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A 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 II: Re-Opening Pandora's Box

The Presses Roll

If you missed Part One of the history, check it out here

As the news spread of the kind of games Gygax and Arneson were playing, the two were inundated with requests for a definitive and complete set of rules. Tentatively, they took their idea to all the big gaming companies, only to be knocked back time and again. Finally in 1974 they decided to publish the game themselves, through Gygax's "basement" company, TSR.

It was "not a hot reception", Gygax later admitted. It took almost a year for the first 1000 copies to sell out. The second 1000 copies sold out in just under six months, and from there sales increased exponentially. By 1979, D&D was selling at 7000 copies a month, and today TSR are still the biggest RPG company in the world. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

In fact, the three booklet approach was copied so much it became the standard for the next five years!

The original edition borrowed Chainmail's form of three separate booklets, and a lot else besides. The rules were written for the gaming circles to which Gygax and Arneson belonged, and presumed a familiarity with the rules and style they were used to. For first time gamers, though, it could be confusing and frustrating: at one point the rules actually say "Combat (here) is conducted as in Chainmail". The spell system was incredibly vague, and the combat statistics tables were almost incomprehensible.

Suprisingly, though, this was to work in favour of the hobby rather than against them. This was for two reasons. Firstly, the impenetrable rules forced players to invent their own rules and interpretations, and to begin thinking about rules systems and their design. It was here that the future RPG designers were being born.

Secondly, players were focusing not on the game itself, but the idea behind the game. Though the rules were far from perfect, people recognised the potential of the new and incredible concept around which the game revolved. D&D is perhaps the first game that players purchased with the knowledge that at least half of the rules would have to be discarded or seriously altered.

The Great Pretenders

The focus on the idea rather than the game, and the need to rewrite the rules, led to every gaming group coming up with what was, basically, their own version of the game. Naturally, everyone wanted to share their "correct" version with the gaming community. It wasn't long before the world was being flooded with newsletters, fanzines and journals devoted to discussing the "best" ways to play the game.

A&E still exists, and you can find out more about it at its web-site here. Dragon's page can be found here.

Gygax and Arneson developed their own magazine, entitled The Dragon Rumbles. This eventually became The Dragon, and then just Dragon, as it is known today. Another big seller of the time was Alarums and Excursions. Although a fanzine, it has been around longer than Dragon, and has almost as large a readership. In a few years, D&D had generated more discussion, analysis, revision and reconstruction then any other game in history. It was only a matter of time before some of these gaming groups decided that, rather than send off their design to a magazine, they should publish it themselves.

D&D was criticised and critiqued for countless reasons, but most of the complaints fell under one of two banners. The game was either too complicated, or it was too simple.

The "too complicated" arguments focused on the rulebooks. Younger, non-wargaming players were crying out for something simple to learn, easy to play, and generally more FUN. They got all that, in spades, in Tunnels and Trolls.

Tunnels and Trolls (St Andre, 1975)

Legend has it that Ken St Andre, writer of Tunnels and Trolls (or T&T), actually came up with his idea of a role-playing game independently of Gygax and Arneson. He had even chosen a name similar to that of D&D, and was horrified to find, when he began to try and sell his game, that he had been resoundingly beaten to the punch.

The truth of this legend is debatable: certainly there are enough similarities between the games to suggest T&T was a second-generation product. Characters have six similar stats, plus a similar choice of classes and the settings and adventure formats are practically identical. However, T&T is noteworthy not in its similarities, but in its differences.

T&T also pioneered the "points-based" magic system, as opposed to D&D's "magic-battery" system.

For starters, the T&T rules used simple, six-sided dice rolls to handle almost everything. Although combat and magic used tables, they were well presented and the explanations were clear. Indeed, T&T's production values were superior all round to D&D's, as was its rules design. But possibly the chief delineating feature between the two was the attitude.

T&T was FUN. It was cute, it was silly, it was about running around with swords and spells and bashing things. The writing was up-beat, the rules fun to play, the setting was full of little jokes, every bit of the game was given a twist through St Andre's rather warped sense of humour. Spells had names like "Little Feets" and "Hidey Hole", and giant squirrels were your enemies.

D&D, of course, was quite the opposite. In the end, as the hobby and the players grew up, the fun aspects of T&T lost their appeal, and it faded into oblivion in the early eighties. T&T was however the first major competitor of D&D. Although it was always considerd "Number Two" (even by St Andre!), it did, for a time, give D&D a run for its money. Which is more than can be said of any other gaming system.

Meanwhile, another game was hitting the streets. The "too simple" arguments were aimed at the setting, not the rules. They were rightly complaining about the rather flimsy premise of fantasy heroes just walking into dungeons to kill things and get treasure. They were also asking for a more realistic background - a medieval world that actually felt medieval. They wanted realism, detail and complexity. They got it in Chivalry and Sorcery.

Chivalry and Sorcery (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1976)

C&S was recently re-released (the 3rd edition) by Highlander Designs.

Created by Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus in 1976, C&S still stands alone as the most complicated RPG ever designed. There is no denying it is realistic: the rules and the style are designed to recreate France in the late 12th century, rather than D&D's weak approximation of Tolkein's pseudo-medieval setting. In particular, they described not just a world, but a society: players had to fit their characters into a detailed feudal code complete with the nobles, serfs and the huge presence of the Catholic church.

And although the adventures still followed a similar format, C&S did throw away much of the conventions established by D&D - dungeon bashes gave way to overland quests, enemies were Vikings and Picts rather than mythical beasts and magic users had to actually study to get stronger.

The problem with C&S was that it tried to do too much. In trying to model all the things that D&D left out, it buried itself in its own unending mechanics. For example, players not only have to roll up eight attributes, but also race, age, sex, height, frame, alignment, horoscope, mental health, social class, birth order, family status and your father's occupation. On top of this there were just as many calculated statistics, and a vague skill system. And this just for character creation!

The game was not helped by the fact that the rules and dice rolls were also far more complex than D&D. Combat and magic both made use of ridiculously complex cross-referencing tables, and the skill system involved more dice rolls then a craps game.

Another major problem with C&S was that it tried to be too realistic. Clerics had to preach sermons, knights had to spend hours of play trying get enough money just to buy their swords, and playing a magic user required so much time and effort to collect ingredients, study spells and perform the rituals, that there was no time left to go adventuring.

C&S will also go down in history as the game which was first to use the term "Game Master".

C&S is an example of the problems which arise from too detailed a model. It was too long, and too detailed, and often left its players gasping in the wake of its intricacies and magnitude. But the idea of presenting a realistically detailed world as a setting was a good one, as was their idea of playing ordinary people who fitted into the society of that world, rather than badly stereotyped fairytale superheroes. Although this game also disappeared in the early eighties, these ideas continue to have influence throughout the history of RPGs.

The Empire Strikes Back

While all this was going on, there was one more game being played in the background, and although it never achieved the financial success of the above two, it would also have far reaching effects on the gaming industry. The game was called Empire of the Petal Throne (Barker, 1975), and it was designed by M. A. R. Barker.

From an early age, Barker was obsessed with two things: linguistics, and a fantasy world he created called Tekumel, and both his interests grew in complexity as he grew older. Barker went on to study linguistics at college, where he also put the finishing touches on his world, including a complete language for the main country, Tsolyanu. In fact, in the art of fantastical linguisitcs, Barker even surpasses the master, Tolkien.

Barker and Tolkien have many similarites, both in their works and their lives. So much so, that Barker has sometimes been referred to as the "Tolkien of role-playing".

So, there was Barker, with this incredible world in his head, and nothing to do with it, since he was not a writer. Twenty years after he had left Tekumel behind to concentrate on his studies, he found D&D. He immediately began work on his game, and it was the second RPG on the market.

In terms of setting, Petal Throne was everything D&D wasn't. There were no vague descriptions or medieval suggestions: Barker knew exactly what his world was like, to the finest detail, and all of it was in the rule-book. Gods, religions, rituals, governments, fashions, customs, habits and, most importantly, languages were laid down for every nation on the planet. And they weren't the gods, religions, etc of a Westernised, medieval world. Barker called on his experiences in India and Asia to create cultures incredibly savage and totally alien to the average American role-player.

This combination of so much detail about such an alien world was to provide one of the most engrossing campaign worlds ever designed. C&S was merely D&D with a finely detailed backdrop. Petal Throne was a game where the system and setting work together to produce a world that not only felt alive, but felt like you were living in it. The characters were wired into the power structure - religiously and politically - and the fortunes of these powers provided the backdrop for the adventures. Suddenly players weren't knights slaying dragons any more - they were Tsemels (warrior-cardinals) leading a holy war against their heretical neighbours. And with Barker's linguistic skill allowing players to speak a whole new langauge, playing the game actually felt like being there.

Due to Barker's intimate knowledge of the world, and the small number of groups playing the game, Barker was able to adjust and update his world based on the actions of groups throughout the US!

If Petal Throne had stayed popular, we would not have had to wait another fifteen years for the wonderfully deep worlds we are seeing produced nowadays, such as the World of Darkness. It did not, however, stay popular, as its great strength - its presence - was also its downfall. Barker's world was just too damn complex and powerful for most gamers to handle. GMs could not really adjust the world to suit their style of gaming without robbing Tekumel of its unique flavour. Indeed, it was said that the only person who could GM Petal Throne correctly was Barker himself. Likewise, the players had to know Tekumel very intimately before they could role-play decently in the strange other world. Too often, it just went over everyone's heads, and so Empire of the Petal Throne also vanished rather quickly.

So none of the three great pretenders managed to outlast, or even outdo, the original Dungeons and Dragons. Yet all are interesting, because between them, they illustrated the future of the hobby. In comparing T&T and C&S we can see the beginnings of one of the eternal struggle of role-playing rule systems: that of complexity versus approachability, detail versus playability and modelling reality versus sheer enjoyment. And in examining Petal Throne we can see also the intrenchant problems in settings: creating a strong, detailed world that allows sufficient immersion, yet is still accessible and malleable enough for everyone to enjoy.

Each game was also revolutionary in its own right, bringing fantastic new ideas to the game in an incredibly short space of time, ideas that would later form the backbone of the industry. Though they themselves died out, the leaps they made in a few years would help bring RPGs from a limp wargame spin-off to something approaching an art form. But we're getting ahead of ourselves again.

Runequest will be discussed in the third installment of this history, so be sure to check it out in our next issue. Don't forget to register so we can tell you when it comes out!

The later Runequest was dedicated to "Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, who first opened Pandora's Box, and to Ken St Andre, who found it could be opened again." This sums up rather well the final contribution these games were to make on RPG history. Simply by existing, by being made, bought and played, they were proving that role-playing was more than just D&D, and that this new concept was something that was above brand names, it was something that would last, something that was revolutionary, something that was good.


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

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