Part Nineteen: Gettin’ Mad, Baby – A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

In the November 1985 issue of Dragon Magazine, Gygax had mentioned reorganizing AD&D into a second edition, with the work to begin in 1986. He name-dropped his second-in-command Frank Mentzer as slated to work on it. What we didn’t know was that Gygax had been fired in October of 1985. His name just disappeared after that last column was published (obviously it had been submitted in advance). From a very active presence in the magazine recently, he just wasn’t there anymore.

Those bad early experiences we’d had with Edition Wars meant that I was more than a little disturbed by Gygax’ remarks. This on top of the questionable actions TSR had recently taken in the industry added up to a sense of foreboding. More to come on that score.

1986

TSR

Dragonlance

A second Dragonlance novel trilogy debuted this year. There wasn’t a module series to go with it, but the books were a great read.

Gamma World

The Marvel Super Hero RPG was doing well, so a 3rd edition of Gamma World (GW) was released with Marvel rules. What? Maybe this was supposed to motivate newer players, the younger kids who had enjoyed the Marvel game, and get them to try a related game. Except I don’t remember any Gamma World ads that tried comparing it to the Marvel game. But I’ll tell you what the new GW game DID do. It pissed us off again with more Edition Wars. We loved Gamma World. We played it regularly. We enjoyed the rules set. The 2nd edition of the game had added more illustrations and some new rules depth, but hadn’t contradicted or replaced anything from the simpler, cleaner 1st edition (which was the one I was still using anyway).

3e GW Combat Table a la Marvel

But re-writing the game to an incompatible 3rd edition was an act of war. Edition War. That was the end. I never gave TSR another dime for a GW product, and we gradually dropped it from our rotation. Idiots. And for the record, Gamma World got a new “rules system of the week” over and over again from this point on. Look it up.

Gygax

In October 1986 Gygax formally announced the formation of New Infinities, his post-TSR game company. He brought along Frank Mentzer and Kim Mohan with him from TSR. Of course, we weren’t aware of this right away. There were no email lists back then, no web, and New Infinities wouldn’t release any product until next year anyway.

Warhammer

So there was this British company called Games Workshop. They had released a miniatures war game, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, back in 1983. We didn’t play it. Well, this year they debuted Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing, an RPG that was set in the same world. It was a fun world, and this turned out to be a good move. I remember seeing the products as they appeared in the store. I would give them a browse, and think that they sounded interesting, but as you know I had way too many games to run. No one I knew bought it, so I didn’t get to give it a try.

GURPS

This was the year that a new “universal” game engine debuted, GURPS from Steve Jackson. He had started out with a couple of micro games back in the day, Melee and Wizard. Then he tried combining them into a sort of mini RPG called The Fantasy Trip. Well, now he published a very much expanded full RPG version. I had people try and get me to play this, even though I’d tried Melee and Wizard and found them dull. To me, GURPS came off as very bland (as well as being blessed with a really bad name). You were supposed to divvy out points and assign them to various stats, instead of rolling dice. It was the poster child for what is called a “design system.” Practically speaking, this means that maximizing your power is in the spotlight, there’s a lot of math, and character generation takes a long, long time. I didn’t enjoy it at all, but there were players out there who really liked this. For me, it was almost the antithesis of what I enjoyed. Although someone I knew had a copy, our group never did more than roll up design a few characters.

New Genre: Giant Robots, or “Mecha”

FASA had launched a new gaming IP, Battletech, back in 1984. This was in answer to the popularity of Japanese Mecha anime. This year they released a related RPG called Mechwarrior. I had friends who played the non-RPG games in the series, but I don’t think anyone I knew actually ran the RPG version.

Palladium released their own competing Mecha RPG this year, Robotech. It was based on an actual anime series of the same name. I know I had a friend who owned this, but if memory serves then within my own circle the FASA series was clearly more popular. Funny how that worked out. As a licensed RPG based on a prime anime property, I would’ve expected Robotech to win my friends over. Perhaps FASA had simply written a better game, or their head start in publishing the IP line helped them establish a firm foothold in the industry before Palladium even got started.

I’m not into giant robots myself, or anime, but as a result of their popularity we now had a new RPG genre. And this is a perfect example of when I think a new game is merited. They weren’t trying to release another new D&D variant fantasy RPG, they were actually blazing new ground. Good for them.

Might & Magic

And I’ll just note that this was the year that the original Might & Magic computer RPG series debuted. It would have quite a long run.

to be continued

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