Warning: This post contains an excessive use of acronyms
WAIT… have you read the first part of this MONSTER POST yet? If not, retrace your steps and TURN TO 327
With the success of D&D other publishers began to bring out their own RPGs. When I first became aware of the hobby, the big three were:
Runequest was set in a more idiosyncratic, Bronze Age fantasy world and utilised a vastly different games system that was more based on skills rather than Character Classes and levels. I never played it of course, it always seemed too impenetrable. Not to mention expensive.
Traveller was the inevitable Sci Fi game, so instead of fighting Dragons, you were fighting, I dunno, Space Dragons? (I never actually played this game either). There was no experience system, but like Runequest the game was skills based, and you could be killed during character generation, which is pretty fucking metal.
Call of Cthulhu – a game based on the “Eldritch Horror” stories of HP Lovecraft. The players took on the roles of investigators, in more story based adventures. D&D could be played in any style of course, but there was very little in the rulebooks at this stage that actually suggested much more than dungeon crawls, where you would enter a room, kill the monster, take their treasure and then move on to the next one. Removing the violence as a default solution to any problem, and adding mystery and atmosphere, ushered in a change in the style of role playing across the hobby. In an ingenious, unique game mechanic, characters could actually be driven insane by the uncanny alien monstrosities they had to face. I never played Cthulhu – I guess I’m not eldritch enough.
Other games followed, different genres appeared (superhero games were briefly very popular, and spy games had their moment too) and big media properties were licensed for their own games. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Judge Dredd and Star Wars were some of the bigger ones. Licensed games tended to feature relatively simpler game systems, in order to bring new audiences into the hobby, but really, I think knowing a property seemed an easier way in.
Alchemy In the UK
Many of these games were printed under exclusive licence in the UK by Games Workshop, the company set up by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. This led to these games being heavily featured in GW’s house magazine White Dwarf (alongside D&D, which, even though GW was reluctant to promote it as the brand of a competitor, was too big to ignore). When I first got into Role Playing Games I bought issue 57 of WD and it blew my brain apart, like a roll of 120 on the MERP critical hit table. I understood little of what I was reading, but it was a fascinating world of demons, magic and adventure.
Livingstone & Jackson, perhaps sensing that the hobby was truly taking off, but that many players didn’t have a way in, wrote The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a solo adventure gamebook, that took young readers on a quest to seek out the eponymous magic user, fuck him up and steal his stuff.
The book was a massive success, and eventually spawned a series of 60 titles, countless spinoffs and hordes of similar (copycat) series from other publishers. They sold in their millions.
Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, as the series was titled, scored over traditional RPGs in a few regards
- It had a simple game system – RPGs started out as fiendishly complex, but as the 1980s rolled on they just got more and more granular. D&D’s rivals sold themselves as being more “realistic” – which generally translated as ridiculously complicated. In contrast, the Fighting Fantasy Books each had a game system that was described in a handful of pages in every book, and barely delayed getting into the actual adventure itself.
- They were single player. Often times a barrier to RPGs was that you need to get a group of 4-6 together at the same time to play. With FF books, people with no friends (like me) could get into it.
- They were portable. You can’t really play AD&D on the bus
- FF Books were quick to produce. When the demand became too great for the original creators to fulfill they just hired new writers and artists. At the books’ commercial peak there were 6 published per year
- They were cheap. For example in 1985 the D&D Basic Set was £9.50 (today £28.60). To play AD&D you needed the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual (both £9.95) and the Dungeon Master’s Guide (£10.95) – so a whopping £30.85 (today, about £88.69)
- They had kick ass artwork – Puffin Books wanted more child friendly, cartoony art but Jackson and Livingstone knew what kids liked and insisted on scarier, more atmospheric illustration – It was in a class above, say, the art in the interior of the First Edition AD&D books (Umber Hulk, I’m looking at you)
- Being mostly by UK writers and artists, they really highlighted the difference between American and British concept of Fantasy. TL;DR: The UK’s was grungier, nastier, punkier – and had more of a sense of humour, the absurd or scatological – (I distinctly remember jokes about goblin shit). You can feel the influence of Monty Python, Blackadder and 2000AD.
Ghosts (& Goblins) In The Machine
What they weren’t, however, were role playing games. Limited by page count and author time, they much more resembled programmed adventures, of the type we were beginning to see in computer games – specifically text adventures. Colossal Cave had been released all the way back in 1976, but its influence, inspiring teenagers to rack their brains trying to think of synonyms for “BREAK OPEN DOOR” lasted throughout the 80s. Many of these, perhaps not coincidentally, had a fantasy setting, and for my generation at least, its crowning moment was 1982’s The Hobbit.
If you didn’t fancy staring at a page full of text for hours on end (I’m fully aware of the irony of this, seeing as I’m not even halfway through this blog post), there were “arcade adventures”, which featured actual stuff moving about on your screen. 1985 saw the release of Gauntlet, in actual video arcades, and subsequently onto home computers. The aesthetic was pure D&D – the player could choose from four different character classes as they rampaged around a top down view of a dungeon collecting treasure and killing ghosts and goblins. Gauntlet was actually based on an earlier game called Dandy, which sounds like a pretty weird name until you realise that they were specifically referencing D&D.
Wizardry (1981) inspired a number of games (the one I ended up sinking hours and hours of my life into was The Bard’s Tale (1985-) ) that were an attempt to model the actual mechanics of D&D onto a computer game. All dice rolls and stats management was handled in the background by the computer, as the player took a party of adventurers through various caverns and castles, slaughtering the denizens and occasionally solving a puzzle or two. They were role playing games with none of the actual role playing.
These games eventually evolved into the likes of the Final Fantasy series (1987-). Gygax and Arneson had pretty much invented game concepts that were now firmly entrenched in computer game design, such as persistent characters, balanced adventuring parties, experience points and levels, hit points, and inventory management. Inevitably, as video games became more sophisticated and impressive, the appeal of tabletop role playing games began to wane.
The rise of computer gaming was killing RPGs, but the apparent death blow was struck by the brief, but seismic fad for collectable card games, predominately Magic: The Gathering (1993). Set in a distinctly D&Dish world, featuring D&D influenced artwork and, obviously, created by D&D players, Magic was extremely profitable. far more profitable, in fact than your average RPG. Once you bought a rulebook, that was it – all those scenarios, supplements and miniatures were optional extras, and when it comes down to it, only one person has to buy anything for a group of 5 or so to play. Collectable Card Games, on the other hand, required every player to buy a deck, and then, if they wanted to be really good at the game, they would have to repeatedly buy additional cards. The gaming nerd and collector mentality at work.
TSR, even though it had generated a lot of income in the early 80s, was never a particularly well run company, and was eventually bought out by Wizards Of The Coast, the company behind Magic in 1998. The future for D&D and RPGs in general looked grim…
To read an earlier post about FIGHTING FANTASY GAMEBOOKS TURN TO 179
To learn about MONSTERS, prepare for battle and TURN TO 129
To pass through a shimmering doorway into the REAL WORLD (specifically the UK in the mid 80s) TURN TO 49
To read the final part of this post, discover your fate and TURN TO 400