Part Thirty: 1996, Give Me One Reason. A Historical Overview of Role-playing from the Trenches

Beat the Drum Slowly

A selection of games from GDW

Game Designers Workshop (GDW) was a game publishing company that had been founded in 1973. Perhaps best known for the science fiction role-playing game Traveller, they had also been bold enough to publish Gary Gygax’ RPG line Dangerous Journeys since he’d been forced out of his own company. That decision triggered T$R’s attorneys and the Dangerous Journeys line was killed. GDW had also re-worked its Traveller game enough times that the current game was its own thing, having little in common with the original award-winning product. Suffice it to say that GDW was in dire financial straits, and in the year 1996 they shut their doors. Ownership of Traveller went to its creator, Marc Miller. Sadly, Miller made a deal with a con-man named Ken Whitman and yet another version of Traveller would be released this year. It was rife with errors and not well received. Traveller was a licensed IP for many different companies, for years to come.

Fading Suns

On the other hand, a new SF RPG was released this year by a company called Holistic Design. It was an interesting space opera that was reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The setting was rather pessimistic in that we were so far in the future that the suns were all burning out. Man’s empires had risen and fallen, much knowledge was lost, in fact it was also similar to the Warhammer 40K universe including the evil things that lay just beyond the reach of our senses. But Fading Suns really tries to bring Dark Ages Europe to mind. There is a universal church that is a political powerhouse. The church has a great deal of knowledge but much of that knowledge is branded as heresy, so there are church inquisitors who roam about putting transgressors to the torch. In any case, I didn’t discover this game in 1996. But I’ll bring it up again when we reach that point, because I ran a Fading Suns campaign that I enjoyed very much. Although at this point I’ll say that mechanically it was reminiscent of Vampire.

Kindred: The Embraced

Speaking of, you will remember Vampire: The Masquerade, the RPG I ran where you play vampires? Well, Aaron Spelling produced a TV series based on the game. It didn’t last very long at all, and I’ve written a review that you can read HERE. Obviously, with the release of the Interview With The Vampire movie only two years prior, Spelling was trying to hitch his carriage to a gravy train. Sorry it didn’t work out there, pal.

Plastic Fantastic

Let’s check in with the computer scene in 1996.

You may remember that in a previous post I described how personal email addresses were tied to your internet provider, and could not be ported. Well, this was the year that Hotmail debuted, designed to get around that impediment. Not yet owned by M$, Hotmail let you create an email account that you could keep, regardless of which provider you were currently using. I jumped on this idea and created an account, although people laughed at my “Hotmail.com” address and made sly comments about pornography or online dating. At least they don’t say that anymore.

And to go along with that new portable email address, you could also buy a 56k modem for your home computer. Yay! Although you may scoff from your seat in a broadband future, this was lightning-fast compared to what we’d had before.

Massively Multiplayer Online

And now that we have lightning-fast internet, it’s time for the first MMO with 3-D graphics, Meridian 59! Online RPGs were a thing, and although I gave this one a try it just didn’t stick for me. I really wanted to like this sort of game, but there were drawbacks. The monthly fee. The lag. Griefer players. Death and its consequences. Player-versus-player gaming (depending on the game). Grinding. The fact that you couldn’t just reload from a saved game. The only real benefit to online play, interacting with other players, just wasn’t that good, and was sometimes a negative. At least from my perspective. So I gave M59 a try, but I dropped out shortly thereafter.

Diablo

Now we come to one of the few real-time RPGs (action? shooter?) that I enjoyed. In this game you have to run around and fight against all comers, and you have little time to enjoy the graphics or pour over your character. However, there was something about Diablo that was addictive, even to me. I liked the third-person POV, in contrast to a first-person shooter. It was a lot like the arcade game Gauntlet from back in 1985, only with more happening. And you could play it at home! There was a lot to be said for not needing a roll of quarters to play, and essentially getting unlimited play value for your initial purchase. I don’t think I could play it today, but at the time it was a fun change of pace from whatever else I was playing, bringing the arcade experience home.

The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall

This was the mother-lode of gaming. Nothing has ever matched it. Yes, it’s very pixelated from today’s perspective, but that wasn’t a factor at the time. Yes, you have to “slash” with your mouse in order to fight, which I’m not all that thrilled with. But look what you get! A great selection of races and classes to choose from. A really neat system to delineate your character. A cool system of gear upgrades based on what material your equipment is made from. There’s a huge plot, very well-written, but you can ignore it completely when you re-play the game.

And you will, because there are cities, villages, ports, ships, you can head off directly through the wilderness if you prefer, and the area you can explore covers multiple *nations.* Yep, that’s what I said. Even better, the towns and dungeons are randomly generated, so replay value is amazing. Oh, and you can inadvertently contract lycanthropy or vampirism, which will certainly alter your game experience. I can’t remember if that was a possibility in Arena, but it’s definitely here in Daggerfall. In any case I played the hell out of this, over and over again, for decades. I think the only games I’ve played more often are Civilization and Master of Magic. You can still get this today, and you can get re-workings with improved graphics. Honestly if you’ve never played it and have any interest in either the origins of the Elder Scrolls, or in vintage games, just stop wasting your time reading blogs and go get it. This was the first Elder Scrolls game I played, and it made me a life-long fan.

So what have we learned?

It’s not impossible to come up with a new twist on an existing genre of game. The trick is to make playing it (instead of the current favorite) a worthwhile endeavor. And then to get it in front of enough eyeballs to be commercially viable.

to be continued

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