Part Twenty-Four: 1991, You Are Not of The Body – A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

So what were we playing in 1991? I’m glad you asked. Let’s review.

– 1st ed AD&D: This title still dominated our gaming time, but our rules system had been off the market for two years by now. Lorraine Williams’ T$R had tapped David Cook to re-write Gary Gygax’ game, and Cook’s D&D was all that people saw in stores anymore. They would be churning out tons of material, but we were no longer a part of their customer base – none of our money would be going to them. New players joining the hobby looked askance at us, while we looked right back because how could they hobnob around with those back-stabbing usurpers, and who would want to play somebody else’s (somebody other than Gary) version of D&D anyway? We had little in common.

So Cook thought he could re-write Gary Gygax. Like I would have any interest in what he thought. Really. What must it be like, to be hired by Gygax for a dream job as a game designer, and then to be part of the team that back-stabbed him – actually re-writing his game? Of course, this was all just fine with Lorraine, who also back-stabbed the man who hired her. She was weeding out the malcontents who wouldn’t be buying from T$R now, while marketing to folks who just wanted a shiny game and had a *hey here’s ‘that game’ on the shelf let’s buy it!* innocence. For sales, visibility is everything. The new kids had no history with the hobby, they were tabula rasa. They had no emotional baggage, no loyalty to the giants of the hobby. They were just customers, who bought what they saw on the shelf.

And Edition Wars are all about the greenbacks anyway.

– “Classic” Traveller: I still ran the occasional adventure now and then, commercial or my own work, but our Traveller rules system had been off the market for *four* years now! I had zero interest in any of the new stuff being sold as “Traveller” at this point, so our group was decidedly insular.

That means island.

– Call of Cthulhu: And I still ran this on and off in my rotation. The Edition Wars had passed this game by, for which I was learning to be exceedingly grateful. And so I made sure to purchase supplements and show my interest. That’s voting with your wallet. I had run the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaign back in the day, had the Keeper’s Screen and the Companion books, plus Dreamlands, Gaslight, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Green and Pleasant Lands, and Arkham Unveiled. That’s a hell of a lot of content, plus of course I also wrote my own material. Yes, surprising as it is to see these words written out, Cthulhu was a bright spot for me. 😉

– The Also-Rans

And there were still a few games my friends would drag out and run irregularly: Paranoia, Cyberpunk, and Stormbringer. Always using the original editions, of course. I think we only maintained continuity of characters for Stormbringer, with the rest being one-shot parties on one-shot adventures.

Bundles of newsprint from Avalon Hill

What’s no longer in the mix? The casualties of the Edition Wars: Gamma World, Runequest, FASA Star Trek. Plus all of the “just give it a try” one-shot systems we’d sampled along the way.

– So how did this work, anyway?

I think it makes sense to talk about how we determined what we played. There were three main referees in the group still. At this point I usually had one session per week, and the other two guys sort of took turns on another day, most of the time. One would be running something, and when the other guy was ready then he slid into that slot. Of course, a few years prior when we were still gaming so often all three of us had his own night, with some irregular games run on other nights by additional people. But at this point we’d lost a lot of that enthusiasm, as I’ve already related.

I used my spot for D&D, Traveller or Cthulhu. My style was campaigns, so we’d come back to the same old party when we came back around. Sometimes someone would pipe up and suggest we pick up with one of the other two campaigns; or I might be ready for a switch. Or sometimes we’d stumble on a new adventure or supplement and that would spark the switch.

The other guys ran D&D, Cthulhu, Paranoia, Cyberpunk or Stormbringer on their night. Sometimes ongoing campaigns, sometimes not. This was my chance to be a player, instead of a referee. Note that I never got to be a Traveller player! The one guy who liked Traveller enough to run it just wasn’t a good candidate for referee.

What have we learned?

If you enjoy a game, that’s what you play. Supported or not. In print or replaced by some fool’s re-write. Why the game companies couldn’t stop revamping games and making them incompatible, I still don’t understand. When you’ve got your core game complete, then keep it in print and publish whatever variants you want to in *supplemental* volumes of options. If you must. But you have to maintain continuity so that everything is interchangeable and no one gets excluded. New players need access to a core book that supports everyone’s existing campaigns. Instead, the path they led the hobby down meant that they would bleed customers on a regular basis. And that generates bad feelings in those customers, something that a business shouldn’t be doing. It’s short-sighted. Take the long view.

But speaking of (re)vamping and bleeding, there was a new release this year that we’d spend quite a lot of time with.

Vampire: The Masquerade

One of the authors of the Ars Magica game, Mark Rein-Hagen, designed this one. Players are vampires in a complex sub-society that’s meshed with our own. This was a new genre for RPGs, and it really took off. The game’s vampire concept is reminiscent of that presented in the work of author Anne Rice, which of course we all loved. In practice, the RPG’s vampires can have so many “super-powers” that players can turn Vampire into a superhero game if you’re not careful. But the aspect that appealed to me, the struggles and interactions within the society of vampires, was what I would emphasize. That’s right. I’d finally found a new game that I was willing to run. I added it to my rotation and ran it for years. Surprised?

As they were released I picked up Ashes to Ashes, Chicago by Night, The Succubus Club and the Players Guide. I went all out for my game sessions, with candles, incense, costumes, music and props. I love Byzantine politics and plotting, and that’s what I pushed. My players’ eyes were glittery with emotion as they were drawn into this dark world I was narrating. They were so enthusiastic. I really, really had them hooked.

But I had not been depicting vampires as sparkly lovelies. No, I was describing damned souls trapped in lifeless bodies of dead meat. While they play-acted in a “masquerade” of life, they were dead. Damned for all eternity. Mimicking the living, envying them, looking in from outside, draining the blood of the living in order to transfer some small measure of warmth into their hard, dead corpses. For only a little while. There would always be an inescapable, underlying scent of death wherever they went. This outlook wasn’t a big part of the game as it was written, but it was what I emphasized when we played.

As I drove this point home again and again, I realized that it was actually becoming depressing to play. I tried working in some elements of a possible redemption, but that wasn’t enough for me. The game just wasn’t fun anymore. I had been too successful for my own enjoyment.

And so I ended the campaign.

Bet you don’t hear that too often, “I was too successful.” The players were not happy with my decision, but I was firm. And I felt better afterwards.

Rules Cyclopedia

I want to note here that T$R had still maintained the separate “Basic D&D” line, and there were quite a number of its Gazetteer setting books available now. This year they released one book that combined all the various prior subsets of rules, as compiled by Aaron Allston. If you played this edition, you could lose all those separate, level-specific boxed sets with their softcover booklets, and replace them with this one semi-sturdy hardcover book. One interesting thing about it was that it included reproductions of a lot of the maps from the Gazetteer series, along with capsule summaries of the locations. This would whet player appetites, and allow them to have some level of familiarity with the game’s official setting as befits a native character. Without players having access to all those Gazetteers, which as a DM I wouldn’t have been happy with anyway. Of course, if your D&D game wasn’t set in this “default” world, then those were just wasted pages for you. Again, I SMH over the concept of a default “official” world for an RPG.

So anyway, some faction over at T$R was still supportive of maintaining the two separate D&D lines. But there were conversion documents for the curious. Maybe this was all part of a clever plan…

The Digital World, 1991

Neverwinter Nights

Since we’re talking D&D, we’ll segue into Neverwinter Nights. Despite whatever may be associated with that term today, back then it referred to a specific online D&D game accessible only through an AOL account.

Let me explain. In 1991 there was no “world wide web” for us to surf. There were no web sites, no web pages, for the general public. What there was were Usenet Newsgroups – think of them as “bulletin boards” or “forums.” And there were private networks that you could dial into with your computer modem. And by “dial,” I really mean that. You had a “land line” phone line that you hooked up to your computer, and you “dialed out” using touch-tones. You dialed an access phone number for whatever network you were heading for. Compuserve, AOL or Prodigy, those guys maintained servers that could get you to “the internet,” but you had to have a destination beyond that to aim for. AOL and Prodigy maintained private little networks, oases in the wilderness. There you could find chat rooms and such. But there was no mixing. If you wanted access to the AOL network you needed an AOL account and AOL internet service.

Anyway, AOL scored a coup and hosted an online version of an SSI Gold Box D&D game. If you wanted to play, you needed an AOL account. I still had my Amiga, sans modem, so I didn’t get to play this yet. When I finally got my PC I had to get an AOL account to play. But I quickly grew tired of Neverwinter Nights, and subsequently canceled AOL. In any case 1991 was the year the game debuted, and it was the first online RPG that actually had graphics.

The Sierra Network

And here was another private little network you could get to with a modem, for some head-to-head gaming with other online players. Sierra had produced a number of regular computer games in the past, but this was something new. This “land” hosted some traditional and card games, but also dog-fighting against other players in an online version of Red Baron. They also featured an RPG of their own, called Shadow of Yserbius. The debut was this year, and it was another product that I wouldn’t be sampling until I eventually upgraded my computer. I’ll say that when I did get access, it was only interesting for a relatively brief time. I don’t really enjoy gaming with strangers.

Civilization

Now we’re back in the world of off-line computer gaming, and here comes the launch of a legend. Civilization quickly became an addiction for me, one of my very favorite games ever. The Amiga version wasn’t released until 1992; I may have purchased it then, or waited until I eventually got a PC of my own. I know I don’t have to talk about the series to an audience of gamers, but I’ll just say that I stopped at Civ 4 and that’s what I continue to play to the present day (as recently as yesterday, as I write this). Civ 4 is graced with the voice of Leonard Nimoy, and that ought to be reason enough.

What have we learned?

At this point in time, getting online was a novelty. Gaming online was a struggle. Computer gaming was a solo activity.

But all that would change.

to be continued

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