worlds. The wilderness adventure is less so, as it’s just pages and pages of random charts.
Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) would offer a more detailed campaign world that same year, also with a nice hex map, but without quite as much of a wilderness focus.
1980: X1 — The Isle of Dread (TSR)
Zeb Cook and Tom Moldvay’s first Expert adventure is what most people mark as the first true wilderness adventure, and it’s certainly a big step forward. It’s not just that it’s a complete adventure, with fully described areas and a few subregions taking the form of caves, dungeons, and a village. It’s that there are also thumbnails of cultures here, including new races such as the phanton and rakasta, both of whom went on to much greater fame in the Known World.
One could probably make a whole list of top wilderness adventures just in the “X” series. X4: Master of the Desert Nomads (1983) and X5: Temple of Death (1983) depict the Great Wastes and Hule and are considered another height of the “X” — albeit that’s with a lot more story and a lot less wilderness focus. X9: The Savage Coast (1985) received more mixed reviews, but was another very pure hex crawl.
The Isle has made some notable returns in Dungeon #114 (2004), Dungeon #143 (2007), and Original Adventures Reincarnated #2: The Isle of Dread (2018), just in case you weren’t convinced of its iconic nature.
1981: Griffin Mountain (Chaosium)
Other fantasy games did wilderness adventures too, with RuneQuest’s Griffin Mountain, by Rudy Kraft, Jennell Jaquays, and Greg Stafford being a top contender. Like Isle of Dread before it, Griffin Mountain takes wilderness adventure up to the next level, and that’s not just because it’s a massive volume, running 200 pages in its first incarnation, compared to Isle of Dread’s scant (but dense) 32 pages.
It’s that those 200 pages contain entire cultures. There are Balazaring barbarians and civilized citadels, traveling caravans and well-detailed leaders. Glorantha is one of the richest fantasy worlds created for roleplaying and Griffin Mountain manages to encapsulate that through peoples, encounters, and locales. It’s a Master’s Thesis in how to show not tell, all laid out as a massive wilderness.
Griffin Mountain hasn’t been repeated and revisited as much as Isle of Dread, though Griffin Island (1986) and a Gloranthan Classics edition (2001) both exist, but nonetheless characters like Blueface, Joh Mith, and Gondo Hoist, all introduced here, are some of the most memorable in Glorantha.
1986: B10 — Night’s Dark Terror (TSR UK)
One must include one other Basic D&D adventure in a list of wilderness milestones, and that’s Night’s Dark Terror, created by the TSR UK crew of Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher, and Graeme Morris. If the Wilderlands offered bare wilderness exploration, the Isle of Dread thumbnails of wilderness cultures, and Griffin Mountain a fully detailed setting, then Night’s Dark Terror marks another step forward by presenting the interface between wilderness exploration and narrative stories. Though the adventure remains a sandbox, there’s a MacGuffin quest, ongoing events, and stories that cover multiple locales.
Night’s Dark Terror was good enough, and detailed the wilderness sufficiently, that it quickly led to the publication of GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987), the beginning of TSR’s first extensive description of a campaign world, months before they repeated the idea with the Forgotten Realms.
In the modern-day, one of the wilderness settings with the greatest potential is that of Dolmenwood, originally described by Gavin Norman with Greg Gorgonmilk in a series of eight magazines called Wormskin. Of themselves, the magazines are amazing. Not only do they offer hex by hex descriptions of dozens of locales within the forest, but they also fill it out with races, NPCs, fungi, psychedelic compounds, and more. Beyond that, the monster-haunted woods, wit its fairies, dungeons, and dark creatures is deeply evocative and entirely unique.
There’s a plan for much more: Norman has been working on a full campaign guide for Dolmenwood for a few years now. Though the magazines themselves probably qualify Dolmenwood for this list, when the full books are produced, they’re likely to be one of the greatest wilderness settings ever.
Which is a wonderful way to say that wilderness exploration isn’t just something of the past: some of the best examples are also occurring right now, courtesy of the OSR.
In the primordial days of gaming, players had to think in a very different way than they do in modern-day RPGs. That’s because classic RPGs were much more puzzle-games, where a gamemaster laid out challenges and players thoughtfully came up with ideas for how to solve them. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark was a classic RPGer. Swapping the bag for the idol, that’s the exact sort of puzzle thinking that was required in games at the dawn of the industry (and it worked about as well as most player plans do).
Certainly, players still do a lot of thinking in modern games. They make strategic plans for conflict; they figure out what other characters are doing and how to foil (or help) them. But a lot of the puzzle-thinking of classic RPGs had been replaced by simulation. Rather than come up with a plan to outwit the trap, a player might roll a Trap-solving skill; rather than convince a king to help them, they might roll Diplomacy.
This is not to suggest that one is better than the other. They’re both fine forms of entertainment that are enjoyed by large numbers of people. What’s striking, however, is the fact that they are so different that they almost could be different gaming forms.
It’s also interesting to look at this all from the lens of Ron Edwards’ GNS Theory in “System Does Matter” (1999), which suggested that gamers were either gamists (who enjoy challenges), simulationists (who enjoy the creation of secondary worlds), or narrativists (who enjoy stories).
Today, as it happens, we also have three major categories of RPGs: OSR, mainstream, and indie. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that there’s a rough correspondence between the three gaming categories and Edwards’ three categories of games. OSR games are largely gamist and indie games are largely narrativist. The mainstream games are the rougher correlation, but they do tend toward simulationist on average.
Makes you think that Edwards was on to something.
The flood of releases that followed Wizards of the Coast’s creation of the Open Game License and the d20 Trademark License initially seemed to revitalize the roleplaying industry, but within three years its effects were catastrophic, driving distributors, publishers, and retailers out of business.
This wasn’t the first time that the roleplaying industry has seen such boom and bust cycles, though it was the one most directly connected to roleplaying itself. But, in the ’80s and ’90s many roleplaying publishers were effected by floods of first black & white comics, then CCGs, as well as by the crashes that followed.
The modern day has seen some new floods post-d20. The ’00s saw a flood of products thanks to digital publishing, then the ’10s saw even more, thanks first to Kickstarter and then to community content programs. But these new floods have not resulted in the same crashes as we saw in the past. This is likely due to fundamental changes in sales models from the 20th century to the 21st century.
Classic sales models revolved around sales uncertainty, with danger being multiplied by the multilevel sales chain. A publisher had to decide how many products to produce, then both a distributor and retailer had to decide how many to buy. Any failure to correctly assess the market could leave someone with a loss instead of a gain. When the entire field was soaring on the irrational exuberance of a trend such as d20 or CCGs, those failures multiplied across an entire category, resulting in catastrophic failures.
The same just isn’t true for the new sales methods of the 21st century. Digital products and community content don’t carry any inventory, so costs are limited to creating the content, which is usually a fraction of the publication costs and often spread out among many more investors.
Kickstarter is a little trickier, because the irrational exuberance of its early days cost some companies dearly. But when used well, a Kickstarter can accurately determine interest in print runs, taking out all the guesswork that used to be so problematic. Some companies such as Fria Ligan say that they use Kickstarter precisely for this purpose.
Now that publishers know some of the most notable dangers of Kickstarters, such as unbounded stretch goals, unrelated add-ons, and unbalanced shipping costs, they seem largely a boon, even if they continue to raise funds at a level that appears to be a boom waiting to bust.
The thing is, the danger of a flood of products was never in the products themselves, but rather in dangerous sales mechanisms surrounding them. Those mechanisms are still around (and remain vital to the industry), but they’re insulated from the booms, which should allow them to act as a more conservative aftermarket, for post-Kickstarter products and the best digital and community content alike.
Here’s the darkest secret of the roleplaying industry: most of the creators who design the games and adventures that bring joy to millions of fans do so without a safety net.
At the foundation, this is a lack of financial safety. There are few full-time jobs in the industry; most creators work as freelancers. When a full-time job does exist, it tends to pay poorly for its region. When I worked at a successful publisher in the mid ’90s, I earned $19,500 a year, which was not enough to pay even my modest standard of living, commuting by bicycle, in the California Bay Area. One of my coworkers sometimes joked about the company’s retirement plan. Depending on how black her humor was that day, she’d say it was either buying lottery tickets or dying.
I fortunately had savings from my previous years working as a technical writer, but I spent out $4,000 or $5,000 of those savings for the privilege of working my dream job. (It was worthwhile; I’ve never regretted it.)
I’m sure my story isn’t unique, and life is worse for freelancers. Just a few years ago, the SFWA raised its minimum rate for professional fiction to 8 cents a word. Simultaneously, there are roleplaying publishers that consider themselves at least semi-professional that offer a half-cent a word. Second-tier companies with strong games and strong audiences still offer just 4 or 5 cents a word. Assume 2,000 final words a day, and that comes out to between $1,600 to $2,000 a month before you even pay your 15.3% in self-employment tax. Which means that it’s less than I was earning 25 years ago, unless you have high speed or never stop working. There’s a reason that it was a big bonus when TSR started offering its staff the opportunity to moonlight as module writers in their evenings.
If you have sticker shock at the newest roleplaying book, the real question should be, “Why doesn’t it cost more?” Because as is, it’s probably not offering its creators a living wage (a couple of top companies excepted).
But here’s the even darker secret that goes hand-in-hand with that: it’s not just that creators are living without a financial safety net. They’re often living without a medical safety net, at least in the United States. They are often putting their health, and quite literally their life, on the line to bring you entertainment.
Unfortunately, recent years have made that very clear with a number of creators who have been driven to charity when the financial burden of their American health care became unbearable. Lee Garvin, the creator of Tales from the Floating Vagabound (1991) was one of the most obvious victims of the medical cruelty of the United States and his need to work without a safety net to create the games he loved; he succumbed to medical bankruptcy following an unexpected medical emergency, and the repercussions of that eventually killed him. But there are many others who died too young, and it seems likely that many of them fell to insufficient medical care because of the high costs of even simple preventative care.
We know that Aaron Allston, Richard Tucholka, and Loren Wiseman all had similar financial issues due to medical problems. More recently, seeing medical Go Fund Mes for professionals such as Rick Loomis and Luise Perrin has been heartbreaking, but at least we have some chance to help now. Just yesterday, we lost Steve Perrin, who two weeks ago noted, “we are covered for a couple more weeks. Things get tight” when speaking of the health problems then besetting both him and his wife.
It shouldn’t be like that. Our creators deserve so much more.
And to be clear, this isn’t a simple problem: roleplaying books don’t sell for enough, and roleplaying companies often can’t pay enough as a result. It’s a vicious cycle. Christian Petersen tried to break that cycle by increasing the valuation of RPGs when he released Warhammer Fantasy RPG 3e (2009) with a price point of $100. It didn’t work, so there aren’t simple solutions either.
But the core cancer here is the United States’ decision to offer medical care as a luxury, something only affordable to the rich. That’s wrong. It’s evil. And it’s ultimately what needs to be fixed to give our creators at the least the medical safety net that they deserve.
Obviously, supplements have a long history in roleplaying game, but what’s impressive is how much they’ve changed, following one trend after another, while still continuing to focus on the same few topics.
The first supplement for a roleplaying game appeared in 1975, approximately a year after the release of OD&D (1974): Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975). It even had the word supplement in the title! So what did the primordial industry think a supplement should contain? It was a set of new rules structured exactly like the OD&D books, featuring new character classes, new spells, a new combat system, new monsters, new magic items, and new tricks and traps. Meanwhile, Wee Warriors offered the first character sheet, The Character Archaic (1975), as a different sort of supplement.
The next year brought two other sorts of supplements, neither of them by TSR. Wee Warriors again led the path in innovation, this time with the first adventure supplement, Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976). Meanwhile, Judges Guild released the first setting supplement with its Map of the City-State of the Invincible Overlord (1976). Judges Guild would soon expand that, producing bimonthly subscription packs that combined game aids, adventure building blocks, and more setting material. Though Wee Warriors had been the first great innovator of supplements, Judges Guild was the first great supplement producer.
Together, the products of 1975 and 1976 laid out what has defined gaming supplements for decades: accessories (like character sheets), adventures (like Palace), GM material (like new rules and magic items), GM aids (like random tables and dungeon geomorphs), player material (like new classes and spells), setting books (like the City-State material), and player aids (like quick-reference charts).
What’s changed over time is how publishers have emphasized these different types of supplements.
In the early industry, big game publishers like GDW and TSR actively believed that players wouldn’t want publishers to provide them with adventures, so they kept to rules and accessories and let other publishers such as Judges Guild take care of the rest — before they realized how lucrative it was and jumped in.
Adventures were getting strong attention from pretty much everyone by 1978, but setting material took a bit longer to catch on. Judges Guild was again a leader here, with a whole series that revealed the Wilderlands. Meanwhile, a number of different licensed publishers were all adding detail to Traveller’s Third Imperium. But 1984 was perhaps the biggest milestone for settings because that’s when Harn and Middle-Earth started really being detailed through sourcebooks from Columbia and ICE.
As was so often the case, TSR took a few years more, with their “GAZ” (1987) and “FR” (1987) series for the Known World and for the Forgotten Realms not appearing until 1987. Of course, the care that TSR initially showed was in retrospect a good idea, as the cannibalization of TSR’s own sales in the ’90s with an ever-growing variety of settings is often listed as one of the many factors leading to their downfall.
Just a few years after settings became big supplement business, something totally new appeared: the splatbook supplements. These were player-focused supplements that were thus sellable to a much larger percentage of gamers than books such as adventures and settings that were theoretically just for GMs. Technically splatbooks date back to the ’70s and releases like Cults of Prax (1979) for RuneQuest, but it was in the ’90s that they really became full-fledged lines with streams of books each minutely defining an individual class or race. White Wolf’s splatbook supplements are the best known, beginning with Clanbook: Brujah (1992), but TSR was actually in the lead on this one, beginning with PHBR1: The Complete Fighter’s Book (1989).
Perhaps splatbooks and other player-facing releases were the reason for Wizards of the Coast’s big reversal on adventure supplements in 2000. That’s when they declared that adventures weren’t profitable at all and created the d20 Trademark License in large part so that other people would publish them. Even more befuddling, with the advent of D&D 5e (2014), Wizards of the Coast’s publications began to focus almost entirely on … adventures, with setting and rulebooks being fairly new additions to the line (and adventures still being the main course). Call it a re-reversal.
As for what the future will bring? That’s an open question given the changing nature of supplement production. Big publishers seem content with big releases, whether they be adventure, setting, or rulebook. Meanwhile, community content is the next big frontier for supplement production, and it’s allowed supplements to (sometimes) go small again, with smaller adventures and GM aids. (Not that community-content supplements can’t be big too.)
Because of the many changes over the year, the future of supplement production is largely dependent on which way the common-wisdom wind blows next.
In OD&D (1974), move was rated in inches. At various places, characters are said to move between 6″ and 12″, depending on armor level. (Monsters have a somewhat wider range.) The following paragraph, placed way back in Book III (“The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures”) sort of explains it:
“In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches convert them to tens of feet. Movement (distances given in Book 1) is in segments of approximately ten minutes. Thus it takes ten minutes to move about two moves — 120 feet for a fully armored character. Two moves constitute a turn, except in flight/pursuit situations where the moves/turn will be doubled (and no mapping allowed).”
So in other words, dungeons in OD&D, where most of the adventure occurred, had a totally different sort of movement from the base rates given in the game, and you had to convert to it from the strange inched movement given in the rules.
The move in OD&D was of course drawn from Chainmail (1971), where you’d find the foundation of these numbers: 6″ for armored foot, 9″ for heavy foot, and 12″ for crossbowmen and longbowmen. Those Chainmail battles were meant to be fought on a sand table, between 4′ to 7′ wide and at least 8′ long. The inches of movement were thus in relation to that table and referred to warfare aboveground.
We certainly know that there was a mixture of aboveground warfare and below-ground exploration in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, so the paired movement scales probably made sense for his original design. But it made less sense by the time it got into OD&D since Gary Gygax roughly envisioned a new system for outdoor play, based on the Wilderness Survival gameboard from Avalon Hill. As a result, there’s a light discussion of hex-based travel in the OD&D books, totally separate from the inches.
The overall intent was probably to have strategic hex-based travel (move=hexes), tactical above-ground warfare (move=inches), and tactical below-ground exploration (move=feet), but one suspects that the mixed system was somewhat impenetrable to new players, especially those who had never seen Chainmail.
This vestigial system would remain a part of D&D for twenty-five years, with AD&D (1977-1979) losing the outdoor hexes, but instead offering a perhaps even more impenetrable movement system: “The base speed is inches, indicating tens of feet in the dungeon or similar setting indoors, tens of yards outdoors.” AD&D 2e (1989) maintained that rule almost precisely, losing only the inches marker. Nonetheless, characters moved at rates of 3, 6, 9, or 12, which was tens of yards outside and tens of feet inside.
Twenty-nine years after the release of Chainmail, D&D characters were still moving at rates based on the size of a standard sand table!
(Then D&D 3e appeared.)
As I wrote for “Think”, classic FRPGs required a different type of thinking because they were puzzle games in a way that modern-day RPGs aren’t. A lot of that thinking came about thanks to traps. They’re right there in OD&D (1974) in the “Tricks and Traps” section.
The remarkable thing about the original OD&D traps is that they mention the “fear of ‘death'”, but they’re not deadly at all. The majority of them are mapping traps: fake stairs, collapsing stairs, slanting passages, sinking rooms, teleportation traps, and spatial-distortion rooms. They suggest that a lot of the puzzle solving of the earliest dungeons was in the mapping of the dungeons themselves. Greyhawk (1975) had some more of the same, but more damaging traps and more obstacles.
The best-known traps appeared a few years later in S1: Tomb of Horrors (1978), the first published killer dungeon. As the name suggests, its traps were very deadly, including some of the first instant-death traps in D&D. That’s a very different flavor of traps from the thinking traps of just a few years earlier, but that’s probably because Gygax created Tomb for a very different reason: to challenge overly powerful characters. So, it might have not been typical on purpose — but then it became typical when it created a whole school of adventure design.
Grimtooth’s Traps (1981) from Flying Buffalo is obviously the next great milestone in trap design, but its Rube Goldberg traps were satirical, meant for reading and laughing, not for use in dungeons. This deconstructive element suggests that some were already getting tired of the classic trap tropes of D&D (or perhaps of the killer trap tropes of Tomb of Horrors). However, some players actually took the traps seriously, which suggests other people weren’t tired of the trap tropes at all. The Grimtooth traps continued through a number of volumes, ending in Grimtooth’s Dungeon of Doom (1992). By the ’00s they were clearly nostalgic, because d20 saw the release of The Wurst of Grimtooth’s Traps (2005) and then Goodman Games was able to raise $170,000 on Kickstarter for Grimtooth’s Ultimate Trap Collection (2015).
Meanwhile D&D 3e (2000) showed how much the more serious sort of traps had changed. They were no longer being used in dungeon design as a thinking puzzle, but instead as an attrition device, intended to shave away a few hit points or a few spells from characters as part of the overall challenge of a dungeon. As I’ve written elsewhere: the games of yesteryear (still found today in the OSR) and those of today (by which I mean non-OSR mainstream games) are very different beasts.
One of the amazing things about the roleplaying industry is how much the average consumer can contribute to it. They’ve been able to write their own content from the start.
I mean, that kind of makes sense, because the earliest roleplaying industry was in large part semi-professional. But then many of those semi-pro writers went on to a high level of success. Tracy Hickman, Carl Smith, and Paul Reiche (with Erol Otus) were just a few of the small-press writers who ended up working for TSR. Meanwhile, other big companies started out with one person writing (or sometimes drawing): FASA may be the most notable company that literally started at a dining room table.
But even putting aside those semi-professional ascensions, roleplaying fans have always had their own writing venues. APAs were the first great writing communities of the industry, with Alarums & Excursions (1975-Present) being not just one of the earliest roleplaying publications, but also the most long-lived: it’s still around today. More cohesive fanzines quickly followed, with their high-tide being in the ’90s, when there were many to support games not being supported by their publishers. Tales of the Reaching Moon (1989-2002), the RuneQuest Magazine, may be the most notable for the fact that it led to the reinvigoration of a moribund Chaosium in the ’10s, restoring one of the oldest companies in the industry.
It’s also astonishing how quickly roleplaying fans and writers have responding to changing technologies.
Rec.games.frp was a “newsgroup” on the early internet of the ’80s that allowed for worldwide discussions of roleplaying games, while mailing lists allowed discussion on specific games, some in list form, such as the Ars Magica Mailing List and the Traveller Mailing List, some in semi-curated digest form, such as the GURPS Digest and the RuneQuest Digest. These too were innovations of the late ’80s.
Netbooks and smaller written texts followed in the ’90s as Gopher and FTP allowed the transfer of files even before the advent of the World Wide Web; then with the dawn of the new century OSR websites debuted with full-length adventures and supplements for classic games. Shortly afterward, DTRPG and other commercial PDF sites made it so that anyone could publish semi-pro releases, just as they had in the ’70s, before the barriers of entry ramped up.
But if there’s a game changer for fan writing this century, it’s probably the appearance of community content. Suddenly, everyone can write for many of their favorite games — and the quality of writing, artwork, and design is often amazing.
We’ve come a long way from that first semi-pro writing of the ’70s. It’s terrific that decades later, our creative industry still allows its fans and players to share in that same creativity.
Do classic roleplaying games have themes? That is, do they have underlying and repetitive ideas that are central to the games and reinforced by the gameplay? Or, do those themes only come out through the original stories told by gaming groups?
There are also certainly games that don’t have themes. Maybe you could work out a theme based on the design of a universal game like GURPS (1986) or Fate (2003) … but good luck.
However, classic games with a set genre and milieu are more likely to contain at least foundational themes, which individual gamemasters can ignore or not. They’re revealed through setting and more importantly through mechanics. The more thematic a game, the more that their “System Does Matters”, the more likely that theme is to shine through.
Here’s my thoughts on possible themes for ten classic RPGs:
- OD&D (1974): exploration & discovery
- Traveller (1977): self-determinism
- RuneQuest (1978): community, change
- Call of Cthulhu (1981): our ultimate insignificance
- Champions (1981): larger-than-life heroism
- King Arthur Pendragon (1985): fealty, family, glory
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (1986): corruption, decay
- Cyberpunk (1988): individuality, rage against the machine
- Vampire: The Masquerade (1991): morality, power, temptation
- Legend of the Five Rings (1997): honor, glory
Meanwhile, the modern era of indie design is much more likely to have games with a discernible theme. As already noted, “system does matters”. That was Ron Edwards’ core statement on why the mechanics matter to the style and genre of gameplay. Though we may have to engage in an archaeological dig to figure out the theming of a classic game, indies often wear their themes on their sleeves.
In my opinion, Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) is one of the most important historical artifacts for roleplaying. By laying out the influences for AD&D, Gary Gygax told us as much about the creation of the game as any several interviews. In particular, he revealed a sword & sorcery foundation that was never understood by a majority of players, but which underlines the importance of more pulp-ish products such as X1: Isle of Dread (1980) and the Red Nails-influenced I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981). It’s what’s allowed newer games such as the dark fantasy of Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2010) and newer settings such as the weird fantasy of Dolmenwood (2017+) to go back to the the fictional foundations of the game.
Traveller (1977) never had an Appendix N, and I thought it needed one, because in many ways it’s the other core game of our hobby, the universal science-fiction game to D&D’s universal fantasy and thus the game that built up many of the tropes either used by every other science-fiction RPG out there or else purposefully ignored by them.
So I wrote one.
I scoured Marc Miller’s interviews, made a few obvious additions of my own, and later talked with Marc directly. Based on the initial work, I began writing book reviews on RPGnet, covering both books that were inspirational to Traveller and actual Traveller fiction. Later, under contract to Marc directly, I compiled them into a book. And that book, at last, had a Traveller Appendix N (though sadly it’s labeled Appendix 2). What did I come up with from my various sources as a list of foundational authors for Traveller? Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gordon Dickson, David Drake, Harry Harrison, Robert Heinlein, Keith Laumer, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Alexei Panshin, H. Beam Piper, Christopher Rowley, E.E. “Doc” Smith, E.C. Tubb, and Jack Vance.
If you’d like to see the complete listing, as well as my reviews of six of those volumes, the book I produced with Marc is called The Science Fiction in Traveller (2016).
Ironically, one of the foundational books that I didn’t review in more depth was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I currently place it as #2 in inspirational importance, after E.C. Tubb. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra books are amazing sources of Traveller adventures, with the idea of a world-jumping adventurer being every Traveller party ever, but Isaac Asimov’s ideas of a rise and fall of a huge galactic empire feels more like the Traveller Imperium than anything else I’ve read (though H. Beam Piper repeats some of these same ideas).
A lot of old-school fans remember Basic D&D fondly for its simplicity. Indeed, if you look at the Tom Moldvay version of Basic D&D (1981), which was my own entry to the hobby, it’s a mere 64 pages in relatively large type.
It certainly helped that the book only went up to third level, reducing spell lists, magic-item lists, and monster lists, but overall the volume is a guide to simplicity. All of the core powers for the seven character classes in Moldvay, for example, are overviewed in a mere three pages: two pages of text, one page of charts. Compare that to the neat, tight 5-8 page spread for each class in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook (2014) and the different is obvious.
Moldvay’s Monsters are similarly tight, with under a dozen stats each and usually just a paragraph of description. The scant magic items appear more than a dozen to the page.
There just isn’t a lot of fat on the B/X Basic D&D bones, but despite that there’s enough crunch to keep players happy. There’s plenty of equipment and a variety of monsters. Every characteristic cause some adjustments to play at a variety of values. Each class has at least something that makes it unique. Well, except the fighters, who are primarily lauded for having high stats.
There is sufficient crunch in Basic D&D that there are even a few rules that likely get ignored, such as morale and encumbrance (both listed as optional).
The simplicity of Basic D&D always came across best in its memorable green character sheets, which are full of empty space. Six characteristics, six modifiers, five saving throws, and class, level, alignment, AC, and HP largely define your character. Special abilities get all of a line, special skills an inch or so of space. It’s a different world from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Permanent Character Folder & Adventures Records (1979) that TSR would release just a few years later, whose name contained nearly as many words that the entirety of the Basic D&D record sheets.
Basic D&D’s simplicity isn’t necessarily the same thing as the Smallness of modern one-page RPGs. Basic D&D really had everything you needed to play three levels of Dungeons & Dragons, just without a lot of the nuance (or complexity) or modern versions of the game, while one-page RPGs tend to just give the barest outline of a game and lean on the GM to do the rest. In their own ways BD&D and one-page RPGS are as different as BD&D and D&D 5e are.
After OD&D (1974) was published, it became the talk of the APAs, first classic APAs such as APA-L (1964), then new APAs created specifically to discuss Dungeons & Dragons, such as Alarums and Excursions (1975). Much of that early conversation was focused on figuring out how to play the game and talking about different interpretations. There were also new character classes, new monsters, and new magic items, as well as considerable discussion on substituting out the existing game systems for new ones that the players preferred. No other game has ever created such a community of “modding”, nor spawned so many new games as a result. There was even a name for these games that substituted game systems until they were (perhaps) somewhat different publications: VD&D, or Variant Dungeons & Dragons.
Two game systems were particularly prone to substitution.
The first was the combat system, and fans were willing to do anything and everything to it. Popular variants included critical-hit systems, fumble systems, hit-location systems, and fatigue-point systems. These various changes were intended to make the system more tactical, more granular, more surprising, or all three.
The second was the magic system, and here the substitutions tended to be more focused on a singular idea: getting rid of the Vancian system of spell memorization and casting and replacing it with a spell-point system where players could use points to (tactically) cast a larger variety of spells. Other popular mods were new spheres of magic, new types of spell casters, and (once again) fatigue systems.
At first Gary Gygax was OK with players substituting in their own systems. In Alarums & Excursions #2 (July 1975), he wrote, “My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them”.
But within three years, amidst the release of AD&D (1977-1979), Gygax’s tune totally changed. In The Dragon #16 (July 1978), he went on full offensive, saying first that “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press” and then “Additions to and augmentations of certain parts of the D&D rules are fine. Variants which change the rules so as to imbalance the game or change it are most certainly not. These sorts of tinkering fall into the realm of creation of a new game, not development of the existing system, and as I stated earlier, those who wish to make those kind of changes should go and design their own game.”
Gygax especially hated some of the popular substitutions. Critical hits, he said, “perverted” the game. Meanwhile he claimed, “Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.”
It’s no wonder that as the ’70s faded into the ’80s, fans stopped substituting systems for D&D and instead started making games of their own, exactly as Gygax suggested. The last great substitution game was probably Rolemaster (1984), which replaced D&D’s game systems one by one, starting with a new combat system in Arms Law (1980).
And then, following the release of Rolemaster, a new era began.
When writing histories of the roleplaying industry, the trickiest and most untrustworthy thing that I have to deal with is memory. The origins of our hobby still live (somewhat) in living memory, and so whenever I can I talk with designers, artists, creators, and really anyone else in our hobby, I do. Every history that I write gets checked by people involved with the company, if it’s possible. But I always have to take what’s said with a grain of salt.
I’ve learned this from reading the interviews of game designers from the ’70s, especially those who continued giving interviews up into the 21st century. Their answers tend to change over time. Their perceptions change over time. Presumably, their memories also change over time.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this. I’ve occasionally had people ask me questions about my history in the hobby, from when I received a Cease & Desist from TSR for running an Ars Magica FTP site to when I began work on Designers & Dragons. My memories of those events generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, I have events that I didn’t think about very much for decades, such as that ridiculous (and alegal) C&D from TSR, and there I struggle to remember the specifics; on the other hand I have stories that I’ve returned to many times, from pretty early on, such as the one of how work began on Designers & Dragons, and there I’m clear on what happened, but I’m pretty sure that I’m repeating the story I’ve told before, rather than actually recollecting the original events. Because that’s how memory works, or at least how we think it works currently: it’s constantly being overwritten as we turn memory into story.
As a result of this, I prioritize the sources I use in my research for Designers & Dragons. Anything said at the time by the people involved has top priority. These are primary sources, including interviews and design notes. Next priority goes to secondary sources at the time, such as news, reviews, and gossip. After that, priority decreases the further it gets from the originating events. Lowest priority is actual discussion with the principals.
Still, I always try and talk with the principals if I can. Sometimes it’s just double-checking my work, since offering my foundation of written history seems to do a lot to help memory. But often it’s questions. I try to make the questions very specific, intended to fill in gaps. I find that memory is worst for dates, for order of event, and for details, but it often seems pretty good for cause and effect and for reasoning. That is, we can remember that we did something and we can remember why we did it, but we can’t necessarily remember when it happened or what the specific were.
Based on the great discussions I’ve had with a variety of designers on events decades old, I also suspect a lot of them have better memories than I do.
The shockwaves of D&D’s release resounded across the globe faster than TSR, then a small press in Wisconsin, could control it. It took TSR almost a decade to catch up, with the Donjons & Dragons Niveau Dèbutant (1982) in France being one of their first translated releases, thanks to Gary Gygax’s personal work with the French gaming scene. Germany saw its own Basis Set (1983) a year later courtesy of Fantasy Spiele Verlags. Italy, Japan, and Spain had to wait until 1985, Sweden until 1986.
This vacuum created by a shortage of translated D&D rules gave the opportunity for local publishers to get out their own fantasy roleplaying games. The story in Sweden is the most famous, where Äventyrsspel (Target Games) published Drakar och Demoner (“Dragons and Demons”, 1982) based on Chaosium’s BRP (1980) and “Magic World” (1982) rules and took over the whole market. When a local gaming story called Titan Games tried to publish the official D&D rules four years later, it was an abject failure.
Germany’s Das Schwarze Auge (“The Dark Eye”, 1984) actually postdated the country’s translated edition of D&D by a year, but it’s the other major success story among FRPGs in the wild west days of the international market, before D&D tightened its grip. Like Drakar och Demoner before it, it managed to outsell D&D on its home turf.
There were also notable FRPGs in other markets, such as I Signori del Cao (1983), Kata Kumbas (1984), and Lex Arcana (1993) in Italy, Rêve: the Dream Ouroboros (1985) in France, and Aquelarre (1990) in Spain, but they weren’t able to surpass D&D like Drakar och Demoner and Das Scwarze Auge did.
The consolation for TSR (and now Wizards of the Coast) is that though their slow movement into the international scene cost them some of those markets for a few decades, it didn’t have many repercussions on their US sales. Though different RPGs became the foundational FRPGs of Germany and Sweden, they’ve never been able to push into the US market.
Two attempts have made made for The Dark Eye, one by FanPro (2003) and one by Ulisses Spiele (2016), and it’s remained an also-ran next to the more distinct RPGs published by those companies. Drakar och Demoner has done better, but it’s been so totally revamped by its recent owners, RiotMinds, that it’s not really the old-school game from the ’80s any more — and more notably it made itself unique through a highly evocative setting, which is primarily how it’s been sold in the US, as The Trudvang Chronicles (2017). (What Fria Ligan, who just acquired the property, will do with it remains an open question.)
Times may be changing now, as the ’10s saw a strong wave of games being translated from other languages to English, with Swedish publishers leading the way. But the story of how more far-flung foreign RPGs — ones that aren’t just replacements for D&D — failed to penetrate the English-language market in the ’90s, then succeeded in the ’10s is a whole other story.
When OD&D (1974) was released, it was directed at a narrow group of potential players: miniature wargamers. Without the existing knowledge of wargaming conventions, such as inched movement on a sand table, newer players could find D&D’s gameplay somewhat intimidating — and even with that, the rules were obscure, because Gary Gygax was creating a whole new type of play.
In his Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1977), J. Eric Holmes’ goal was to create a game that was more welcoming to newcomers. That goal was refined and reiterated in the later editions of Basic D&D produced first by Tom Moldvay (1981) and then by Frank Mentzer (1983). The results were phenomenal. Not only did the game explode in popularity, but it reached new, younger players; it was roleplaying’s first demographic expansion.
Another critical component was interwoven with those later Basic Dungeons & Dragons sets: the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (1983-1985). In it, players young and even younger, male and female, and black and white all got to see representations of themselves in D&D. They all knew they were welcome.
It’s somewhat shocking that after the increasing diversity of D&D in the early ’80s, the idea seemed to go on hiatus until at least the ’00s. Maybe White Wolf was carrying the water for the rest of the industry, with its improving female demographics, particularly after the release of Minds Eye: The Masquerade (1993). What’s more certain is that the industry was stepping back from its heights of success in the previous years. Magic: The Gathering (1993) and computer games are usually listed as the prime reasons, but an industry that focuses on its existing player base rather than welcoming new players rarely is successful.
2000, and the advent of D&D 3e (2000), was a milestone for once more improving welcome through increased diversity. The iconic characters of the new edition were still pretty white, but included a black monk and an Asian sorcerer and were nearly split between men and women. More players than ever could see characters that represented themselves and feel more welcomed. Pathfinder (2008) and later editions of D&D have continued and advanced these trends — but they aren’t new, just a return to the welcoming nature suggested by the D&D cartoon two decades earlier.
However, being welcoming is more than just showing players that people like them are a part of the game. It’s also about presenting dilemmas and stories that are important to people from a variety of cultures. This concept seems to be really bubbling up in the ’10s and ’20s, offering a wider variety of stories than our industry has ever previously seen. A lot of this has come about through the indie community. Dogs of the Vineyard (2004) was designed to treat “the concerns of Mormonism with subtlety and respect.” The whole “belonging outside belonging” gamestyle, as first revealed in Dream Askew and Dream Apart (2014, 2019) was meant to highlight marginalized peoples building community, in this case Queer and Jewish peoples.
Even more impressively, the new welcoming diversity has hit the mainstream with the award-winning Call of Cthulhu supplement Harlem Unbound (2017) from Darker Hue Studios, published in a second edition (2020) by Chaosium themself. The book does more than just reveal Harlem as a game setting, it also reveals the experiences of Black Americans and puts the players in their shoes.
The tradition of welcome in our hobby is an old one, and it’s great to see it expanding even further in the modern day. But, new games and supplements do more than just allow diverse peoples to see their own experiences represented in a game. They also reveal those experiences to the rest of us, putting us in different cultures: different worlds, even within our world. And isn’t that what roleplaying is all about?
There is just one theory in roleplaying, and that is GNS, which is GNS Theory, as proposed in “System Does Matter” (1999), by Ron Edwards. It basically says that there are three types of player activity in RPGs, which are exclusive to each other, and thus three types of RPGs: gamist RPGs where players try to win; narrativist RPGs where players try to tell stories; and simulationist RPGs, where players try to recreate a genre or source, usually through a well-simulated world.
In the years after the publication of GNS theory, there were such massive online flamewars that GNS itself sometimes became a proscribed topic. Some of these flamewars centered around the claim that GNS said that Narrative games were the best, which it did not. However, GNS theory is quite dogmatic in the claim that games are “incoherent” if they didn’t fulfill exactly one of the G-N-S criteria. Universal games were particularly attacked, but assaults were made on almost all then-current RPGs, because none of them were trying to highlight just Gaming, Narrative, or Simulation.
There are other entirely valid complaints about the theory, most notably that it’s hard to nail down how games invoke Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist elements. Is Vampire: The Masquerade narrativist because it’s not just about fighting, or is it gamist because it’s about winning in a different way? Is RuneQuest simulationist because it has training and learned-experience systems or is it narrativist because it tells the story of the oncoming Hero Wars? The terms often mean what people want them to mean.
It’s also not actually true that there is just one theory in the roleplaying field, as GNS itself developed out of The Threefold Model, discussed on rec.games.frp.advocacy as far back as 1997. The biggest difference was that the Threefold Model highlighted GM choice while GNS is more about player desire and game design.
There have also been other theories, such as Color Theory and Channel Theory, but few have caught on. In fact, to find other well-known theories you have to go back to the dawn of the industry where some of the earliest theories had to do with player types.
Glen Blacow’s “Aspects of Adventure Gaming” in Different Worlds #10 (October 1980) laid out adventure gaming as containing power gaming, roleplaying, wargaming, and storytelling — and power gaming has definitely become one of the classic roleplaying archetypes.
Similarly, Sandy Petersen, Jeff Okamoto, and others came up with “Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Loonies and Munchkins” (1983) as player archetypes. At least the term munchkin predated the article, but it was another powerful classification of players.
The GNS flamewars have died down in the last decade. Perhaps just like once controversial terms such as power gamer and munchkin, the G’s, the N’s, and the S’s are on their way to simply becoming part of our lexicon.
I’ve written on previous days how much roleplaying has changed from the dawn of the industry in the ’70s to the modern day, so much so that games from the two eras often feel like they’re totally different categories of play. But, that’s generally been true for every era of roleplaying, with distinctively different mechanics, tropes, and styles of play appearing in each decade.
In the ’80s (but starting earlier), one of the biggest trends of the industry was complexity. Much of this was in response to OD&D (1974): new games such as Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) tried to create more realistic settings and more realistic mechanics — perhaps speaking to a desire for simulation in gaming.
The massive charts and tables of Chivalry & Sorcery are notable, but perhaps not as much as a smaller press fantasy RPG, Ysgarth (1979), which really showed the possibilities of complex simulation. It includes attributes such as “Resistance to Surprise”, which is defined as “100-(EYE+WIS+(2xHEA))”, and “Chance to Hear Noise (CHN)” which is “EYE+(DEX+INT+WIS)/3”. Yes, the complex math of the second generation of RPGs even had fractions.
This tendency would continue through a stream of RPG development into the ’90s, with the Bushido (1979), Aftermath! (1981), and Daredevils (1982) trilogy by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette being leaders in the category. Champions (1981), which debuted the Hero System, revealed how math would continue to be important for that first generation of universal systems. Phoenix Command (1986) and other releases by Leading Edge Games are generally considered the epitome of mathematical complexity in roleplaying design.
Some games had a relatively simple core but found their complexity when they dove deeper into simulation through subsystems. Thus, the world generation of Traveller Book Six: Scout (1983) has formulas such as this one, to find the period (or year length) of a planet: “P=(D^3/M)^.5”. Not only does it have fractions, but powers and even fractional powers!
I can’t even imagine a modern game having mathematical formulas of this sort. Even RuneQuest (1978), which used lots of fractions in previous editions for averaging derived characteristic, has moved over to a simpler system in the newer RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018) of using one stat as the core for a derived characteristic and slightly varying that based on other values.
Will we see a CMR (Complex Math Revival) in a few years, bringing back that older design style? My guess is no.
Solo roleplaying started with Buffalo Castle (1976) for Tunnels & Trolls (1975), where Rick Loomis and Flying Buffalo said, “What if these roleplaying games were used as solitaire exploration exercises?” Tunnels & Trolls pushed hard on the idea, through When the Cat’s Away (1993), the twenty-fourth Solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls, almost two decades later.
But, Flying Buffalo wasn’t alone: the concept was surprisingly strong in the industry’s early days, probably because the number of roleplaying fans was smaller, and it was harder to make gaming connections without an internet (though the number of fans who made connections through letter columns and conventions is impressive). The Fantasy Trip (1977) kicked off its own line of solo adventures with Death Test (1978), while Judges Guild also played in the arena in the ’70s. There was even random dungeon generation in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) that could be used for solo play. By the ’80s, Chaosium and even TSR had joined in with full solo adventures.
The decline of solo adventures in the ’80s may have been due to the growth of the industry and the increased ease of finding other players, but there was also a major move toward book-sized solo adventures for the mass-market. This new market also placed new constraints, such as the need to have tight little rules within the book itself. TSR’s Endless Quests (1982) led the way, but weren’t quite games. Game systems appeared in Fighting Fantasy (1982), Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (1983), Lone Wolf (1984), and many others.
Surprisingly, the very successful gamebook market, which eclipsed the original solo adventures, itself sputtered out in the ’90s, most likely due to the advent of computer games offering much more immersive solo gaming experiences. (Coming full circle, many classic gamebooks such as Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! are now available as computer games.)
Those solo adventures and gamebooks are the obvious thing to talk about when considering individual gaming, but there’s one type of solo gaming in the early industry which gets less attention: many early roleplaying games had creative subsystems that were essentially solo games of their own.
Traveller (1977) led the trend with its character creation being the first subsystem of its sort, where players might spend hours playing the system on their own. It later followed that up with many more systems that could engage players for hours of solo time, including the ship construction of High Guard (1980) and the world generation of Scouts (1983).
Champions (1981) was another major game of this sort, with its point-based character creation allowing players to spend hours piecing together powers. The headquarter and vehicle generation of Champions II (1982) and the danger-room generation of Champions III (1983) continued this trend. Though some of the Traveller systems were random, many of the other subsystems were purposefully creative, allowing a very different sort of solo play.
Unfortunately, just like the solo adventures and gamebooks, solo subsystems have largely disappeared from roleplaying games in the modern day. They all three tended to be a trend of the ’70s and ’80s, and have appeared much less frequently since — though some classic games like GURPS and Traveller continue them in their newest incarnations.
“System Does Matter” (1999), by Ron Edwards, of course started the great GNS wars. However, it’s probably far more important (and perhaps less controversial) in its core claim: that system does matter. Edwards states it right at the start:
“Here it is: ‘It doesn’t really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players.’ My point? I flatly, entirely disagree.”
Edwards sort of returns to the point at the end, too, but in between he focuses on terminology and definition, not just GNS, but also the less well-known Fortune/Karma/Drama. And, that’s too bad, because the core concept, that system is crucial to the creation of a game, might have resulted in much more nuanced discussions than the GNS arguments (and in some places it did).
For me, Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon (1985) has always been the game that proved to me that system does matter. It’s a masterwork in how to design a game to evoke a specific setting and genre. Characters are ruled by their passions and are fighting to upholds the beliefs of their religion. They’re loyal to their lord and to their family. They’re willing to put their lives on the line. Each of these elements, all true to The Matter of Britain, arises from specific mechanics in the game, among them passions, personality traits, religious bonuses, the armor of chivalry, loyalty traits, wintering rules, yearly adventures, and glory. Together, they prove that system does matter.
Certainly, generic systems have had their hey-day, prime among them the Hero system (1981) and GURPS (1986). For a while, in the ’80s, it looked like they might overtake the industry, and certainly they were good systems for simulation-hungry players. But even though newcomer Savage Worlds (2003) has proven that you can tell evocative stories with a universal system, in general, system does matter, and many more publishers have gone the way of creating individual systems for individual games.
Fria Ligan may be the best modern-day example of a compromise between reusing mechanics and creating game-specific systems. Though they constantly reuse the Year Zero system, it’s a house system, not a universal system, which means that it’s varied from game to game. After originating the system with Mutant: Year Zero (2014), they used a looser version for Coriolis: The Third Horizon (2016) because it was designed out of house, they removed death from Tales from the Loop (2017) because it was about kids, and they added polyhedrons to Forbidden Lands (2018) because it was old-school. Even in a house system, system does matter, and can produce evocative games that encourage the players to enact specific genres and themes.
The earliest dungeons in the industry has the barest room descriptions. Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976) demonstrates what the early scene looked like, with its listing of monsters and treasures for rooms: “3 goblins (4, 3, 2), empty, 17 GP on goblins” says one entry in its tables of room contents.
By the time TSR’s first standalone adventure, G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978), was published, adventure descriptions had seen a big leap forward. Those monster and treasure listings were now bridged with text mentioning evocative elements, and tying it all together: “BARRACKS: 2 soundly sleeping giants (H.P.: 39, 38) can be heard snoring among the 10 beds and 10 chests in this room. There are items of clothing hanging from walls and a couple of torches are smouldering in wall cressets. No treasure is in the room, save a small pouch in the first chest searched, which will contain 110 p.p.”
Starting with C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980), and in fact dating back to the tournament printing of the adventure as Tamoachan: The Hidden Shrine of Lubaatum (1979), TSR had a new innovation: boxed, read-aloud text, which told the players exactly what they saw. “The walls of this corridor are wet and slimy. The stucco covering has become saturated with water and is decomposing and sloughing off in spots on the southern wall, exposing the seams of one of the large stone blocks from which the structure was built.” This innovation soon was used across all of TSR’s adventures and has only fallen out of favor in the recent day.
The Companions, one of the most innovative fantasy supplement producers of the ’80s, was one of the few companies to take the idea further. Their unique locale description came in a multitude of levels, with different text to be read depending on how much attention the players were playing!
What’s typically unsaid when describing this evolution of adventure descriptions is the fact that it represented a massive change in how the gamemaster was treated — a change no less important than the changes from exploration to story that came about as part of the Hickman Revolution. These descriptive changes transformed the GM from being a creative demiurge who freely described his world to increasingly acting as an interface with someone else’s creativity. Sure, the GM still had creativity, but it was at a whole different level.
When the earliest game producers put out releases like OD&D (1974) and Traveller (1977), they saw no need for adventure publication, and this is why: they saw each referee as an independent creator. But year by year, that primordial vision would change, probably reaching a low sometime in the ’80s or ’90s.
It’s easy in the roleplaying industry to just focus on the creators. As the name suggests, Designers & Dragons mainly concentrates on the game designers themselves, while other books such as the excellent Art & Arcana look more deeply into the artwork and thus the artists. However, there are lots, lots more people involved with the creation and release of any roleplaying product, and they should all be offered thanks. I’m talking about editors, proofreaders, layout artists, and graphic designers who produce books, but also the accountants, marketers, administrators, attorneys, shippers, and everyone else who keep a roleplaying company running. Even those who don’t directly contribute to a product do directly contribute to that product getting out into the marketplace, and they’re almost all doing it at lower rates than expected for their expertise because they love the hobby.
In fact, usually the larger a roleplaying company grows, the more people there are doing non-design work. A one-man indie company or designer publisher is likely doing actual design, but when a company gets large enough, it can easily have no designers on staff, and instead be depending on freelance talent.
When I worked at Chaosium in the ’90s, it had about 20 staff at its height, based on the short-lived success of the Mythos CCG (1996). Of those staff members, president Greg Stafford was quite possibly the only one spending almost all of his time doing design work. Charlie Krank was perhaps next, but this was all focused on the design of Mythos itself, and so it came and went in a few years. Eric Vogt did some of the same, but his focus was on graphic design. Lynn Willis was a brilliant line editor for Call of Cthulhu and certainly revised the design of both it and the Elric! game, as well as innumerable supplements that passed over his desk, but he was more often wearing an editor hat, improving everyone else’s design. Sam Shirley did the same with Nephilim and Pendragon. Janice Sellers and I mixed graphic design, layout, and editorial, with just a tiny bit of design work as required to fill in the blanks. Drashi Khendup did graphic design. From there, you come to the names that mostly aren’t in published works, but still kept the company running. Eric and Dana did marketing; Anne and Cathy did accounting; Peter did shipping; Christine answered the phones and did other administrative duties; Iggy supported those tasks. When we bloomed from the staff of seven or eight when I joined, to the height of 20, we had another half-dozen staff members who I can no longer name.
The point being: a lot went into the maintenance of that roleplaying company — into the maintenance of any roleplaying company. So thanks to all the unsung heroes of roleplaying, who get it all done, but whose names don’t necessarily appear on the products, and who generally don’t appear in the historical records afterwards.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #55-57 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.