A history of RPGs: Made by fans; played by fans

Paul Mason

Aichi Gakuin University, Nisshin, Japan

[0.1] Abstract—I explore some aspects of the early history of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) that are perhaps not well known among media scholars, and which offer an alternative take on the idea of fan activity.

[0.2] Keywords—Dungeons & Dragons; Fan object; Gaming; RPG

Mason, Paul. 2012. "A History of RPGs: Made by Fans; Played by Fans." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 11.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In the second issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, Rebecca Bryant described how fans of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) had "actually begun to alter the game system against the wishes of its owners" (2009). Bryant's paper reported on rebellious behavior by consumers of D&D, but the use of the word begun implies that this was a new phenomenon. I will here explore some aspects of the early history of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) that are perhaps not well known among media scholars, and which offer an alternative take on the idea of fan activity. Before tackling the general, however, I offer a specific instance to set the scene and contradict the word begun.

[1.2] In the 1970s, I played war games. I used toy soldiers and models to enact battles, with complex rules and dice determining how our strategies affected the games' outcomes. In 1978, I read The Lord of the Rings for the second time. In April of that year, in the magazine Battle for Wargamers, I read about a new form of war gaming that was becoming popular. It was called Dungeons & Dragons. The article explained how it was conducted; the description was sufficiently intriguing that I resolved to try it myself.

[1.3] However, I did not rush out and buy a copy. This was the age before the Internet made everything easy to order; and in any case, I was an impoverished schoolboy. What I did was to take my Middle-earth war gaming rules, expand the "hero combat" section with additional rules of my own, and start designing my own dungeon to play with my war gaming partner. The game took off. After a while, our group expanded and, as it happened, started using the D&D rules. I never bought them, though, and we later switched to Chivalry & Sorcery as well as games of our own devising.

[1.4] Is this an exceptional story? I argue here that it is not. Indeed, I would argue that it is a microcosm of the creation of role-playing games themselves, and that subsequent commercial development has attempted to erase the fan-created origins of the activity.

2. Role-playing from war games

[2.1] Whatever they later became, role-playing games started as war games (note 1). War games take many forms, ranging from the extreme abstraction of chess, through the spectacle of Warhammer toy soldiers, to the detail of a military computer simulation, but their essential nature is conflict between opposing sides based on rules. In this sense, they are traditional games, little different from board games such as Monopoly or Risk. By the 1960s, war games were a minor hobby, often employing miniature figures to represent soldiers and military hardware, and model scenery for the battlefield.

[2.2] As with all hobbies, however, participants experimented with variations: different ways of conducting the games. One of these experiments during the 1960s involved multiple players, each identifying with an officer on the battlefield. An element of these games that was initially viewed as a failure proved to be one of the most popular. In a Napoleonic game where factions led by players tried to capture a town, "the game dissolved into apparent chaos, and the armies never did get to the town" (Schick 1991, 17). The players had been seduced by the possibilities of play—in a ludic, or informal, sense where it becomes its own goal (note 2)—rather than victory.

[2.3] It is possible to argue, as Schick does, that it was this moment—the abandonment of the zero-sum contest—that role-playing games in the Dungeons & Dragons mold began. At this point, players were already associated with individual characters, with individual goals, continuing across a number of games. The formative spark that produced RPGs occurred when players did things their own way, running counter to the expectations of the designer and transforming the experience to suit themselves.

[2.4] These ideas were soon applied to a fantasy medieval game, and from this emerged the concept of the dungeon, an underground labyrinth containing dangers and treasure. Although much disparaged by role-playing fan writers from the late 1970s on, the dungeon was a key advance. It provided a limited environment—easily manageable by a single referee—in which the game could take place. The first edition of D&D, billed as Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures, was released in 1974.

3. The game is published

[3.1] Despite Schick's argument, the publication of the first edition of D&D (1974) makes a convenient origin point for role-playing games in the "third, narrow sense" identified by Andrew Rilstone (1994). Yet the first edition of D&D did not contain the words role-playing game. It was produced by a war-gaming company and still viewed as a form of war gaming. War gamers continued to view role-playing in these terms for many years, even after the popularity of war gaming was eclipsed by that of role-playing.

[3.2] In those very early days, D&D was, like most war gaming material, essentially fan driven. Although it was commercially published, it was rather shoddily written and produced. It was also rather incomplete. Many of the early role-playing fans were forced to be designers by the vagueness of the original rules. As fan Steve Darlington put it in 1998:

[3.3] The impenetrable rules forced players to invent their own rules and interpretations, and to begin thinking about rules systems and their design. It was here that the future RPG designers were being born. Secondly, players were focusing not on the game itself, but the idea behind the game. Though the rules were far from perfect, people recognised the potential of the new and incredible concept around which the game revolved. D&D is perhaps the first game that players purchased with the knowledge that at least half of the rules would have to be discarded or seriously altered.

[3.4] Lee Gold, editor of the seminal APA (amateur press association, a compilation fanzine from multiple authors) Alarums & Excursions since mid-1975, confirmed the ambiguity surrounding the original D&D rules. In order to make it playable, it was necessary for gamers to decide how to fill in the many gaps in the rules. This led to problems when groups interacted. She explains how this situation led to the creation of her fanzine:

[3.5] Eventually as playing styles diverged in LA, San Francisco, and Boston, I decided to start an APA so we could share ideas and keep from becoming so divergent that we couldn't participate in games together, so I started A&E in mid-1975. Early issues had articles by professionals like Dave Hargrave and Steve Perrin, Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus, Wes Ives and Phil McGregor, as well as a couple of somewhat confused letters from E. Gary Gygax (who couldn't quite figure out who was writing the zines he was commenting on and so misaddressed his own comments). But the bulk of the zines came (as they still do) from amateur roleplayers. Some writers loved a particular game system, some had house rules, some wrote about roleplaying in general. Some wrote fiction or poetry or songs, but most of the stories that appeared were writeups. (Gold, e-mail interview, March 6, 2012)

[3.6] The professionals writing for A&E were clearly fans in the sense that they were acting from emotional investment in the activity, and part of a fan community to boot. In this sense, until role-playing companies became large enough to start employing business professionals, everyone was a fan. For all that Rilstone and other critics (myself included) railed against D&D author Gary Gygax, it is unquestionable that he was a fan. He was not only a war gamer, but also played D&D and contributed to fanzines.

[3.7] The relatively marginal nature of the hobby affected how material was published: "Because role-playing games lost the interest of established game companies, and because major book publishers would never take a chance publishing something as unknown as role-playing game books, the role-players themselves published their own games" (Mackay 2001, 16).

4. Fan designers

[4.1] In my own case, I contributed to fanzines from 1980 onward, started my own fanzine in 1983, and then got a job at Games Workshop, publisher of the British professional RPG magazine White Dwarf, in 1985. But even while I was working on White Dwarf, I was still involved, via a pseudonym, in the publication of my fanzine Imazine. After leaving Games Workshop, I went back to publishing Imazine and writing for other fanzines, including Alarums & Excursions.

[4.2] Although I have dabbled with commercially published games—particularly during the time I was working for a games company—most of the games I played during the 25 years I was an active gamer were the creation of fans: myself or those I was playing with. By creation, I include those games that were modified from commercial games, or produced by combining aspects of multiple games. Nevertheless, a large proportion of them were original creations rather than modifications. I don't suggest that this was a typical situation, but it was not uncommon in the early days.

[4.3] In the 1980s, many active RPG fans believed they were the leading edge of role-playing game design, arguing that commercial RPGs only emerged from ideas that had been developed and tried in fan work. This assertion is open to question, but is supported to some extent by the many games produced by designers who had already been actively involved in fandom. Over the course of the years following the publication of D&D, examples of fan-made rules and fan-made settings were published in fanzines, and the idea that this was a normal and natural component of being a role-playing gamer was widespread. Many of these fan artifacts made their way into the commercial arena.

[4.4] D&D originated from fan activity, but its development continued to be nourished by fan activity. As an example of this process, Jonathan Tweet, a regular contributor to Alarums & Excursions, codesigned Ars Magica (his codesigner, Mark Rein·Hagen, went on to design White Wolf's World of Darkness games) before designing fan favorite Everway and then becoming one author of the third edition of D&D in 2000. Even at their commercial peak, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to describe the phenomenon of role-playing games as fan created.

[4.5] Role-playing games have moved in many directions since 1974. While many of the paths they have taken have been picked up commercially, in almost every case the original form was fan created, whether live action (Australian "freeforms," for example, as well as similar but different developments in the United States and United Kingdom), computer based (going back to Colossal Cave Adventure), or network based (the original MUDs).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Every area of fandom involves fan activity: fan creation, fan transformation. A fan of Star Trek may express her fannish interest in the series in many ways, including but not limited to fan fiction, critical analyses, costuming, fan video, and even role-playing games. Nevertheless, it would be hard to assert that Gene Roddenberry was a fan of Star Trek, much less that Desilu Productions was. Role-playing games, however, emerged directly from fan activity itself, and no matter how publishers have attempted to erase the traces, this characteristic has always remained. The revolting fans noted by Bryant were not only doing the same thing I did in 1978 when I refused to buy D&D (the only D&D rules I ever bought were the Ready Reference Sheets by a different publisher, Judges Guild), they were also doing the same thing as the Napoleonic war gamers whose "apparent chaos" created recreational role-playing in the first place.

6. Notes

1. Very little of the early history of RPGs has been critically described. Schick (1991) offers a general introduction, though being that of an industry insider, it must be approached with care. At the other extreme, outsider Fine (1983) wrote an influential scholarly text applying Goffman's frame analysis to the activity, including a reasonable summary of its origins. More analysis can be found in Rilstone (1994), Darlington (1998) and Mason (2004), though the latter focuses on the development of role-playing game theory rather than history per se. Probably the most accessible explanation of how D&D itself came into being, however, is by indie gamer Ron Edwards (2003).

2. It is telling that the word play, used in the technical sense of machinery, refers to the extent to which parts do not fit together snugly; in other words, the extent to which they do not conform.

7. Informed consent methodology

All sources cited in this paper were public, with the exception of an e-mail interview with Lee Gold. The interview was conducted with the prior agreement that it would be used and quoted in a paper. Gold specifically wrote "Please feel free to quote me" in her e-mail and approved the use of quotations in context before submission.

8. Works cited

Bryant, Rebecca. 2009. "Dungeons & Dragons: The Gamers Are Revolting!" Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 2. doi:10.3983/twc.2009.0083.

Darlington, Steve. 1998. "A History of Role-Playing, Part I: One Small Step for a Wargamer…" Places to Go, People to Be, no. 1, February.

Edwards, Ron. 2003. "A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons." The Forge, June 4.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gygax, E. Gary, and Dave Arneson. 1974. Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. Lake Geneva, WI: Tactical Studies Rules.

Mackay, Daniel. 2001. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Mason, Paul David. 2004. "In Search of the Self: A Survey of the First 25 Years of Anglo-American Role-Playing Game Theory." In Beyond Role and Play, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, 1–14. Helsinki: Solmukohta.

Rilstone, Andrew. 1994. "Role-Playing Games: An Overview." Inter*Action: The Journal of Role-Playing and Storytelling Systems 1: 10–15.

Schick, Lawrence. 1991. Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

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