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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 nine parts.


Part VIII: Dark Times

At last, it was the 1990s. Thanks to the golden age of the eighties, roleplaying had reached incredible heights, both as a powerful young industry and a new form of creative expression. Nevertheless, as time went on, things were beginning to stagnate. The super-powered cinematic stylings were being copied ad nauseam and quality was dropping. A new idea was needed to burst the industry's obsession with this glossy, four-colour world. A world of darkness, perhaps...

The beginning of the "dark" movement in roleplaying begins a bit further back, however. In 1984, William Gibson revolutionised science fiction with Neuromancer and it did not take long for roleplaying games to embrace this dark vision of the future. 1988 saw R.Talsorian Games' Cyberpunk 2020, FASA's Shadowrun followed the next year and there were many others. Shadowrun was particularly inventive, seamlessly adding fantasy trappings like magic, elves and dragons to the futuristic world. Shadowrun's dice pooling system leant towards more cinematic action and more powerful characters, a fact that probably explains much of its greater success. Thanks to a steady stream of high-quality support, Shadowrun has effectively outlasted most of its competitors and the third edition was released last year.

Special note should also go to GURPS CyperPunk, which, legends say, was confiscated in a Secret Service raid on the GURPS office, because it was thought to be "a handbook for computer crime". The truth is that the raid was prompted by an investigation on the private actions of one of their employees. No evidence was found, but the Secret Service operatives still confiscated many documents, files, even whole computers, which caused grave financial problems for SJG. When going through all this material, the Cyberpunk manuscript caught their attention and misunderstood. For reasons unknown - but perhaps to have some excuse for the original raid - the book attracted a lot of criticism, including the above crime, and the SS did try to suppress its release later on. However, this is most likely due to bureaucratic inertia than any real belief in the game's nefarious potential.

Cyberpunk soon inspired Steampunk, which shifts the same dark themes to a world of Victorian Europe, with an out-of-control and much further advanced industrial revolution replacing the computer revolution of its modern cousin. Again, RPGs were quick to follow, although not in quite as many numbers. Probably the best example of Steampunk is the very gritty Space: 1889. Those enamoured of the more picaresque aspects of Victorianism were provided with Castle Falkenstein. This, like Shadowrun, added magic to the mix featuring some charming card-based mechanics and a clever character generation system that begins with developing a diary for your character.

Both cyberpunk and steampunk games have oscillated in popularity ever since but have never really risen above niche genres. They have, however, paved the way for a whole new type of gaming.

At GenCon in 1991, Mark Rein-Hagen unveiled a game that changed the hobby forever, and a company that would get rich from it. The game was Vampire: The Masquerade and the company was White Wolf. Rein-Hagen had previously worked on Ars Magica and he brought some of his impressive ideas of epic story telling to this game. However Vampire was much more than that. It captured the unearthly horror of Cthulhu, the gritty, paranoid, dark edge of cyberpunk, plus it featured super-powered unearthly heroes which were still the popular trend. What's more, it tapped directly into the Gothic subculture.

Arriving when things like The Crow, Interview with a Vampire and The Dark Knight Returns were pushing Gothic media into the limelight, Vampire caught a wave of popularity and rode it all the way. It was quickly very popular across the hobby, but was even more impressive to outsiders. Because it was directly drawn from a burgeoning new culture, Vampire drew more new players to the hobby than even Star Wars had done.

Vampire was so popular it inspired four thematically similar copies: Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith: The Oblivion and Changeling: The Dreaming; all of which make up the "World of Darkness". Each of these games matched Vampire in their dark dramatic edge, and in their incredibly deep settings. These games also produced a huge amount of supplements, looking at the character types, identities, settings, internal politics, history and ethos of each game. Only AD&D (and possibly GURPS) can claim to have more support material.

Vampire can also claim something else that previously only AD&D could: the two are the only RPGs to have inspired television shows. D&D, of course, produced the horrendously childish Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series. Vampire, on the other hand, inspired the Spelling studios' prime time, high-gloss Melrose Place-esque "Kindred: The Embraced". Despite its more mature approach, it was as badly done as the cartoon and the reaction was exactly the same from gamers: they hated it. The show was cancelled after only a handful of episodes. However, the fact that the idea existed at all proves how incredibly popular and marketable Vampire had become and how its connection with the Gothic subculture had catapulted roleplaying somewhat into the mainstream. It was an important step in the history of the hobby.

Vampire has also opened up a whole new arena for roleplaying. Before Vampire, roleplaying genres could be divided into fantasy, science fiction, superhero, and a tiny fraction devoted to horror. After Vampire, "gothic punk" was forever part of that list. After the success of the WoD games was witnessed, companies fell over themselves to get into the act. Games like Witchcraft, Nephilim, In Nomine, Nightbane, Warlock, Immortal, Armageddon, Trinity, The Everlasting, The Whispering Vault and lately, Unknown Armies, all owe something to Vampire. Of course, Vampire also owes a lot to its darkly horrific forerunners like Chill, Kult and Blood.

It wasn't just Vampire's setting that was popular. Possibly Vampire's greatest contribution to the hobby (and yet, also its most destructive, as we shall see later) was that its popularity encouraged many to copy its rules and style as well as its setting. This caused another minor revolution in the hobby. Vampire's rules were ingenious, elegant and fairly simple (apart from the convoluted combat system), with everything astutely tailored to producing a strong atmosphere and an affecting game. Vampire was reminiscent of the earlier Pendragon in its bringing of pathos and emotion to its characters and its stories. Vampire also furthered Ars Magica's concentration on deep and lengthy character play. What really set it apart was the hugely detailed background material, to rival that of Tekumel or Glorantha, and for the first time, this was more important than the rules.

None of these ideas was revolutionary on their own, but being presented in this slick, highly marketable package made these ideas take off like wildfire. Games with confused, over complex or poorly realised rules and concepts were no longer tolerated. Likewise, for a game to sell, its production values had to be professional: writing, editing, layout, and most especially, artwork became forefront considerations. Such things had once been incidental, with early rulebooks often all but trading on their incomprehensibility.

However, this emphasis on style over substance had the natural effect of reducing substance somewhat. The World of Darkness games are particularly guilty of this; while every book of theirs is a work of visual art, this is often not matched with equal attention to quality in the actual content and rules.

Another criticism directed at these games is their devotion to setting. Again, this is an area in which they excel. The World of Darkness is an incredibly evocative world, rich with detail and dramatic power, from which infinitely many powerful stories can be constructed. However, just like Barker's Tekumel or Stafford's Glorantha, it is its very evocativeness that restricts it. To play the game properly requires a complete immersion in the paradigm and argot of this alien world, something not easy and unattractive for beginners. White Wolf provided for this somewhat with a great deal of source material, but this has also made things worse as these copious new lines have only deepened the complexities of the setting.

On its own, these flaws would not be a problem, but as these ideas have spread through an industry anxious to copy White Wolf's successes, they have become standards. Vampire has given us the age of the setting, an age very much still with us. Once, games all had the same setting, and the style of the rules was all that matters. After Vampire, a game will not sell unless it has a deep and evocative setting. A setting full of complex political interplay and powerful mythic sensibilities, one that can be presented with suitably impressive artistic stylings, and most importantly, one that is going to produce endless sourcebooks to explain all of it.

While this age has produced some incredible new worlds and has furthered greatly some aspects of RPG design, it has also been somewhat destructive to the pursuit of better system design and to the industry in general. The idea that gaming has to be of this style marginalised other styles. However, an even greater maginalisation came from another of White Wolf's emphases.

Vampire brought in an era of "serious" gaming. Flowing naturally from the devotion required to properly evoke the setting was the idea that roleplaying should be a form of collaborative art, with the players and the GM creating a story, told to someone not present. Again, this was a fabulous idea that opened roleplaying up onto a whole new level. But again, as it was copied, it caused problems because it became accepted as the only way to roleplay. RPGs were judged purely on their dramatic storytelling potential, hack-and-slash gaming became a derogatory term.

What was worse was that White Wolf made it overtly clear that they thoroughly believed this idea. A sense of superiority, even arrogance, came from their products, issuing ludicrous claims of elevating all RPGs from childishness and of saving the hobby from itself. This created a huge backlash against White Wolf by those who didn't happen to agree. The catch-cry was that games were meant to be fun, not serious. White Wolf then took the position of evil empire away from TSR, becoming the target for countless parodies and insults.

This backlash led to a new movement in game design, with gamers looking back to the simplistic fun of butt-kicking that was so popular in the eighties. The cry for simplicity did not just extend to the setting, however. In an attempt to divulge all nuances of depth and complexity, a new wave of rules-light games hit the market. In the eighties, the popular mode was great tomes full of complex rules covering every possible aspect of combat. Now, what mattered was quick and dirty rules that allowed players to forget their calculators and get back to mowing down mooks and punks.

For the action movie freaks, we had the clever Hong Kong Action Theatre and the gung-ho Extreme Vengeance. Anime inspirations gave us Bubblegum Crisis and Big Eyes, Small Mouth. The classic superhero game Champions was stripped down to use the simpler Fuzion system. GURPS also issued a "lite" version of its rules, and other companies followed. But the king of all the four-colour action games was and is Feng Shui. Developed by Robin D. Laws, this has a system that is both simple yet robust. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of Asian action movies, going out of its way to encourage players to do death-defying stunts. Also, it provides a well thought-out background which has enough depth to maintain campaign play, something very few action games can boast.

Wargame crossovers came back in too, with titles such as Heavy Gear and Warzone getting the mix just right. We also had the brilliant satire games of HOL and Macho Women with Guns. These pointedly celebrated the hack-and-slash mindset and poked fun at RPG rules in general. They were the more violent equivalent of Toon, stripping away everything accepted about gaming and getting back to killing things. Although only recently very popular, Jolly Blackburn's comic strip "Knights of the Dinner Table", which similarly celebrate this style of play, also arose in this era.

Another game that stripped away the rules was Over the Edge. Set on a psycho-surreal island where every conspiracy theory possible is true, a free-form rules system is a necessity. OTE thus threw almost all the rules out the window, with players making up their characters stat names and skills to fit whomever they wanted to be. This idea is closer to the new trend in "metagmes" - design engines rather than complete rules - of which the most notable is the revolutionary FUDGE (Freeform Universal Do-it-yourself Gaming Engine).

The new Unknown Armies is a perfect expression of the hobby as it is now, as a result of these two movements. It combines the dark, "mature" and complex background of Vampire with the four-colour Hollywood action of Feng Shui, and similarly tries to blend dramatic storytelling with plenty of gunplay and furious fistfights. It also adds the fluid rules of Over the Edge, throws in some of the cleverness of Call of Cthulhu, along with its own unique setting and rules. Though undenibaly original, it is also very obviously a product of the times, the culmination of all the persistent trends.

Inevitably, this "fun" attitude became as equally narrowed and emphatic as its inspiration, and hence equally as destructive. For the first time, the hobby became divided into two distinct cliques, each of which hated the other. And so when the hobby seemed to be going down forever, and a new competitor moved in, each was quick to blame the other. We'll look at this more in the (definitely this time) final chapter.

Gaming had also done a complete circle. In the eighties, the complex, rules-heavy games had been those most concerned with superheroic hack and slash fun. While the more cerebral and serious games were throwing away complexity and rules as the antithesis of dramatic roleplay. This past reversal proves the short-sightedness of this modern division. And yet the hobby continues to too often follow trends, cloning successful innovations ad nauseam and constricting creativity and exploration. These ideas continue to determine the directions of the industry, with a game's format being proscribed solely by the marketing niche it has to fill.

The truth is that form, style and system are as much a matter of personal taste as setting. Even the very purpose and nature of roleplaying games is so varying as to be practically indefinable. Whether we engage in wargame-esque orc-killing dungeon crawls, or try to create a "mature" and dark story-telling forum, or anywhere in between, we're still roleplaying. There are a million ways to play, and no one form is in any way superior to others.

Roleplaying is an amazing idea, and it can't be put into little boxes or measured against an arbitrary standard. And for that matter, neither can gamers.


Can't wait? Go on to the final installment of the History of Roleplaying.

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