Thursday, August 21, 2014

Designers & Dragons: RPG Histories I Like

This is my 900th post. I have no idea how many words that is, but I average between 1300-1700 words per post, so that’s crazy. 900 means I’m within striking distance of 1000 sometime next year. That’s nuts. I ran into one person at Gen Con who followed the blog- so that's nicely validating. Anyway I hope if you follow Age of Ravens you're getting some useful ideas from it!

It’s ’77. I’m eight years old and we’re at the Arnold’s house. Across from me is John M. We’re still friends. This is years before middle school when he, Matt, David, and Rex would push me out of the group and ostracize me. I’m a kid and I’m probably an asshole so I probably deserve it. It’s before he’d borrow my copy of Top Secret and slather the cover with glow-in-the dark paint. Before we’d get together for sessions of Gamma World and all the other players would kill my new PC in the first five minutes and tell me to get out. I don’t tell my parents about that because despite all that I still love gaming and every once in a while I get to actually have a decent session.

But right now its 1977 and we’re playing a game while our parents and their friends have a dinner party or something. It’s Knights of the Round Table. It’s like an rpg where we play out little jousting fights. We’ve each got a deck of maneuver cards we play against each other. We dig player versus player battling rpgs. We ended up spending more time with Traveller’s Snapshot than the main game itself. But right now John and I are playing and having a good time- the only time I played that game. I’d forget the name of this little one-off pseudo-rpg from a one-off publisher.

Until last week, when I’m reading Designers & Dragons Vol. 1- 1970‘s and there it is- from a company called Little Soldier games. 

Knight's of the Round Table. That was it. That's how I learned what prowess and puissance meant because I had to go look them up. 

That’s one of the many reasons I love Designers & Dragons.

Designers & Dragons offers a four-volume history of the RPG Industry, from the earliest days through 2009. Each volume roughly covers a decade. Author Shannon Appelcline organizes that by the company’s founding- but traces their story up out of that framework. So while Volume One opens with the story of TSR, that tale covers the whole history from creation, through boom times, to management changes and finally to collapse and sell-off in the late 90’s. Appelcline does an amazing job organizing this information and drawing connections between these publishers' stories. It’s a tough balancing act- the paths of producers, lines, licenses, and authors crisscross throughout. Yet somehow he manages to keep things clear and manageable.

The material originally began as a series of history posts at RPGNet. I remember reading many of them there- especially the weirdness of Iron Crown Enterprises and the shifting editions. Later Mongoose Publishing gathered the essays together into a single volume which quickly vanished. I tried to track a copy down shortly after release but couldn’t find one for anything close to a reasonable price. Now Evil Hat has put together a cool new version. They cleverly opted to go with distinct volumes- giving each decade room to breathe. Additionally Appelcline has revised and expanded each volume. According to the publisher, he wrote an additional 50,000 words for volume one alone.  

Right now there’s a Kickstarter going on for these books, I don’t really need to boost for the series since they’ve already punched through their stretch goals. So what I’m saying is this: these are dynamite books. I enjoyed them immensely and if you have even a passing interest in where this hobby came from, you should back the Kickstarter or pick them up later when they arrive in general circulation. Check out a free sample of the TSR chapter there so you can see how Appelcline approaches the information. The Kickstarter page has a number of testimonials by gaming greats, but I’ll admit I didn’t listen to any of them. I’d been waiting for the project and I backed it pretty much immediately.

Part of what I like about this is that there isn’t anything else quite like it. We’ve seen some interesting early looks at gaming (Of Dice and Men, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games) and theoretical examinations of gaming (Second Person, The Functions of Role-Playing Games, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games). The most recent and talked about book has of course been Playing at the World which focuses on the earliest days of the creation of fantasy role-playing games and TSR. And the history of simulation games and mechanics stretching back to the 19th Century. And much, much more. I like PatW, but man is it a hard slog. It is a deeply academic text, tracing the evolution of elements like hit points, levels, and initiative back to Kriegspiel protoversions. I have to read that in small pieces and after nearly a year I’m only half way through the whole book.

On the other hand I tore through the first 400 page volume of Designers & Dragons in an evening. And then when Evil Hat released the second volume in electronic form to backers I ripped through that equally fast. Designers & Dragons is readable, comprehensive, well laid-out, and just plain fun.

Author Shannon Appelcline was kind enough to answer a few questions about the books and his research. You can see that post here.

I’ve been gaming pretty heavily since my sister got the original boxed set back in 1975. That same year we had a local game store open- The Griffon- which still remains in business. I think hardly a week passed that I didn’t go in to check the shelves. My sister worked behind the counter and then I did for many years. When I finished grad school I came back to South Bend and worked as Assistant Manager there and ran the upstairs game room for the shop for several years. I watched game lines rise and fall, I watched products sit on the shelves until they leapt into the used section, I watched weird edition shifts and strange marketing decisions.

I thought I knew a lot about the industry and the hobby- but these books pulled the curtain back and explained so many of the moves. I never really got what was happening with the Traveller licenses and why they dropped some products like a hot potato, I wasn’t sure why Steve Jackson split from Metagaming, and I had no idea what the full rationale was behind Chaosium selling Runequest to Avalon Hill. Designers & Dragons answered those questions and more. I can’t wait to read volumes three and four and then read everything again when they arrive in finished dead tree form.


  1. This interests me. It interests me a lot.

    Heroic Worlds and The Complete Guide to Role Playing Games stare at me from the shelf to my left as I type this. Yeah. A need a copy of this bad mamma jamma.


    1. Yes- while I think newer gamers will enjoy these books and learn a great deal about where gaming came from, veterans (like yourself) who lived through these times and bought these games will find much to love. It fills in some gaps and rings the bell for some nostalgia. In particular the Traveller section, which I know you have a stronger grasp on than I do, clarified some of the weird shifts in the game line.