21 February 2015

Tabletop Role Playing Games

In 1971, Gary Gygax's game Chainmail (which he adapted from a rules system created by his friend Jeff Perren) was first published. This was a miniatures wargame, along the same lines as Warhammer 40,000 and Bolt Action. It had rules for mass combat, jousting, and single combat, and also contained a supplement that allowed you to include fantasy elements (magic, wizards, etc) in your war game.

Dave Arneson later took those rules and merged them with his own ideas for controlling a single warrior instead of an entire platoon. He showed this adaptation to Gygax, and the two of them created Dungeons and Dragons from it. Thus, the first roleplaying game was born.

The idea took off, and Gygax released another RPG two years later, Boot Hill. Variations on the original D&D soon sprang up, such as The Complete Warlock, by Robert Cowan, Dave Clark, Kenneth M. Dahl, and Nick Smith, and Tunnels and Trolls by Ken St. Andre. Bunnies and Burrows was an early attempt to push the boundaries of what was possible in an RPG, and as early as 1977, gamers had already started to adapt existing franchises with the introduction of the game Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo.

By 1980, many RPGs had arrived on the scene, including several long-lasting staples of the hobby such as Heroes, Villains and Vigilantes, Rolemaster, Runequest, and Traveller. The 80s saw many more publications, like Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Stormbringer, Palladium, GURPS, and Paranoia.

The 90s saw a revolution in the gaming industry with the release of Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister games, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling. These titles had a profound effect on gaming, and it led to such innovations as the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, Everway, and the fourth edition of GURPS. Also in the 90s, the rising popularity of the internet began to affect things, and by the time the 21st century had arrived, people were already starting to release homebrew game systems on the web, like the Neverwhere roleplaying game.

Sadly, this era also heralded the decline of the RPG.

With so many games from which to choose, and the possibility of encountering more (or creating your own) on the net, not to mention the existence of visually arresting video games on the X-Box and Playstation, people tended to gravitate towards the established fare. D&D is still going strong, as are spinoffs like Pathfinder. Some of the more popular sci-fi/fantasy franchises like The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Firefly, and Doctor Who have maintained success in the RPG industry. Some of the other old mainstays, such as GURPS and Warhammer, still have devoted cult followings.

But otherwise, there's not been a lot of noteworthy new games released in some time.

I recall, throughout the 90s, I would visit the local game shops whenever I could, and peruse the selection of RPGs with great interest. There were so many wonderful games on the shelves back then: R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020, Fasa's Shadowrun, Avalon Hill's Tales from the Floating Vagabond, or Palladium's Rifts. Not to mention smaller offerings like Albedo (originally published in 1988 by Thoughts & Images, but rereleased as a greatly improved version in 1993 by Chessex) or The Whispering Vault by Pariah Press. As well as many of the already mentioned above games (GURPS, Paranoia, Vampire, Mage, etc).

I don't often get a chance to go to the game stores anymore. When I do, I tend to browse the board games more than the RPGs. Partly, this is because I have trouble finding reliable groups with which to play RPGs, so board games are a more productive use of my resources. But it's also partly because the RPG offerings are kind of sparse.

Whereas the local game shop used to have six free-standing display shelves loaded with every imaginable game that you could want, those same shelves are now dominated by a few games with a handful of other titles. One shelf is nothing but D&D and Pathfinder, another one is purely Warhammer 40,000 supplements, a third is shared by the franchise licenses (Doctor Who, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc). A fourth has a few of the stubborn holdouts from the golden age of RPGs (GURPS, Deadlands, Shadowrun), and the last two seem to be a sparse sprinkling of newer options that don't appear to have much in the way of the charm or appeal of the older games.

Throughout the late 90s and the early 2000s, on the rare occasion when I'd see a new RPG on the shelves, it would seem like either a tired rehash of an existing idea (Feng Shui, 7th Sea) or very bizarre nuke-the-fridge types of settings that seem to be trying too hard (a|state, Triune).

I still want to create a roleplaying game based on alternate mythologies (like the Eiru setting I have detailed here previously, or the one I designed based on Aztec mythology), or to complete the Shifters game I started years ago. But I have to wonder if there's really a chance for any level of success with any of these settings, given the current state of the gaming culture...

Anyway. That was just something I was thinking about. I will leave you with that for now. Until next week,

Game on!

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