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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 IX: The End and The Beginning

The 1990s had brought great change to the industry. Vampire had captured the hearts and wallets of gamers and non-gamers alike, revolutionising the entire RPG marketing process. It was the first game since D&D to make such a big splash on the whole leisure market and became almost as famous. Therefore, like D&D, its approaches to design and play were copied ad nauseam, bringing in a revolution in content and conceptualisation for RPGs.

Late arrival to the history? Check out the back issues

But as equally powerful as this movement was the backlash against it. This brought in a movement of games that shifted the focus from "mature" dramatics to more action-based, "childlike" directions. The hobby split into two camps and both sides decried the other. Though reduced now, this bipartisanship is still common.

But while the industry bickered, a dark horse came along and stole both sides' markets and the limelight. It was something amazingly unique, which changed the entire world of gaming. Something so unbelievably popular and marketable, it seemed to create money from thin air. It was Magic...

Once upon a time, Richard Garfield was a simply a mathematician from New York with a knack for game design. He was designing a game to kill time spent lining up at conventions, when he had an idea:

"One of the birthplaces of Magic was spending a lot of time in game and hobby shops, and they often have comic books and trading cards. These cards were fascinating...[but] they always seemed frustrating to me, because it seemed like you should be able to do something with these things that looked so good and had such a nice theme...I just didn't see the point...if you could do something with them, like play a game, I thought that there'd be something special about the collecting part."

And so, in late 1993, the world was given its first Collectible Card Game, or CCG, Magic: The Gathering. Garfield's initial conception of the revolutionary nature of the idea was spot on:

"I thought it was a really cool game and if I wasn't mistaken, it could be a new genre, sort of like coming up with the first board game".

However, Garfield did not expect the game to become so popular so quickly. He also never expected the game to become so collectible, or for card values to skyrocket. His idea of the collectible aspect was very different:

"I certainly didn't expect anybody to collect a full would be a very hard thing to collect - it was deliberately made difficult because I thought it would increase the game value. I thought it was cool that as long as you played it there would always be things out there that you didn't know about. To see people turn that on its head and say 'we're just going to work toward everything' was shocking to me".

Garfield has named the old strategy game Cosmic Encounter as one of the biggest inspirations for Magic's design

Garfield may not have much connection with the collecting side of the game (he doesn't even own a full set himself), but it has made him quite wealthy. It did likewise for its publisher, Wizards of the Coast, which has become one of the biggest gaming companies ever thanks to Magic sales. Now in its sixth edition, Magic is still the forerunner of the CCG market, and has dozens of expansion sets. It is played worldwide by millions, and over 4 billion cards have been sold. Magic has tournaments and rankings both nationally and internationally, and card prices have reached into the thousands. As a gaming phenomenon, Magic is perhaps unmatched.

This was only the beginning. Something this immense immediately inspired a legion of imitators, with varying degrees of originality. Garfield himself went onto work on three other CCGs, including the very clever Netrunner. Like RPGs in the eighties, every single movie, TV show, comic or RPG had to have its own CCG. We had titles coming from Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, AD&D, Vampire, Werewolf, Call of Cthulhu, Middle Earth, Marvel comics, The Crow, Highlander, Hercules, Xena, James Bond and countless more. Two, Shadowfist and Legend of the Five Rings, went on to inspire RPGs, and some were designed to work as part of RPG systems. A few, such as Dragon Storm and Arcadia: The Wyld Hunt, even introduced roleplaying elements into their dynamics.

The collecting craze then inspired the Collectible Dice Game. TSR began with the ingenious wargame Dragon Dice, which was followed by a shorter line of clones, such as Dicemaster, Chaos Progenitus, and another Star Trek issue. However, the genre didn't really take off, and only Dragon Dice has maintained any presence.

CCGs proved more resilient, but they too have dropped in popularity. Almost all the games released in the rush of mid-nineties have disappeared into obscurity. Magic of course has stayed consistently popular, as have the more popular crossovers such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and there continues to be some strong newcomers. The genre will not quickly die out, but its commercial presence may disappear.

These new design ideas produced a renewed interest in doing things with cards and dice, and so inspired a rise in more standard game production. They also proved to be helpful in drawing new players into the hobby, but in the mid-nineties, many roleplayers could only see these newcomers as invaders. As CCGs stormed into the hobby, they quickly took up game sessions, clubs, conventions and shelf space normally devoted to roleplaying. Just as wargames were shouldered aside with the onset of roleplaying, it was our turn now to feel out-classed. But far worse than the loss of popularity was the loss of profits, for that, to many, spelt the destruction of the whole hobby.

No one is sure what caused the slump in the RPG industry. It is simplistic to pin all the blame on the rising tide of CCGs; yet this must have had a considerable effect, as the immense spending on cards directly limited spending on RPGs. Whatever the cause, in the mid-nineties, the RPG industry suffered a serious decline in sales. It was certainly not enough to spell the end of the industry, but it was a serious concern. A scapegoat was needed, and CCGs were the easiest.

A savage blow fell when Wizards of the Coast announced in 1996 that they were dropping their entire RPG line to concentrate purely on selling CCGs. Wizards at the time were carrying much-loved niche games like Ars Magica, Everway and SLA Industries; to some, this complete betrayal of their hobby was abhorrent, and provided the ultimate proof of the destructive potential of the invading cards. At that point, Wizards became the evil empire of the industry, even more despised than White Wolf.

However, even the greatest doomsayers and anti-CCGers could not have predicted what happened next. In 1997, TSR, the biggest, oldest and most venerated company of them all, went into bankruptcy. While some blamed this simply on poor business sense and over-extension of resources into too many different lines, it sent a chilling message to every player in the world. If AD&D could fall, anything could.

You can read Gary Gygax's view on the collapse of TSR here

West End Games, another giant, soon went the same way, and so was the nature of the times. Smaller companies collapsed, magazines stopped, shops were forced to focus extensively on CCGs to stay afloat. But this has slowly begun to turn around. Both TSR and West End have come back, and plenty of new lines and companies have sprung up of late. The industry is beginning to flourish once more.

But gamers learnt an important lesson from this. We knew it was hard to make money in the RPG industry, but had assumed that the big guns were secure. Indeed, quite often the bigger companies were criticised for their corporate status, the assumption being they cared more about marketing than creating good games. But now, the biggest and baddest of the corporations had fallen. This brought the harsh realities of the business side of the hobby into focus for all of us. We now have a greater awareness of the tribulations of running an RPG company, and thus a better appreciation for the workings of the hobby as a whole.

Last issue's Once Upon A Time looked at this attitude

The demise of TSR also led to a strong commercial push, with marketability (and thus survivability) becoming a chief consideration in producing games. Some games began using arcing plot-lines and highly detailed settings to make themselves strongly supplement dependant. In a few cases, gamers now no longer need to buy just one or two books, but must commit to a whole line to get the most out of their games. This is a move that has naturally brought criticism, but most games avoid going this far. And when this approach is tempered enough to allow gamers can pick and choose, it is actually very helpful to the industry. Now a successful game automatically leads to a successful line and thus a successful company, producing more games. As our shelves fill up with merchandise, the industry only gets stronger, which is always good.

However, the new approach can be prohibitive for newcomers and though it encourages product loyalty, it restricts variation and exploration. As the "would you like to know more?" approach becomes more common and criticisms of it become more vocal, the industry is perhaps developing another separatism. The effects of this are yet to be seen.

Another aspect of the corporate push was a renewed focus on commercial cross-overs. Although The Babylon Project failed to prove a great cash cow, the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG is having great success, and is giving a huge boost to the industry. This will intensify as it is followed by separate games for the other Trek incarntions. Other cross-overs like Hercules and Xena and Sailor Moon are also doing well.

Commercial tie-ins were examined in more detail in Issue Seven

There was also a rise of "retro" games, a return to the commercial successes of the past. GURPS redid old legends like Traveller and Bunnies and Burrows and smaller niche games have been re-released. TSR in particular looked back to classic adventures, creatures and supplements. This has intensified as both TSR and the hobby have turned 25, with releases of "silver anniversary products", including their most popular campaign ever, the Dragonlance Chronicles.

But new genres and ideas are also abounding. Games like Fading Suns, Alternity and Trinity have brought science fiction back into the limelight. Deadlands is the first Western RPG for twenty years, and has one of the most original settings ever. The world of Cthulhu was expanded immensely as Pagan Publishing gave us the modern Delta Green setting for the game, and Conspiracy X gave the X-Files generation there game of choice. These, along with Don't Look Back, rejuvenated horror gaming.

Noir got us roleplaying in the world of Sam Spade and Mickey Spillane. Steve Jackson Games took a brave step into the world of demons and angels with In Nomine. Dream Pod 9 kept the post-apocalyptic genre alive with Tribe 8. Impressive newcomer, AEG brought back the world of feudal Japan in Legend of the Five Rings and very recently pushed swashbuckling back into the limelight with 7th Sea. Not forgetting the impressively original Unknown Armies, which is like little else.

Gaming has also gone more international. The aforementioned In Nomine was based on a French game, as was Chaosium's Nephilim. Upcoming translations from the booming French industry include Bloodlust (from Hogshead) and Polaris (Pinnacle). Games from Scandinavia, Germany, Japan and Brazil are being talked about. This has led to a greater appreciation of non-American markets and ideas, which can only lead to better games.

Interestingly, more copies of RuneQuest 3rd edition were sold in France than anywhere else!

Meanwhile old standards like Steve Jackson Games, Chaosium, White Wolf and WotC/TSR continue to produce their high quality lines. New editions of Call of Cthulhu and Vampire have just been released, and GURPS lines continue to come at an amazing pace, the new Discworld being particularly popular. TSR continue to broaden and advance their lines, and have taken a huge leap in producing their first new rules system in almost twenty years. The SAGA system, appearing in the new Dragonlance: The Fifth Age and Marvel Superheroes, uses card mechanics and is nothing like AD&D. This was an impressively risky extension for TSR, but it has paid off.

Of course, the industry is still one ruled by marketing trends. The trend of the moment is a reprisal of superhero games, with a variety of companies trying their hand at capturing this market. TSR gave us Marvel, White Wolf's hot new item is Aberrant and Pinnacle has just released Brave New World. Mayfair has brought back DC Heroes in a new guise and West End Games regained the DC license, and will give us this RPG in August. But the inherent creativity of the industry is always resisting the trends of the times.

In many respects, the industry now is quite similar to how it was twenty years ago. Though still very much in the shadow of a major success, we have moved from simply copying Vampire to building around its strengths. We've reached a point where some of that building is crafting something totally fresh from this base. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a new golden age, and gaming is going to rise to previously unimagined heights in the next few years. We can only hope.

But what a decade this has been. We discovered that the evil empire of AD&D had feet of clay, and saw the evil empire of Wizards of the Coast prove just how much they like RPGs by resurrecting it. We saw the evil empire of White Wolf divide the hobby into destructive cliques, and at the same time raise it to great heights financially and artistically. We weathered the flak of financial troubles and CCG invasions and came out stronger.

From all this, we have learnt that there are no evil empires working against us, and that nothing, not even CCGs, that can spell the end of RPGs. Roleplaying is something beyond markets and trends, companies and rivalries, and will continue to exist no matter what our competitors or fortunes. If our history has taught us anything, it is that roleplaying is ever-changing but will never die, not even under religious crusades or financial ruin. Although we have come a long way since D&D, the essential concept is still the same, and is one that will endure.

And what a history we have. We've gone from the early days of D&D and T&T, to the revolution of RuneQuest, Cthulhu and Warhammer, through the commercial power of Champions, Star Wars, Dragonlance and RIFTS, to the modern era, with the serious drama of Wraith and the action-packed fun of Feng Shui. On the way, we've seen the brutal horror of Kult, the fluffy goodness of Fuzzy Heroes, the all-encompassing popularity of GURPS, the momentary brilliance of Skyrealms of Jorune, the subtle intelligence of Mage, the blatant stupidity of Macho Women with Guns, the offensiveness of HOL, the holiness of Dragonraid, the complexity of Rolemaster, the simplicity of FUDGE, the chaos of Toon, the precision of Pendragon, the awfulness of Synnibar and the genius of is a staggering parade of incredible achievements in entertainment. And all this in just twenty five years; we've only just begun.

On our 25th anniversary, it is a good time to look back at this history and be proud. And more importantly, to learn the lessons it has taught us. To really understand where we have come from, so to better understand the present, so we can see clearer when we look to our future.

Of course, when we look to the future, we should never forget we stand on the shoulders of giants. But it is far more important to remember that although our history is an incredible one, the future of roleplaying is going to be far more exciting.

If you have enjoyed the history, please let us know. And check out the author's comments on the History in the next article. Fans of ancient history are also directed to Justin Bacon's retrospective of Tekumel which is appearing on RPGNet.

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