Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Role Playing Game

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Term used to describe a type of game characterized by Lawrence Schick in Heroic Worlds (1991) as a form of "quantified interactive storytelling". Here "quantified" refers to the fact that numerical rules are employed to simulate the fictional world depicted in the game, "interactive" to the players' use of created personas appropriate to that world to act within it, and "storytelling" to the way in which those players use the game to create a shared narrative. The term itself postdates the creation of the first such work; it may have originated in an article written for the Games Workshop Fanzine Owl and Weasel by Steve Jackson in 1975. The participants in a Role Playing Game are divided into a group of players, who each adopt the role of one or more characters in the story, and the Gamemaster, who serves as the voice of the setting and its inhabitants. Typically, play proceeds through conversation with all the participants seated around a table. Both the players and the Gamemaster alternate between acting out the parts of the various characters and determining the results of physical actions (such as combat or flying a spacecraft) using the rules (also known as the game's mechanics, or system), with dice or cards to introduce an element of unpredictability. The Gamemaster generally serves as the interpreter of the rules as well as the animator of the simulated world, a combination of roles which can cause some conflict. Such games are often referred to as "pen and paper" or "tabletop" Role Playing Games, from physical items which are commonly used in play; miniature figures representing the characters may also be employed, but are usually optional. Games in which the participants act out their parts as well as speaking them form a separate subtype, known as Live Action Role Playing. Most Role Playing Games are fantasy, ranging in subject matter from urban fairy tales through gothic horror to "high fantasy" inspired by the works of J R R Tolkien. The second most common theme is science fiction, including Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Science Fantasy and Steampunk. Games exist in other literary genres, such as spy thrillers and Westerns, but such works are rare and have generally proved commercially unsuccessful.

One of the distinctive features of the form is the degree of creativity typically displayed by the participants. While predesigned plots (known as "adventures" or "modules") are sold for use with particular games, many Gamemasters will create their own; such Gamemasters are, to some degree, game designers. These adventures are generally structured in ways corresponding to linear, multilinear or environmental concepts of plot, though the involvement of the Gamemaster means that any actual playing session is inherently generative in nature (see Interactive Narrative). Some game experiences are based entirely on playing through a single brief scenario, but others may take years to complete, during which a serial narrative is constructed in a manner analogous to an episodic television series. Such games are known as "campaigns", a term derived from the form's origins in Wargames. Groups involved in a campaign will usually adapt the rules of the game they are playing to suit their preferences, and often create their own original world, or "campaign setting". Such campaign games can require considerable skill on the part of the Gamemaster to manage the ongoing flow of events during play and shape them to form a satisfying narrative. Another unusual aspect of the form is the essentially evanescent nature of the experience. Participants in a Role Playing Game collaborate to create a shared story, but typically they are the only audience for their performance, and attempts to record or repeat the game's events rarely prove compelling to others. This is a feature shared with Multi User Dungeons and Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games; participation is required to bring the experience to life.

Several theories of Role Playing Games exist. Daniel Mackay, in The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art (2001; vt All the Dungeon's a Stage: The New Performing Art of Fantasy Role-Playing Games), uses drama theory to analyse them in terms of the theatrical arts. The members of, a discussion forum on the online USENET system, developed a threefold "GDS" model in the late 1990s which describes Role Playing Games as a combination of Game, Drama and Simulation elements. Here "Game" refers to gameplay, the entertainment offered to the players by a fair but difficult challenge, "Drama" to the quality of the resulting narrative, and "Simulation" to the accuracy with which the game represents the reality of its world. Clearly, there is considerable potential for tension between these three aspects; different games often favour one at the expense of the others. The group also defined a range of "stances" which could be adopted by players, including the actor stance (in which they consciously play their character as they believe they would act), the audience stance (used to appreciate events from a detached perspective), the author stance (which is invoked when a deliberate attempt is being made to shape the developing narrative) and the immersion stance (a mental state available to some players in which they are almost wholly identified with their characters). Finally, the sociologist Gary Alan Fine, in his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games As Social Worlds (1983), identifies several "frames" adopted by players, based on the frames of reference or schemes of social interpretation described by Irving Goffman in Frame Analysis: An Essay on The Organization of Experience (1974). Fine's studies of role playing sessions led him to identify three frames: that of the player as an ordinary individual present at the game, that of the player acting "out of character" (i.e. participating in the game, but not adopting the role of their fictional persona) and that of the player acting "in character" (while acting out the role of their alter ego). Many aspects of Fine's book now seem somewhat dated, referring to early approaches to role playing which emphasized the acquisition of personal power within the simulated world and which are now the object of satire in such works as the Card Game Munchkin (2001 Steve Jackson Games [SJG]) designed by Steve Jackson, but the frame analysis still seems valid.

It is possible to identify a wide variety of precursors to Role Playing Games. In the 1960s several groups had begun reenacting selected aspects of a past perceived to be more romantic and meaningful than the present, including the Sealed Knot, founded in 1968 in the UK to recreate the events of the English Civil War, and the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization devoted to the European Middle Ages which began with a "protest against the twentieth century" in the US state of California in 1966. Members of these bodies were engaged in a form of role playing, though one without any formal rules or explicit plot. The same decade saw considerable interest among business people and academics in educational simulations influenced by the principles of psychodrama and intended to teach social skills, decision making and practical knowledge; examples can be found in the Handbook of Simulation Gaming in Social Education (1974), by Ron Stadsklev. Such simulations differ from Role Playing Games primarily in their lack of a quantified system of rules and in their tendency to assign players roles within a social hierarchy rather than allowing them to create their own individual characters; this first distinction also helps differentiate such early Gamebooks as State of Emergency (1969) from the RPG form. Another related line of development appeared in amateur Play by Mail Wargames, in which many participants began personalizing the military and political leaders they played; relevant examples include the US Slobbovia (1972) and the UK Midgard (1971) (see Postal Worlds). The tradition which led to the first Role Playing Game, however, is that of miniature-figure-based Wargames, played by a group in a shared space.

During the 1960s two US Wargame enthusiasts, David Wesely and Michael Korns, had independently developed the idea of playing games in which single miniatures (or characters) were controlled by individual players and a neutral referee moderated the game; Wesely's version of the latter concept was derived from Strategos (1880) (see Wargames). Korns published his rules in Modern War In Miniature (1966), while later sessions of Wesely's games introduced the ideas that the referee could take the part of characters not controlled by the players, allowing them to cooperate against a common enemy, and that in such a game the players' activities need not be restricted to combat. In 1971 Dave Arneson, a player who had refereed with Wesely, began a Wargame campaign of this form set in his Heroic Fantasy world of Blackmoor. This game introduced the concept of a character whose abilities were described by numerical ratings which improved with use. Meanwhile, Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren had designed a set of miniatures rules for medieval combat called Chainmail (1971 Guidon Games; rev 1972; rev 1975) which included mechanics dealing with Magic and fantastic beasts (see Supernatural Creatures), the first such system to be made available commercially. These rules were adapted by Arneson for Blackmoor, which previously had depended more on a set of conventions than on a formal system. The result was, in essence, the first Role Playing Game. Two professionally published games were derived from the Blackmoor campaign. The first was the fantasy Board Game Dungeon! (1975 Tactical Studies Rules [TSR]) designed by David Megarry, which was based on tactical combat in the labyrinthine dungeons beneath Blackmoor Castle, and which spawned its own line of "adventure board games" such as Talisman (1983 Games Workshop [GW]; rev 1985; rev 1994; rev 2007) designed by Robert Harris. The second was the Heroic Fantasy Role Playing Game Dungeons and Dragons (1974 TSR; rev 1977; rev 1980; rev 1983; rev 2000; rev 2003; rev 2008) designed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, the first fully realized work of its kind.

The first edition of Dungeons and Dragons included many mechanics which were very influential on the design of later Role Playing Games. Characters were categorized by class (which largely corresponded to profession, such as thief or magician), attributes (which represented such basic characteristics as strength and agility), species (primarily the high fantasy races of elf, human and dwarf), sex and alignment (which expressed a character's basic moral stance). These concepts made role playing easier, by supplying players with stereotypes on which to base their alternate personas, and encouraged the formation of a group of characters with different yet complementary abilities. For example, a magician might be weak in hand to hand combat, yet be able to use valuable spells if they were protected by an expert swordsman. As in Blackmoor, practice made perfect; experienced characters gained access to higher levels of power. Attributes were randomly generated, a source of considerable frustration for players who wanted to create a character whose class or species was a poor fit for their characteristics (a low value for strength being inappropriate for a hand to hand fighter, for example). The rules were intended to be suitable for any game based on epic fantasy, being much influenced by J R R Tolkien's Middle-earth, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian and Jack Vance's Dying Earth; the somewhat derivative but richly detailed setting in which much of the game was developed was eventually published separately as Greyhawk. This original version of the game was poorly written and strongly oriented towards fighting monsters and plundering enormous catacombs filled with deadly traps, but the core concept of allowing players to act out their own adventures in a shared fantasy world proved highly appealing, attracting many players who were sf and fantasy enthusiasts rather than war gamers.

The popularity of the original Dungeons and Dragons led to the release of various supplements, including Blackmoor (1975 TSR) designed by Dave Arneson, which incorporated the first predesigned adventure to be published, "Temple of the Frog". A wide variety of similar games also appeared, often based on variant rules developed by the early players of Dungeons and Dragons. Tunnels and Trolls (1975 Flying Buffalo [FB]; rev 1977; rev 1979; rev 1980; rev 1984; rev 2005; rev 2008) designed by Ken St Andre offered much simpler mechanics and an irreverent sense of humour, in contrast to Dungeons and Dragons' serious tone, while Chivalry and Sorcery (1977 Fantasy Games Unlimited [FGU]; rev 1983; rev 1996; rev 1999; rev 2000) designed by Edward Simbalist, Wilf Backhaus concentrated on a highly detailed simulation of life in a largely realistic Middle Ages, to the extent that the game was almost too complex to play. In the long run, neither of these systems proved as popular as their prototype. The world of Tékumel, which has a science-fictional history but the tone of a Sword and Sorcery fantasy, first appeared in 1975 in Empire of the Petal Throne (see Tékumel). Science fiction proper, however, was introduced to the form by Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), which was followed by Starfaring (1976) designed by Ken St Andre, a humorous game in which each player controls a Starship and its entire crew. Other sf games of the era include the Space Opera inspired Space Quest (1977 Tyr Gamemakers [TG]; rev 1979) designed by Paul Hume, George Nyhen and Space Patrol (1977 Gamescience; 1980 rev vt Star Patrol; rev 1982) designed by Michael Scott Kurtick, Rockland Russo (see Space Patrol), as well as the highly popular Traveller (1977). Superhero 2044 (1977) designed by Donald Saxman was the first game based on Superheroes, though set in the twenty-first century rather than the present, while the Science Fantasy Gamma World (1978) and the more serious The Morrow Project (1980) introduced Post-Holocaust Earth as a role playing setting. Most of these games dispensed with the underground Labyrinths featured in the original Dungeons and Dragons and abandoned its alignment system, though Gamma World introduced organizations for characters to belong to as an alternative means of providing players with guidelines for their behaviour; this innovation was adopted by many later games. Most games continued to include character classes with increasing levels of ability, though Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World instead used mutant powers to differentiate between individuals, and Traveller defined characters largely by their skills in such areas as spacecraft piloting and bribery. The approach taken in Metamorphosis Alpha suffered from its lack of a mechanism by which characters' abilities could improve over the course of a campaign, but the Traveller system proved to be highly influential, especially on sf games. Meanwhile, Andre Norton wrote what was probably the first Tie based on a Role Playing Game, Quag Keep (1978), in which players of the game "cross over" into the world of Greyhawk (a device which has since become something of a cliché). By the early 1980s groups such as "Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons" had begun to campaign against Role Playing Games, focusing on the games' supposed connections with Satanism and Suicide. These protests never proved especially effective, and had largely died down by the end of the decade, as the form became better understood by the general public.

By the late 1970s a number of different lines of development had appeared, though many designs drew upon more than one of these traditions. Perhaps the most significant innovation was the appearance of rules systems which were more elegant and consistent than those of the earliest examples, though typically still quite complex to play. These games often tightly integrated the mechanics of their design with the theme, producing not so much a simulation of reality as a representation of the implicit rules of their subject's fiction. The archetypal example of this approach was the Heroic Fantasy game RuneQuest (1978 Chaosium; rev 1979; rev 1984; rev 2006; 2010 rev vt RuneQuest II) designed by Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, Warren James, Greg Stafford, set in the Bronze Age world of Glorantha which was first seen in the fantasy Wargame White Bear and Red Moon (1975). RuneQuest followed Traveller by emphasizing skills rather than classes, but also unified the system with the setting by making character improvement dependent on an individual's status with one of the many religious cults which dominated the strongly mythologized Glorantha. Meanwhile, the Superhero game Champions (1981) popularized the use of points to buy abilities of the player's choice when creating a character, rather than generating them randomly, an idea previously seen in both Superhero 2044 and The Fantasy Trip (1977-1980 Metagaming Concepts) designed by Steve Jackson. Other early examples of this tradition in Role Playing Game design include Call of Cthulhu (1981), which reflects the tone of Cthulhu Mythos fiction in its inclusion of a system for modelling characters' gradual descent into madness, Bushido (1980 TG / Phoenix Games; rev 1981) designed by Paul Hume, Bob Charrette, set in feudal Japan, Justice, Inc (1984), which attempts to recreate the spirit of the Pulp magazines, Paranoia (1984), Toon (1984 SJG; rev 1991) designed by Greg Costikyan, Warren Spector, inspired by the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1930s through 1960s, and Pendragon (1985 Chaosium; rev 1990; rev 1993; rev 2005) designed by Greg Stafford. Pendragon, which deals with the Matter of Britain, was especially innovative in its use of "passions" to govern characters' behaviour and its focus on the family rather than the individual; campaigns typically last for many years in the simulated world, during which players may adopt the roles of several generations of one bloodline.

Another development in Role Playing Game design which became prominent during the 1980s was an increasing emphasis on originality of setting. Many early games were intended primarily as a set of rules for use with some established literary subgenre, on the basis that Gamemasters would create their own settings, though the game might include a suggested background. Often, however, the recommended milieu came to be more important than the rules. One excellent example of this process is Traveller, whose original system has been largely forgotten, and which is now predominantly identified with the (initially optional) setting of the Third Imperium. The first Role Playing Game with an extensive original setting was Empire of the Petal Throne, set on the designer's existing but unpublished fantasy world of Tékumel, a Far Future human colony thrown into an alternate Dimension which made gods and magic real. Meanwhile Judges Guild had begun publication of the first such world to be released independently of the rules of its associated game. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, published in several parts beginning in 1976 with City State of the Invincible Overlord (see Interactive Narrative) and primarily intended for use with Dungeons and Dragons, was not strikingly imaginative, but it was well crafted and highly usable. By the mid 1980s original campaign settings had become the main focus of TSR's designers. At this time the first version of Dungeons and Dragons had been replaced by both a 1977 second edition, designed by J Eric Holmes as a flexible, easy to learn game suitable for new players, and the strikingly complex and exhaustive Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977 TSR; rev 1989) designed by Gary Gygax. Since Greyhawk and the associated Oriental Fantasy setting of Kara-Tur had become Advanced Dungeons and Dragons worlds, the basic Dungeons and Dragons needed a new setting. This was the Sword and Sorcery milieu of Mystara, notable largely for its invisible moon and the Lost World at its core (see Hollow Earth). Many additional settings were subsequently published for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, beginning with the somewhat generic Heroic Fantasy worlds of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance (notable for its associated adventures, which popularized the idea of a series of linked episodes forming a campaign with a strongly linear narrative, and which served as the basis for a series of highly successful Ties, beginning with Margaret Weis's and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight [1984]). Later efforts were more original, including the Arabian fantasy setting of Al-Qadim, the gothic horror inspired Ravenloft, the Post-Holocaust world of the Dark Sun, devastated by a magical apocalypse, Planescape, where many planes of existence cross in a city dominated by Steampunk and Sorcery, and Spelljammer, in which magical ships sail between planets contained in crystal spheres resembling those of Ptolemaic astronomy. Other contemporary games which emphasized the novelty of their settings include Talislanta (1987 Bard Games; rev 1989; rev 1992; rev 2000) designed by Stephan Michael Sechi, set on a Far Future fantasy world reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth, Skyrealms of Jorune (1985) and Space: 1889 (1988).

While tight integration of theme and rules offers many advantages, it can prove frustrating for players who want to experience games set in many different milieux, and have to learn a different system for each one. Although several 1980s developers created ranges of games built around core sets of rules, including the "Basic Role-Playing" system used for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu as well as the Hero System of Champions and Justice, Inc, slightly different versions of the mechanics were employed for each work. GURPS (1986) was the first truly successful generic system, allowing players to use the same rules for fantasy, science fiction, and other literary genres. The commercial triumph of GURPS led to the appearance of a number of other "all purpose" rule sets, including HERO System (1989 Hero Games; rev 2002; rev 2009) designed by George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, Rob Bell, based on the rules used in Champions, and Amazing Engine (1993).

The Role Playing Game industry remained strong throughout the 1980s, with a large number of new games being published. Sf examples include Space Opera (1980 FGU) designed by Edward Simbalist, A Mark Ratner, Phil McGregor and Space Master (1986 Iron Crown Enterprises; rev 1988) designed by Terry Amthor, Kevin Barrett, both much influenced by Traveller, and the somewhat similar Star Frontiers (1982), as well as the Cyberpunk inspired games Cyberpunk (1988) and Shadowrun (1989), the Post-Holocaust Aftermath (1981 FGU) designed by Bob Charrette, Paul Hume, notable for the complexity of its combat system, the grimly realistic World War Three-based Twilight: 2000 (1984) and its loose sequel 2300 AD (1987), and the science-fictional Horror game Dark Conspiracy (1991). Games which had been officially licenced from intellectual properties published in other media also became more common, replacing the many early RPGs which made illicit use of settings and characters borrowed from various books and films. Examples include Stormbringer (1981 Chaosium; rev 1985; rev 1987; rev 1990; 1993 rev vt Elric!; 2001 rev vt Dragon Lords of Melniboné) designed by Ken St Andre, Steve Perrin, based on Michael Moorcock's Elric sequence and using a version of RuneQuest's "Basic Role Playing" mechanics, as well as the similarly structured Ringworld (1983 Chaosium), designed by Sherman Kahn, John Hewitt, Lynn Willis, Sandy Petersen and based on Larry Niven's eponymous novel.

Meanwhile, development of Role Playing Games had begun outside the US. Notable examples from the UK include the Near Future 2000 AD licence Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game (1985 GW) designed by Marc Gascoigne, Rick Priestley, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986 GW; rev 2005; rev 2009) designed by Richard Halliwell, Rick Priestley, Graeme David, Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher, based on the darkly humorous Wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983 GW) designed by Bryan Ansell, Richard Halliwell, Rick Priestley and set in a fantastical version of Renaissance Europe, SLA Industries (1993) and Dragon Warriors (1985 Corgi Books; rev 2008) designed by Dave Morris, Oliver Johnson, a Heroic Fantasy game published in 6 paperback volumes resembling a Gamebook series. Germany produced the highly popular epic fantasy Das Schwarze Auge ["The Dark Eye"] (1984 Schmidt Spiele in German; rev 1988; rev 1992; rev 2001; 2003 in English) designed by Ulrich Kiesow, while French designers created In Nomine (1989 Siroz in French; rev 1997 SJG in English) designed by Croc, a game based on a modern day war between humanly incarnated angels and demons, and Nephilim (1991 Multisim in French; rev 1992; rev 1994 Chaosium in English) designed by Fabrice Lamidey, Frederic Weil, which uses a contemporary occult setting much influenced by the Hermetic tradition. Pen and paper Role Playing Games were little known in Japan until the arrival of early Computer Role Playing Games such as Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981) (see Computer Role Playing Games), after which several US games such as Traveller were translated. The market has subsequently seen the appearance of a number of RPGs created in Japan which have not been released elsewhere; one sf example is the Cyberpunk game Tokyo NOVA (1993 FEAR; rev 1998) designed by Taro Suzubuki.

In the late 1980s a form of RPG known as the "storytelling game" began to appear in the US. These works emphasize the construction of a satisfying narrative through cooperation between the players and their Gamemaster, as opposed to the original Dungeons and Dragons model, in which the group is participating in a simulation of a fictional reality brought to life by the Gamemaster. As suggested by the GDS theory, this distinction is rarely absolute. Earlier games such as Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon are to some extent designed to produce interesting stories, and almost any RPG can be played in a way which encourages dramatic development. In addition, most storytelling games include elements of simulation, though the relevant mechanics may be greatly simplified. The development of the storytelling branch also represents a fundamental point of divergence with Computer Role Playing Games, which by necessity are simulations of their synthetic worlds. Where storytelling games emphasize narrative by making appropriate mechanics available to the players, Computer Role Playing Games have concentrated on shaping their multilinear and modular plots to achieve a similar effect (see Interactive Narrative). Ars Magica (1987 Lion Rampant; rev 1989; rev 1992; rev 1996; rev 2004) designed by Jonathan Tweet, Mark Rein·Hagen, a game set in a mythic version of medieval Europe where hermetic magi work in secret, is perhaps the clearest precursor of the storytelling form. Early editions recommend that players create more than one character, and focus on the community of the magis' hidden "covenant" rather than on individuals, while later revisions suggest allocating the role of Gamemaster to different players depending on the circumstances. Later examples include Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991 Phage Press) designed by Erick Wujcik, licenced from Roger Zelazny's Amber series, Over The Edge (1992 Atlas Games; rev 1997) designed by Robin Laws and Jonathan Tweet, set in a lawless Interzone reminiscent of the work of William S Burroughs, the science-fictional Torg (1990) and Everway (1995 Wizards of the Coast; rev 1996) designed by Jonathan Tweet, a fantasy game set in many Parallel Worlds in which determining the success or failure of an action more closely resembles making a Tarot reading than anything that might be done in a Wargame. By far the most commercially successful product of the movement, however, was the World of Darkness.

By the end of the 1980s Role Playing Games were competing with both Gamebooks and the products of the "Golden Age" of Computer Role Playing Games, neither of which required a group of players to find a talented Gamemaster and meet on a regular basis. Sales were, if not declining, certainly not growing with the speed of a decade earlier. Vampire: The Masquerade (1991 White Wolf [WW]; rev 1992; rev 1998) designed by Mark Rein·Hagen, Graeme Davis, Tom Dowd, Lisa Stevens, Stewart Wieck, however, attracted considerable interest by casting its players as vampires struggling to maintain some vestige of their former humanity. Interestingly, while the setting is clearly intended to be dramatically significant, the rules did not include any explicit "storytelling" mechanics; White Wolf did not publish a system allowing players to shape the ongoing narrative until the release of the pulp sf game Adventure! (2001) (see Trinity). Vampire was followed by a range of similar games, most notably Werewolf: The Apocalypse (1992 WW; rev 1994; rev 2000) designed by Mark Rein·Hagen, in which the characters are lycanthropes trying to protect the Earth from environmental devastation, Mage: The Ascension (1993 WW; rev 1995; rev 2000) designed by Stewart Wieck, which focuses on "awakened" humans with the power to alter consensus reality, Wraith: The Oblivion (1994 WW; rev 1996) designed by Mark Rein·Hagen, Jennifer Hartshorn, Sam Chupp, where the players become ghosts trapped between the living world and what comes after, and Changeling: The Dreaming (1995 WW; rev 1997) designed by Mark Rein·Hagen, Sam Chupp, Ian Lemke, Joshua Timbrook, which deals with faeries reborn in human bodies who struggle to preserve beauty and imagination in a banal and brutal world. All of these works share the World of Darkness setting, a "gothic punk" version of present day Earth oppressed by a multiplicity of supernatural conspiracies. The dark tone and focus on existential horror attracted many new players to RPGs, notably from the Goth subculture, temporarily reversing the form's decline.

However, by the mid 1990s Collectible Card Games had become highly popular with many role players, causing a severe depression in the Role Playing Game market (see Card Games). Many interesting games were released in this period, including the Steampunk and Sorcery Castle Falkenstein (1994 R Talsorian Games) designed by Michael Pondsmith, Feng Shui (1996 Daedalus Games; rev 1999) designed by Robin Laws, based on Hong Kong martial arts films, the "Sixguns and Sorcery" Deadlands: The Weird West (1996 Pinnacle Entertainment Group; rev 1999; 2006 rev vt Deadlands: Reloaded) designed by Shane Lacy Hensley (see Deadlands), Nobilis (1999 Pharos; rev 2002; rev 2011) designed by Rebecca Sean Borgstrom, in which the characters are spiritual personifications of ideal concepts such as Death or Joy, and Unknown Armies (1998 Atlas Games; rev 2002) designed by Greg Stolze, John Tynes, a present-day occult conspiracy game reminiscent of such later Tim Powers novels as Declare (2000) and Three Days To Never (2006), but few enjoyed great commercial success. SF examples include Fading Suns (1996), Delta Green (1997) (see Call of Cthulhu), Blue Planet (1997), Trinity (1997) and Alternity (1998). As Role Playing Game sales fell, independent developers began to appear, releasing through alternative channels products such as Forgotten Futures (1993) which seemed unlikely to be successful in the mass market (see Independent Games). The appearance of Sorcerer (1998 Adept Press) designed by Ron Edwards – a minimalistic system with many freeform aspects which focused intently on the morality of its players' roles as practising demonologists – may have spurred the growth of this "indie RPG" movement. Certainly Edwards' game helped define the school's focus on "narrativist" (or storytelling) works which concentrate on modelling plot and personality rather than physical events. In a departure from most previous RPG designs, many of these games share responsibility for the construction of the ongoing narrative between the players and the Gamemaster, as in My Life with Master (2003). A more conventionally structured example of the school is the Steampunk and Sorcery Victoriana: A role-playing game of Vile Villainy & Glorious Adventure (2003 Heresy Games; rev 2009), designed in the UK by John Tuckey, Scott Rhymer, Richard Nunn. A story game loosely based on the life of Philip K Dick is Left Coast (2005).

In the late 1990s the Collectible Card Game market experienced a severe crash, an event soon followed by the release of d20 (2000). This was a generic system, similar in concept to GURPS, which formed the core of the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a radical revision of the previous versions which succeeded both the basic Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the d20 system was made publicly available under the Open Gaming License (see d20), with the intention of encouraging other companies to produce the adventures and other supplements which were required for the system to be successful (but which were unlikely to be highly profitable) while retaining the rights to print the core rules (which were expected to generate considerable revenue). Meanwhile, Wizards of the Coast (who had acquired Dungeons and Dragons from the bankrupt TSR), released a new setting for the game using d20, the "hardboiled fantasy" Eberron. The Open Gaming License proved popular, generating a boom in d20-related material, much of it based on Dungeons and Dragons, and incidentally discouraging the release of new games not compatible with the standard. Science fiction games which make at least some use of the d20 system include Mutants and Masterminds (2002) and many new editions of older games such as Fading Suns and Gamma World. Notable contemporary works which do not depend on d20 include Hero Wars (2000 Issaries, Inc; 2003 rev vt HeroQuest; rev 2009) designed by Robin Laws, Greg Stafford, a storytelling game set in Glorantha, the "Swashbuckling and Sorcery" epic 7th Sea (1999 Alderac Entertainment Group) designed by Jennifer Wick, John Wick, Kevin Wilson, set in an alternative Renaissance Europe, the grittily realistic Superhero game Godlike (2002) and the post-Cyberpunk Transhuman Space (2002).

By 2004 a great deal of material had been published for d20, much of it of questionable quality. The result was a crash in the d20 market, resembling the earlier problems with Collectible Card Games. Unfortunately, by this point pen and paper Role Playing Games were competing not only with Computer Role Playing Games but also with Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, which allow players to be part of the same game without having to arrange a physical meeting. This combination of factors caused a severe depression in the Role Playing Game market, which had been in decline since the mid 1990s. Many companies concentrated on producing new editions of older games, with a few new releases such as Blue Rose (2005 Green Ronin) designed by Jeremy Crawford, Dawn Elliott, Steve Kenson, John Snead, a game inspired by the "romantic fantasy" novels epitomized hy Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar sequence, Hollow Earth Expedition (2006), Eclipse Phase (2009) and the Warhammer 40,000 licence Dark Heresy (2008), created in the UK. Other new games were produced outside the US and Western Europe, including the Post-Holocaust Neuroshima (2003 Portal) designed in Poland by Michal Oracz and Ignacy Trzewiczek. The 2008 fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, designed by Andy Collins, Rob Heinsoo, Michael Mearls, Stephen Schubert, James Wyatt, attempted to confront competition from Videogames head on by making the game more immediately exciting to play and revising many core concepts so that they more closely resembled their equivalents in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Arguably, this iteration of the rules adopts an approach resembling that of the original version, in which activities other than combat are largely left up to the discretion of the Gamemaster, but draws its inspiration from MMORPGs rather than from Wargames. One effect of these changes – and of the associated revisions to the d20 concept, which replaced the Open Gaming License with the markedly more restrictive Game System License – has been to spur the development of RPGs based on the third edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics, notably the fantasy game Pathfinder (2009 Paizo Publishing) designed by Jason Bulmahn. Other such derived works are intended to recreate the early days of fantasy role playing for nostalgic fans; popular examples of this trend are Labyrinth Lord (2007 Goblinoid Games) designed by Daniel Proctor, Hackmaster (2001 Kenzer & Company; rev 2009) designed by Jolly Blackburn and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2011) designed by James Raggi. While the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons has been reasonably successful in the marketplace, it is now clear that it has failed to attract the large numbers of players that would be needed to restore the levels of popularity seen during the d20 era, perhaps partially due to competition from Pathfinder and its various fellow travellers. A fifth edition of the oldest Role Playing Game is, therefore, to be expected.

Regardless, it seems likely that traditional Role Playing Games will survive, though they are increasingly run using new methods which do not require players to be in the same physical location, including internet telephony, web forums and the use of a Computer Role Playing Game such as Neverwinter Nights (2002), which allows a group to play in a persistent Online World with one member adopting the role of the Gamemaster. The involvement of a skilled Gamemaster allows a degree of responsiveness and flexibility in the creation of story which is difficult to achieve in single player Computer Role Playing Games, and largely irrelevant to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, which are essentially simulations of imaginary worlds rather than Interactive Narratives. It may be, however, that the commercial future of the pen and paper form lies with a small group of "arthouse" customers rather than with the mass market. [NT]

see also: Conspiracy X; Psi World; Starfall; Underground.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies