FROM AGE OF RAVENS
For several years I’ve been tracing the publication histories of role-playing games in different genres (post-apocalyptic, superhero, horror, etc.). Starting this month, I’m publishing these lists and other posts from Age of Ravens here at The Gauntlet Blog. I hope to post 1-2 of these lists a month, with a couple of series running in parallel, plus occasional update posts.
LICENSE TO ROLL
I chose licensed games because the last couple of years have seen a bonanza of releases in multiple directions. Green Ronin just wrapped a successful Kickstarter for The Expanse, based on the original novels. R Talsorian just released The Witcher RPG which seems drawn from the video game, rather than the books those came from. And then we have Delta Green, one of the big winners at the ENnies. DG first appeared as a supplement to Call of Cthulhu, itself a Lovecraftian license. But then it became a stand-alone game. And now Pelgrane Press has released The Fall of Delta Green, which is an adaptation of an adaptation to a game which is itself a parallel take on an adaptation.
The minds boggles.
In any case, this lists will focus on products which adapt novels, movies, video games, or comic books. I’ll generally restrict myself to official licenses. My comments offer a mix of context, commentary, description, and review. If you see something I’ve missed from 1977 to 1983 please tell me in the comments. I’ve put links to my earlier lists at the end of this post.
The first two items exist in a nebulous world between role-play and miniatures gaming. In Playing at the World Jon Peterson traces the evolutionary history of rpgs—moving from figures & chits to narrative & story. Many early products didn’t know what they were; didn’t know what they could be. That’s how you get products like Superhero 2044 where the designers forgot to include a playable game.
Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo builds on a popular 1930s comic strip, which eventually became a movie serial. This actually came out before the Dino de Laurentis movie. Prolific fantasy author and editor Lin Carter co-wrote these rules for Fantasy Games Unlimited.
The game itself offers a thin framework to play out Flash Gordon stories. There’s little to build characters with. Instead, game material focuses on recreating exactly the story from the comics. There’s lots of setting material, but everything’s on rails.
As an aside, FG&tWoM also uses one of the most trad, war-gamery devices of all time, “the average die.” Normal d6’s were too variable for important moments, so you used a die marked 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5. Flash Gordon reserves these for character creation to make sure PCs aren’t too swingy. Obviously, making a unique die is the clear solution to that particular problem.
2. John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook (1978)
John Carter’s second of the holy trinity of old-school, white savior, sci-fi pulp adventurers, with Buck Rogers as the third. Rogers will eventually appear on these lists several times, alongside really unpleasant litigation. But Carter gets bonus points for having been a Confederate Officer in the Civil War.
John Carter’s an older series, with the first book released in 1912. It harkens back to fantastic Victoriana and creates the template for later pulp adventure. Around the same time this “Adventure Gaming Handbook” appeared, comics from Marvel and a rerelease of the books with new covers by Michael Whelan sparked interest. You can’t overestimate how much those colorful and unique book-covers drove sales. They had boobies.
Heritage Models published John Carter: WoM: AGH alongside a series of miniatures and the Barsoomian Battle Manual for large-scale battles. The game itself is just barely an rpg, with a focus on man-to-man fighting rules and a painting guide. Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game notes that “the wargame system is paired with a set of rules meant to simulate interpersonal relationships among characters…(it) emphasizes the romantic elements in Burrough’s A Princess of Mars by encouraging players to create scenarios in which they try to win the heart of the princess.” Of course the system mechanizes that with the acquisition of “Princess Points.” There’s a table for this which includes results like “stare unabashed at Princess entire evening, occasionally drool. -50 pts.”
3. Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier (1978)
There have been many Star Trek licensed games (including two others on this list alone), but Star Trek: AGitFF holds a place in my heart. It’s among the first rpgs I bought on my own, the first I read, and the first I taught myself without my sister’s help. I played over and over again one-on-one with a friend. It’s also pretty terrible.
Somehow Heritage Models managed to get a host of licenses before they ran themselves into the ground (John Carter above, plus miniatures-only lines for Conan & Lord of the Rings). The 40 page core book draws from the original series plus the animated one—including the bits Larry Niven inserted into the latter (the Kzinti race for example). Heritage had a parallel line of terrible minis, but most miniatures were pretty bad at the time.
Characters have “D&D” stats–3-18–with Mentality swapped out for intelligence. There’s basic and advanced rules with the latter adding character creation, psionics, and more combat fluff. Everything’s organized around the idea of “away missions,” effectively planet-side dungeon crawls. There’s little attention paid to on-board action and nothing about spaceship combat.
Star Trek: Adventure Gaming doesn't have much, but this was an era of small, barely defined rpgs. At least it provides stats for characters from the show so you can argue about them. Grognardia has a longer assessment of the book.
Once upon a time America had a prime-time soap-opera that consumed the public’s attention. I remember my parents taking me to a 1980 “Who Shot JR?” party, despite not watching the show. That year the show was at its height—having spun off a successful parallel show and ranking #1 in the ratings.
In 1980, game publisher SPI was also at its height. The rise of rpgs and expansion of the gaming hobby had lifted them up. SPI rolled out games every month—rpgs, board games, wargames. If we’d had the phrase shovelware, we would have used it. The company would eventually burn out from debt, bad management, and talent losses, and TSR swallowed them in 1982.
Part of the financial ruin came from the company’s investment in this turkey which they hoped would have mass-market appeal. The company vastly, vastly overestimated sales. Dallas itself is fairly simple, but has the graphic design and look of SPI products of the day, which is to say like a technical manual. It has lots of bits in the box, including NPC cards. But it keeps the tight narrative structure of wargaming—rather than setting up situations, you play through directed “scripts” with victory conditions for characters.
But there’s something which gets lost in considering Dallas as an rpg. It’s one of the first rpgs to focus on relationships and power struggles. It broke away from the mold of other adventure rpgs: fighting, looting, dungeon-crawling. Dallas is among the first rpgs covering a modern, non-fantastic world. And it might be one of the first story or narrative games, depending on how you define that.
5. Call of Cthulhu (1981)
The first licensed rpg with any staying power and arguably the one with the most. I’d argue Lovecraft wouldn’t have nearly the attention and fascination if we hadn’t had Call of Cthulhu. It impacted a generation of gamers and kicked off horror rpgs.
As well, Robin Laws has suggested Call of Cthulhu’s the first rpg to really emulate a literary genre. We’d seen fantasy games, but those wore the genre trappings rather than trying out specific story forms. Beyond that, CoC brought history as setting, always-vulnerable PCs, and dangerous magic to the table. It introduced Sanity as a mechanism, offering a system for non-physical damage–inflicting consequences and disadvantages. Many modern mechanics owe a debt to that.
It’s also amusing to note that while Call of Cthulhu is a Lovecraftian license, the kinds of play it ushered in owe a bigger debt to August Derleth and his successors. They gave us a particularly pulpy take on the Mythos. Derleth’s pastiche “The Trail of Cthulhu” ends with an investigative team watching them nuke Cthulhu for a temporary reprieve.
Stormbringer stands as the first rpg adaptation of an ongoing fantasy setting–or it's at least tied with Thieves World that same year. It lets players experience first-hand the world of Michael Moorcock’s sulky anti-hero, Elric. Stormbringer has a lovely boxed set—with dice, map, character sheets, and a large core book. It uses the old school grognard system for rules, with headings like: "22.214.171.124. Special Demon Abilities"). I love the book’s Frank Brunner illustrations. He provides a set of six full-page black and white images (as well as the box cover). These show weirder, more visceral style than that of later editions.
Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin, two titans of the hobby, wrote Stormbringer, building on a simple version of Basic Role-Playing, Chaosium's house system. The game's based exclusively on the first six books in the Elric series; it came out before Moorcock decided to go back and revisit/milk the character. The authors show an understanding and affection for the material and ideas. Even if some of the systems end up being more than a little clunky, there's a sincere attempt to take the magic and world presented in Elric and make it work within the rpg paradigm of the time.
There's an interesting parallel to be drawn between Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu, both of which have gone through several editions. The former has had to change and retool to match the tastes and approaches of modern rpgs. The latter set the bar high enough to remain unchanged until recently. Later versions of Stormbringer would ditch the wild & random mechanics and build-a-demon summoning of this version. That’s too bad and I can imagine some OSR folks going back to revisit these rules.
7. Thieves World (1981)
In the late 70s and early 80s everyone in our gaming group read Thieves World. This shared world fantasy anthology series brought together high profile authors and rising stars. The concept echoed role-playing games—multiple GMs running in an existing world (like Greyhawk or Blackmoor). The series ran through 1989 with multiple short story collections and novels. There would be (of course) a later reboot in novels (and rpgs).
Chaosium’s Thieves World boxed set uses just the first three collections. It has multiple setting books, several maps, and a detailed summary and stat breakdown of all the major characters. More importantly Chaosium made the set compatible across many different systems. It includes stats for AD&D, D&D, Runequest, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, Tunnels & Trolls, The Fantasy Trip, Dragon Quest, and even Traveller. In Designers & Dragons, Shannon Appelcline points out Chaosium got permission to legally support D&D because TSR had earlier violated their copyright. TSR had included Cthulhu and Elric characters in the first edition of Deities & Demigods.
Thieves World’s one of the best and most useful early city supplements. It conveyed the setting while offering tools and ideas for any GM. Oddly, Chaosium didn’t support the line, except for a Companion book released five years later. But FASA also got the license to the setting and released several modules, including Traitor, in which a random PC gets secretly assigned as the betrayer of the group.
Technically Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) came out a couple of years later, but by that point Iron Crown Enterprises had released several ME sourcebooks. Several date to 1982, when Rolemaster still came in individual books for adaptation to other games rather than standing on their own. So ICE released these before they actually had a dedicated Middle Earth rpg. That would be Rolemaster-lite in many ways.
In that gap ICE published seven regional books: Angmar: Land of the Witch King, The Court of Ardor, Isengard, Mirkwood (North and South), Moria and Umbar (plus some adventure modules). Of those seven, Isengard and the two Mirkwood volumes deal with areas significantly referenced in Tolkien's works. Moria does as well, but offers just a collection of random floors and section. Angmar, Ardor and Umbar go further off the map–areas hinted at.
This gives the authors the great leeway you see in The Court of Ardor, one of the wildest of these volumes. Umbar tries for some faithfulness to Middle Earth but also tries to serve the master...of Rolemaster. You really have to read those two modules. It’s like someone dropped their Epic Level D&D campaign just off the edge of Tolkien’s map. Umbar’s a little crazy; look at the NPCs’ stats and levels. But Ardor’s on a completely different level of crazy—a mash up of Deities & Demigods, Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, and bad Tolkien fan-fiction.
ICE would eventually lose the license, but that’s a story we’ll come back to later on these lists.
9. Enterprise: Role Play Game in Star Trek (1983)
A Japanese rpg released by Tsukuda Hobby. Enterprise had a gorgeous boxed set with a 20 page rulebook, 13 page adventure book, dice, and 15 double-sided full color character cards. These laminated cards worked with erasable markers and had a photo one side and character stats on the others. Tsukuda Hobby mostly sold wargames and had other Star Trek and Star Wars licenses. The company released no other products in the line. You can see more about this at RPGGeek’s entry on it.
James Bond 007 is both ahead of its time and amazingly retro. It emphasizes the power and skill of the player characters–they are experts and professionals. It doesn’t take a fully collaborative approach, but suggests GM/Player relation should be one of storytelling rather than competition. It has women in an apparently equal role on the front and back cover–well, close to equal and certainly better than most games of the time. The example of play in the beginning has a female GM and a male player.
That example of play is an interesting read as it presents a somewhat clueless player getting irritated with the GM. The GM then has to explain why x and y happened. It may be illustrative of the rules, but it doesn’t make the game sound like a lot of fun.
James Bond uses a point buy for characteristics, skills, appearance, height, and weight. Various choices affect a character’s Fame, which can lead to being spotted; oddly, female agents end up with a lower starting fame.
The basic mechanics show the game’s age a little. Any Skill has a Primary Chance (PC) equal to skill plus a characteristic. The GM then assigns an ease factor which this is multiplied by (the default is 5). Players roll percentiles against that. Just rolling under isn’t enough. Instead you check a successful roll against a “Quality Results Table.” It goes fast... eventually. The rest of the system aims for quick checks and resolution—you don’t have hit points but instead five wound levels. That makes combat fast but deadly.
I love that James Bond 007 does what it sets out to do–too literally at times. Nearly every module came from a film. Each warned that the plot and details would be different to fool the players. But that’s a lie. The Live and Let Die adventure, for example, sticks to the script… right down to the "secret" traitor.
11. The Keep (1983)
I wish so much I could have been at the meeting where someone pitched this idea: let’s do a D&D module based on a horror movie set in the Nazi occupied Europe.
The Keep itself is one of Michael Mann’s earliest films and has a wild score by Tangerine Dream. It had a solid cast with Scott Gleen, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellen (who starts in old person make-up that gets stripped away). The film did terribly at the box office with a butchered 96 minute cut (down from 210 minutes… seriously). Mayfair gambled on the property big time, releasing a board game as well.
The module begins in a fantasy Medieval Europe with the PCs battling against the evil sorcerer. They’re then flung forward and get to stab Nazis in World War II-era Romania. It’s weird, but you can’t argue with Nazi stabbing in your rpg.
The first of the transferred licenses, FASA’s Star Trek offered a far more ambitious take than Heritage Model’s. It had the luxury of coming out after Star Trek I & II movies which added to the universe and increased people’s hunger to play. FASA aimed to answer that hunger with a big boxed set, multiple supplements, board games, tactical spaceship simulations, and more. For a brief time you could even find FASA products in big box stores like Target, previously an honor reserved for Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets.
FASA started operations as a publisher of Traveller supplements. So it’s no surprise that Star Trek borrows tech from there. Players generate characters via random rolls on different service assignments (time at Star Fleet Academy, work in different commands, time aboard a starship). But unlike Traveller, you can’t die in the process.
It’s a crunchy system, with multiple stats, figured characteristics, and dozens of skills. For a long time, ST:TRPG was the big sci-fi game besides Traveller, with Star Frontiers never quite getting traction. Mayfair held on to the license until 1989. They stuck around long enough to see Star Trek: The Next Generation arrive, but only released two supplements covering that era. Paramount grabbed back the license for several reasons, including the perceived level of violence present in the game.
History of Universal RPGs
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Horror RPGs
History of Wild West RPGs