Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Designers & Dragons: Q&A with Shannon Appelcline

A few weeks ago Evil Hat launched the Kickstarter for a new edition of Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons, a four-volume comprehensive history of the role-playing industry. Appelcline, a designer with roots at Chaosium has become an important historian of gaming. He's presented historical notes for the digital releases of classic TSR materials, offering insight and putting these products in context. Appelcline generously offered to answer a few questions via email about the books and his research. You can see my thoughts about Designers & Dragons in a separate, parallel post here.  

1. I rode down to Gen Con with a gamer who has been playing since high school but who gave me a blank look when I mentioned companies like R Talsorian or even the more recent Eden Studios. What does Designers & Dragons offer to gamers in general and to modern rpg’ers in particular? Why should they be interested?

Most obviously, Designers & Dragons offers our history: how we got to the 40th anniversary of roleplaying in 2014, and who we should remember along the way. It includes all the fun stories about your favorite companies that you probably don't know about. However, you point to the other cool thing about Designers & Dragons: it details the history of all the companies that you don't know about — the tales of their designers and the games that they produced. It doing so, it might just open up your roleplaying repertoire to something new.

To offer an example: I had pretty poor knowledge of the indie movement of the '00s before I started writing Designers & Dragons. I was plenty familiar with their predecessors from the '80s — games like Ars Magica (1987), King Arthur Pendragon (1985), and Paranoia (1984) — but as with many gamers I'd mainly settled with the games that were out when I was in college. Since writing Designers & Dragons, I've discovered whole new realms of roleplaying possibilities. I've used some techniques from an indie game called InSpectres (2002) in my current Pathfinder (2009) campaign, and I'm playing with the possibility of using Burning Wheel (2002), Dungeon World (2012), or 13th Age (2013) as the basis of my next campaign. Those are all games that I learned about by writing Designers & Dragons — and that others might learn about too by reading the books.

2. You mention the Egbert incident and the resulting crusade against D&D as paradoxically a major boost for TSR and RPGs in the early 1980s. Were there other factors you saw during this (or other boom periods) that really fed success- cultural, social, media, literary?

There's no doubt that James Egbert incident — where a college student went missing and D&D ;got blamed nationally — multiplied the success of D&D (and roleplaying). However, our industry was on a pretty steep upward slope ever since D&D's release in 1974. If you look at some of the self-reported financial data from TSR, their sales were doubling year over year (and then doing better than that when Egbert came along).

The "why?" is a much tougher question. I think roleplaying's success started because D&D offered a unique take on gaming that let players take a very personal investment in a game. This was quite different from the miniatures wargames that preceded it. I also think that D&D initially prospered because of the wide-spread cultural interest in the Lord of the Rings in the late '60s and early '70s. Finally, you have to consider the lack of other interactive entertainment at the time. Board games that were more sophisticated than the typical family fare were still pretty scarce, and you didn't yet have video games. You put together a product that fulfills all those varying desires, and it's not a surprise that you get something that's very popular — and that helped roleplaying boom for almost a decade, into the early '80s.

We of course saw another big boom from 2000-2003. That one seems to have been driven more by internal pressures — by the fact that people were initially willing to purchase any "official" D&D/d20 products, no matter who published them. The early 21st century may also have seen a roleplaying industry that was old enough that lapsed gamers could come back — and d20 got enough publicity to bring some of them back into the fold. However, I suspect that the resurgence of fantasy interest led by the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings movies helped. Heck, MMORPGs may even have fed into it. A rather surprising twist in the 21st century is that fantasy and science-fiction have become cool again.

3. You’ve done an amazing job covering all corners of the industry during these periods- including some significant controversies over money, credit, and IP. What was the most challenging part of doing this research?

Thanks for the kind words.

In general my research focuses on a two-part process. First I hunt down company profiles, design notes, interviews, press releases, and podcasts involving the principals of the companies. I use them to build a narrative. Then I talk with any principals that I can so that they can review my work, and we can see if any mistakes or misrepresentations crept into the history. I've had two problems with this process at various times.

First, some companies aren't represented in the written record, which makes writing their histories troublesome. Lou Zocchi's Gamescience was one of the most difficult. There was no doubt that Lou was a really important person in the early industry, but he didn't tend to write anything himself, nor did he give many interviews. In the end, I put together what notes I could from the very scattered references, then I spent several hours talking to him over a few long phone calls. Because more of the article was based on a modern-day interview, it's probably not as accurate as something based on sources from the time, but it's also better than not including Gamescience at all.

Second, sources were sometimes in conflict either with each other or with a principal's very strident beliefs in the modern day. I had to weigh what to trust and what to write if I couldn't figure out who to trust. Sometimes I opted to drop long-standing rumors from the industry, such as the whispered claim that Bucci Imports contributed to the demise of West End Games; it could still be true, but after talking with the people who had access to West End's financial records, and who absolutely said that the shoe business wasn't at fault, I was no longer comfortable even listing it as a possibility. In many other cases I listed the two viewpoints and noted they were in disagreement.

4. Are there products or publishers you see as so ahead of their time that it undercut them?

I actually think our industry has done a pretty good job of responding appropriately to the innovation of games. I think that Cyberpunk (1988) offers a great example of a game that was very innovative and largely revamped the science-fiction portion of the industry as a result. Eclipse Phase (2011) is a similarly innovative game for the modern day, and though it hasn't created a subgenre of competitors like Cyberpunk did, it certainly seems to have been successful as a game that once more changes how you think about science fiction.

When games that were ahead of their time didn't do as well, I think it was primarily due to other factors. Consider my trio of great storytelling games of the '80s. Paranoia had great ideas about how to recreate roleplaying, but it never figured out how to create a roleplaying campaign, and its line development was very uneven after Ken Rolston left. Meanwhile, King Arthur Pendragon and Ars Magica, which reinvented roleplaying in other ways, were both constrained by their very tight and contained settings. If you move up to the '90s, Last Unicorn Games' Aria (1994) books had some brilliant ideas about roleplaying other things than individuals, but I think their complexity kept anyone from ever playing the game. Though none of these before-their-time games were huge hits, I don't think it was the innovation that kept players from embracing them in the mass-market.

With that said, I might have one answer for your question of an RPG hurt by its innovation: Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991). That game was always going to be somewhat constrained because of its very specific setting and its borderline small-press publication. However, in the groups that I was part of it, it got a bad reputation because of its diceless mechanics — which of course were one of the things that made it innovative. If it'd appeared a decade later as an early indie game, I think it might have been even more widely lauded ... but, then, there might not have *been* an indie revolution without Amber (and a few of the other games I've mentioned from the '80s).

5. My sister bought all of the gaming magazines growing up: ;Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Space Gamer, Different Worlds, The Dragon. There’s a theme running through the first two volumes of companies being unsure how to position magazines and yet investing heavily in creating them. What was the appeal? Is there anything that seemed to define a magazine with legs vs. one which failed? Are we past the era of the “magazine”-electronic or otherwise- in gaming?

I love roleplaying magazines too; they were the main source of my earliest research for Designers & Dragons. However, I honestly don't think there's such a thing as a roleplaying magazine with legs. In the end, I'd contend that they all either failed or else were kept alive as a marketing adjunct for a company's other roleplaying production.

The problem is that magazines are hideously expensive in time and resources and if you try to get them into the mainstream where they could sell in much larger numbers, you suddenly run full-steam into a broken system of distribution where the magazine publishers expect to lose money, then make it up on ad sales. This is all before the advent of the internet directly undercut the prime advantages of magazines like news and more personal contact between creators and fans.

As for their appeal, I think there are a few factors.

First, they're an easy entry point to the hobby. It's easier to think about a Call of Cthulhu magazine (like Pagan Publishing did) or a D&D magazine (like Jennell Jaquays did) or a Traveller magazine (like DGP did) than it is to think about creating a larger, more coherent supplement for the same system — let alone a whole gaming system of your own. This is before you realize that it's actually a lot cheaper to create that more complex supplement, mind you.

Related, in the '80s and '90s magazines were an accepted way for fans to contribute to their favorite games without getting tied up in questions of licensing and royalties. Sometimes those fan efforts would also grow to something more (though as usual, it was typically at the cost of the magazine itself).

Second, from the point of view of existing publishers back before the '00s, it was a great way to stay in touch with customers. This was surely the genesis of early magazines like TSR's Dragon and Chaosium's Wyrm's Footnotes. In those early days, I think some publishers also focused on the benefit of altruistically creating a magazine like Different Worlds or the second incarnation of Space Gamer that could really help to draw the industry together.

I do think we're largely past the era of the print magazine, as much as it pains me to say it (and though I have a print subscription to Gygax Magazine). However, I think that online magazines are still alive and well, particularly on the fanzine side of things. Great online 'zines like The Oerth Journal and Star Frontiersman are still around to various extents, and the next great fan magazine could be just around the corner.

6. In the first two volumes we see some discussion of the impact of these American games overseas, in particular on the British scene. I'm wondering during that period how important the non-English speaking market was? Were there companies trying to break into it, and if so how much success did they have? Was there much movement the other direction- games or ideas from companies outside North America or the UK? (This may be outside what you looked at, but I'm curious about how role-playing got started in these other countries).

Designers & Dragons concentrates on the English-speaking market, so I haven't done a lot of research on the foreign markets, so take what I say here with a grain of salt.

I know that TSR actively worked at getting into the international market, so they had licensed companies to publish D&D in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere in the '80s, then TSR UK began publishing into a few of those foreign markets directly in the '90s. As for the rest of the RPG industry: I'd be surprised if many of them were big enough to proactively seek out foreign publishers, though certainly many foreign publishers contracted licenses for some of their favorite RPGs.

As for the effect of foreign publishers on the English market:

TSR actually had an interesting situation where a couple of the people involved with their French translations ended up working for TSR.

François Marcela-Froideval was one of the founders of the roleplaying industry in France and the editor of its first magazine, Casus Belli (1980-1999), so when he came over to TSR in 1982, he immediately began working with Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer on core rules for AD&D. Because Marcela-Froideval was working as an assistant to Gygax it's a little hard to assess how much he individually contributed to the D&D game, but he definitely was a part of the teams working on Monster Manual II (1983) and Oriental Adventures (1985) — though his draft of Oriental Adventures was entirely revamped by Zeb Cook.

Bruce A. Heard came on to TSR as a French translator in 1983, and later helped to coordinate some of their other translation efforts, but he'd have a much larger influence on TSR when he became its Acquisitions Editor in 1985. This eventually led to his creation of the Gazetteer series (1987-1991) for the Known World. Not only did Heard create TSR's first line of geographic splatbooks — a few months before the Forgotten Realms books — but he also oversaw the development of one of TSR's most nostalgic settings.

Overall, I think individual foreign designers are the biggest way that the foreign market has influenced the US, such as the fact that Cubicle 7's The One Ring (2011) was designed by Italian designer Francesco Nepitello.

There have also been a number foreign games that have been translated into English, but that hasn't worked out that well because translating books is about as expensive as writing new ones. There was a big surge in the '90s with translations like Metropoli's Kult (1993), Target's Mutant Chronicles(1993), Chaosium's Nephilim (1994), and Steve Jackson's In Nomine (1997) all appearing. However, none of those lines survived. There have been more translations in recent years, but it's pretty scattered. A recent influx of Japanese games offers some interesting future development, but the French Qin (2006) is one of the few foreign games that seems to be continually supported.

7. Do you have a favorite obscure product or product(s) you discovered in doing the research?

I think I've fallen in love the most with the small-press, unofficial D&D ;supplements of the '70s, because there's this big-screen imagination in them and this ragged sense of newness. You can tell that everyone is figuring out things for the first thing and it's wonderful to see the wacky ideas that they came up with because no one had before. I'd put The Arduin Grimoire (1977-1978) at the top of that list. I'd known about the books before I wrote Designers & Dragons, but I hadn't really understood the gonzo craziness that they contained.

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