Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

The History of Role-Playing

By Astinus

A fairly complete, mostly accurate and only slightly biased exposition of the hobby's turbulent existence, from its origins to the modern day. Serialised in five parts.

Part Three: A Golden Age Emerges

If you missed the previous installments of the History, check our back issues.

It was the late 1970's. Role-playing had established itself as a new idea, something different, something unique, something somewhat revolutionary. A new kind of game, a separate concept, around which could be built not just one game, but hundreds, or thousands. And around which could be built literature, and convention, even a whole sub-culture. It had the potential to be very big, but, at that time, it still had some way to go before it got there. It was time to start growing. In short, role-playing had laid its roots, and now was beginning to bloom.

The Great Stampede

As soon as people saw how much money D&D, Tunnels & Trolls and Chivalry & Sorcery were making, they wanted to jump into the market as fast as possible - while it was still new, and relatively uncluttered by competition. So began a great stampede of RPGs being published. It would most likely be impossible to try to catalogue all of them; instead I will endeavour to cover a selection of releases, each of which presented something new or interesting to the industry.

After D&D, T&T and C&S did so well, the ampersand was seen as somewhat essential for the title of an RPG, and was used ad nauseam.

Fantasy had a good run, with the release of a swathe of D&D/T&T copies, none of which really presented anything new. Steve Jackson appeared on the scene with a combat-orientated game called Melee (which later became Into the Labyrinth), as did Ian Livingstone. Gygax, Arneson and St Andre also knocked out a few more games each. But soon it just became too much, it began to stagnate. It was time for a change of scene, and given the surging popularity of the science fiction subculture that was happening all over America, you didn't have to be Spock to figure out what form this change would take.

StarFaring (St Andre, 1976) was probably the first SF RPG, but had a very small print run. Close on its heels came Metamorphosis Alpha from TSR (1977), and then Starships & Spacemen (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1978). None of these, however, could hold a candle to one of the ultimate SF games, both then and now: Traveller (Games Designers Workshop, 1977).

Traveller takes off

Mark Miller's game was historic for two reasons. Firstly, because it was brilliantly designed, and presented some really new ideas. SF games really depend on their skill system, but up to now, their design had been neglected. Miller's skill system was the best the industry had yet produced, and it became a model for many years to come. Miller also rejected a class or occupation system - characters simply rolled to see what skills they had learnt during their life in the military (all characters had some military time). They also got to roll to see if, in the same year that they had learnt how to fly a spaceship, they had also received any medals, or been kicked out for illegal gambling. This idea of mechanics specifically designed to lay out a background and history for a character was another revolutionary stroke.

The Traveller licence was recently returned to Mark Miller, and the game was re-released by him two years ago.

Then there was the setting. For the first time, the rules allowed not just for the creation of countries, or planets, but whole solar systems. There were quick and easy tables to generate a random planet (from size and temperature to type of government and religion), as well as hints to designing a detailed and rich little corner of the galaxy. The background was original too, presenting Miller's ideas of a powerful but decentralised Imperium, rather than stealing from Star Trek or Blake's Seven as so many others were. But if you didn't like this setting, you didn't have to use it. Another of Traveller's ground-breaking design features was incredible flexibility - the game could be easy tailored to whatever you wanted it to be.

The second reason Traveller had so much impact was that its release occurred at approximately the same time as the release of Star Wars. With Traveller's flexible and straightforward rules and its open ended setting, it was the first pick for the role-playing fans. And there were a lot of them, desperate to take the ultimate boyhood fantasy one step further - to actually live out their dreams of being Luke or Han. As a consequence, Traveller enjoyed huge market success almost immediately - something no other RPG had yet achieved. Traveller was a game that made the entrepreneurs really sit up and take notice, proving the hobby could have a strong commercial influence.

In Unity there is Strength

Hand in hand with a commercial presence went the development of the gaming industry as a sub-culture. Like wargames and science fiction before it, role-playing began to carve out its own little way of life. Magazines, both professional and amateur, flooded the market, and with this information transference set up, a gaming "mindset" was created. Slang, jargon and in-jokes proliferated: a strong sense of identification with the hobby also produced a need to isolate those who were outside it.

The very first GenCon was held in 1978.

Conventions were set up and gamers could communicate even more. Gamers learnt they were not alone, and found an environment where they could feel safe and secure about their hobby. The smaller companies of yesterday started to turn into the big companies of tomorrow, and they now had a whole industry to sell to, rather than just a few isolated gamers. Role-playing reached cult status, just like SF, and with all the social implications that went with it. Now role-players weren't ciphers - they were those geeks with glasses and bad hygiene who carried around all those little dice.

This cult status gave the hobby stability, and it used this to begin exploring different avenues of game design. Superhero games began to appear - like Superhero 44 and Villains & Vigilantes. Gangster!, a game based on recreating movies such as Scarface and Bonnie and Clyde, opened the door for crime RPGs.

Watership Down was 25 years old last year, which prompted the re-release of the accomplished animated film. Worth checking out.

Then there was the truly esoteric in Bunnies & Burrows. A few years after Lord of the Rings, another book had revolutionized fantasy - Watership Down. B&B was simply the game of the book, as D&D was for LotR. Though B&B's system was, like so many games of the era, merely D&D by another name, that is where the similarities end. The idea of role-playing rabbits was bizarre, but it had incredible role-playing potential, and it was easy to become enchanted with Richard Adams' richly drawn lapine world. Back then, most people thought it was stupid. Now it would be accurately heralded as a work of genius.

Jewel in the Crown

And so the experimentation continued. A few years later, Bushido explored the very foreign world of Ancient Japan, and Aftermath displayed a very dark post-apocalyptic world. These last two are particularly noteworthy because their systems were tailored to make you play in the style required of their alien yet enthralling worlds. These games, however, and indeed the entire gaming industry, owe much of this idea to the legendary RuneQuest (Chaosium, 1978). RuneQuest broke the mould, set the trend and changed the industry forever.

For more on M.A.R Barker's world of Tekumel, see Part II of the History in our last issue.

In 1966, Greg Stafford began designing Glorantha, the world in which RuneQuest is set, as the background for a board game called White Bear and Red Moon, which allowed players to fight a critical battle in Glorantha's history. Stafford's world was intriguing and exotic, and the game exuded a charming mythological atmosphere. Yet it never encountered the problems that Barker had with Tekumel - because the world was written for a game, Stafford managed to find the right balance between playability and vividness. So much so that the game spawned its own short-lived magazine, and a sequel entitled Nomad Gods.

So it was, a decade later, that Steve Perrin, Ray Turney and others decided to create a role-playing game set in Glorantha, which, by then had developed into an even richer universe. Glorantha was a bronze age world, seeded with Greek and Mesopotamian culture, religion and prehistory, and hoplites with plumes replacing knights in armour. Elves, dwarves and religion also featured but with unique twists. Particularly religion, which took the form of various dangerous yet enticing Cults that overshadowed the game. Yet brilliant as the setting was, however, it was not the crowning glory of RuneQuest. That honour belongs to the rules.

Many gamers will also recall fondly the realistic power for once attributed to the long bow in RQ.

After Traveller, RuneQuest was the second game to use skills - and they used them very well. Not only were they wonderfully simple, but they also modelled reality rather well. The writers were all medieval re-enactment buffs, and took great pains to make combat feel realistic, deadly and in your face. RuneQuest also invented the idea of the critical success/failure, and introduced the possibility of skill improvement through training rather than experience. More importantly, the rules were the first that could be described as elegant - rules with style as well as functionality.

The real triumph of RuneQuest, however was in the way in which the setting and system were integrated together. For example, in order for mages to increase their power, they had to earn favour and privelige in their particular rune cult - usually by running errands or going on quests. Hence your magical ability (a game statistic) was intimately related to elements of the game world and adventures. Though now a mainstay, this was then another revolutionary idea. Thus RuneQuest intertwined a frighteningly realistic world with an excitingly realistic system, making what is arguably one of the greatest role-playing games ever made.

Athenian Heights

RuneQuest represented a pinnacle of role-playing game design, and signalled the beginning of a golden age in RPGs. Traveller had proved that RPGs could be commercially strong, and RuneQuest showed they could be equally strong in design. The real herald of the golden age, however, would once again come from TSR. In 1979, Gygax and others collected and collated much of the revisions that had been made to D&D over the years, and used these to build a second generation game. The original rules, meanwhile, were also being simplified for beginners, so that now both old-timers and novices were being actively targeted by the companies. This diversification of product indicated again the strength of the hobby, both as a sub-culture, and an industry. Another indicator of market strength was the fact that the new Advanced game now consisted of three thick and expensive volumes (Player's Manual, DM's Guide, and Monstrous Manual), proving that people were willing to commit considerable amounts of both time and money to the hobby. Thus the release of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons stated very clearly that the golden age had begun.

Don't miss the next volume of the History - subscribe now!

Like all golden ages, this one was to be filled with incredible successes, both in terms of sales and game design. It was the time when gaming really defined itself, when it reached its highest peaks and its greatest power. When it was young yet strong, when it took the world by storm, when it came to be the truly amazing thing it is today. But to truly mature and grow, gaming had to suffer as well; it had to encounter the darkness as well as the light. And in this just-born golden age of a new "cult" leisure activity, the seeds were being laid for a terrible tragedy to occur, the full effects of which would well and truly give role-playing a "baptism of fire". But we'll talk about all this next time.

Can't wait? Go on to The Hist ory of Roleplaying Part IV.

[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright 1998 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us: