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A Brief History of Fashion in RPG Design

1975-1980: Explorational Wargames

There is no doubt that role-playing games in general originated from Dungeons & Dragons. The early games were clearly related to wargames, but with a twist. There was an explorational component, expressed as keyed maps fully known only to the GM. This map-based approach to adventure was vital to how adventures were conceived.

It is worth noting that this is a very player-driven approach in many ways, compared with later story-oriented adventures. While it is expected that the players stay within the bounds of the underground complex, the pace and direction of the actions is generally controlled by the players. Especially with a published module, the GM's function becomes almost marginal -- revealing the contents of the keyed description for that map location, and rolling for monsters.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1973: Dungeons & Dragons (TSR)
1975: En Garde (GDW), Tunnels & Trolls (FB)
1977: Melee (Metagaming)
1978: Gamma World (TSR)
1980: Dragonquest (SPI)

1978-1988: Literary Simplicity

Certainly in reaction to the wargame-like approach of D&D, a more literary approach to role-playing came at first from Chaosium. It made a number of games from literary adaptations. For Chaosium, the rules were based on a percentile skill-based system originally developed for "RuneQuest". However, later revisions of it came to be known as "Basic Roleplaying" (BRP), and were simpler than RQ.

BRP's approach had a few key ideas:

* A simple system which tried to be transparent.
* Personality mechanics tailored to genre, such as CoC's Sanity and Pendragon's Virtues.
* More literary genres, with more emphasis on setting and culture rather than violence.
* Investigatory adventures, where play revealed a back-story of some sort. A typical adventure would have described locations, but more importantly would have clues through which the PCs could uncover the history of the current situation. Doing so would quickly lead to the resolution of the adventure.

I would call RuneQuest a precursor to this fashion. The later literary Chaosium games generally simplified the RuneQuest system, and tried to add genre-based options.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1978: RuneQuest (Chaosium)
1981: Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium), Stormbringer (Chaosium)
1983: Ringworld (Chaosium)
1985: Pendragon (Chaosium), Skyrealms of Jorune
1987: Ars Magica (Lion Rampant)
1988: Space:1889 (GDW)

What is interesting in this is the approach of GDW to their Space:1889 game. In a major change from their previous efforts in "Traveller 2300" and "Twilight 2000", they went with a very rules-lite approach for Space:1889. However, this turned out unsuccessful.

1980-1988: Rules-Heavy Worlds

The eighties began with a move towards more completist rules sets. The key system which began the trend was Iron Crown Enterprise's Rolemaster, which came out as a series of rules modules. This also took some inspiration from RuneQuest -- but whereas BRP simplified the RuneQuest rules, Rolemaster added more detail and complexity. Stylistically, this was a move towards a more gritty, naturalist type of game. Where D&D modules were about isolated dungeons, these modules were about regions of the world. One can see this clearly in the product lines for Space Opera, Middle Earth Role-Playing, Twilight 2000, and HârnMaster.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1978: RuneQuest (Chaosium)
1980: Rolemaster (ICE), Space Opera (FGU)
1981: Aftermath (FGU)
1983: Powers and Perils (Avalon Hill)
1984: Middle Earth Roleplaying (ICE), Twilight 2000 (GDW)
1986: HârnMaster (Columbia), Phoenix Command (Leading Edge), Space Master (ICE), Traveller 2300 (GDW)

1984-1993: Comical Rules-lite

The competing trend in the eighties was the emergence of truly rules-lite systems -- certainly in part in reaction to the heavy rulesets. This was kicked off in 1984 with Steve Jackson Games' Toon and TSR's Marvel Superheroes. Hallmarks include:

* A focus on beginning players. This includes a very quick and easy introductory guide, along with components for use in play (like Marvel's character cards, maps, and counters).
* Simple and colorful mechanics.
* Comical genres, in the sense of naturally illustrated through comics or cartoons. This is explicit in Marvel, Toon, and Prince Valiant -- but true for the rest as well. Paranoia's tone is set by the darkly humorous comics and taglines in the rulebook.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1984: Adventures of Indiana Jones (TSR), Chill (Pacesetter), Marvel Superheroes (TSR), Paranoia (WEG), Toon (SJG)
1986: Ghostbusters (WEG)
1987: Teenagers from Outer Space (RTG)
1988: Macho Women With Guns (BTRC)
1989: Prince Valiant (Chaosium)
1993: Amazing Engine (TSR)

This trend was very strong for a short time. Companies produced some RPGs which look quite different from previous efforts and future ones. However, the trend died out. Nineties publishing saw the end of the boxed set and the colorful 32-page booklet. Both Chaosium's Prince Valiant and TSR's Amazing Engine games were marketplace disappointments. The nineties were dominated by more crunchy, darker-toned games.

1986-Present: Universal Problem-Solving

Steve Jackson Games grabbed a solid central market share with its game GURPS. While Chaosium had tried a similar approach with "Worlds of Wonder" in 1982, it was half-hearted at best. In many ways, this trend is the natural extension of the "Rules-Heavy Worlds" movement. It was impractical to develop and test a new complex rule set for each setting, so the rules were developed separately. Nearly all RPG companies developed their own house system, and many publish it in a "universal" form at some point.

But besides being universal, there were other elements that GURPS emphasized.

* True to the rules-heavy predecessors, there is a focus on world background -- but little focus on matching genre conventions of the stories. GURPS also developed an emphasis on real-world research and history.
* Sourcebooks and adventures tended to be well-researched and literate. But whereas the "Literary Simplicity" movement had adventures which revealed a genre-tinged backstory, GURPS adventures tend to be about skillful problem-solving. This is more than tactical combat, but it
* GURPS adapted the open point-based character creation of Hero Games' "Champions". This introduced a distinct aesthetic of character modelling into system design -- conceiving a character independent of system and then trying to build it within the system.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1986: GURPS (SJG)
1989: The HERO System (Hero)
1990: CORPS (BTRC)
1996: The D6 System (WEG)
1999: Simply Roleplaying (Microtactix)
2002: The Action! System (GRG), EABA (BTRC)
2003: Silhouette CORE Rules (DP9), Tri-Stat DX Core System (GoO)

1987-Present: Fast Cinematic Action

In the late eighties, as the rules-heavy and rules-light trends competed, there were two key transitional systems: West End Games' "Star Wars" (1987) and FASA's "Shadowrun" (1989). Both of these were mechanically innovative, popularizing and elaborating the dice pool concept. But they also represented a shift in genre and flavor. They were colorful and action-packed, and they introduced the concept of character templates.

Perhaps more importantly, these games began to take movies -- and in particular action movies -- as a very strict model. Published adventures began to appear which were organized into a sequence of "scenes", often divided into "acts". Each scene had a location, often with boxed text to be read. This was highly influential even among older games. For example, many 2nd edition AD&D adventures had a similar structure.

What is distinct about the cinematic trend is that dice pools tended to be abandoned. The mechanics varied, but the emphasis was on finding a fast-resolving but still exciting mechanic to handle the cinematic combats. The style of play emphasized speeding through any sort of slow-moving parts to get on with the next scene. This is epitomized in the approach of Feng Shui. Broadly speaking, key qualities are:

* Character Templates: These are not classes, but closer to quick ready-to-use pregenerated characters. The emphasis is on speeding through character creation to get to the action.
* Fast Resolution: There is a focus on making combat quick to resolve, rather than tactically challenging or balanced.
* Scene-by-Scene Adventures: Adventures are broken down into scenes, each of which has a specific dramatic purpose.
* Cinematic Influence: Games were very specifically patterned after various subgenres of action movies.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1987: Star Wars (WEG)
1989: Shadowrun (FASA)
1990: Torg (WEG)
1993: Earthdawn (FASA)
1994: Masterbook (WEG)
1996: Feng Shui (Daedalus), Deadlands (PEG)
1997: Champions: The New Millenium (RTG)
1998: Hercules & Xena (WEG)
1999: 7th Sea (AEG)
2002: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Eden)

1991-Present: Dark Storytelling

A parallel and related trend was the one set by White Wolf's "Vampire: The Masquerade" (1991). It was enormously popular among players and influential among designers. It solidified the trend to dice pool started by "Star Wars" and "Shadowrun" -- and that soon became the most popular approach of the nineties.

More important was its change in tone, layout, and approach.

* Whereas cinematic action tended to focus on speed of resolution, storytelling games tend to use dice themselves as a means of flavor. White Wolf dice pools mean viscerally handling numbers of dice and counting out successes. In Nomine used its "d666" approach.
* "Splats": These are groupings which are chosen as part of character creation, such as vampire clans. They are first and foremost in-game social and cultural groups -- a basis for character identity. They may or may not be mechanically significant as classes.
* Adventures, from what I have seen, have a chapter and/or scene breakdown. However, rather than action set-pieces, the emphasis is on mood-setting.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1991: Vampire: The Masquerade (WW)
1992: Werewolf: The Apocalypse (WW)
1993: Mage: The Ascension (WW), Kult (Metropolis)
1994: Immortal: The Invisible War (Precedence), Nephilim (Chaosium)
1994: Changeling: The Dreaming (WW)
1996: Fading Suns (Holistic), Witchcraft (Myrmidon)
1997: Legend of the Five Rings (AEG), In Nomine (SJG)
1998: Warlock: Dark Spiral (Black Gate), Tribe 8 (DP9)

An interesting offshoot of this trend has been the success of European translations/adaptations. These include Chaosium's translation of "Nephilim" from French, Metropolis' translation of the Swedish game "Kult", and SJG's adaptation of the French game "In Nomine".
1991-Present: Diceless Fantasy

Diceless was undoubtably kicked off by Eric Wujcik's "Amber Diceless Role-playing" (1991). However, the influence is more than just a lack of randomizers. It was also a shift to a more rules-lite, GM-moderated approach. Stats are reduced to just a handful (like Amber's four).

The trend also includes a shift towards a more dream-like fantasy quality of stories, which seems suited to the less mechanical approach -- like the surreal Burroughs-esque "Over the Edge", the baroque fantasy of "Castle Falkenstein", or the interdimensional visionary worlds of "Everway".

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1991: Amber Diceless (Phage)
1992: Over the Edge (Atlas)
1993: Theatrix (Backstage)
1994: Castle Falkenstein (RTG)
1995: Everway (WotC)
1998: Dragonlance: The Fifth Age (TSR)
1999: Nobilis (Pharos)

2000-Present: Crunchy Challenge

The new millenium has seen a revival of the explicitly crunchy, tactical approach which largely died out in the eighties. The center of this by far has been the success of WotC's 3rd edition D&D and the "D20" system. There is renewed attention paid to game balance and tactical depth, and a revival of the explorational approach of original D&D.

I see this largely as a reaction against the limitations of the linear story-oriented approaches of both the "Fast Cinematic Action" and the "Dark Storytelling" movements. There is also reaction against the neglect of game balance in favor of speed and/or mood.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

2000: D&ampD 3rd edition (WotC)
2001: Exalted (WW), Hackmaster (Kenzer), Rune (Atlas), Wheel of Time (WotC)
2002: The HERO System (5th ed), Silver Age Sentinels (GoO)


Among these nine movements, we can generalize further. From the original exploration wargame approach, the early 80's saw a divergence into more serious world-based rules-heavy and more comical rules-lite. These essentially merged in the 90's after "Vampire: The Masquerade", with rules-heavy mechanics succeeding though combined with a serious dramatic approach. The pendulum seems to be swinging back in 2000 with the success of D&D3, however.

While the problem of "railroaded" adventures is old news to many role-players, it seems clear that the industry is still struggling with finding a solution to it. How do you provide effective support for running adventures without laying out a plot to follow? During the 90's, the approach of providing maps and background had all but disappeared in favor of chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene plots. With the revival success of D&D, though, this may be reconsidered.

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