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The History of Role-Playing

By Steven Darlington

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 seven parts.

You can catch up with the rest of the history in our back issues

Part V: The Power and the Glory

It was the 1980's, and, as Gordon Gecko said, greed was good. The financial boom that gave us the yuppie and the walkman was in full swing, and one of the biggest winners was the entertainment industry. And thanks to the new approach that was sweeping the RPG industry, the hobby was able to go along for the ride. TSR led the charge to corporate might, but others were quick to follow. As the golden age continued, they would completely change the face of gaming, from a tiny cult product to an immense cult enterprise, in just a few years. Even perhaps, in a single bound...

Look, Up In The Sky!

One of the cornerstones of the changing face of gaming was a major shifting of focus, away from pure fantasy to a more comic-strip, cinematic feel. In particular, to super-heroes.

In the 1980's, superhero comics enjoyed a powerful upturn in popularity and presence, culminating in the big movie cross-overs towards the end of the decade. Like Science Fiction a few years early, gaming executives where smart enough to realise this was an important sub-culture to tap into. And so began the superhero games. There had been earlier attempts such as Jeff Saxman's Superhero 44 but the genre didn't become established until the arrival of the mighty Champions.

Champions has recently been re-released, accompanied with the new Fuzion rules system

Developed by Hero Games in 1982, Champions immediately made its presence felt on the gaming community. The correlation between gamers and comic fans proved very strong, and the game was an instant hit as fanboys everywhere jumped at the chance to play their favourite heroes. This was despite misgivings that the game would be hampered by its inability to use any popular heroes, since they were all licensed to Marvel and DC. Champions, however, carved its own niche by encouraging imaginative character creation, so that players could carve out their own, unique superhero, and this was one of the strong attractions of the game.

Naturally, Champions quickly inspired imitators, with titles like Villains & Vigilantes (FGU, 1984) and Golden Heroes (Games Workshop, 1984) hot on its heels. Marvel and DC realised they'd missed out on something big, and desperately tried to catch up. Marvel got TSR to make the limp Marvel Superheroes while Mayfair Games took the other side with the equally disappointing DC Heroes. But few could come close to Champions.

TSR has just released a new Marvel Superheroes game, using the same card-based system as Dragonlance: The Fifth Age

This was because Champions was simply a very good package. It provided a well designed and fairly universal system which stressed the players using their own imaginations. The setting was similarly do-it-yourself, but balanced this with a strong framework with which to begin, ample advice for constructing scenarios, and plenty of source material. Champions was also revolutionary in that it was the first game to showcase an entirely points-based character creation system. Not just attributes, but skills and powers were added on purely at the player's whim. Of course, if you couldn't decide, rolling rules were there, but this was a major milestone in game design.

The strengths in the design of Champions were recognised, and began to change the way people thought about game design. In particular, they were to influence one Steve Jackson.

Universal Studios

Jackson had entered the gaming scene with Melee (Metagaming, 1977): basically just a combat system, that could be used in other games. Soon, it was joined by Wizard, which added magic rules, and a GM handbook called Into the Labyrinth, becoming a full RPG, which bore the unfortunate title The Fantasy Trip. Though this never really took off, it was a well thought out game with some creative mechanics that added much realism to combat, skills and magic.

It should be noted that this Steve Jackson is not the same one who started Games Workshop with Ian Livingstone

Unfortunately, Metagaming went bust, but inspired by Champions, Steve Jackson wanted to use ideas from both it and The Fantasy Trip to make the ultimate RPG. While designing such notable things as Car Wars and Illuminati, he and friends discussed at length what they really wanted from a game, and began to put to paper what was then jokingly called GURPS: the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System. It was released five years later by Jackson's new company, Steve Jackson Games, and it was still called GURPS. Only now it stood for Generic Universal Role-Playing System.

And generic it was, which caused many misgivings. As we shall see, the industry at the time was entrenched in a mindset which put a heavy emphasis on a specific and detailed setting. Making a game with no specific ethos in mind was risky. This game went beyond that, creating something that was deliberately devoid of any association to any game setting or style, something designed to be used no matter what you played. Some called it brilliant. Others called it completely insane.

But it worked. GURPS steadily grew in popularity, and today is a close second behind AD&D just in terms of sheer volume of published material. And with the sad demise of TSR, Steve Jackson Games is now arguably the most successful RPG company ever. This long term success is due to many things: its sensible design and intelligent presentation, its strong support line and respect for its audience, but mostly because of its universality. RPGs are supposed to only be limited by our imagination, but too often they are also limited by the tools we have at hand. GURPS transcended this problem, allowing gamers the luxury of always having a system, no matter what game they want to play. And while universal games have been sometimes criticised for lacking evocation, the removal of this constraint remains a very important gift to the gaming industry.

Currently, many games are following the generic model to at least some extent, but GURPS, like D&D before it, is the original and the most established of them all, and thus has persevered. It might not have succeeded at all originally, however, if it had not been so different from the rest of the games at that time.

Merchandising Mayhem

Tapping into the comic subculture had proved immensely profitable. So much so that games could now afford to focus on just one comic for its setting. Some of these were Judge Dredd (Games Workshop, 1984), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Palladium Games, 1985), Buck Rogers (TSR, 1989) and Prince Valiant (Chaosium, 1986). The designers were also quick realised that what would work for comics, would also work for other media. So they turned their attention to books, TV and the movies.

The wealth of the book-inspired RPGs included titles like Uplift, RingWorld, Dream Park, Conan, Witch World, Wild Cards, Lensmen, and The Scarlet Pimpernel

The most obvious choice on the book front was, of course, Tolkien, so Iron Crown Enterprises weren't slow in producing MERP: Middle Earth Role-Playing. Since few fantasy series have come anywhere near the success of Tolkien's work, most of the role-playing games that went with them have failed to last. They tended to be small and cheaply designed to catch whatever series was topping the charts. The only one besides MERP that has had any real long term presence is Stormbringer, now called Elric!, based on the novels of Michael Moorcock, which has survived thanks to a consistent support line from Chaosium.

The choice was also obvious in the world of screen. 1982 saw the release of The Wrath of Khan, and right behind it came FASA's Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The game was well designed and made use of the vast amount of source material to provide a huge array of supplements, and should have been a winner. Sadly, copyright problems caused its demise before the end of the decade. Other screen hits were Doctor Who, Robotech, Aliens, Ghostbusters, Star Wars and even James Bond had his own RPG.

As the eighties went on, the example of Star Wars caused the fantasy blockbuster to become a mainstay, and suddenly all that mattered in a new film was how much merchandising moolah you could squeeze out of it. While this might not have been great for film, the merchandising mindset made licensed RPGs a much more attractive proposition. And although few of these games were exceptional, the influx of capital the commercial cross-over provided was very important in the industry's major financial growth.

One of the worst examples of the licensed games was the Tim Burton movie-version Batman RPG. Mayfair Games simply doctored DC Heroes a little and trusted it to sell as well as everything else bearing the Bat-logo was.

Nor was this entirely detrimental to the creative aspect of the industry. For underneath this commercialism many companies also maintained a strong dedication to design and creativity. Indeed, as well as turning role-playing into a powerful and profitable industry, the licensed games also proved to be the platform for some great steps in the evolution of the gaming art.

The Big Four

The most prolific producers of licensed games was undoubtedly West End Games. They were also the best, with all of their games being both brilliant in their own right, and incredibly evocative of the source material. Some of their triumphs included Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the mighty Star Wars. Released in 1987 for the tenth anniversary of the trilogy, Star Wars is arguably the best licensed game ever created. It met with immediate success and is still wildly successful today. And its large support line and the rapidly approaching prequels means that it should continue to be so far into the future.

Star Wars used a simple D6-based system, which had originated from Ghostbusters, and eventually evolved into the award-winning generic system known as "D6". But well before that, WEG had already followed the well-established success of GURPS with their universal Masterbook rules. However, as well as running both of these as purely generic systems of which various settings and supplements could make use, WEG continued to publish these rules throughout their new products. Thus you had the choice of either buying the core rules and then adding on the settings you desired, or simply picking your game of choice and running with it. While this meant constantly reprinting the same rules, the combination of approaches was more flexible, and hence more marketable. Now, many of their releases contain stats for both rule systems, ever increasing their commerical coverage.

TMNT was looked at somewhat in this contribution to our Once Upon A Time column

A similar approach was taken by Palladium Games. They too used the same set of rules for all their games, which included TMNT, Robotech, Palladium Fantasy, and their rather impressive superhero effort, Heroes Unlimited. Like WEG, Palladium standardised their rules and applied them across the board. However, rather than then creating a generic set of rules to be used with any setting, they simply avoided that problem by creating a generic *world* which could be used with any setting! This was made possible by the combination of many dimensions, the links between which provided the game's name: RIFTS. Just like Masterbook and GURPS before it, this was followed up with a huge amount of supplements and hence was likewise a major success.

The power of the generic system was immense, because it allowed companies to diversify while still maintaining a monopoly. No longer did every new fad require its own rules, own game, and most likely, its own company. Now they could just be slotted into the common system of your favourite game, which meant it was much easier for players to get into them. And the increased familiarity players had with systems increased product loyalty. So with every new movie, TV series, or book, the market became stronger, rather than just more diverse.

It's no accident then that it was these three companies: Steve Jackson Games, West End Games and Palladium Games which stood on equal footing with TSR at the end of the decade. Despite being ten years younger, their use of the generic system to fully exploit the financial boom that was the golden age of role-playing allowed them to taste the same success of the market leader. TSR and SJ Games had started with a single product and added many layers to it, while WEG and Palladium had taken many products and forged them into one game, but the end result was the same: commercial presence to an unprecedented extent.

Have any comments on the History? Let us know!

In the ten years that was the golden age, the industry had increased ten-fold, from a tiny, artist-driven niche market to an immensely rich and powerful industry. All gaming companies now thought like businesses, and business was booming. And the financial strength translated directly into strength throughout the whole hobby; role-playing had well and truly established itself as a major leisure activity, right across the entire world. And it just kept growing. But this would never have happened without the contributions from these four visionary companies. Without these four games as the pillars, the colossus that is modern gaming could never have been erected.

Of course, this shift away from the single domination of TSR to a shared industry also changed the whole nature of the games we played. As mentioned at the beginning, the loss of the TSR monopoly caused a corresponding drop in the focus on fantasy. People were losing interest in the same old dungeon crawls in the same old pseudo-Tolkienish world. The new generation of gamer wanted to emulate heroes of an entirely different calibre. They wanted to be Wolverine, Batman or Luke Skywalker - larger-than-life superheroes, bursting straight from the screen or comic book. They also wanted this comic-style in their adventures too - loads of explosions, punch ups and cinematic, fast-paced action. Players began to give up chasing orcs down holes with 1D8 swords in favour of exploding 60' mechs with their 6D6 Psi-powered energy beams. The principle was the same, only the budget had increased!

But there was another side to the industry. People who thought that gaming should be so much more than just wham, bam, more experience. People who thought that gaming could be something akin to an art form. And people who thought that the new corporate mindset was destructive to these ideals. However, this mindset had been the driving force behind the golden age, the source of gaming's new strength. And it was this strength that made the industry more and more open for experimentation, and thus allowed their ideas to become reality. And slowly, in the background of the golden age, they were changing role-playing into something new and amazing. We'll look at these changes in the next installment.


Can't wait? Go on to The History of Roleplaying Part VI.

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