Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My Top Ten Most Important Moments in Roleplaying History (article)

(Note: this list has been placed up elsewhere in the past and is now placed here for easy reference.)

1. Jerome K. Jerome visits H.G. Wells (by 1913)
Unusual start, you might think. But after dinner, Jerome started firing a toy cannon at some toy soldiers and Wells started firing back. They thought that adding some rules would be a good idea and took influence from a form of wargame played for the previous century by Prussian military (called Kriegsspiel). After several revisions, the renowned author of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine published his 60 page book Little Wars (the full title is "Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books". How times change...)
Little Wars had a significant impact on the production of Chainmail and Gary Gygax praised it in his foreword to the 2004 reprint. Wells is often called the Father of Miniature Wargaming. Fact.

2. Gary Gygax plays Dave Arneson's Blackmoor (Nov 1972)
Dave Arneson liked his wargames to have non-combat objectives and was partial to the Tolkien-inspired fantasy options in Chaimail (by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perrin). He invented a dungeon crawling adventure called Blackmoor that Gygax finally played at Gen Con 5 in 1972. Gygax loved the game and (long story short) the two went on to become co-creators of Dungeons and Dragons (and you don't get much more seminal in roleplaying than that).
The "co-creator" tag is a compromise, largely. The two fell out dramatically, mainly due to Arneson resenting Gygax's creative claims. However, it can be said that if Arneson lit the torch, Gygax ran with it. D&D remains synonymous with roleplaying.

3. Steve Jackson, John Peake and Ian Livingstone found Games Workshop (1975)
These three school mates created a small business to make wooden board games and publish articles about "progressive gaming". The company secured a deal to distribute TSR materials and quickly grew into a premier publishing company. Games Workshop would go on to become a titan of the gaming industry.
Jackson (not to be confused with the GURPS designer of the same name) and Livingstone sold their stakes in GW back in 1991, but Games Workshop isn't their only great legacy. In 1982, they produced a book through Puffin called The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. A solo adventure in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, their book incorporated game elements (such as rolling to defeat monsters or traps). Their line of Fighting Fantasy books were highly popular and many other titles flooded shelves in the Eighties and Nineties.
PC gaming has largely pushed adventure books aside, but many older gamers can cite the influence a Fighting Fantasy book had on their formulative roleplaying years.

4. Bryan Wiese watches Robin and Marion whilst reading The Lord of the Rings (1977)
Bryan Wiese had never heard of D&D, roleplaying or even reenactment. But while being immersed in both a book and film he was inspired to find a way to recreate the adventure and combat in those works. He founded Dagohir which, though maybe not the earliest game of its type, is the earliest recorded live-action roleplaying game.
Getting the action off the table and onto a field was a natural extension of roleplaying and many independant groups started around the world. Combining roleplaying, sport, theatre and historical reenactment, larping has gained significant attention recently. Large German events can attract thousands.
Live action events are subject to various definitions, and there are many with no contact (such as White Wolf's global Minds Eye Theatre games). Nordic countries have a reputation for bleak and high concept storytelling and Australia has a strong tradition of "freeforming" (non-contact larp).

5. James Dallas Egbert III attempts suicide (15 April 1979)
Michigan State University student James Egbert disappeared from his dorm room, entered the college steam tunnels, and swallowed some pills in an attempt to end his own life. It was unsuccessful and, after waking, hid at a friend's house. The search for him took a turn when private investigator William Dear suggested that Dungeons and Dragons was a contributing factor (Dear would later regret making this correlation). The local media whipped up fear by (falsely) reporting that he was roleplaying in the steam tunnels.
The resulting paranoia (especially of a religious nature) that followed still clouds roleplaying to this day. Chick Publications released the glorious Dark Dungeons which blatantly links roleplaying with Satanic occultism and Pat Pulling (who blamed her son's suicide on roleplaying and founded BADD: Bothered About D&D) created a frenzy of anti-roleplaying sentiment that was ripped to pieces by game designer Michael Stackpole in The Pulling Report.
The story ends badly. Egbert attempted suicide once more before succeeding on his third attempt. He was 17.

6. Release of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (11 June 1982)
Say wha-? What the hell does E.T. have to do with any of this?
E.T. was a marketing phenomenon. It was the highest grossing film ever for its time and was the first major film to suffer video piracy. In a time when most people had to pay a ticket to see a film, E.T. was a must-see.
So, with a high stake in the family market you can't show anything too controversial. But in this blockbuster we see a bunch of kids roleplaying, and keep in mind this is about the time when roleplaying is seen as being literally in league with the devil. And the portrayal isn't comical or scandalous or offensive; it just shows a group of young gamers doing exactly what young gamers do. Marking character sheets, giving out characters, discussing what to have on the pizza, even explaining to the mum how nobody "wins" it.
The game was a modern pop-cultural nod in a film that was designed to be an immediate pop culture success. Compare it to the sensationalist Mazes and Monsters (with Tom Hanks) also released in 1982 and you'll see why E.T. is such an iconic moment of roleplaying representation.

7. Mark Rein-Hagen travels to Gen Con with Stewart Wieck and Lisa Stevens (August 1990)
This is the second time Gen Con has popped up, so it could have been fair to give the first Gen Con in 1968 its own spot on this list. On the way to this event, Rein-Hagen (of Lion Rampant) came up with the idea of a modern day game about vampires. Stevens (also of Lion Rampant and now CEO of Paizo) engineered a merger with Wieck's White Wolf Magazine and the next year Vampire: the Masquerade was released by new company White Wolf Publishing Group.
Over the course of about 15 years, White Wolf's star rose dramatically, shone brilliantly, and crashed spectacularly. They achieved notable success with their World of Darkness line which near dominated the gaming industry for much of the mid-nineties. Some poor decisions, player disillusionment and sheer bad luck saw them massively slump in popularity and they were finally bought by CCP Games (of EVE Online) in 2006.
However, White Wolf left a huge mark on game design. Their desire to embrace the more artistic aspects of roleplaying and game presentation were inspiration for many in the '00's indie explosion and the higher standard of their published books forced other game companies to improve the quality of theirs. They surfed a cultural wave; it's a pity they floundered on the beach.

8. Peter Adkinson turns down Richard Garfield's Robo Rally (1991)
Garfield approached Wizards of the Coast (then a small roleplaying publisher) with his board game Robo Rally, but Adkinson felt that the cost was out of his league. He asked Garfield if he could come up with something portable, fast-playing and cheap to make.
The result was Magic: the Gathering, which debuted in 1993. It proved massively popular, started the collectible card gaming boom, and grew Wizards of the Coast into one of the biggest game companies ever.
Magic is blamed for destroying many roleplaying groups, clubs and stores as card gaming quickly pushed aside tabletop rpgs. However, it remains incredibly popular and continues to this day.
Wizards of the Coast would achieve even more success with Pokemon and bought out TSR (owners of Dungeons and Dragons) in 1997. Getting hold of the world's most iconic roleplaying game was a boon for the company, as we will see later...

9. Ultima goes Online (24 September 1997)
This was a hard call. I kinda want to steer clear entirely of PC/video/console gaming, but in all good faith it needs to be considered. Computer games have taken cues from roleplaying for many years. Mazewar from 1974 (!) takes place in a virtual maze where players shoot each other (players could play over ARPAnet, too). Jumping ahead, TSR licensed SSI for the first AD&D computer game Pool of Radiance in 1988. But back in 1981, Richard Garriott produced the first of his Ultima games.
Text-based Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) allowed many people to play together in the same world, but combining such an experience with a visual interface was beyond the abilities of contemporary hardware, though a few had tried. Ultima Online finally came out in '97 and truly launched the age of the MMO.
It was rapidly succeeded (and surpassed) with Everquest (or "Evercrack" for its addictive reputation) which in turn was supplanted in 2004 by new heavyweight title World of Warcraft.
As another note, the terms "roleplaying game" and "RPG" are now indelibly ingrained in the public's mind as digital gaming terms rather than traditional pen and paper games, which I find sad. Just try googling "rpg" and see what you get.

10. Wizards of the Coast produces the Open Gaming License (2000)
By the end of the Nineties, D&D had become a joke. The format was tired and stale. The game showed its faults. There were far too many better products on the market. And TSR management were running the company into the ground. Wizards of the Coast bought it out and got to work revamping D&D.
Most D&D fans weren't expecting the product to be as good as it was (anti-WotC sentiment ran as high as anti-D&D did) but the true innovation was the Open Gaming License that came with it.
The brainchild of Ryan Dancey (bless his soul), the OGL basically gave permission for anybody to create publications for the 3rd edition of D&D. Third party publishers sprang to arms, producing guides, adventures, setting books and more with various success and quality. Established companies (such as White Wolf, Chaosium and Pinnacle) had a new medium and new companies also were able to use the OGL to kick-start their careers.
3rd edition/d20 became the most popular game of the '00s and easily the best supported title to be seen in that time. It also gave D&D back the credibility it so desperately needed.

You'll notice that there's nothing for the last 13 years. Did nothing happen?

Yes and no. 3rd ed D&D floated well for much of the 00's. White Wolf fell in a hole. Chaosium and Steve Jackson Games did their thing. 4th ed D&D dropped the ball and Paizo Publishing picked it up with Pathfinder. The indie scene exploded with a blast of creativity and continues to produce excellent games if you can find them. Warhammer 40K transferred to tabletop roleplay with success. And the latest trend seems to be the retrospective Old School Roleplaying (OSR) movement.

Bit big events? Market shaking ones? Not there. That being said, a good argument could be made in favour of Kickstarter and the Forge website, both incredibly important to the current world of roleplaying.

As it stands, this list is subject to change.

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