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The History of Role-Playing
Part VI: Revolution!

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.


Role-playing is an intrinsically creative hobby, and it is constantly evolving. As such, it is hard to label any one era as revolutionary. But in the mid-eighties, there came a spate of games in quick succession, each of which not only added an unprecedented amount of new ideas but also threw away much of established tradition. Each was revolutionary in its own right, and each formed an important step in transforming roleplaying into what it is today.

But as well as being revolutionary, each of these games was also brilliant. In fact, they include some of the greatest examples of the hobby ever made, games that represent the epitome of design, and evoke the most powerful fantasies. It was here that the pinnacle of the gaming art was flourishing, and that is why this era can be called a true Golden Age.

The best example, and indeed one of the best examples of roleplaying, is the legendary Call of Cthulhu. Released in 1981, its genius and importance in the history of roleplaying cannot be over-emphasised.

  Call of Cthulhu version 5.5 has just been released by Chaosium

The world of Cthulhu comes from a series of deeply horrifying short stories written by H.P. Lovecraft at the beginning of this century. These stories center around the Old Ones, ancient and god-like aliens (of which Cthulhu is one) who exist just beyond the scientific world of post-Victorian New England. Lovecraft developed his ideas into a detailed and frighteningly realistic universe, now called the Cthulhu Mythos.

It was a fantastic setting for an RPG, but in the early eighties, the idea was ridiculous. Most RPGs at that time involved players chasing down monsters or supervillians, and then disposing of them in bloody combat. But if the game was to be true to the stories, it would need to ask players to shift their activities from monster hunts to investigation and research, and to face horrific monsters that were invincible no matter how many hit points you had. Such a revolutionary story paradigm required a revolutionary system, not just another AD&D clone.

  Issue 3 contained more on RuneQuest

In 1979, RuneQuest had set new standards in game design, and on its strength of sales, the game's creators formed the company Chaosium. It was later Chaosium staff member Sandy Petersen who decided to tackle turning Cthulhu into a game.

They used RuneQuest as a basis, but they took it further. Being made in 1979, RuneQuest's rules suffered from too much detail and being dice-heavy, particularly in combat. In retooling it for the less violent Cthulhu, much of this complexity was removed. This simplification was applied throughout, with everything skimmed down to a uniform percentile system. These new rules retained RuneQuest's charm and realism, but were now far easier to learn and use, yet still robust enough to handle a variety of complex actions. CoC's rules balance the needs of both game and story in a way that has arguably never been beaten.

Likewise, there has never been a more invisible system, one designed to encourage roleplaying by quickly fading into the background when not needed. For that was one of the key differences with Call of Cthulhu - here the rules weren't treated as necessary to simulate a setting accurately, but rather as a tool for telling stories, a part of the GM arsenal that should be used as and when the game called for it. Along with this, CoC was the first RPG book to explain how to run an effective game, explaining not just the rules and how to adjudicate them, but how to make use of the other tools of the GM.

This was necessary, because the real revolutionary step in CoC was that they succeeded in their goal. That is, they wrote a game which would enable you to recreate Lovecraft's stories, in all their intrigue and terror. And since, compared to Tolkien, Lovecraft was unknown, there was no implicit understanding of the kind of stories that should be told - the ethos had to come solely from the rules and system itself.

To do this, they had to be completely true to the stories, and that meant throwing away so much of established gaming tradition. It was pointedly literate and distinctly intelligent, focusing on character interaction over combat, slow-paced investigation over dungeoncrawling, and role-playing over roll-playing.

Such changes may not seem so revolutionary now, but it should be remembered that roleplaying was very different then. After the growth spurt of the 70's, the hobby had acquired a niche, and as its commercial power grew, no-one was willing to step out of this mindset for fear of losing sales. Six years after the release of CoC, Avalon Hill made the addition of halflings to the RuneQuest world a condition on their publishing the third edition of the game, simply because halflings made money. In its time, CoC broke every rule in the book.

Also in 1981, Fantasy Games Unlimited made similar steps as CoC, in two unique games. Aftermath presented for once a more realistically bleak post-apocalyptic world, and reinforced it with equally brutal rules. Players were still pretty powerful and the games were very combat-oriented, but here you were battling for food, or shelter, or just to stay alive. The rules made the players have to fight every step of the way, with equipment, allies and safe ground all very scarce.

Meanwhile, Bushido gave a enthralling and realistic view of roleplaying in Feudal Japan. The historic setting was reinforced throughout, from mechanics, to NPCs, to adventure archetypes, with extensive use of Japanese names encouraging the feel of things. Even more powerful, though, was the tweaking of the experience system, such that it required players to act in ways suitable of their class and standing in the Nippon society. A Gakusho (priest) needed On (honour) to become master of a temple, something you couldn't just earn from killing a dragon.

But these types of games represent only one of the new paths being paved in the hobby. Another type of game was going a completely different new way - they were going nuts.

  Discover for yourself the Four Types of Gamers

Those familiar with the Four Types of Gamers will know what a Loony gamer is: the kind of gamer who will do anything for a laugh, even setting of a fireball at ground zero. If the Loonies have a leader, it is Greg Costikyan. It was this flippancy about all the things that other gamers took so seriously that allowed him to throw away convention and write revolutionary games.

  Costikyan wrote the bible on Loony gaming in his first printed article, Flippancy in FRP

He began with Toon (West End Games, 1984), an idea even crazier than Cthulhu: an RPG set in the universe (and mindset) of Warner Brothers-type cartoons, complete with falling anvils. And like Cthulhu, it somehow succeeded in communicating this universe, with the text and rules enabling PCs to start thinking like a toon. Not that there were many rules, and those that existed were incredibly basic, wonderfully silly and necessarily, quite loose. Thus Toon was also one of the first free-form, rules-light games, another revolutionary step.

But the real revolution was again in the setting - how could you role-play in a world where death was non-existent, where reality was variable, where slapstick humour was the only constant? Like Cthulhu before it, this threw away every previous convention in roleplaying - even basic things like overcoming odds to get a reward, and telling a logical, progressive narrative. In this game, absolutely nothing mattered except making people laugh. Though humour games are now more popular, none are as down-right insane, nor as much free-wheeling fun to play.

Even more legendary when it comes to lunacy was Costikyan's next game, Paranoia. Made with Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg, and released the same year as Toon, Paranoia also turned the game world on its head. In its Orwellian futuristic society called Alpha Complex, death is meaningless (again) because each player has several clones of herself in case one is damaged. You need them, though, for the PCs are special agents of the Big Brother-esque Computer, chosen to undertake the most dangerous task of rooting out traitors. Traitors include those with mutant powers, those who are members of secret societies, and anyone who looks at you funny. Unfortunately, each PC has a mutant power, is a member of a secret society, and is surrounded by people with exactly the same orders, and very powerful weapons.

Paranoia plays this frightening world for laughs, hamming up the dark patches to produce a game as funny as Toon, but also more subtle and with a dash of political satire. And Paranoia is still the only game that is based solely on the PCs working against each other. The rules were again perfectly suited to recreate the paranoia of the society, and to encourage fast and fiery deaths - er, play. Like Cthulhu, Paranoia is a pinnacle in the history, a game of unmatched brilliance.

  Greg has all his games and writings displayed on his website

Costikyan went on to design (with Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen from Chaosium) Ghostbusters, which kept up the standards in both humour and great design. The simple but powerful D6 system it used would be refined for Costikyan's more serious but equally smooth Star Wars, which was covered previously. But Costikyan wasn't the only one leading the charge.

Greg Stafford had already epitomised gaming in 1979 with RuneQuest. He did it again in 1984 with Pendragon. Like all the games above, Pendragon blended rules and setting to produce a game that strongly communicated the entrancing stories of Arthurian legend. But Pendragon took this further than any previous game, to the point of perfection. Every detail of the game is completely centred in the ethos, such that the players get completely absorbed, and actually begin to think like knights of the Round Table.

Pendragon also forced the emphasis towards role-playing, by wiring personality traits and history into characters, and making such things just as important as combat statistics. Pendragon also rocked the hobby with its idea of long term play. Characters in Pendragon age considerably: if played as suggested on a weekly basis, players could find their alter egos aging forty or fifty years in a year of play. This ingenious device requires characters to have a life outside of adventuring, and to grow and develop as people, thus making them more dramatic and more real to the players.

Ars Magica (Lion Rampant, 1985) also used this idea of the passage of time very well, but with its own twist. Ars Magica casts the players as highly powerful mages in an intensely real version of the Middle Ages. The mages are so powerful, however, they have to be balanced as limited lab-rats. To counteract this, Ars Magica has players make a variety of characters, who can handle the various situations that the magi can't, and players interchange between what character they play with each adventure. And rather than tell the story of a few characters, the driving force behind a campaign was the life of the whole community, over many years. In game terms, the community and its infrastructure is treated as a shared character, a revolutionary stroke that ensured a strong group dynamic between characters.

  Ars Magica also challenged the game design world with one of the best magic systems ever designed, one which was both regulated and free form.

The next year, Games Workshop stopped producing wargames long enough to give us the brilliant Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay. WFRP's system was good and hard. Its intelligent and involving experience and careers system was particular genius, finding both a perfect middle ground between class-based and free-form character design, and likewise between the adventuring lifestyle and a realistic medieval existence. But the setting was even better. A skillful blend of Elizabethan conspiracy and dark horror, WFRP's adventures are renowned for their frightening intensity.

By this time, innovation was in fashion, and everyone was having a go. And as the trend continued, anything seemed possible - even removing the dice!

Amber and Everway are the two most famous diceless pioneers. Amber (based on the novels by Roger Zelazny) is set in a universe of shifting realities and infinite possibilities, and thus it requires a rules-light system open to interpretation. For this, the cards are well suited and thus it was a success. Similarly, the epic and cerebral nature of Everway's stories makes the using of Tarot cards to mimic the fates very fitting.

  TORG also added the psychological element to combat, with a good taunt being as effective as a fast lunge

TORG (West End Games, 1990), an exciting cross-genre game, used both cards and dice in its universal system. TORGs "Drama Deck" not only offered players random play advantages like bonuses to dice rolls, but also allowed story interaction, with cards allowing subplots like ancient enmities or new loves to be added at the players discretion. At the same time, Lace and Steel came up with a cunning system of cards to model the many ins and outs of fencing, which was a major factor in their Renaissance setting.

As games grew more intense, it seemed only a matter of time before someone went the whole hog and threw everything away, and did it for real. However, Live Action had actually begun much earlier. In America, it began in 1981, when some students in Boulder set up the DreamPark inspired "International Fantasy Gaming Society". But it didn't take off there as quickly as it did in England. A few years later, Treasure Trap appeared there, a dungeon bash that benefited from being set in a real castle. Though there was some initial resistance, the revolutionary spirit of the eighties welcomed this new avenue.

And so the innovation went on. Here I have touched on just a few of the more famous; in the late eighties, every game was revolutionary in some way. At the start of the decade, almost every game was rolling 3D6 for the attributes and featuring hobbits, because that was what D&D did. By the end, a game just wouldn't sell unless it promised not only an exciting new universe, but also revolutionary new mechanics to go with it. Though this need to innovate was mostly market driven, it marked the greatest era of the hobby's history so far. For amongst these surface changes were ideas that were changing the fundamental bases of role-playing games, and when combined, these ideas would change people's conceptions of roleplaying games. They had gone from personalised wargames to being a dramatic story-telling exercise, perhaps even an intellectual pursuit. This evolution has continued, but there has been nothing to compare with the revolutionary Golden Age of the eighties.


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

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