RPGs throughout the 80s and 90s
The Early 80's (The Beginning. For me, at least)
It was at about this time that I discovered my first RPG - Tunnels and Trolls. I'd just
started High School, so I must have been about thirteen years old.
I'd heard a little about these games - I had a small collection of "Fighting
Fantasy" gamebooks, seen the "Dungeons and Dragons" cartoon on the TV, and
played "The Hobbit" on the ZX Spectrum for hundreds of hours, so it was only
natural that I immediately wanted to pick up a copy of this small yellow book.
The book itself looked pretty unimpressive, a bunch of papers stapled together with a
thin cardboard cover - the sort of quality that anyone with access to a laser printer
could produce today. However, to me it was like discovering the holy grail. The
"homemade" look actually appealed to me - they couldn't have printed that many
of these (compared to the average paperback) - I felt like a member of a select
underground group of T&T-ers.
The game itself was pretty simple - just a bunch of random numbers and calculations
(I'm sure T&T went some way towards getting me into the top maths class, so anyone
that says these things have no educational value is wrong!). It was also very open-ended:
all they'd provided were some combat and magic rules, no world background, no monster
descriptions (other than a list of names and "MR" monster ratings). In short, it
was the ideal introduction to "hack and slash" role-playing.
So, here was this book which belonged to a friend - I had to get my own copy. Living in
a small country town in the UK, I wasn't surprised to find that I'd have to travel 25
miles to the nearest large town in order to get a copy of this thing. What did surprise me
was that there was only one single solitary dark dingy shop selling this book in the whole
town - none of the bookstores stocked it, none of the so-called "hobby shops"
(the sort that sold model railways and airfix kits) had it. The only place I could track a
copy down was this tiny dusty shop called "War and Peace".
Now, when I said this place was small, I meant it. A full quarter of the shop's
floorspace was taken up by the counter. The walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with
books and dusty boxes. I fell in love with the shop instantly. If I'd been older I'd have
bought it an engagement ring.
I went home with my copy of Tunnels and Trolls, and started a habit that I have to this
day. Reading the rulebook from cover to cover for fun. I'll be the first to admit I enjoy
reading RPG books from cover to cover more than I enjoy playing them. Anyway, I was soon
back at school with this book, and seeing as two of us now had a copy we formed a little
group of five or six kids to play T&T during our lunch breaks.
However, the thought of the tiny, dusty, dingy shop kept nagging at me. I kept every
single penny I could lay my hands on in order to go back and buy something else. At this
time, the Dungeons and Dragons game was by far the most popular and well-known, so I
grabbed myself a copy of the red box "Basic Set". Fairly similar in principle to
T&T, but with a lot more stats and rules. However, I was immediately dismayed to find
that out of the thirty-six levels a character could attain, only the first three were
covered in this set of rules. Therefore, I scrimped, saved, and begged in order to get the
next "Expert Set". Ahh, this was much better - another ten or so levels, loads
of magic spells, and something I'd never seen before.... a full description and map of a
"home town" for the characters.
Wait a second? This was a whole new interesting concept to me - the idea of actually
playing your character outside of the dungeon.... This was going to take a while
to get my head around. So, these characters could have lives? The game
could be more than seeing who could roll the most dice? Wow!
Now, I've already spent too long talking about my personal experiences and nowhere near
long enough talking about the games themselves, so lets take a look at some of the other
books and boxes I managed to cart home from this place.
D&D went into two more boxed sets after the first two - "Companion" and
"Masters" Sets. As well as explaining much more about the game world, the
complexity of these rules covered just about every situation imaginable (I won't get into
a debate on how many rules an RPG should have - that can wait till another time). Shortly
after buying the Masters set, the new "Immortals" set (the gold box) became
available, so I had to get that one too. So, here I was with this huge pile of boxes,
which I had absolutely no way of carrying to school every day (although I do seem to
remember doing it once, but having to leave all my school books at home in order to
accomplish it), and the idea of inviting people around after school was born.
I'd also noticed a huge set of hardback books on the shelves called "Advanced
Dungeons and Dragons". However, these were far too expensive (and, I assumed, far too
complicated) for me to look at in this point in time. It was clear, though, that TSR were
obviously the world leaders in role-playing.
Suddenly, there was a big change in the "main" set of shelves at the shop.
Previously, this thing had been stacked full of D&D products - there really seemed no
end to the number of additional supplements and adventures available. I actually came into
the shop just after a delivery, and was greeted by the sight of a huge box full of stuff
being sorted on the floor. Being that sort of person (i.e. difficult), I wanted to buy
something that had just come in rather than something off the shelf.
Wow. This stuff looked COOL.
Judge Dredd (by Games Workshop), Marvel Super Heroes (by TSR), DC Heroes (by Mayfair),
Star Trek (by FASA). I'd never even imagined a game not set in a "Swords and
Sorcery" setting (even though I realise now there were a few around at the time - I
just hadn't noticed them). It was coming up to Christmas, so now I knew what I wanted that
It seemed that licencing was all the rage at this point in time. If it appeared on TV,
in a comic, or in a film, someone somewhere was writing an RPG.
Something else that seemed to be happening was that rules were getting more and more
complicated. Rulebooks covered the most insignificant of details in intricate detail.
However, there was also a growing surge in background materials for these games. Every
time something changed somewhere in the universe the game was based on, it was the ideal
excuse for another sourcebook or rules supplement. New Star Trek film = new sourcebook.
New superhero team = new sourcebook. Costume change = new sourcebook.
The Late 80's and Early 90's (The End. Or so it Seemed)
From my personal point of view, RPGs died in the late 80's. One of the biggest impacts
in the UK was that Games Workshop (creator of Judge Dredd, UK distributor of Call of
Cthulhu, and publisher of White Dwarf magazine) turned themselves into a tabletop battle
company (the influence of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone leaving to do their own thing
hit hard) with products such as Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, and later on Space Marine
(aka Epic Battles, aka whatever they're calling it nowadays)
White Dwarf magazine was also the source of many articles on other games such as
Traveller, D&D, AD&D, and just about every other game in existance. However, GW
decided it would be better to concentrate only on covering their own games from now on.
The five D&D boxed sets turned into the "D&D Rules Cyclopedia", which
was a book no larger than any one AD&D rulebook, but included every single rule from
the five boxed sets.
FASA discontinued the Star Trek game (allegedly due to licencing problems). Possibly
due to similar problems, TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game went out of print around the same
time. It may have been this that scared other companies into keeping away from licenced
games for a while.
From my personal viewpoint (and I'd be interested in hearing from others around the
world about their own experiences at around this time), roleplaying was going out of
fashion. The few games that were around seemed to be drastically simplified, and it seemed
as if the RPG manufacturers were dropping their long-time customers in favor of recruiting
a new generation of roleplayers.
The late 90's (*Now*, for Those of Us Who Have so Many RPGs They've Forgotten Which
Time Period Their Physical Form Occupies)
Some things have changed. And I mean really changed. TSR have been bought up
by WOTC, and it seems that they want to move everything to smaller, simpler game systems.
In some ways, this is a good thing, because it brings in those players who previously were
intimidated by the complexity (and cost!) of a two-foot stack of rulebooks.
Some things haven't. Licensing is back with a vengance. Walk into any games store and
you'll see RPGs for Star Wars, Men in Black, Star Trek, Marvel Super Heroes, Xena and
Hercules, Babylon 5. There must be a big race between the games publishers to see who can
get the rights to every new film,. TV show, and cartoon. Did I imagine seeing a Jurassic
Park game on the shelves last year?
Interest in some of the older games is resurfacing. Traveller has gone into (and out
of) it's fourth edition. A dedicated cadre of Marvel RPGers are working on a project to
support the original game (even though TSR have launched the new SAGA-based
"simple" version). Call of Cthulhu just seems to hang on forever (you really
have to wonder if there's other forces at work there....) and has just received it's first
major rules update for ages.
The market seems to be a mix of the old and new. For those of us who are used to (and
even enjoy) huge hardback rulebooks, Last Unicorn Games have launched a new version of the
Star Trek RPG. It's surprising similar to FASA's original system, but is still a
completely new set of rules. White Wolf's "World of Darkness" series offers the
chance to relive the hernia we'd get by trying to lift the entire AD&D core rulebook
set on our own. I was also quite surprised at the amount of space being taken up on my
shelves by Star Wars RPG books. Alternity looks like fast becoming the hi-tech alternative
For newer players, TSR/WOTC's SAGA system (Dragonlance, Marvel Super Heroes, and
supposedly more old AD&D worlds converting soon) is available, consisting of a
smallish box with everything you need to play the game. The push towards getting
everything you need to start playing into a single book or box seems to be going both ways
- there are tiny games that are over simplified (SAGA-MSH), but you can also find many
games that offer more than enough playability in a single book while still allowing plenty
of room for expansion with supplements (Star Trek, WoD, The Babylon Project).
My own personal view is that as long as the market should stay as it is for the moment.
We're not stuck with over-complicated games that new players find it hard to get into (the
early 80's), or a lack of support for games we've been playing for years (the late 80's
and early 90's). There's something there for everyone. However, from past experience I'd
urge you to do one thing: if theres something on the shelves you want - buy it.. The RPG
industry today is seeing the fastest rates of rise and decline ever - chances are that 90%
of the books out today will be out of print within 12 months.