Part Sixteen: The First Ten Years – A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

Let’s stop at 1983 for a look back, and pause to sum up that decade. Shall we?

It was the best of times…

and you missed it. All you get is this dumb t-shirt.

Seriously. In that period the RPG hobby had sprouted and then bloomed, over the course of ten years. There was creativity, and there was naivete. The enthusiasm was intoxicating, and a hobby can only be brand-new once. You missed it.

The Top Games of the First Decade of RPGs

What were the games that stood out after we’d gone through ten years of modern role-playing?

D&D (two separate game lines, thanks to residuals).

Traveller.

Call of Cthulhu.

Runequest.

Villains and Vigilantes.

Champions.

FASA Star Trek.

Top Secret.

James Bond: 007.

MERP.

That’s fantasy, science fiction, super heroes, espionage and horror. We can argue about the specifics, but this is as good a snapshot as any. Note that while we were having a struggle for dominance in the super hero and espionage genres, D&D was the undisputed master of the hobby. And Traveller commanded science fiction. Sound familiar?

There were plenty of other scrappy little games out there trying to fight their way to the top, but it just wasn’t in the cards. And let’s be real, how many games can actually be “at the top,” anyway? If we fast-forward to today, we still find D&D, Traveller and even Call of Cthulhu soaking up the sun, along with a few others. The also-rans are relegated to the spinning wire racks in the back of the store, no matter how it riles you that your personal favorite isn’t a contender. C’est la vie.

Shannon Appelcline, who writes a lot about the history of gaming, observed that “By 1983, the RPG market was entering its first bust cycle.” I would argue that having multiple different rules sets to choose from, within the same genre, is self-defeating for the individual publisher. It would’ve taken something truly revolutionary to displace one of the heavyweights in each genre, and how likely was that anyway? The truly successful RPG already has momentum, a fan base, and high visibility. How likely was it that you could’ve overcome all of that? I imagine that nobody was getting rich at those also-ran publishers.

I have said many times that once the customer buys a game, that’s that. Done. Yay, the game company achieved their goal and made a sale. Now the customer goes home and plays it. Any additional products aimed at that customer should be gaming accessories, or a completely different game.

Not that more genres won’t rise to prominence later on down the timeline, and we’ll get to them eventually. Right now I’m still talking about that first decade. And of course there are the IPs, and that can really change a game’s chance of success. Conversely they can doom a publisher to failure because of the additional cost, or the possibility of an IP being subsequently yanked away from you leaving you without a product. An IP is a two-edged sword.

FASA Star Trek map of Federation Space

The Top Settings of the First Decade of RPGs

What were the settings that really stood out after a ten-year shakeout?

Greyhawk (D&D).

JG Wilderlands (D&D).

The Third Imperium (Traveller).

Glorantha (Runequest).

The Federation (FASA Star Trek).

Middle Earth (MERP).

When you thought about a native setting for D&D, the industry giant, it was Greyhawk; despite the scarcity of products. And this was partially because the designers imagined that you’d want to create your own setting. Secondarily, it was Judges Guild, because they’d had a license and had cranked out tons of Wilderlands product for years. Sadly, TSR let that license expire in 1982 without allowing JG to renew it, and that was the beginning of the end for JG.

Players had demanded more when it came to a native setting for Traveller, and as a result they were treated to many supplements. The same with Glorantha, which after all was the raison d’etre for Runequest in the first place. Star Trek required the Federation, although in this case by setting we must also include all the rules variations and adventures that promulgate the feel of the IP. And of course, nothing in fantasy topped Middle Earth. Once those products started appearing in stores, they started appearing on gaming tables.

Now to be fair, not every game required a setting, or setting supplements. (I still don’t find it necessary.) And theoretically a publisher could market alternate settings for any game whether it had a native setting or not. In fact, the hobby would definitely be heading in that direction later. But honestly there weren’t all that many high-visibility contenders in that first decade. Midkemia was never to achieve market penetration, and neither was Gamelord’s Free City of Haven. And both were published with pseudo-D&D mechanics. Would you abandon D&D and adopt a new set of rules simply because it was packaged with a town called Jonril? No. No, you wouldn’t. And besides, odds are that new set of rules existed *simply because they needed something that wasn’t D&D for their product line.* That’s not a selling point for consumers.

The Top Accessories of the First Decade of RPGs

What about accessories? I said you should market accessories. So what were the biggest non-setting accessories at the time?

TSR’s D&D modules, eagerly snatched up whenever a new one was released (which was never often enough).

Traveller games, supplements and adventures, from GDW and their many licensees.

Miniatures, which sold by the bucketful, licensed or not, from many manufacturers and in many genres.

And if there had to be a fourth category, it would be a mishmash of various unlicensed generic D&D adventures and supplements. This is really a cheat category because it includes so much, but taken as a whole you can see why TSR was cranky about people making money off their product. GDW appeared to have a better model. Its licensees contributed to the overall popularity of the line while (presumably) serving as an additional revenue source for the license issuer. It’s a pity that TSR wasn’t handing out licenses and collecting money on all that product. There was a lot of creativity and enthusiasm there, and if you don’t provide an easy, legal avenue for it, it will find its own way like water over a dam.

The Legendary Products of the First Decade of RPGs

What were some of the shining stars of the day, that still bring a frisson to collectors and grognards?

TSR: the Greyhawk set, the Giants and Drow series, Tomb of Horrors, Ravenloft.

Judges Guild: City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, Tegel Manor.

Traveller: The Traveller Adventure, Research Station Gamma, Twilight’s Peak, Azhanti High Lightning.

Runequest: Pavis, The Big Rubble, Trollpak, Griffin Mountain, Borderlands.

Call of Cthulhu: Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.

MERP: Isengard and Northern Gondor, Northern Mirkwood, Southern Mirkwood.

Universal: Chaosium’s Thieves World boxed set.

Oh No You Didn’t

Now for a brief review of what I didn’t see, as opposed to what some people seem to think went on during the era.

And fine, I admit it, these are rants.

The One True Way: It’s become quite popular in certain circles these days to endlessly debate how we’re *meant* to play, and how we’ve all been doing it wrong. Often dredging up snippets of casual quotes taken out of context as proof of whatever the contention is, they act like it’s the Da Vinci Code and argue about the definition and intention of every word. Sometimes this is part of a deliberate attempt to re-write history, as I’ve been advised by some of the players who were there. Regardless. While we may have been confused over interpreting a particular rule now and then, no one I ever saw expressed the current religious drive to prove that a heresy has been committed. Rulings not rules, get a life. PS, I just re-read an old product from this era that included a message inside the front cover. To paraphrase, it said that the product envisions a referee who resolves any rules questions, but if you really insist on asking them for clarification you can mail them your question. How do you interpret that, Code experts? There are no hidden meanings. Make a ruling and play on.

Theater of the Mind: This phrase makes me want to hit somebody, and I’ve written about it before. Read this very carefully. I know people who played with Gygax, Arneson and Barker. *They used miniature figures.* What does it say on the cover of the 1974 D&D game? “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” The rules booklets came in the box. You had to get your own paper, pencils and miniature figures. But oh happy day, if you look in old issues of The Dragon magazine from TSR you will see a plethora of ads for miniatures, tiles, mats and walls. Some folks might not’ve had the money to spend, some might’ve used Parcheesi tokens because that’s what they had handy, but THERE WAS NO “MOVEMENT” TO PLAY *THEATER OF THE MIND.* PERIOD. Old-school gaming does not mean excluding the use of figures. Now go sit in the corner until you can behave yourself.

Murderhobo: This term is even worse than the previous one. I’m going to repeat the line from the cover of 1974’s D&D booklets one more time, just in case you’ve already forgotten it. “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” It’s A COMBAT SIMULATOR. The rules cover combat. It’s a wargame for pity’s sake. You bust in a door, kill a monster and take its treasure. In fact, you have to, if you ever want to advance in levels. It’s built into the game. Those are the rules. HOW CAN YOU MAKE A DEROGATORY TERM ABOUT FOLLOWING THE RULES OF THE GAME? Burn in hell.

Sandbox: I’ve played D&D since the 1970s and I’d never heard this term before I saw it online in the twenty-first century. Or its partner, Railroad. I don’t know who you play with, but we either bought a module or wrote one up, then played it with our friends. If I start out the session by saying, “There’s an old man sitting in the tavern. He has an aura of power about him. He crooks a finger at you, catches your gaze with his glowing eyes, and flashes a treasure map at you,” then you darned well better go over there and hear what he has to say! Or you can go home and work on your attitude before next Friday night. This is what I have prepared, now don’t be a jerk and say you want to go hold up the jeweler next door instead. If we’re not here for the same thing, then the time to discuss it is before I’ve spent all week scribbling down notes and rolling dice. But once we get down to it, you play along or hit the highway. And finish what’s on your plate. And get off my lawn. Oh, and everybody else ran their games the same way. Nobody went to a game session, sat down, and had the DM ask, “So, there is no adventure prepared, what do you want to do with yourselves for the next four hours?” NOBODY SAID THAT. Hell, if that had happened I’d never go back. So I get pretty incensed when I see ads that read “Buy this *sandbox,* wander around at will and play old-school style!” Um, no.

Character Builds/Min-Maxing: More terms that are foreign to me, welcome to the internet age (which for some reason doesn’t appear to include all those hours I spent online back in the day, but what do I know?). I’ve seen conversations online about plotting a character’s development and growth in order to maximize their power as measured by this or that yardstick. We didn’t do that then, and I don’t do it now. I’ve written about this before too. There was no sense of entitlement when you sat down to create a character. You got what the dice allowed, and you played what you felt like – within those limits. No one was making flowcharts and trying to figure out the optimal choices to make in some abstract way. Sure, if you got a high dexterity you were happy and would probably be a thief. That’s about it. And by the way, you died a lot, you’re gonna have to roll up a new character anyway. Adventures are dangerous. Anyway, you didn’t get to whine that you’d had your heart set on playing a Fighter/Magic-User/Cleric with three eighteens, and expect that we’d wave our hands and give it to you despite what you rolled. And everyone needs different amounts of experience points, and yes I judge your individual performance and make individual awards, and some characters will be better than you while some will be inferior to you. Everybody doesn’t get a trophy for participation here. Just sit down and play.

All You Did Was Dungeon Crawls: Really? How silly of me, my memories must be all wrong! Oh wait, no they aren’t. I can’t even imagine how anyone has this opinion, but even the simplest kid’s game has a town full of townsfolk to role-play with. And wilderness adventures are described in great detail all the way back in those very first D&D books. So much so that you’re even encouraged to go buy Outdoor Survival from Avalon Hill as a D&D accessory, because it has a cool board that’s perfect for wilderness exploration.

Old-School Gaming = Megadungeons: Again, really? Greyhawk was a big dungeon. Blackmoor was a big dungeon. The Underworld of Jakalla was a big dungeon. But no one ever saw those, and what the heck is a megadungeon anyway? If you look at the modules from way back when, there are no megadungeons. None. I defy you to find one. There are none. So don’t dismiss our games as megadungeons, and don’t tell me that your efforts to play “old school” require you to have a megadungeon. Wrong on both counts.

The Quest for the Origins of the Game: Whatever game that is. There is another religious movement these days whose grail is to painstakingly recreate the “one true path” from some holy person’s lucid dream in 1950 all the way to those little 1974 books published by TSR. And how everyone else stole those ideas, may the heretics be damned for all eternity! I can’t begin to tell you how sick I am of hearing about this, especially the snide little repeated comments that work their way in everywhere. We didn’t give this kind of thing a second thought – not even a first thought. And yet, pundits all over the hobby declaim on this gospel from their pulpits. Literally to the point of revisionist history, again as I’ve had confirmed from those who were there. Guess what? Role-playing is make-believe, every kid ever has done it. Every kid has played with toys and personified them. Every kid has modeled struggles between their toys. EVERYONE DIDN’T STEAL EVERYONE ELSE’S IDEA! AND FOR THE RECORD, AN IDEA CAN’T BE COPYRIGHTED! The first modern RPG was D&D, published in 1974. It had co-authors Gygax and Arneson, right there on the cover. If I hear one more word from you on the subject I will not be held responsible, so help me. Go play a game and shut up.

Playing In-Character is a Recent Development, Those Old Guys Didn’t Do It: Come over here so I can hit you with my cane. I’ve written about this one too. Jonathan Tweet and Monte Cook did NOT invent role-playing. It didn’t arrive on the scene in the twenty-first century, it had a good twenty-five year history during the twentieth century. We played as our characters. Every single one of us. I can’t count the number of times I heard, “My character wouldn’t do that.” I can’t begin to tell you how many players tried to vary their speaking tone for different characters (much to our amusement). Did you ever read the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide? If you don’t role-play your alignment to your DM’s satisfaction there are rules there describing how it impacts your chances of going up a level. It’s in the book! I’m not making it up from whole cloth. You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Edition Wars: One last rant, and then I promise I’m through. Apparently gamers who like to play the original editions of games are now being pointed out from the crowd and given a label; instead of labeling the gamers who immediately toss everything they own and play and like, in order to buy the latest edition of those games. Why? That’s completely backwards. It’s like something I read not long ago. It was made very clear to me as a child that good table manners included chewing with your mouth closed. And yet this article I read was written from the POV of someone who apparently chews mouth-open and proudly doesn’t see anything unusual, unexpected or wrong with it. Further, he points at the rest of the world and claims that if you have a problem with that, *you* have the problem, spouting some nonsensical label like “repetitive noise syndrome” or whatever, and then talks about how you should attempt various behavior-modification techniques on yourself so that you can put up with his bad behavior. Turning the world upside-down, putting the onus on you instead of on the bad behavior. It’s a crazy attitude. But I ask you this. I just read that GW is now releasing a third edition of the Age of Sigmar game. First edition 2015, second edition 2018, third edition 2021. They want to normalize throwing out your expensive games and replacing them with the “latest,” every three years. Hell, I’ve got books and games that I bought in 2015 and still haven’t even gotten around to unwrapping them yet! It has been said by wiser heads than ours that people get the government they deserve. Well, gaming companies couldn’t survive doing this if consumers didn’t play along with it. Every time. The problem lies with you. Here’s a label, now get your head examined.

Living in the Gamer’s Paradise

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. I’ve alluded to various influences and cultural happenings of the time, but now I’d like to give that more attention in a systematic way. Role-players of the seventies and early eighties had many things in common. We were fans of fantasy and science-fiction (and there really wasn’t that much distinction made between them – we didn’t over-categorize things). That meant we read, we watched television and we went to the movies. As gamers we probably also had a decent education, with an interest in science, at least a slight aptitude towards math, and a good grounding in history – especially that last for those of us who were interested in war games. Remember, RPGs come from war games.

HG Wells didn’t just write fiction

If you liked to read, and we wouldn’t have been nerds if we didn’t, there was mythology, classical literature, the fiction of the “pulp” magazines, classic science fiction & fantasy, and the “new wave” of speculative fiction championed by Harlan Ellison in the US and Michael Moorcock in England. You either went to the library, or to the bookstore for paperbacks, or to the newsstand for magazines, but that’s what you read. We were readers. You can read Gygax’ Appendix N for a list of his favorites. You can read some of the fiction that inspired Traveller in a couple of the supplements and in a contemporary pdf you can download for free. Most of the pulps can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg. Let me just say that as a teenager I had already read most of what Gygax listed, and most other gamers of the day had too. I know that my circle of gamers certainly had.

Anthology of Hugo-winning Science Fiction

What I’m trying to say is that we had common references, common visions, and when we sat down to game we all had common expectations and saw the same thing in our minds’ eyes. Forty-five years later, a kid with an interest in playing D&D odds are doesn’t read nearly as much and won’t recognize any of the references that we shared. Let’s take a poll, shall we? Anyone here read Asimov? Heinlein? Bradbury? Clarke? Hell, and those are just the masters. Leigh Brackett? Bet you didn’t know she wrote The Empire Strikes Back, didja? But she was a pulp author from way back. How about some fantasy, read Burroughs? Norton? Carter? McCaffrey? Anderson? DeCamp & Pratt? I’ll bet you haven’t even read Vance, and his magic system is the basis of D&D!

Battlestar Galactica, by Frank Frazetta

What about television? You had to park yourself in front of the tube at a certain day and time in order to catch a show. If you missed an episode you might never get the chance to see it again, unless it went into syndication. And I won’t even bother to explain what that was. But we all knew Dark Shadows, we all knew Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, we all knew Time Tunnel. Nowadays? You only know what’s on the particular internet streaming service you happen to be paying for.

Movies, now this was the mother lode of common touchstones. Of course you had to remember back to that day seven years ago when you saw Fahrenheit 451 in the theater, but hey, maybe you’d get lucky, happen to check the TV Guide, and see an upcoming broadcast on television. Hope you don’t miss it, because there’s no on-demand viewing!

From our seat in 1983 I will give you a brief summary of what was fresh in our minds.

Cinema: Conan, Beastmaster, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur, Time Bandits, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max, Bladerunner, Tron, Escape from NY, Heavy Metal, Outland.

Startide Rising, by David Brin

Books: Joel Rosenberg’s The Sleeping Dragon, Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, Asprin & Abbey’s Thieves World anthologies, Ray Feist’s Magician, David Brin’s Sundiver and Startide Rising, John Varley’s Titan, Wizard and Millennium.

Television: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dungeons & Dragons cartoons.

What have we learned?

Movies were heavy-hitters at this point. Just look at that list. Fans still regard those as classics. Imagine the impact when they were new, all coming out within a very short span of time! Those are some impressive books, too. Rosenberg’s was especially popular since it was about a group of gamers who got sucked into their fantasy game. On the other hand, there was nothing on television. Sure, those cartoons might get kids interested in gaming, but those kids weren’t going to be playing any FGU games. They needed introductory experiences like Basic D&D, and game books like Lost Worlds “visual combat books” from Nova, Fighting Fantasy from Puffin, and Choose Your Own Adventure from Bantam. There would be still more games developed for young entrants to the hobby down the road, but not by 1983.

Other Games

Just for fun let’s summarize some of the non-RPG games we’d play until everyone showed up. Star Fleet Battles, Nuclear War, Ace of Aces, Lost Worlds, Wizard’s Quest, Magic Realm, Risk, Ogre, Car Wars, Snit’s Revenge, Awful Green Things, Mastermind, Dungeon, Cosmic Encounter, Snapshot and Mayday.

Wizardry I

Computer Games

This was something new. There were home video game consoles to use with your television, but they were nothing like today’s Playstation. On the other hand there were a few folks who had home computers at this very early date, and gamers were prime customers. At this point two noteworthy computer RPGs come to mind, Wizardry and Ultima. Both would have long life-spans with plenty of sequels, but you’d be astonished if you saw the originals. However, it was at just about this point in time that you might find a few of us sitting around watching one person at the keyboard, playing back seat driver as they maneuvered through a digital adventure. Tip: tabletop games were better.

Killer

There was a phenomenon at the time on college campuses, an informal game referred to as Assassin or Killer. See the 1965 Italian movie, The 10th Victim (see what I mean about cultural references?). The players secretly drew an assassination target’s name from a hat, then had to follow simple rules for taking out their target with for example a toy gun or a letter bomb. Steve Jackson ended up codifying the rules and publishing them as Killer. I managed to obtain a copy and arranged a few games with my friends around this time, and we had a lot of fun. Definitely worth tracking down if you don’t mind getting shot for real by police with no sense of humor.

What Have We Learned?

Ten years had passed since the debut of modern RPGs. The experienced gamers of 1983 shared references that subsequent generations gradually lost. I’ve put together a chart that I’d like to share with you, so you can see our common influences. This is only a superficial overview. I hope you’ll be inspired to do some digging on your own.

to be continued

2 thoughts on “Part Sixteen: The First Ten Years – A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

  1. Just an observation on megadungeons: They did exist. I started playing in 1976, and of the campaigns I played in between then and 1983: One had nothing but a megadungeon, six levels each about 2300 by 3300 game feet – I know the size because we took it turns to be DM – with nothing outside it beyond “the shop” where you could buy mundane supplies. Three were explicitly set in Middle-Earth and used Moria as the megadungeon, though one of those did have occasional wilderness adventures as well. One went so far as to have a town near the dungeon and occasional urban adventures. One was set in the Empire of the Petal Throne and made extensive use of the megadungeon below Jakalla. One evolved from the continent we drew up for our ancient wargames, and that one made extensive use of the modules that were just starting to appear. Were megadungeons the only game in town? Definitely not. Did they exist? Hell yeah, and we loved them, but the ones I knew were all homebrewed and not shared outside the group. And things moved on; I don’t think there was an active megadungeon in any of our games by 1981, they were superceded by smaller complexes and surface adventures of various kinds. Thanks for refreshing the memories; those were good times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Andy! Just by way of clarification, my point is that there is no real, specific definition of a “mega” dungeon, and that the commercially-available modules of those first ten years were not “mega” by any criteria I’d use. I’m familiar with Jakalla’s Underworld; it’s only three levels. I own Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign as published by Judges Guild, and the dungeons of Blackmoor seem rather puny to me. Did some folks draw up pages and pages of dungeon maps? I’m sure some did. Did some folks neglect to have surface-level role-play above their dungeons? I’m sure some did. But if you wanted to join the hobby and buy a big dungeon, I’d say you were out of luck. ICE’s Moria product didn’t come out until 1984, which is the eleventh year. And I have to say I was disappointed in it, because while they could make a spidery-looking drawing of tunnels, it wasn’t a populated dungeon product at all. More of a guideline. Nowadays you can buy very big dungeon modules, but I take issue with the contention that they represent “old-school” gaming.

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