Sunday, April 4, 2021

A Date for Monsters! Monsters! Monsters! Galore


Everything leaves a trace. That's been my guiding principle researching the history of early wargames and role-playing games: any commercial product that survives, no matter how obscure, had to be available somewhere and somehow, and that means a paper trail. All too often the products themselves give us little indication of when they were made, as was the case with today's subject, Monsters! Monsters! Monsters! Galore. But with the help of distributor catalogs, we can show how it became available in 1980.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Invention of the d4


When it comes to using Platonic solids as dice, the d4 is something of a special case. There are precedents that stretch back into ancient history for the use of the d6, d8, d12 and d20 as dice, as all four of those solids, when rolled, will land with a single face up, visible to all parties watching. A tetrahedron, however, lands with a vertex up, one face down and three faces on display. As the example of the Zazz Polyspheres shows (their d4 is on the left above), simply putting a number on each of the four faces of a tetrahedron does not immediately turn it into what we know as a d4. For a tetrahedron to generate a random number between 1 and 4 that will be visible to people observing the die from all angles, some innovation was required.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Western Gunfight (1970): the First RPG?


In 1970, a group of UK gamers located in Bristol published the first edition of their Western Gunfight rules, which recorded systems they had been running locally since the late 1960s. In the pages of their own obscure Bristol Wargames Society Journal, and in the widely-read Wargamer's Newsletter, they began to position these games not as traditional conflict simulations, but instead as ways of telling Old West stories involving continuous characters, like the villainous "El Manolito" enjoying the spoils of his success in this 1970 rendering above. When they shifted their focus to these characters and stories, had they crossed the threshold into what we should call "role playing"?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Does System Matter?


Dungeons & Dragons started out as a game with such an adaptable and open-ended set of rules that early adopters questioned whether any further published RPG systems were even necessary: DMs could make D&D into anything they wanted it to be, after all. But once the Blacow model took hold, and people began to understand system design through its lens, more attention was paid to how different designs could potentially yield results for players aligned to Blacow's "forms" (wargaming, role-playing, power-gaming, and storytelling). These would become the earliest arguments that system does matter, understood in frameworks like Donald W. Miller's typology of RPGs and wargames shown above.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Immersion and Role Playing in the 1970s


The idea that role playing involved a property called "immersion" occurred to the early adopters of the 1970s fairly early. The earliest explicit use I've found was that of Pieter Roos, as shown in this excerpt above from The Wild Hunt #15 (1977), where he identifies it as the overall goal of playing RPGs. Before the end of the decade, calls to "immerse yourself" began to appear in games and modules published by TSR. The Elusive Shift pays particular attention to the uptake of "immersion" as a term because of its relationship to how people in the 1970s understood the nature of role playing.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A History of Hero Points: Fame, Fortune and Fate

"Hero Points" was the name given by James Bond 007 (1983) to a quantified resource players could expend to alter the results of a particular system resolution. It built on an earlier innovation in the pioneering espionage RPG Top Secret (1980), which introduced "Fortune Points" and "Fame Points" in lieu of D&D saving throws. Over time, this idea took manifold forms in RPGs that followed, from Fudge and Fate Points to Artha in Burning Wheel to Inspiration in D&D 5th edition. Today, we'll look at how this system innovation took shape, beginning with Merle Rasmussen's original pitch for Top Secret, shown in this design letter above.

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 in a later visualization above.