Chapter X: Role-Playing Games
Over the past several chapters, I've mentioned certain "Geek Subsets," or fandoms and fields of interests within the subculture. In this chapter, I'll be giving a brief history of one of these subsets.
Back in the late 1960s, Gary Gygax created a strategy game called Chainmail, and later added to it with supplemental rules for fantasy creatures. By the mid-70s, the popularity of the game led to Gygax and his fellow developers expanding it under the name Dungeons and Dragons (later Advanced Dungeons and Dragons). Rather than simply moving pieces around a map, the players of Dungeons and Dragons would actually take on the roles of the characters they played, giving them personalities and character traits of their very own. The characters themselves were randomly assigned ability levels in various characteristics such as physical prowess, intelligence, and likeability through the rolls of dice. They were able to advance in ability and power through the successful completion of "adventures" and the slaying of their enemies.
What made Dungeons and Dragons different from previous strategy games was the detail put into the environment in which the adventures took place. Rather than being played on an abstract grid, the games took place in a world with a personality and culture of its own. Starting with Blackmoor and moving on to the still-popular World of Greyhawk, Gygax and his co-creators invented a fantasy world rich with enough mythology and history to sate the dreams of the most jaded Tolkien addict. Dungeons and Dragons became an astoundingly popular game. Published by Gygax and his cronies under the TSR imprint, the game soon popped up on the shelves of nearly every science fiction and fantasy fan in existence.
As other game designers and publishing houses caught wind of Gygax's creation, literally hundreds of gaming books clogged the market. Most were cheap ripoffs of the original concept (Tunnels and Trolls? Come on, you can do better than that), some showed a spark of originality. All were lapped up by the subculture like crack for poorly socialized smart people. Eventually, games moved beyond the fantasy genre, and began to cover such topics as space opera (Traveller and Star Frontiers), post-apocalyptic adventure (Gamma World), espionage (Top Secret and James Bond 007), and even soap opera (Dallas...and good lord, you so don't want to know).
The next major breakthrough in gaming came when Steve Jackson Games and Hero Games decided to create "universal" role-playing systems, meaning that they would have simple basic rules that could conceivably be applied to any genre whatsoever. Steve Jackson was more successful at this with their unfortunately-named GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) rules, as Hero Games couldn't help tweaking their system for every new genre.
At some point in the 1980s, a subtle change began to occur in gaming circles. Whereas previous campaigns (adventures that were considered to take place in the same world, using the same characters) had been largely oriented around the roll of dice and strict adherence to rules, a new generation of players discarded this in favor of character-driven adventures. Players obsessed over their fake people, giving them extensive histories and complex psychological motivations. Campaigns in which the characters were fighting evil slowly gave way to more morally ambiguous settings and adventures. Perhaps most importantly, TSR began losing their market share as a result.
By the early 90s, the gaming community was ready for a change, and White Wolf Games stepped up to meet the challenge. With the publication of Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf founder Mark Rein-Hagen and his designers took advantage of the recent popularity of the gothic scene and vampire novels to present a world in which the players portrayed angsty, blood-obsessed monsters caught in a society of intrigue and desperation. This played perfectly into the "No one understands the darkness of my soul" psychology of many geeks, and additionally served to draw in the goth crowd who had stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons years before. Soon basements and living rooms around the world were crowded with black-clad eyeliner-wearing femmeboys and spooky girls rattling dice and speaking in hushed, melodramatic tones.
In the meantime, TSR sold out to a company known best for an annoyingly addictive strategy card game.
White Wolf published a number of rather popular games in what they called their "World of Darkness" series. While none had the same cultural impact as their first major work, they all met with a certain amount of success in the field. Other game designers and companies took a cue from them, and started publishing their own works in which rules systems took a back seat to character development and role-playing. A renaissance of sorts occured within the community. with a new generation of "character over rules" campaigns popping up all over the place.
Eventually, White Wolf found a niche market in Live Action Role-Playing. LARPing had been the dirty little secret of the gaming world since Dungeons and Dragons first appeared on the scene. It seems that certain people enjoyed dressing up as their characters, and acting out their adventures at private homes and in public places. In fact, several urban legends had surrounded the disappearance of a troubled student from the University of Michigan who had allegedly enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons in the steam tunnels beneath the campus. While it was later discovered that his disappearance was totally unrealted to role-playing, the incident did inspire the exercable Mazes and Monsters book by hack writer Rona Jaffe, and a later TV movie starring Tom Hanks. As a result, TSR shied away from any discussion regarding LARPs. White Wolf had no such qualms. They published a boxed set of rules with instructions on how to keep people from getting hurt while playing, then sat back to watch the money roll in. Soon the same black-clad angsty individuals moved out of the basements and living rooms, congregating instead in backyards and rented spaces. This partly provided opportunities for increased role-play, but mostly gave them excuses to show off their costumes and props.
Today, the role-playing scene is in a state of flux. Companies rise and fall, games go in and out of style, and new genres are explored every day. One thing remains certain: For as long as geeks find it easier to socialize when they're pretending to be someone else, role-playing games will be a vital part of the subculture.