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The History of RolePlaying

by Steve Darlington

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


Part VII: New Ways to Play

With the commercial success the RPG industry enjoyed in the eighties went a similar boost throughout the entire spectrum of gaming. The rise of different types of gaming did not split the hobby into divisive cliques, but strengthened and enlarged it into a powerful industry. The new drawcard of roleplaying infected every other game, meshing the different arenas, until chess sets and RPGs were being sold side by side. Thus the history of the rest of the industry must be a part of any history of roleplaying. And like role-playing, in the eighties they found many new ways to play.

The biggest name in gaming was and is Games Workshop. They no longer produce RPGs, but they once dominated all aspects of the hobby, particularly in England. Today, with stores around the world, they are the biggest success story of the hobby.

GW began when three flatmates scraped up fifty pounds each to start their own boardgame company. The designer was John Peake, his two partners Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson; two men who became synonymous with British gaming.

Note that this is not the Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games. He's a completely different Steve Jackson.

To complement their company, Livingstone started a magazine called Owl and Weasel. In 1977, they changed this to White Dwarf, under which title it is the preeminent magazine for wargaming to this day. The same year they met renowned sculptor Bryan Ansell and formed Citadel Miniatures. In 1979, they became the sole suppliers of D&D in England, and based on the runaway success of this and their new fantasy wargame Warhammer, the company bloomed. By the early eighties they were a firm part of the subculture, running conventions and opening stores. But there was still something else to come from GW.

In 1981, Jackson and Livingstone published the very first Fighting Fantasy Game Book. Entitled The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it was an ingenious attempt to write a solo roleplaying experience in a novel form. Combat and other such physical actions were handled with a simple roll of 2D6; the outcome of this and various other choices you made were resolved by turning to the right section of prose. This idea was so popular it sparked innumerable copycats, and this genre remains very popular among younger readers.

But in 1981, it was new and its success was far beyond its creators' dreams. The initial print run sold out in less than 3 weeks. In 1983, Warlock and its two sequels, Citadel of Chaos and Forest of Doom, were numbers 1, 2 and 3 on a Britain-wide reading survey. More than 30 books in the series have been published since. It was said that Jackson and Livingstone had reintroduced reading as a past-time for young males, estimating that millions of teenagers world-wide devoured their books.

Issue Five's Once Upon A Time looked back fondly on these sorts of books

Among these, thousands of gamers were being born. For despite their limitations, the books were very much entrenched in the roleplaying mindset. Indeed, it was the limitations of these books that encouraged gamers to look for less restricted methods of getting the same experience. In later books published under the same label, simple RPG systems were sketched out, enabling readers to cross over without effort. Thus these books are responsible for introducing more people to roleplaying than any other product.

Jackson and Livingstone can't take credit for that alone, however. Many others made their own outstanding contributions to the genre. Chief among these is Joe Dever, whose Lone Wolf series was equally as popular as Fighting Fantasy. Dever also published well over 30 books and won many awards for them.

A few years later, Games Workshop found another way to introduce people to roleplaying when they released the boardgame Talisman. Again, it was both very popular and heavily influenced by roleplaying, especially D&D, and kicked off a small boom in boardgames. More and more games appeared that brought roleplaying elements to the board, sometimes to the point where the two games were almost indistinguishable.

These included an official AD&D game, DungeonQuest from GW and the hugely successful HeroQuest from M&S games. Designed by Steve Baker, this used a 3D board with cardboard walls and doors to simulate a dungeon, and had one player running the game as a GM would. HeroQuest was one of the first of these games to be sold in regular toy shops and chain stores. This was then another powerful force in attracting roleplayers, and in return, the touch of roleplaying gave the boardgame industry a new and profitable dimension.

There were still more avenues to explore, however. In the eighties, the world was finding a brand new way to play games. It was the dawn of the age of the microcomputer.

Computer games have existed as long as computers, but history attributes the very first adventure game, one involving some attempt at a story-telling dimension, to messers Crowther and Woods. Called Adventure, it was coded in Fortran on a mainframe in 1979. It had a simple text-based command interface, and had the player moving through a "dungeon" environment, finding objects and fighting creatures. From one point of view, not much has changed.

Last issue we looked more at computers and roleplaying

From another, almost everything has. In the last twenty years, the information revolution has given us graphics, speed, complexity and intelligence almost beyond imagination. Though this hasn't always led to revolutionary jumps in terms of gameplay and design, it has changed how we think about games. Possibilities like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are providing new arenas to explore, and more and more people are looking to computers for leisure. In fact, after the movie industry, computer games represent the richest entertainment industry in the world.

And again, this has proved great news for the gaming industry in general, and in particular roleplaying. For it has very often been the RPG-inspired adventure games that have been standard bearers for the new technology - and even sometimes the inspiration for it, as designers have constantly sought ways to better model the free-form freedom of roleplaying. For example, the adventure genre was popularised by D&D-esque games such as the Zork series, The Bard's Tale series, and the Kings Quest series, which made Sierra a household name. Later, Sierra even tried it's hand at roleplaying with their "So You Want To Be A Hero" games.

One of the most popular computer RPGs, and one whose long history has traced almost the entire history of computer games, is the awesome Ultima series. Ultima 1 was released in black and white in 1980, and was followed by seven sequels, each game making use of the cutting edge technology at its time. That count doesn't include the two Ultima Underworld games, which replaced the standard top-down view with the then-revolutionary 3D-perspective view. Recently, Ultima has crossed over into the world of online gaming, which we'll look at further below.

But in 1988, a game came along that blew Ultima out of the water, that changed the face of gaming, and made its maker a legend. The company was Strategic Simulations Incorporated (SSI), and the game was Heroes of the Lance.

The setting was torn straight from the pages of TSR's phenomenally successful Dragonlance series, complete with all your favourite characters. What really made the difference, though, was that the gameplay was a close model of an AD&D game. You controlled a group of eight PCs, all with identifiable AD&D features such as spells, hit points and THACOs. You guided these characters through a huge dungeon crawl, replete with monsters, traps and treasure. It managed to recreate the buzz of roleplaying amazingly well, and thus was an intoxicating experience, and a huge milestone in computer gaming and roleplaying.

For more on Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, why not check out Part 4 of the History?

In the same year, SSI released Pools of Radiance. This was set in the equally popular Forgotten Realms setting, and also managed to capture much of the ethos of AD&D. Pools went much further though, with gameplay almost equivalent to the RPG. You rolled your characters' attributes, chose a class and a name, bought equipment, and then went adventuring, gaining experience and levels with each victory. All this was modelled just as it was in the RPG. Combat worked exactly the same too: no arcade button-pushing, just a roll against THACO, and then a damage roll for your weapon. Only here, the computer rolled the dice for you, and you could concentrate on bashing things.

Pools of Radiance thus did the impossible: it improved on Heroes of the Lance, being even more entertaining and bringing roleplaying to the computer at an unprecedented level.

SSI made a great many games in this vein, and were very successful, but no other company followed suit with other RPGs. However, some of the ideas in the gameplay - such as creating characters and the mixing of adventure and strategy - again trickled into other games, and likewise with fantasy worlds. Other parts of the subculture were keyed in too - authors like Raymond E. Fiest, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams have written games. Once again, the touch of roleplaying strengthened the surrounding industry.

As computer games go ever further, it is very often that the latest advance is strongly connected to roleplaying. Two notaries of late are Fallout, and Thief: The Dark Project. These boast non-linear plot lines, complete with sub-plots and multiple endings, independent NPCs and highly interactive environments. And in the future, who knows what amazing feats computers will be able to produce?

Fallout 2 has just been released from Interplay

The effect of the information revolution on gaming did not stop there. It also gave us the internet, and like so many advances in technology, it was almost immediately used for entertainment. Play By Mail became Play By Email. Strategy games could be played head to head online. And the adventure game gave birth to the MUD.

MUD, or Mutli-User Dungeon, is a generic term for simultaneous online roleplaying. The internet-chat environment adds an important social element to the adventure game, and thus is arguably closer to "real" roleplaying. MUDs are also known as MUGs (multi-user games), MUSHs (...shared hallucinations) and MOOs (indicating an Object-Orientated approach) but MUD is the term which has stuck. This is an impressive homage to its source - the eponymous first MUD.

In 1979, computer students Roy Turbshaw and Richard Bartle discovered the aforementioned "Adventure". They liked the idea, but wanted to have multiple players, and so came the Multi-User Dungeon. After college, Bartle went commercial with the game. The popularity soon proved too much, and a larger version, MUD II, had to be designed. By 1989, MUD II had over 2000 players, an impressive figure given that the internet was still very much unheard of.

With the growth of the internet, MUDs have proliferated to the point of omnipresence. Some are free, some very expensive, some use graphics, some text, and they run the gamut of all genres, settings and styles. However, these countless MUDs are linked by many elements of the original MUD design which persist as common practice - such as calling the top-level designers "wizards", and an experience system allowing players to work their way up to this position.

Looking for a MUD? Try The Mud Connector

The biggest MUD at the moment is Ultima Online. Though criticised for being poorly designed and full of disruptive player-killers, it has proved very successful. And again, it is a good introduction for computer gamers into the world of roleplaying. Indeed, MUDs are so ubiquitous now they are being played by a number of people who would never roleplay otherwise. The MUD's potential for inducting new roleplayers and for exploring new frontiers of gaming make it very much the gaming arena of the future.

MUDs owe much of their current popularity to the groundwork done by their one-time contemporary, F.I.S.T. Fantasy Interactive Scenario by Telephone was an idea concocted by Steve Jackson from GW: simply a recorded Fighting Fantasy novel, with the player choosing their actions at each juncture by pressing a button on their phone. Combat was also handled by the pressing of buttons, and accompanied with appropriate clangs of steel on the line - and the cold certainty of a dial tone should you perish! The recordings featured some professional actors and very realistic sound, and the ability to save your character meant you could play whenever you had a few moments to make a phone call.

By the time FIST 2 arrived, there were a few copies springing up to compete: Dever's "Lone Wolf Phone Quest" and "Dial Dr Dark". However, the price proved a deterrent, and as MUDs became more popular, phone gaming vanished into obscurity. Though it only existed for a few years, and was only really popular in Britain, this method is an important and interesting part of the hobby's history that is too often forgotten.

Phone gaming also showed the strength of the entire industry. By the end of the eighties, it was successful enough to allow designers to produce and market whatever new idea they conceived, for there was always going to be a subculture to support it. More importantly, the industry was successful enough not to be bothered if the game didn't sell; no longer were companies or designers rising and falling on the backs of one product.

Don't miss the final conclusion of the history - subscribe now - it's free!

In fact, the general gaming industry was so successful that soon it would threaten the market for RPGs. As we'll see in the next and final installment, this would signal the end of the Golden Age of roleplaying, but for whole hobby of gaming, it has only just begun. In the whole of history, the presence and power of the industry and the spirit of creativty and exploration of design has never been as high as right now. And as technology moves ever forward, we know we will find more and more new ways to play.


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

Steve Darlington somehow manages to balance holding down a full time job, holding together the magazine and holding on to the last shreds of his sanity. He likes free time and dreaming about having some of it. He thinks Paranoia is the best game in the universe, and that statistics is more interesting than people think.

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