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The History of Roleplaying:
Well, with this issue, the history of roleplaying is finally finished. Thank God. Maybe now I can get my life back.
I originally only intended for the history to be just three parts, but it mutated far out of control, into a huge, life-eating beast, requiring far more work than I could have ever imagined. On the other hand, it has also attracted far more attention, support and praise than I could have ever imagined. People have flooded us with emails of appreciation for the history, for which I thank you all very much. It has also attracted a lot of links, appeared (in an abridged form) on other web sites, and has even been translated into Danish! There were many times when I felt like chucking in the whole history, and it was this great support which kept me going to the bitter end.
You have also all been very kind about the seemingly constant stream of errors which appeared in the history. And you've been very patient as the history expanded into more and more parts each issue. I thank you for sticking with it and me for so damn long.
In fact, the history has had such a positive appeal, I don't know what we're going to do without it. The history has been part of the zine since day one, and is a big part of why it became what it is today. It gave us new readers and avid fans again and again, and also kept people coming back. And if it wasn't for the ever-pressing commitment to "finish the damn history" I might have abandoned this life-sucking zine a long time ago.
But it is finished now, so I thought this would be good time to step back and have a look at what it was and how it came to be.
I originally decided to do the history mainly because I'd simply never seen it done before. I'd read a fair few articles which claimed to be histories of the hobby, but they invariably stopped before the 1980s. They only told the very beginning of the story, and I thought it was about time someone took it further.
Why I decided to do this at the same time as undertaking the huge task of starting up my own fanzine is not clear. I blame the mental fatigue caused by finishing my thesis at the time. Whatever the case, this was not a smart move, and sometimes I don't know how I managed to survived doing both for so long. But in the beginning, I didn't realise just how hard writing a history could be, so I naively took on the challenge.
My original conception, as I said, was to make the history three parts, with each part focussing on one decade. After penning the first one, however, I realised it would have to be a bit longer, and I upgraded my expectations to five. Unfortunately, I then found the second part expanded into parts two and three, pushing us to six instalments. This sort of thing kept happening, as loyal readers will have observed.
The main reason for this was that my researching skills grew as the history did. Thus when I actually came to write what I had originally estimated would take one paragraph, I often had three times the information I had expected. Of course, I used this new standard to project forward from there, only to have a repeat of the original problem. Eventually, I began to remove information in hope of cutting the whole thing short, but then I decided that wasn't good enough. However long it took, I owed it to the growing fans of the history to get it all down.
For the first three parts, everything went relatively smoothly. This was because I had a lot of secondary sources to go on - the aforementioned other histories, which covered things in great detail. It was therefore simply a matter of compiling the information and putting it in my own words. This is also the reason I spent so long looking at just six games: I had so much info on them I couldn't help but waffle. As an added bonus, what I was waffling about was so far in the past and so generally unknown to the average reader, I didn't have to worry much at all about my accuracy. This changed a lot later, of course.
My main source here was the excellent book "Shared Fantasy", by Gary Alan Fine. This sociological thesis on roleplaying as a leisure subculture provides an impressive look at the evolution of gaming as of the time of its writing in 1982. If you are at all interested in this side of the hobby, I cannot recommend Gary's book enough; it is probably the best thing ever written about RPGs. I should also mention "Fantasy Roleplaying Games" by J. Eric Holmes, an awfully childish introduction for newbies written in 1983. Its coverage of the RPGs then on the market proved invaluable for parts two and three. However, it was also this book which caused the spectacularly large error about Dallas Egbert in Part Four, so I can't recommend it as a reliable source.
In addition to the surfeit of information in the first three parts, I also found the writing of them came easily. As I was simply listing facts and dates, I had no need to develop any sort of thesis or direction to my pieces. Part one is a simple chronology and an interview lifted from Fine's book, and part two is little more than a review of three games. So it wasn't until I was actually writing part three that I began designing the format and flow for the history. This is when I came up with the idea that the eighties represented the Golden Age of roleplaying. Actually classifying periods of history seemed a pretty impressive step for such a non-historian as I was then, but it worked, and it gave the history a direction and feel for much of the subsequent parts. Realising I had a winner, I decided not to push my luck and try to come up with another. So I clung to this thesis for the rest of the series.
When I finished with the seventies, however, I realised I had very little info on the next decade. Something I did know a fair bit about, however, was the history of BADD, so I decided to concentrate on that first. I also knew of some good webpages on the subject, which naturally led me to still more, providing me with a mountain of details. Excepting the large error at the start, I think part four is the most researched of all the parts, and thus the most interesting.
From this, I realised for the first time that the Internet could be a lot of help in my research. I tracked down company sites and got their histories where I could, and emailing requests for further information where I couldn't. I put out my feelers to online friends, looking for anyone who knew anything more than I did. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of them.
So my thanks must go to all the people who helped me gather my facts. These include Dan Davenport, Steve Dempsey, Sarah Hollings, Jim Ogle, Kevin Powe, Eric Rowe of Chaosium, and whoever wrote to me from West End Games (I'm sorry, I've lost your details). Particular thanks must go to Gary Gygax himself, who was most helpful. While I'm here, I should also thank all the people who wrote in with corrections to the history, notably Peter Lewerin, Shaun Hately and Sergio Mascarenhas. Thanks to these guys, we got the facts straight, and we all managed to learn a bit more.
By this time, the number of emails we had received had convinced me just how seriously people were taking the history, and after the big error in part four, the pressure was really on. From part five on, my research stepped up a notch in accuracy, as dealing with more modern events and an increase in readers meant that nothing would go unnoticed. I must confess to frequently feeling oppressed - and DEpressed - when, after all of my hard work, the first round of post-publication emails inevitably pointed out my latest mistake.
But the increased scrutiny made me realise again just how little information I had for the next few parts. I knew the basics, but nothing concrete, and the Internet was just not enough to fill in the blanks. The history seemed doomed.
Then something of a miracle occurred. While sniffing around the second hand table at a convention, I stumbled onto a large box of old British RPG magazines. They were called GM and later Games Master International, and had run from 1988 to 1992. Not only did they give a great lowdown on that era, but they also often included retrospectives on games past. In short, they were exactly what I needed.
Almost all of the information in parts five, six and seven came from those magazines, with some help from the retrospectives which appeared in the more modern British magazine, arcane. Without these, I would never have been able to piece together the history of games like GURPS, Champions, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon and more, not to mention companies like Games Workshop and West End Games. But the best help the GM magazines gave me was their information about computer games and MUDs for part seven. Actually owning issues which reviewed games like Pools of Radiance as new releases proved an amazing resource, not to mention a wonderful bit of memorabilia.
Parts five and six turned out to be the most enjoyable writing of all, really consisting of nothing more than long praises of some of my favourite games. The hardest part of writing them was stopping myself from gushing. Part six proved especially problematic in this regard, because I was forced to allot some of the greatest games in history - Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer - nothing more than one paragraph in which to establish their genius. It was quite annoying, but if I had waffled any more, the history would never have ended at all.
I must apologise though for the lack of information on LARPs. Again, the problem was not enough information. Beyond their origins as described in part six, I could find nothing else, so I was forced to leave it out. If anyone out there does have more information on the history of live action, I'd love to hear it.
Knowing nothing of computer gaming history, I learned the most new information in writing part seven. However, lack of information once more stymied my efforts in parts eight and nine. Luckily, though, we were finally up to a period during which I'd been an avid gamer: modern history at last! As a result, parts eight and nine were really just personal observations which anyone could have written, and thus are probably the least satisfying parts of the series, in my view.
Parts eight and nine, however, also opened up the problem of controversy. I was now dealing with modern issues about which gamers were both passionate and polarized. Specifically, I had to avoid offending both White Wolf fans and foes with my take on the impact of Vampire: the Masquerade. It was a real challenge to put my personal feelings aside and evaluate the whole situation from a historical perspective. Funnily enough, despite the controversy and the fact that I was purely pontificating my own perceptions of debates on RPGNet, we received no complaints about these parts...so far, at least!
Which brings us to the end. All my hard work is finished, and amazingly, the history is done. Thinking back on it, the idea that I could tackle something as huge as the entire history of this immense hobby seems fantastic. And yet, here we are: nine issues and over twenty-five thousand words later, I've done it.
Much of my information had to be scraped together from long-outdated books, crappy old magazines and unreliable web pages, not to mention vague recollections, hearsay, legend and outright lies. All of this had to be sifted, polished and bashed together into some sort of argument, then presented in readable prose by an na´ve and clumsy historian. But despite my often poor sources and even poorer skills, I did manage to get all the facts - most of them correct - and turn them all into a decent history. I covered almost every aspect of roleplaying over the whole twenty five years, and even included analyses of the hobby's movements and their causes and effects.
It's far from perfect, but it covers the ground. And that in itself is the real achievement. Because a history of this scope is pretty unique. Despite the size, age and diversity of the hobby, almost no-one has seriously tackled the job of collating and presenting its entire history (although I have now heard of a book called Heroic Worlds which covers similar territory, but this isn't widely available). And from what we've seen, gamers see this as remiss; they really want to know more about their hobby and its origins.
So I guess all my hard work - and night after stressful night of trying desperately to find out in exactly which year Chaosium published the Prince Valiant RPG - has paid off. I haven't exactly written a masterpiece, but what I have done is something almost nobody else has had the drive to do, because it is such a big and messy task. But it was something that needed to be done, and something a lot of people really wanted to read. So I'm very proud of it, and I'm very proud of all the great compliments I've received for it. Thanks again.
Personally though, I'm most proud that I wrote twenty-five thousand words on the history of roleplaying without once mentioning the He-Man RPG. :-)
Steve Darlington has been roleplaying for long enough to know better. A hen-teaser by trade and an accountant in his spare time, he knows seventeen different ways to pronounce the word "cucumber". He objects to the way people sometimes have to stay up late at night writing author bios at the bottom of articles.
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