Once again we dip into the heady waters of licensed games. I'd forgotten how many different properties appeared in the early days, some of them repeatedly. We've seen lots of one-shot attempts to bring a property to rpgs. Many I'd be willing to bet we won't see come around again (Farscape, Everquest, Necroscope, Lawnmower Man, La Compagnie des Glaces). But several properties have come back again and again. Here's a relatively unsupported list of the top ten properties with multiple editions and/or versions:
- 4 Judge Dredd (Mongoose x2, GW, EN Publishing)
- 5 Lahkhmar (TSR x2, Mongoose, Pinnacle, Goodman Games)
- 5 DC (Mayfair x3, WEG, Green Ronin)
- 5 Marvel (MWG, Marvel Entertainment, TSR x3)
- 6 Conan (Mongoose x2, TSR x2, SJG, Modiphius)
- 6 Elric (Chaosium x5, Département des Sombres Projects)
- 7 Middle Earth (Decipher x2, Cubicle7, ICE x4)
- 8 Star Wars (WEG x3, WotC x3, Scholastic, FFG)
- 10 Star Trek (Tsukuda, FASA x2, SJG, TFG x2, Modiphius, Heritage Models, Last Unicorn, Decipher)
- *** Cthulhu (Too many to count)
This list focuses 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 1984 to 1985, please tell me in the comments.
History of Licensed RPGs (Part I 1977-1983)
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
Charts. If you weren't there, you might not understand early gaming's love of charts. RPGs relied on them in this era-- Rolemaster, Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes. New kinds of charts felt revolutionary, like James Bond's "We sort of have a formula" success table. I remember when I saw Paranoia 1e's skill-tree I thought, "ooh...there's a sexy chart."
The Adventures of Indiana Jones offered a new approach to resolution charts: color-coding. Instead of numbered results you got easy-to-read visual levels. The designers wanted to make games accessible and mass-market friendly. TSR used this for Marvel Superheroes and an in their attempt to make Gamma World viable. Indiana Jones embraced the colorful and appealing. Its thin boxed set included a 64-page rulebook, map, screen, evidence file, and 3-D stand-up figures. Bits over substance.
The game's limits created problems. Most importantly, you could only play as one of seven characters from the movies. All adventures had you effectively re-enact the films. James Bond shared this issue, but AoIJ took it to extremes. TSR released a handful of supplements, but Indiana Jones never found an audience. It didn't appeal to the mass market and traditional roleplayers hated it.
When Gygax returned to TSR, the company allowed the Indiana Jones license to lapse. TSR had to pulp their unsold inventory. As Wikipedia tells it, "Employees at the UK office of TSR Hobbies mounted a portion of the burnt remains of the last copy in a small pyramid trophy made of Perspex. Beginning in 2000, the trophy became known as the "Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming." Indiana Jones would return (and fail) again ten years later at West End Games.
2. Elfquest (1984)
Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest series had existed as an underground comic by the time of the 1980s independent comics surge. Lots of small publishers—Fantagraphics, Comico, First Comics—took advantage of the rise of a direct market. New sales in comic book stores allowed them to play with genres and concepts mainstream comics wouldn't touch. Creator-owned comics like Usagi Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Elfquest succeeded outside the restrictions of the comics code.
Chaosium hoped to tap into a new market with the Elfquest rpg. The Pini's came to Chaosium with the idea, but didn't really know what rpgs were. They wanted few changes from their stories and plots. For their part the Chaosium staff had to learn the source material from scratch. According to Sandy Petersen, Steve Perrin took over Elfquest's design duties. However, Perrin also worked on the increasingly crunchy Runequest III in parallel. Mechanics bled over, resulting in a complex end product.
Despite a lovely boxed set, Elfquest didn't do as well as Chaosium hoped. They released a few supplements, with later books including new and not-yet-seen in the comics material. Ral Partha released several sets of figures in conjunction with the line. Chaosium tried a softcover edition in 1987 but that proved to be their last go.
Now here's where crunch was appropriate. This game mucked with my thinking about rpgs for several years. In the 1980's, I convinced myself that where my sister (and all girls) liked fantasy, I (like all proper boys) liked science fiction. In particular, the hard science fiction of Asimov, Pournelle, and Niven. I latched onto the Ringworld rpg right away. It had amazing production values: clean, sharp, dense. It wasn't soft or girly at all. And the mechanics...holy moley I mean just look at those sub-skill systems. For a long time Ringworld shaped what I thought rpg mechanics should be—every hack or homebrew I did had to have a dense, tiered set of skills.
It didn't matter that when I actually tried to run Ringworld, character creation took forever and play flopped. It looked so cool.
Part of Ringworld's problem came from the game being based on two short novels. The other two appeared many years later. A chunk of Niven's work, including Ringworld, takes place in a shared setting called "Known Space." However, the rpg only has fragments of that as a backdrop. Instead, Ringworld focuses on exploring the artificial ring-strip planet. That leaves out elements like spaceship combat, other planets, and interstellar travel. Today's gamers might embrace such a limited focus, but it would have depth. The Ringworld rpg didn't. It felt purposeless and empty.
Like Elfquest, Ringworld didn't do as well as Chaosium hoped. They released a single supplement, Ringworld Companion. That included more info on Known Space and a couple of scenarios. If you're interested in learning more I recommend checking out this read-through series.
4. Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game (1984)
TSR kicked superhero gaming into overdrive with the release of Marvel Super Heroes. MSH remained strong until the mid-1990s at our local store. While adventure modules often sat on the shelves for years, sourcebook and group supplements sold again and again. We constantly had to reorder from the high sales (and shoplifting).
MSHRPG offered a new approach to game and box design. It moved away from conventional rules layout to a conversational approach: examples of play, comic book illustrations, and introductory prologues. We'd see this again in other off-beat TSR products of the era- The Adventures of Indiana Jones and Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game. Most importantly, Marvel broke away from numbers & mechanics, instead offering an immersive universe from the comics.
I bought it...and I just didn't get it. Marvel seemed so thin, especially for a group invested in Champions. We thought ourselves sophisticated and FASERIP (the resolution system's acronym) seemed like Baby's First RPG. Nine pages for character generation? Names instead of numbers for things? Zone movement? Inconceivable. Where was the crunch and detail? And thus for us Marvel became a non-contender. I couldn't even see the interesting bits which could be stolen for other games, like the rules for criminal trials.
So I have a twinge of jealousy when I hear about other gamers' great experiences with the system: amazing campaigns, the joy of the big supplements and handbooks, the pleasure of tooling the rules to do many genres, the ability to handle cosmic-level adventures. I was having good times with supers in the same years, but with more time spent calculating out the characters’ OCV, ED, and REC. Better? Worse? Who can say? Random Generation. Point Spend Development. Percentile dice.
TSR did quite a bit with Marvel, especially the Marvel Handbook series which sold and sold and sold. Two years later they released the Marvel Super Heroes Advanced set which significantly expanded the system. Other sourcebooks like Ultimate Powers, Realms of Magic, various group compendiums, and the Deluxe City Campaign set made this the best supported line for TSR outside of D&D. In 1991 TSR released an even more introductory version, the Marvel Super Heroes Basic Set. But by the following year, the game was being phased out. A few years later, as TSR began its death spiral, they would try again with the Marvel licensed and the card-driven SAGA System.
Conan's a major influence on D&D so it's no surprise that TSR moved to pick it up. Conan's Hyboria, however, throws into relief some of D&D's setting assumptions (non-humans, high medieval technology, common spell casters). Despite that, TSR began with two straight AD&D adventures: Conan Unchained! and Conan Against Darkness! Both draw from the movies more than the stories; each features cover photos of a flexing Arnold Swartzenegger. They're not that great, feeling like quick adaptations. TSR would do only one other "Conan-esque" AD&D module, 1986's Red Sonja Unconquered. (For more of Red Sonja and her sources see here). In parallel with these modules, TSR also released two Conan-themed volumes in their popular Endless Quest CYOA series.
In 1985, TSR decided to try a more focused approach with the Conan Role-Playing Game boxed set. This went a completely different direction, drawing on Marvel Super Heroes rather than D&D. It's interesting that while D&D rolled towards more crunch and complexity, the company opted for a rules-lite approach to this major fantasy property. The Conan RPG is a striking game that seriously approaches the world. Magic, for example, is dangerous and unpredictable. TSR released three modules for the game. When Gygax returned to take control back, the company let the license lapse. Three years later, Steve Jackson acquired the license. The Conan RPG still has fans and for a time you could find a version of the rules online with the setting stripped out.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness (1985)
I really don't know what to say about this game. Designed by Erick Wujcik, it is less disorganized than many other Palladium Games of the period. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness builds on the Palladium engine, and the result is a game which feels incomplete, leaving much to the GM to fill in. In short it feels very old school. Right out of the gate it offers ideas about a larger world outside the TMNT universe: a place of strangeness and anthropomorphic animals (which would be built on for the various supplements). Perhaps most strikingly, this game came out before TMNT became a thing...two years before Eastman and Laird agreed to license the concepts for toys, which led to the cartoon, which led to the movies and so on. Here we have a game built on the original incredibly dark stories, which had just begun to move beyond being parodies of Frank Miller and David Sims.
And TMNTOS is crazy wonderful, filled with new art and bizarre tables. Everything’s built on randomness, with a let's-see-what-you-get approach. The game has multiple sub-systems with tons of crunchy bits and modifiers, from skills to Animal Powers to Psionics to equipment. Surprisingly, there's few detailed rules for handling martial arts. It includes a new TMNT story as well as a retelling of the origin. If you like the Turtles, you ought to track down a copy. It went through multiple printings and at least one significant revision. Copies always sold at the store up to the end of the license in 2000. Palladium supported the line with many unique books, some offering anthropomorphic new worlds independent of the TMNT setting: Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, After the Bomb, Road Hogs, Mutants of the Yucatan, Mutants Down Under, Mutants in Avalon, and many others.
Technically this was TSR's second outing with Fritz Leiber's universe. The 1980 edition of Deities & Demigods included the "Nehwon Mythos." That remained even after legal issues pulled the Elric and Cthulhu sections from the book. Like Conan, Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories had clearly influenced D&D. The pair's travels and adventures shaped the idea of the dungeon crawl. But many of Leiber's stories take place in cities. Up to this point, urban adventures had been given less treatment. Lankhmar's one of the first TSR sourcebooks to dig into city adventures and offer a sandbox. TSR was catching up to what City State of the Invincible Overlord, Thieves World, and the Thieves Guild series had been doing for several years.
Lankhmar was boxed set with a hefty main book, 32-page supplemental folio, and large map of the city. About half of the core volume covers the city; the rest examines the larger world, the gods, and conversions for Nehwonian campaigns. As with Conan, it acknowledges the D&D's premises might not fit in Leiber's world.
TSR produced only two supplements for this as a AD&D 1e product. Five years later they returned to it with the first of nine releases for AD&D 2e. In 1993, they revised and re-released the box set as a larger, single volume edition for 2e. Then three years later they swung the pendulum back with another core box set, Lankhmar: The New Adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. This new edition took ideas from across the releases and built a comprehensive and more accessible approach to the setting. However, by the following year, TSR was beginning to crumble.
I found Dr. Who in grade school. First I ripped through my sister's set of the Americanized novels, then I found Target import volumes. Finally I discovered you could watch episodes late, late on Sunday nights via Chicago's Channel 11. I had lots of friends who liked Who, but not as avidly as me. There was one girl in the neighborhood who did, but I was dumb and could barely get the nerve up to talk to her. As expected for a goofy early roleplayer, I tried to figure out how to hack and run it. But the same problem kept coming up: Time Lords. Who gets to be a Time Lord and who is relegated to Companion? It may seem easy to resolve now but it didn't work for evil munchkins like myself and my friends.
FASA's Doctor Who RPG didn't provide any great solutions to the problem. Players had to sort out for themselves the Companion/Time Lord sitch. Alternately, the GM could sidestep the whole debate by having the PCs be agents of the Celestial Intervention Agency on Gallifrey. The Doctor Who RPG uses FASA's Star Trek mechanics but with d6's rather than d10's. FASA went through three editions of the core book. The first edition had to be redone when they discovered they lacked the rights to the 6th Doctor, Colin Baker. The second and third had much the same box but very different interior covers. FASA released many supplements (The Daleks, The Master, Cybermen) and modules (City of Gold, The Iytean Menace) in the two years they had the license. A Sontaran sourcebook was advertised but never released.
It's amazing to me how much product FASA pushed out in this era. They had significant print runs for their products; years later I'd still find modules in discount bins. The company dropped the license when the game received a tepid reaction.
9. Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game (1985)
Judge Dredd has danced in and out from being problematic. Depending on the era and the writer he's been more or less a four-color lawman. At times he's an instrument of gory violence and at others a figure for striking satire. I caught on to Dredd when the comic offered a smarter take on issues of violence, punishment, and consumerism. Many striking talents cut their teeth working on 2000AD. I've read a little too much later material that just embraces ass-kicking. In an era of high fascism, he makes me nervous. On the other hand, he's teamed up with both Batman and Lobo.
Dredd rpgs generally take ideas at face value. Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game came out at a time when Games Workshop hadn't yet figured out what kind of game company they wanted to be. I picked up a copy and made up characters, but never ran it. Instead I went for the easier Judge Dredd board game. The rpg itself feels like an old school hodgepodge: random characteristics with weirdly different value ranges, oddly organized rules, and highly detailed character sheets with tracking for each bullet. But if you like Dredd then the game's fun to read with tons of art from the comics, reference details, and cross-section diagrams. It borrows concepts from other games, including a speed and action chart which looks suspiciously like Champions.
As noted in the header, Dredd would return (at least) three more times.
DC Heroes showcases my gaming hypocrisy. The year before I'd dismissed Marvel as unworthy of usurping the rich crunch of Champions. But a year later I grabbed this up as an alternative. Champions’ new edition had fixed issues, but added many new options. Skilled players could crush the less experienced. I wanted a game which would level the playing field. And frankly, I loved DC more than Marvel.
Mayfair's smartly put DC's most appealing property, The New Teen Titans, front and center. The game looked like Champions, with point-based stat and power purchases, but remained more abstract. Champions offers an atomic-level approach, while DC Heroes offers a molecular one, with bits assembled into pre-made sets. It had several other innovations: a sliding scale for ratings which allows for cosmic level abilities; breaking stats into opposition/strength/resistance; spending Hero Points for resolution benefits; and team-based combat maneuvers. We played and enjoyed it for years.
Because we'd come from Champions we overlooked some of the oddness and complexity of the system. We knew it handled low-level characters terribly, making them the same bland set of single digits. But it handled epic scale play well. Some disliked "clue point" based investigations, but we ignored those rules. But over time we discovered cracks and gaps in the rules: balance issues, hyper-effective combat tactics, and fundamental problems with the division of the three effect types. Still we stuck with it for a long, long time through several campaigns.
Like the later DC Adventures, the first edition of DC Heroes suffered from releasing just before a world-changing reboot; in this case Crisis on Infinite Earths. That generated huge interest in the DC Universe but forced the company into covering old material multiple times.
Mayfair would end up doing three editions of DC Heroes from '85 to '93. That last edition repacked the game in a more attractive, single-book form, but it wasn't enough. Many interesting things came out of DC Heroes including several Watchmen supplements, a spin-off Batman RPG, "Who's Who" sourcebooks, and several books focused on Vertigo title elements (Magic and Swamp Thing). Those remain the best sourcebooks for DC characters and elements. While the Green Ronin's DC Adventures has solid material, it tries to cover everything in a tight space. DC Heroes' themed supplements (Superman, Justice League, and World at War sourcebooks especially) covered their topics in depth.
11. Midnight at the Well of Souls (1985)
This is a weird one for several reasons. You may not have even heard of Jack L Chalker's Well of Souls books. I can't describe how ubiquitous Chalker's novels were in the sci-fi sections of bookstores in the 1980s. He had multiple popular series. In many of his novels, the idea of transformation drives events. Characters turn into other species, people get sent into other bodies, magical forces & curses transform people. The blog Weird Combinations has an interesting look at these ideas in his fiction.
The Well World series had five volumes when this game came out (two more appeared later). Well World itself is a massive planet/super-computer/alien artifact made up of civilizations and species separated into hexes. Hexes have different rules and controls, with some knocking out use of technology. Our characters arrive, explore, get changed into other species, and try to stop people from taking over the universe. It's a wild ride and was among my favorite weird sci-fi growing up. I loved all the different creatures.
Midnight at the Well of Souls was the only release from TAG Industries. It was a boxed set throwback to production values. It looked like something released five or ten years earlier. It had amateurish art, word processor layout, and little to help the reader through the rules. There's almost no discussion of what characters actually do in the setting, but it does have a massive, multi-chart section on building stellar systems. The intro adventure could appear in any sci-fi game and doesn't even really connect to Well World. On the plus side, it's fun to see all the old Macintosh fonts.
A sourcebook for Heroes Unlimited covering a comic series which had onlya handful of issues at the time. Palladium's release included ideas and concepts outside those scant sources. Interestingly Justice Machine introduced The Elementals from artist/writer/game designer Bill Willingham. He would go on the great success with Fables and then dismiss the concerns of women creators at Gen Con. Justice Machine moved among other publishers until creator Mike Gustovich dropped out of the comic industry. As a result, The Justice Machine Sourcebook would be one of the first Palladium products to go out of print. Material from it would later be incorporated into other Heroes Unlimited releases.
History of Licensed RPGs (Part I 1977-1983)
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
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.