I wound up looking at three different books that try to give an overview of roleplaying games and give recommendations for various specific games. These were published in 1990, 1991, and 1999, and they give an interesting glimpse into where the hobby came from and how it’s changed.
This is gonna be long.
I encountered Lawrence Shick’s book Heroic Worlds at the library ages ago, I think while I was still in high school and still a Palladium fanatic, and I had to do an inter-library loan to read it again, at least without forking over $30. The book was published in 1991, and once it gets through explaining what an RPG is and how the genre came to be, it has a 400-page catalog of every RPG book published in English from the inception of the hobby to the book’s publication, sorted by genre. This in particular really shows how the kinds of games being published have radically changed over time, particularly in contrast to today, 16 years later.
The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games
I found Rick Swan’s The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games at a used bookstore for $7.95. It was published in 1990, and while it’s basic format is very similar to Heroic Worlds, its main section is a collection of game reviews, arranged alphabetically. The fact that he gave Cyborg Commando 3.5 our of 4 stars makes his opinions (and he his pretty opinionated) a bit suspect though.
The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, Second Edition (1999)
This is an updated version of Sean Patrick Fannon’s 1994 book on the hobby. Unlike the other two, less than a quarter of its pages are dedicated to reviews of games; it concentrates much more on how to play RPGs, and goes into greater detail about their history.
Weird Little Games
While reading through these books, I came across a whole lot of obscure games. Fannon’s book is an exception, partly because it came out while I was well into the hobby, and partly because it contains a relatively small number of reviews. The only one there I hadn’t heard of before was Obsidian: The Age of Judgment, which is evidently still in print and readily available from the publisher. And of course John H. Kim’s Bigass List of Games is of course more complete, on account of being current and encompassing games in multiple languages as well. The Weird Old Games thread I started on Story Games lists off quite a few of these, including several I didn’t know about. It’s amazing, awesome, and a little distressing to see just how many games there are out there.
Fannon and Shick both go into great detail about the history of the medium. In particular, Fannon has a lot of detail about how wargames came about, and how they led into D&D. One of the things that seems obvious but is still worth examining is that, like in biological evolution, there were a number of transitional forms. Wargames started with indistinct counters with identical rules, and it was a particular naval warfare game where you suddenly had named ships with numerical statistics for armor, damage capacity, etc. Innovations like individual, recurring characters, and their growth over time, can also be traced to specific wargames.
Like any new medium, it took some time for people to figure out what they could do with role-playing games. Where wargames pretty much stuck with historical settings from their inception (in 17th century Prussia) up until Chainmail. I’m reminded a little bit of a somewhat obscure SF novel I read once called Burning Bright (by Melissa Scott), in which there is a popular VR RPG played all across interstellar civilization, but it’s just variations of a single scenario, until the protagonist comes along. In contrast, with RPGs there were a lot of games that tried for genres that don’t particularly resonate with the geeky types who are the bulk of the hobby, and it took some time for designers to come up with game mechanics that were less derivative of D&D. There were games designed as “reactions” to D&D — of which Tunnels & Trolls is probably the most enduring — and also games that were just trying out off-the-wall stuff to see if it’d work. A good number of people have heard of Boot Hill, TSR’s Western RPG (there were conversion rules for it and Gamma World in the AD&D1e DMG), but there were also stabs at ’20s gangsters, high school (Alma Mater), modern military, soap opera (Dallas!), pirates/swashbucklers (need to check out Lace and Steel one of these days…), pulp adventure, several different kinds of science fantasy, cavemen, Flash Gordon, and a really tasteless modern gang game (Ganghedge, which had “races” named for ethnic slurs).
There were also a handful of games that were intended to use the medium for some specific purpose. Dragonraid, for example, was designed as a form of Christian indoctrination, and the fact that it’s one of the very, very few games of its kind might explain why it seems to have a small following. In Confederate Rangers the U.S. government’s corruption leads to the southern states seceding and forming a new Confederacy, and the PCs are the heroic “confederate rangers” who use high-tech weapons and old-time values to keep the peace. I think it’s a neat concept for an alternate setting for Dogs in the Vineyard, but if Shick’s description of it is any indication it stinks of apologia. It’s also extremely obscure, and nigh-impossible to find.
Fannon’s is the only book new enough to include web URLs, though, depressingly, a lot of the links in his “Who’s Who of Game Companies” appendix are dead. Live ones include Board Enterprises, BTRC, Clockworks Games, Columbia Games, Crunchy Frog, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Flying Buffalo, Holistic Design, SSDC, Pagan Publishing, Pulsar Games, and Tri Tac. I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but there seems to be a general trend of small, venerable game publishers with badly designed websites for their neat stuff. I’ve already spent way too much damn money on RPG stuff lately, and here I’m seeing half a dozen games I’m tempted to order.
While the hobby isn’t what it was commercially, I’m still curious to see what a newer book along these lines would look like. Considering that RPGs only go back to around 1973 or so, 17 years is a long time. Heck, even 8 years is a long time. Fannon’s book came out just before sorcerer, before the indie movement even began. It was also just after TSR fell, in that period when everyone was still wondering what WotC would do with D&D. I remember meeting a group of hardcore AD&D1e guys who were adamant that they probably wouldn’t even play D&D3e.
I’m also very curious what Shick, Swan, and Fannon, not to mention Fine and Mackay, think of the current state of the hobby, particularly the whole indie thing. What Matt Snyder said on Story Games, that indie games and traditional RPGs are basically two separate hobbies with a lot of overlap, makes a lot of sense to me. Mackay, being a performing arts guy, would probably feel very much at home on the Forge. With some Google-fu it seems that Gary Alan Fine is a sociology professor at Northwestern University, Sean Patrick Fanon is apparently still a big gaming dude (his LiveJournal has the Go Play icon for an avatar!), but the other three seem to have dropped off the face of the earth. Or the net anyway.