Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Origins of Rule Zero


The idea that a gamemaster has the discretion to alter or discard published rules was not an invention of role-playing games: it derived from a wargaming tradition going back to the free Kriegsspiel of the nineteenth century. But role-players enshrined it as a principle that is today known as "Rule Zero", a proposed meta-rule of role-playing games -- albeit not an uncontroversial one. The critical position that we should hold this as a universal meta-rule occurred to the early adopters of role-playing games fairly early, as shown here, in the "Gamer's First Law" of Ed Simbalist (designer of Chivalry & Sorcery) in Alarums & Excursions #38 in 1978.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Player Typologies, from Wargames to Role-Playing Games

One of the threads that The Elusive Shift follows is the development of typologies that sorted players, or sometimes game designs or playstyles, into categories that reflect what kind of experience people want to have when they sit down to game. These form a significant component of contemporary RPG theory. I myself was surprised, doing research for the book, to discover threefold model typologies already discussed in the wargame community years before Dungeons & Dragons came out. In these early discussions, we can see the roots of much of the RPG theorizing that would follow, like the classic fourfold Blacow model shown here.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

A Forgotten Variant: Mythrules (1978)

The Elusive Shift talks about around 50 games published before 1980 that we might consider role-playing games -- "we might" because there was so much contention then about precisely what qualified as an RPG. Among the early games that self-identified as RPGs was the obscure Mythrules (1978) by Colin R. Glassey and Aaron Richardson Wilbanks. It escaped the attention of Heroic Worlds, and reportedly had a print run of just 100 copies. It is thus a game that is of interest not for any vast influence it exerted on posterity, but instead, as a manifestation of the creativity unleashed by the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, and the way that early adopters made role playing their own.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Elusive Shift, My New Book

Since Playing at the World came out, I've been asked now and again about extending its historical timeline for just a few more years. After toying with a few potential approaches to that, I ended up writing The Elusive Shift, which focuses on what gamers meant when they called something a "role-playing game" once that term came into fashion. Thus, The Elusive Shift is first and foremost an early history of RPG theory, and an exploration of whether the 1970s community succeeded in delineating a new genre of games from previous practices -- which is the "elusive shift" in the title. The book is also my love letter to the many small press games and fanzines through which gamers explored the possibilities of this new genre in the first five years of its existence.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Fredda Sieve and Her 1963 "Zazz" Dice


Dungeons & Dragons required the use of five polyhedral dice when it first came out, and back then in 1974, the only place TSR could acquire them was from Creative Publications. But theirs were not the first set of plastic Platonic solids marketed in America as dice. A decade before, Advertising Attractions, Inc. of New York sold the Zazz "Polyspheres" game, an invention of Fredda Sydney Sieve, which featured all five polyhedra with numbered faces. Today, we're going to look a bit at Sieve and how she came to make these plastic polyhedra.

Friday, October 9, 2020

d6s to Roll for Wandering Monsters in 1980


It doesn't get more old school than rolling a d6 to check for wandering monsters in a dungeon. In the early 1980s, rolling a "1" meant you were in for a fight. Back then, you could even acquire dice which replaced the "1" with a monstrous face: like the Flying Buffalo "Death Dice" (above left), or Lou Zocchi's Gamescience "Demon/Orc Dice" (right). But the very first dungeon delvers encountered wandering monsters when the die came up "6" -- the rule shifted to encounters resulting from a "1" around the time these two dice appeared. Read on for a bit more about dice in this tradition, and the change in the wandering monster rules that went along with them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Early Play-by-Post D&D in Britain


Earlier on in our quarantined year, this blog reviewed how some of the earliest adopters played Dungeons & Dragons by mail, as far back as 1975 -- but socially-distanced role playing was not exclusively a North American phenomenon. Today, in solidarity with social distancing on the other side of the Atlantic, let's look at early play-by-post D&D in Britain, including dungeons like the Anubis Labyrinths, which was carried in the zine Leviathan: the cover of issue #3, from September 1976, is shown above.