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Someday, maybe I'll be an Adorable Rodent... Someday...




Movie Reviews:

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Pet Stories

According to my blog description, I'm supposed to talk about pets every now and again. It's been a while, so I guess I'm due -- lucky for me, Socrates had a bit of an adventure last night.

After I got back from watching Spiderman 2, made my blog entry about She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I noticed that the fRat House seemed to be slightly underpopulated. Simon and Garfunkel were both present, but Socrates was nowhere to be found.

Well, it was about 2:30 am when I discovered this, and he'd had plenty of time to find a suitable place of hiding. The good news is that this house is pretty well-sealed, so there's not much of a chance of him getting outside or into the walls or anything. The bad news is that there are plenty of nooks and crannies in which he can hide. So, I got the flashlight and started searching, beginning with the basement and working my way up to the kitchen.

Nothing.

This was troublesome. I decided to put the rats' carrying cage in the hallway, with a few tantalizing wildberry-flavour yogurt treats set inside, in hopes of luring Socrates out. Then I decided to give searching another shot, knowing that if this pass didn't work I'd have to (*gasp*) actually clean my computer room where the fRat House is located, which is a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone, least of all myself.

My first pass through my bedroom was fairly brief, since my bedroom is fairly tidy, thus making for very few hiding places -- however, it's also the place I let the boys out to play most often, so it's familiar to them. I made some human bruxing sounds (bruxing is a noise rats make by chattering their teeth together rapidly, used to express contentment and affection, and people can roughly approximate this sound by clucking their tongues -- it's far from perfect, but a passable rudimentary communication often used by rat owners to get their pets' attention or call them over) and called his name a few times when, lo and behold, he poked his head out from under my blankets. Seems he got tired of exploring and, unable (or perhaps just unwilling) to return to his cage, he found his way to one of his favourite places.

I have no idea how cute this sounds, but believe me, it was awfully cute (and relieving) to see him there, staring up at me with his head poking out from underneath my bed-covers.

End of story. Not as interesting, I guess, as it sounded in my head before I actually typed it out. Meh.

Incidentally, I give Spiderman 2 an 8 out of 10. Not as good as the first one (which I gave 9 out of 10), owing to some awkward scripting at points and a sense of meandering, inconstant plot inertia, but still a very good watch.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 11:45 PM
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It's all about Boundaries, really...

Okay, so I was in this relationship and stuff. And it didn't end well. I mean, there wasn't any blood or fistfights or anything, but it was pretty bad nevertheless. The post-relationship fallout was even worse, at least from my perspective. Let's just say that there was a lot of emotional pain involved.

In such situations, it's important to define boundaries. I think she and I had some pretty good ones, too. I had Saint John. She had the rest of bloody Canada if she really wanted, just so long as she stayed out of my space. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Now, admittedly, I could handle her working here last summer, though it still made for a couple of uncomfortable encounters that I would rather have not had to go through. I could even handle her working here again this summer.

The idea that she may choose to stay in Saint John for good, as opposed to following her previous plan of working as a teacher in Nunavut (incidentally a plan which I was pretty keen on her following) is, to put it mildly, way uncool. Was the rest of Canada not enough for her?

Damn it. Sometimes I really get sick of life and its refusal to be fair.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 3:01 AM
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Monday, June 28, 2004

I Survived...

And I didn't even have to eat anybody.

The trip up to Gaspe, Que., was fairly hellish, considering the lack of sleep I suffered from and the lack of a sense of direction I must always operate under. We left at half-past noon on Thursday, and thanks to a number of unexpected detours (not to mention losing the phone numbers I needed to get in touch with folks once I arrived), drove for about twelve hours.

I would like to point out that Quebec drivers (and road planners) are ABSOLUTELY INSANE! Seriously. Maybe it's just me, but I would think that the speed limit around a school (or even residential areas) should be a touch below 70, but I guess people in Quebec disagree. Dangerous turns require that you slow down to 75. Once (just once) I came across a section of road between an elementary school and a church, which had a speed limit of 50... for all of 20 feet, after which it went back up to the usual 90 speed limit.

Add to that the fact that, during my night driving, almost half of all Quebec drivers seemed to think that my high beams were on when they weren't, and that even driving the ridiculous speed limits I seemed to be going to slow for most people (many of whom would pass me illegally), and I'm left with a not-so-great impression of the drivers of that province.

The bachelor party was... well, different. I've never gamed in a run-down greenhouse before, but now that I have, I think I officially qualify for the status of "hardcore gamer." I'm not too sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The wedding itself was great. This, of course, comes as no surprise -- say what you will about the Catholics, their weddings are beautiful. I don't think I've seen Shawn happier.

The return trip was slightly easier than the trip up, taking about ten hours, despite some periodic pea-soup fog. There was, unfortunately, a casualty in the form of a fox that jumped out in front of my car. Running it over made me feel like quite an ass, and I did what I could to avoid it, but really if I were to have done any more I would have ended up in a ditch. That would have put the passengers in the car at risk, so it was right out of the question. Still, it wasn't exactly a highlight of the trip.

Since I got very little sleep while I was there (owing to rather rambunctions and/or snoring room-mates), I'm still recovering from my exhaustion.

Overall, I'm very glad I went. The trip didn't leave me with an interesting story like last year's excursion to PEI did, but I'm glad I was there for one the most important days of my friend's life, and it was an honour being his best man. All the same, I'm glad it's over, and I hope I don't have to make a trip like that again for a long time. Now, I must go back to catching up on e-mails, rest, and reading, not necessarily in that order.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 8:58 PM
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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Wheeeeeeeee!

Well, I'm off to begin my road trip after my first sleepless night in a couple months. If I never make another blog entry, you can probably guess why. Otherwise, expect to hear about the trip and the wedding Sunday.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 11:59 AM
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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Adorable Rodent or Bust

Well, it turns out Scribblingwoman just recently reached adorable rodent status. Checking out her site meter stats, I deduced that the threshold for adorable rodent is 100 visits a day.

At the height of my blog's popularity (which was just a little bit before exams ended), I was getting 20 a day.

Nowadays, I tend to hover between 11 and 13.

Obviously, this is going to require a great deal of thought/effort/virgin sacrifices.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 5:03 PM
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Monday, June 21, 2004

Always the Best Man, Never the Man

I did a whole lot of preparing for the wedding of one of my friends (who is also a regular reader of this blog), for which I'll be playing the role of best man... To steal a line from Night at the Roxbury, I gather this basically means I need to be ready to step in in case things get too heavy for 'im. Kinda like a relationship spotter. Which is good, because I think I'm better suited for that job than wedding bouncer.

Basically, this meant running around town, reserving a car rental in preparation for the required trip to Gaspe, Quebec, getting my hair cut, buying a new black suit jacket (since my old black suit jacket was turned greenish as part of an attempted Riddler costume a few years back), desperately searching for a tie of the proper shade of blue so as to avoid clashing with the bridesmaids' dresses, replacing the battery in my watch so I'll be able to keep a schedule, and buying rat food to ensure the boys have enough while I'm gone. For some reason, it also included stopping by the movie theatre to watch the Terminal, and buying myself one of those huge A&W mugs. Y'know, the kind you can practically fit your head into. I guess I can't help but spoil myself that way, every now and then.

Things are almost ready to go. I still need to buy some ink cartridges for my printer in preparation for the bachelor party that, by tradition, I as best man am supposed to run (I guess). Why ink? Well, when a gaming geek decides to have a bachelor party, rather than the usual strippers and beer that one expects to have, he decides he wants to stay up late and play RPGs.

Yeah, I know, it's sad... But I do what I can to make my friends happy, and if that's what he really wants, then who am I to judge?

Someone suggested that I should try to hire strippers to play in the bachelor party game, but I figured that although it wouldn't require them to remove their clothing, it would nevertheless end up costing me extra.

I'm actually looking forward to getting away for a few days. I've never been to Gaspe, so it should be a new experience at the very least. Shame I don't know how to speak French, beyond being able to say "I'm sorry, I don't know how to speak french" and "Teacher, may I be excused to go use the bathroom," which could put a crimp on being particularly social on the local scene once I get there.

More Old Friends

While I was out running around the Saint John malls in an effort to get all those errands done, I ran into someone I knew from my years living in Fredericton and whom I haven't seen in quite a long time. Normally, this would have surprised me, but getting back in touch with old friends seems to be the theme of my life this month, so I kinda took it in stride. (Actually, to be fair, she wasn't really a friend so much as a friendly acquaintance.) We sat down for a little while and had coffee at Tim Horton's -- at least, she had coffee, while I had a hot chocolate since I don't drink coffee. Turns out she's working in Toronto these days, and she's in town visiting family for the week.

The conversation was extremely mundane, and seeing as how we both went through high school during the 90's, awfully cynical in nature. We decried the state of pop culture and world politics, all within the first ten minutes of discussion. At one point, she asked the rhetorical question, "When, exactly, did wit become more valued than intelligence?"

My smart-ass answer was, "October 16, 1854."

So, now you know, in case you're ever asked that question.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 9:33 PM
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Friday, June 18, 2004

Milestone Musings

I was looking over my Site Meter stats and made a couple of observations.

The good news: I've now officially had over 1000 visits to my blog since late February. Horray for me and my milestone!

The bad news: Despite this, the trend shows a steady decline in the number of visits I get each day, which explains why I was demoted from a slimy mollusc back to a lowly insect. My recent bit on the history of RPGs saw a brief spike during the first post, then another smaller spike during the last... But overall, as I suspected, it appears it proved to be rather boring for my readers, so instead of fighting back the trend of diminishing hits, it actually helped it along.

At this rate, I'll never be an adorable rodent. Quite a quandry.

Obviously, one thing I can do is to list my blog on more bloglistings, which is something I've been considering for a while now. I'm not sure how much this would help, though -- I mean, I don't see how being blog number 833 out of 834 could really have much of a positive effect on the number of hits I get. Still, this doesn't exactly hurt to try...

Another option I could explore is to try to make my blog more controversial... Like... I dunno... turning it into a pro-Bush site, or something. However, that would be flirting with the dark side, something this particular Jedi isn't willing to do.

More contests? The last one didn't actually attract any new readers, so I'm not sure if that would work very well.

I guess it all boils down to this: I've gotta be more interesting. Problem is, it's not like I've been actively trying to be un-interesting up until now. Seriously, this is usually about as interesting as I get. So, it's easy enough for me to look in a cyber-mirror and say to my cyber-self, "Be more interesting, dammit!" Much harder to actually do.

Still, I've got to try. My status as an adorable rodent depends on it.

So, to start things off, I think I'll put up another character sketch I've done for the aforementioned web comic which I may or may not end up working on... This one's named Captain Angst. No idea what his powers will end up being at this point.



Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 7:32 PM
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Thursday, June 17, 2004

As Predicted, More Political Ranting

Dear Preznit Bush,

I honestly thought we were past this. Truly, I did. But there you are, on television, newspapers, and internet news sites, and I see you bringing out that tired old claim that Saddam and al-Qaeda were in cahoots. It's the same claim your VP made just a few days ago.

Must you persist with this tired, old, blatant lie?

I mean, you've got lots of other blatant lies you could draw upon, ones that aren't quite so tired. Like this one:

"This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda."

Which obviously contradicts the meaning of this statement:
"I have also determined that the use of armed force against Iraq is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
- George W. Bush, March 21st letter to the Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, on his reasons for war.


You could also lie about your political rival's tendency to "flip-flop," which you've been doing a whole lot in your political campaign. Or you could lie some more about your service record, or your efforts to bolster the riches of the already-ridiculously wealthy of your nation at the expense of its poor.

But this. Really. As I said, I thought you'd moved on long ago.

Now, I know you want there to be a tie between Saddam and al-Qaeda. I know it would be very helpful for the political situation in which you find yourself. However, I just wanted to set the record straight, once and for all.

There weren't any ties.

None.

Nada.

Got it?

No, no... Don't try bringing up that supposed "meeting" between Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April of 2001. Your own country's intelligence puts him in Florida at the time, after all. And sure, there is some evidence that al-Qaeda and Iraqi officials may have met at other times, but that very evidence also says that the Iraqi officials in question, at the behest of Saddam, told the al-Qaeda operatives to go shove it.

Plus, if meetings make conspiracies, then I think your administration's in trouble...



I hope that we'll all be able to put this lie to rest now.


Hugs,
Ratboy.

P.S. -- While you're at it, please go to hell. Thx.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 10:20 PM
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Monday, June 14, 2004

The New Millennium: A Revolution in the Making? (Part 4 of 4)

Shortly after Wizards bought the rights to AD&D, they released a new edition of the rules. AD&D once again became simply Dungeons and Dragons, with a simplified but unified and more flexible rules engine, and it took the gaming world by storm; the third edition of D&D is the biggest-selling game in the history of the industry. However, that pales in comparison to the effects of another decision by Wizards of the Coast.

Following software business models, Wizards released the basic rules engine behind D&D, called the d20 system, as Open Gaming Content. What that means is that, unlike previous years where companies fiercely protected their rules systems, Wizards allows anyone to produce supplemental material for D&D or any of their other, newer d20 games.

Suddenly, everyone and their dog was releasing such supplements. After all, D&D was (and is) the most popular game around; it would be foolish not to get in on that. The market was flooded with such material, which in turn boosted the popularity of D&D as a whole and increased Wizards’ sales. It was a brilliant business move that other companies have attempted to emulate, but with far less success.

The electronic age produced other changes, though… And this is where things get really interesting (at least for me).

I’m still not entirely sure about the details, but when Hasbro bought out Wizards of the Coast, a number of employees seemed unhappy with the new way of doing business that Hasbro brought to the table. Many of the creative minds that were behind the vastly successful third edition of D&D left in a mass exodus – some left to work as freelancers in the industry, others left to create their own d20 publishing companies. Among these was a designer by the name of Monte Cook.

Monte Cook is one of the big “celebrity” designers in the industry, and has a large following; frankly, he could probably put his name on recycled toilet paper and it would sell. He’s also somewhat famous for the creation of the gaming .pdf industry. I don’t think I could recount the events better than Mr. Cook himself:

So there we were, sitting at our computers, waiting for the file to go live. The Book of Eldritch Might was a bunch of new [rules] that I’d tossed together. Neat things I wanted to share, with little aspiration of being a proper 'book.' My wife Sue and I just wanted to see what would happen if we put out an electronic product for sale through our website. I wrote, she edited, and together we struggled through the dizzying process of converting files to PDFs, and finding a way to sell electronic files online.

We’d released a free PDF of a variant ranger about a month or so earlier to test the waters. It seemed popular, so we were hopeful. Maybe we’d sell 100 copies of The Book of Eldritch Might. Was that too optimistic? Maybe 50. The ranger had far more downloads than that, but it was free. Would anyone out there actually pay for a PDF
product?

Today. A fellow d20 publisher in a conversation about the market says to me, "When you got into the PDF industry, it wasn’t very big yet, was it?"

"Industry?" I replied. "There was no PDF industry." I realized then and there that most people didn’t start paying attention to PDFs until The Book of Eldritch Might came out. They simply don’t know what it was like back then.

[Three] years ago. When I had the idea for publishing an electronic product, I looked around to see if anyone else was doing anything similar. I found a couple of companies
doing for-sale electronic products, but they were maps and printable scenery for wargames. I found 0one Games, who’d released a massive d20 campaign supplement as a downloadable file for a fee, but (and I mean no disrespect to the folks at 0one, for they are truly innovators) I couldn’t find anyone who’d ever heard of them.

They were all using PayPal to handle the transactions, which was a fine choice, but one that didn’t satisfy me. PayPal was only one payment option on the web. I wanted something like Amazon.com or the thousands of other e-commerce sites that let you just pay by credit card or send a check. I found one, but navigating through their interface to create a "storefront" was incredibly difficult. Plus we had a jury-rigged bit of software that would deliver the link to you via email. I only really knew about half of what I was doing. When it was all done, and the PDF ready to sell, we updated our website with the announcement and hoped and prayed. We weren’t NASA and this wasn’t the first manned spaceflight, but it felt like it.

Today. Creating and selling a PDF is extremely easy now. Today, you can focus solely on the important things, like the content of the product. Of course, you also have to consider how to make yourself stand out among all your fellow PDF publishers and all their products. RPGNow launches multiple new products every day. It’s all of a sudden a crowded market. Part of the reason it’s a popular venue for publishers is that RPGNow makes electronic publishing extremely easy. And customers know to go there to find what’s new and cool in the electronic publishing field.

[…] Is there a market for PDFs? That variant ranger I mentioned, as of this writing, has had around 50,000 downloads. Fifty. Thousand. But will people pay for electronic game products? Well, that night two years ago, Sue and I had our expectations blown right out the door. And what is more amazing, the book continues to sell to this day. That’s just one more wonderful thing about electronic products that we hadn’t even thought of: They’re always in stock, always available. Unlike a print title, which sells through its print run (hopefully) and then is never seen again, The Book of Eldritch Might—and presumably, if the publishers wish it, every PDF that’s come out since then—will always be available. Forever.

After the market for PDF books was created, lots of people got in on the act; but unlike the d20 craze that occurred (and still occurs) with the d20 OGL, some of the biggest players in the PDF gaming books sub-industry are nigh-unheard of in the mainstream industry. Most big companies are very hesitant to get involved because it’s a medium they simply don’t understand, and which doesn’t fit their business model. Yet its extremely low entry costs allows small publishers to not only get involved, but also to experiment with wild new styles of gaming, since the lower costs allow for greater risks with regard to material. Some of the greatest innovations in gaming (both rules- and genre-wise) are taking place in the PDF industry.

Moreover, the cost of paper has risen steadily in recent years. The necessarily small print runs of most gaming books (2000 copies is a very decent print run), coupled with the high production quality gamers have come to expect, lead to very prohibitive costs for books with very little payoff for the companies producing them. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, requires three books to play – each of which usually sells (new) for about $40 CND.

Most PDF books cost somewhere between $5 and $10 USD.

Huge difference, obviously. If PDFs can somehow become more mainstream, it will make getting involved in the hobby (financially, at least) much easier for newcomers. And, sure enough, the PDF industry is slowly growing.

This is where I want to be involved as a designer right now. I’m currently hard at work creating my company’s first three PDF books (all for the d20 system). Although I don’t think that they’ll ever replace printed books, I nevertheless believe PDFs are the way of the future, and that as time goes on they will begin to play a larger and larger role in the overall industry. Sometimes, I get pretty excited when I think about the direction things are going in – all the experimentation and innovation taking place in the small-press and PDF game design circles can only be a good thing.

And that brings us up to date. There are some other developments, even more recent, that aren’t all that great… But since I’m pretty sure that I’ve bored most of you to tears by now (in fact, as I write this, I find myself doubting that anyone but myself will end up reading this entire rant all the way through), I’ll leave that off and go on to talking about my usual meaningless stuff.

Knowing me, that probably means more complaining about the current US Administration. C’est la vie.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 2:55 PM
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Sunday, June 13, 2004

The 1990’s: I’m Not Goth, But I Play One on TV. (part 3 of 4)

There were a number of things that made the 1990s terribly depressing for me. Going through high school, the prevalence of boy bands, the way every bloody action movie seemed to be exactly the same as the next, and the general cynicism of popular culture were certainly not the smallest items on the list. I don’t think it was just me, though, because for the RPG industry, the 1990’s was a rather dark time. Not dark like in the 1980s, though – here, I mean dark in a good way. As a matter of subject and setting.

The beginnings of what would become the trend of dark RPGs actually began in the previous decade with 1988’s release of Cyberpunk 2020, and FASA’s release of Shadowrun the following year. Both drew upon William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer for inspiration, presenting a dark, gritty dystopian future where life is cheap, death is quick, and technology dehumanizes those who use it. Both games were jerky getting on their feet, and Cyberpunk 2020 largely died out by the mid-90’s, but Shadowrun remained strong for a long time owing to the creativity of its setting – rather than “simply” being a reflection of Gibson’s books, this combined traditional tropes of the cyberpunk genre with fantasy, so that one might find a dragon running a megacorporation, or an ogre working as a bouncer at a bar, and magic had to find ways to co-exist in a world with readily-available cybernetics.

This paved the way for the biggest new game of the 1990s – one so popular, in fact, that at times it would sell better than the great contender, Dungeons and Dragons. This game was Vampire: The Masquerade, by Mark Rein-Hagen, a game where players portrayed eternally damned vampires struggling in to retain some vestige of their humanity against insurmountable odds, all set against a backdrop that appears as a dark reflection of our own modern world. Tagged as a game of personal horror, the overall theme of the game (at least at its outset) could be summed up succinctly by the game’s frequently-repeated tag-line: A Beast I Am, Lest a Beast I Become.

Rein-Hagen had been paying attention to the burgeoning Gothic fad. At the outset, his game combined from the Crow, Anne Rice’s novels… and… well, actually, that’s pretty much it. Especially Anne Rice’s novels; the inspiration was mostly from there. Vampire managed to capture a huge wave of popularity and, accompanied by a brilliant marketing scheme that targeted not just the pre-existing gamer subculture but also the Goth movement, rode that wave to success.

Thanks to its success, Rein-Hagen (and his RPG company, White Wolf – these are the folks who in later years hired me to write books for them) was soon able to produce other games also set in the same world as Vampire. There was Mage: the Ascention, Wraith: the Oblivion, Changeling: the Dreaming, and my own favourite, Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Each focused on a different type of classic/mythological monster, presented in a modern world, and each with a distinctive theme and dark mythos (though each would also relate to one another); collectively, this formed the World of Darkness.

All of these games approached the concept of RPGs with a very different focus than in previous years, at least not since Empire of the Petal Throne of the 1970’s: the games all presented lavishly detailed, deep settings designed to enhance the themes of the games. Moreover, something that Petal Throne did not do, these games were designed to produce a strong atmosphere, and to help players plumb the depths of their own characters rather than simply the fictional world around them. The question was no longer how powerful you could become, or how many orcs you could slay, or even what secrets you could uncover… Rather, it was how far would you go to survive? Would you forcibly take blood from others? Would you kill? Sure, you could try to deny yourself the blood that you need, but by doing so you become weak and risk losing control, causing your primal urges to spur you on to committing a bloodbath. Again, a Beast I Am, Lest a Beast I Become.

Obviously, I thought the idea was pretty neat. Sure, it was style over substance, but that style really kicked ass – and the industry needed the reminder that style’s important, too.

It wasn’t long before other companies were tripping over one another in an effort to get in on this dark RPG fad. Suddenly, one could find secret conspiracies everywhere; the supernatural existed hidden from the world in plain sight; dark forces worked pulling the strings behind everyday occurrences. Everyone was putting the emphasis on setting, style, character, and story all of a sudden. Which was good and all, but it inevitably happens that when you emphasize style, substance tends to suffer. Rules systems were often somewhat lacking.

Another downside to the marketing scheme that White Wolf employed (and still employs to this day) focused on the wallet of the gamer. You see, by focusing so strongly on settings, this enabled White Wolf to later produce books related to the setting, taking a single aspect of it and expanding upon it. Vampires in Vampire: the Masquerade lived in a society divided into clans and bloodlines… So, later, each individual clan received its own book, which of course had to be bought separately from the main game. It was a cash cow, to be sure, but it lead to each company fiercely competing for a larger and larger share of a gamer’s income. It suddenly became very hard for gamers to try many different systems and simply play the ones they liked, since many felt the need to buy everything they could for one particular line, and didn’t have any money left over for anything else. In other words, competition between game companies became fierce.

Still another bad side-effect of this method of doing business, in my mind the worst side-effect, was that the costs of entry into the hobby became extremely prohibitive for newcomers. While it wasn’t absolutely necessary to buy every product within a line, the core books of a line generally make a point of leaving enough unsaid that the reader feels compelled to buy other books of the line. In recent years, most believe that the industry has been growing at an extremely slow rate, thanks largely to this style of production – yet, at the same time, those companies who produce games in this way tend to be the most successful. It’s a definite quandary.

Furthermore, although each company produced some absolutely beautiful settings and worlds (for example, TSR got in on the act with its Planescape, one of my favourite settings ever – I could write an entire essay devoted to Planescape alone, it was so imaginative and evocative), experimentation with system design and gaming styles practically ground to a halt. EVERYTHING had to be serious and dark; Roleplaying became more than just a hobby, but an art. True, this brought roleplaying to a new level, but for a while there “true” roleplayers began looking down upon those casual gamers who were simply looking for a bit of fun hacking their way through a dungeon.

As always happens in such situations, eventually some of these people got tired of being so stuck-up all the time. Okay, maybe that doesn’t always happen, but it did in this case.

As a reaction to this focus on setting, in the later 90’s the industry began focusing on a new concept: "rules-lite." The basic idea was that setting, story, and especially rules, should never get in the way of having fun, so there should be as little of each as is manageable. Particularly with rules. Although setting-intensive, rules-intensive, and rules-and-setting intensive systems still stuck around (and have yet to leave), suddenly the idea that one should leave behind as much baggage as possible became very popular. The idea that anyone should need a calculator at the gaming table had become less acceptable in the past.

The best example of rules-lite that comes to mind also plugs into another fad that the RPG industry had noticed: Anime. Imports of Japanese cartoons had become more common, no doubt thanks in part to Sailor Moon (for a while the most widely-watched show in the world, though no one could figure out why) and its 80’s predecessor Robotech. Honestly, I’m not sure whether Big Eyes, Small Mouth was the first Anime-inspired RPG, but it was, and remains, the biggest, and it came with a customizable rules-lite system designed to emulate a player’s favourite anime series/world/character/cabbit.

Hand-in-hand with the idea of rules lite comes the idea of the cinematic RPG, which also saw light during this time. Previously, the idea was that pages upon pages of complicated rules were somehow more “realistic.” I’m still not sure why this was, but when I was younger, that’s what it seemed like to me. Moreover, there was the idea that realistic rules were somehow desirable. Again, I’m not sure why this was, but once upon a time I thought this way myself. Somewhere along the line, someone eventually figured out that complicated rules weren’t actually realistic, and a truly realistic rules engine likely wouldn’t be much fun. So, if this isn’t a desirable design goal for you (and it certainly isn’t for most), then what does one aim for?

The answer was cinematic. In some of its more popular incarnations, this means the type of over-the-top, bordering on the absurd, action-packed stuff one might see in a movie starring Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat. The best system from this period that I can think of to emulate this style of game is Feng Shui by Robin Laws, which has rules designed to actively encourage players to perform outrageous (but oh, so cool) stunts in the course of play.

Another approach to sloughing away rules was displayed by Over the Edge. A highly surreal game (possibly the most surreal game to date, though some aspects of Werewolf: the Apocalypse is a strong rival) set in a strange world where every possible conspiracy theory is literal truth, the game boasts a free-form rules system. In fact, the game has very few rules at all, and players in effect define many of their own rules when creating their character.

Post-modern satire saw its birth within RPGs during the 90’s with "games" such as HOL (which stands for Human Occupied Landfill) and Macho Women with Guns. Satirically celebrating the “archaic” kill-everything-and-take-their-stuff mindset of the games of older years, they stripped away everything else related to gaming in a humorous look at what RPGs had become. HOL, in particular, was of interest in that it was a "game" never meant to be played – simply to be read for entertainment value.

So, nearing the end of the 90’s, there were two distinctive schools of thought to roleplaying games: Those who demanded games be immersive and serious, and those who wanted games to be fun. As happens with any geek culture, this caused a huge rift for a time, as the Kirks (those who wanted games to be primarily fun) derided the Picards (those who wanted games to be sophisticated and immersive), and vice-versa.

And before you ask, no, that’s not what they were called. I just made up those names right now. Eventually, they’d mostly reconcile their differences, so that it would be recognized that both extremes of games and gameplay styles (and everything in between) are worthy; it’s all a matter of preference.

Now, I’m not sure about the reasons behind what was to come next, during the late nineties. Some blame collectible card games (or CCGs) and their drain on the coffers of the gamer market, others the market of video game RPGs, but I don't think it’s that simple. For whatever reason, though, RPGs went into a serious decline during the latter half of the decade, with huge setbacks to the industry. Sales were lagging badly, and a good number of smaller companies went under.

Still, nobody saw it coming when TSR declared bankruptcy in 1997. The biggest name in the industry, the owner of the most popular RPG in the world, had gone under. While many had been criticizing TSR’s sloppy business practices in recent years, it still took the entire subculture by surprise.

The vacuum left after the demise of TSR required the entire face of the industry be re-worked. Surviving companies had to revise their business models. Wizards of the Coast, a company known mostly for their successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, stepped in to fill the void, buying out the Dungeons and Dragons line from TSR; later bought by Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast has now become the largest and most successful company in the industry.

Coming up next, at last, the end of this essay.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 1:51 PM
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Saturday, June 12, 2004

The Dark Ages of the 1980s (Part 2 of 4)

Ah, the 1980s. I love the 80’s. Great movies. Awesome music. Saturday-morning cartoons. Happy fashion. Surfer lingo. Ninjas seemingly around every corner. Yes, I’m even fond of the crazy hairstyles. Truly, the 80’s was a great decade to be alive.

But it wasn’t such a great decade for RPGs. In fact, it was the dark ages.

For some reason, many people think that the 1980s was the dark ages for RPGs due to things that occurred within the industry. This is arguable. Some claim that the inevitable decline and consolidation after the initial boom led to the death of a number of businesses, which thus lead to the death of the genres those businesses supported. Some claim that RPG design saw very little experimentation, as each company simply tried to keep the status quo rather than push the envelope as it had in previous years. Some say, in the latter part of the decade) that TSR took on a siege mentality and took product protection way too far, leading them to be given satirical nicknames like T$R or They Sue Regularly (this was largely due to the mismanagement of TSR’s new owner, Lorraine "Gamers Are Not My Social Equals" Williams).

Actually, some of these claims aren’t true. As far as experimentation goes, the 1980’s saw less, overall, than the previous decade, but some very important milestones were reached nevertheless. Game design theory, and RPG storytelling theory, both saw the seeds of development during this time. (I’ll get into this later on…) And this was the decade when the Boxed Set RPG ruled the stores, and Boxed Sets rock on toast!

The bit about the companies dying, and the bit about TSR going greedy and corporate are true (this was the 80’s, after all), but that isn’t quite enough for me to decry the decade as the Dark Ages of RPGs.

Instead, the fault for that title rests elsewhere. On a single name, in fact, a name that will forever go down in infamy in the history of RPGs: Pat Pulling.

Pretty much every gamer over the age of 20 knows the name of Pat Pulling all too well. She’s become infamous among the RPG industry, and is probably the most reviled villain for the subculture (and yet, on some levels, pitied as well…)

James Dallas Egbert was a very disturbed youth. He was a child prodigy (16 but attending University), an alleged drug user, and was mentally unstable. He was also a die-hard Dungeons and Dragons player. One night, he ran away from Michigan State University with the intention of killing himself, leaving behind a note mentioning both the now-infamous steam tunnels under the university, and the game. James did not kill himself yet, however, and was tracked down by a private detective.

Thanks to the note, combined with some irresponsible journalism, James’ disappearance was blamed on D&D. A year later, he went through with his previous intention to kill himself, which gave birth to the myth of the first D&D suicide. Such claims were quickly dispelled thanks to the more responsible journalism that followed, but the foundation had been laid for what was to come.

It was June in 1982 which saw the tragic suicide of Irving Pulling. Irving suffered from chronic depression and mental instability – both friends and family would later report that he was becoming increasingly anti-social and delusional (and there is evidence that his mother, Pat Pulling, knew about his instability). When he took his own life with the loaded pistol his mother kept in the home, Patricia Pulling blamed D&D for his death.

First, she accused a professor of killing her son by placing a “curse” on him while playing the game. Of course, this contradicted the accounts of all the other players at the game, but this didn’t stop Pulling from making the claim. She took the case to court, and it was thrown out.

Not content with this result, Pat Pulling formed BADD, or Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, and she began her war of propaganda against role-playing games. They fought every way they could, from protests to flyers to books to radio and even appearances on talk shows such as Geraldo, 60 Minutes, and the 700 Club (okay, that last one’s less of a talk show and more of a “religious asshat” show, but you know what I mean).

During the 1984 trial of Darren Molitor, Pat Pulling and BADD interfered; Darren was accused of the murder of a young girl that allegedly occurred while he was acting out a Halloween joke. Pulling somehow convinced Molitor’s attorney to argue for Molitor’s lack of culpability due to the influence of Dungeons and Dragons. This was dismissed as irrelevant, and Molitor was found guilty of the crime, but Pulling kept up the trend and later interfered in other trials as well. Through Pulling and BADD’s influence, Molitor even penned a damning essay blaming D&D for his crime, though later he retracted it saying that he had been pressured into it by BADD and written it while in a state of confusion.

One has to keep in mind that at this time, RPGs were still pretty marginal. Sure, it had benefited from some recent growth that brought with it a like amount of attention (mentioned in the movie E.T., for example), but most people had very little knowledge about D&D or any of its industry cousins. Just to give you an idea of how small the RPG industry remained even at that time, by the mid-to-late 1980s during the height of TSR’s success, there were more astronauts working for NASA than there were full-time RPG designers (that’s since changed, I’d guess, though not by a whole lot). We’re talking about a small industry that was very marginal and, for most people, largely unknown. Thus, it became very easy for Pat Pulling and the media to vilify the industry to an ignorant public. Suddenly, admitting you were played RPGs was akin to saying you were a member of a cult, and was likely to get you yelled at for being evil, or at best, lectured about how what you were doing was evil by otherwise well-meaning folks (both have happened to me in the past).

Pat Pulling and her organization dug deep. They tried to find all the dirt on RPGs, no matter how weak the connection, that they could. For example, in their 1985 pamphlet entitled “Law Enforcement Primer on Fantasy Role Playing Games,” they list forty-one cases of suicide, homicide, or serious crimes that Pulling claimed were directly linked to RPGs. Of course, the fact that 6.2 million (!) copies of the Dungeons and Dragons game was in circulation at this time makes for a very, very tiny correlation – so tiny, in fact, one could more easily use that data to argue that RPGs actually deterred people from committing serious crimes. Furthermore, when those incidents were later called into question, most were found to have no relation to RPGs whatsoever, and some didn’t even occur – some were based on nothing more than hearsay, urban legend, or complete fabrication.

Pulling wrote a book on the subject entitled “The Devil’s Web.” Later, Rona Jaffe would attempt to cash in on the hysteria by penning a fictional work about a teenager who was lured into the occult through RPGs, entitled “Mazes and Monsters.” The latter would eventually be turned into a horrible made-for-TV movie for which I have yet to forgive Tom Hanks.

The RPG industry went on the defensive. Prior to this time, in the Dungeons and Dragons rules set, occasionally a party of intrepid adventurers might have to do battle with a Balrog-like demon in their quest to save the nation – no longer, since any mention of such creatures were summarily removed from printings of the game. Rules were even changed in hopes of making the game more acceptable to BADD and its allies among far right religious organizations (or at least giving them less things to twist and misrepresent).

Eventually the RPG Industry began to fight back by forming the Game Manufacturing Assosication (GAMA), carrying out their own studies at the same time as many independent researchers. (Actually, its efficacy was, and remains, highly debatable.) Gamers were the subject of psychological studies, the first such having been performed by Armando Simon in 1987. Then, in 1990, the RPG industry dealt its death-blow against BADD; Michael Stackpole, who had been hired by GAMA to investigate BADD and Pulling, released the Pulling report. This report revealed the manipulative and frequently outright fraudulent methods of the anti-gaming organization. Quite suddenly, in the aftermath of the revelation, BADD and Pulling disappeared – to the best of my knowledge, they haven’t been heard from ever since.

Piece by piece, Pat Pulling’s propaganda was shown to be utterly untrue… but unfortunately the damage had been done, and during the 80’s there was a great deal of stigma associated with roleplaying of any kind – at least, moreso than usual. I mean, it’s one thing to be thought of as a gaming geek, and another entirely to be thought of as a brainwashed serial killer/satanic warlock. Once, I was accused of being a werewolf-in-training, as strange as that may sound. Some stigma still persists to this day, unfortunately – it was just last year I heard someone make the ignorant claim (in a University class, no less, though thankfully not by a professor) that D&D is linked with Satanic cults and suicide. Some religious groups, and even occasionally the media, still like slinging mud at the hobby every now and again, too.

Sigh.

Still, BADD became a thing of history. In some ways, Jack Chick has replaced Pulling as the Enemy of Role-Playing™, but then he can only target us between his defamation of gays, Catholics, and single moms. Plus, we laugh at him more than we’re worried about him.

Overall, though, there were some positive benefits to the ordeal; adversity can do wonders to unite a community, and the gaming community therefore became closer and in many ways stronger. Even BADD’s propaganda helped bring publicity to the game, so that now even those who are still extremely fuzzy about the very concept of “role-playing” have probably still at least heard the name of the industry’s flagship product, “Dungeons and Dragons.”

So, what else happened during the 80’s, besides all this nasty BADD stuff? Glad you asked.

TSR continued to dominate the gaming market. While in the 70’s the company was run by those who were gamers first and businesspeople second, in the 80’s this trend was quickly reversed – a fact that no doubt helped the domination of the industry greatly. The company also experimented with D&D novels, the most famous of which was (and arguably remains) the Dragonlance Chronicles, written by that dynamic duo, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This was the first fantasy series to ever appear on the New York Times’ Best Seller list, selling over three million copies worldwide.

And as you can imagine, they milked that cash cow for all it was worth. When the books were at their most popular, TSR was also at the peak of its financial power. I didn’t personally care much for the books, but hey, to each their own.

There was also a cartoon, which as a child I absolutely adored (and which was written by, I would later discover, one of my favourite comic book writers), but which was, shall we say, somewhat less than a commercial success. There was talk of a movie, but the world wouldn’t have to endure that particular piece of crap until more recently (2000, I think? Can’t remember exactly, it was so spectacularly bad I’ve tried to block the memory out of my mind.)

What all this served to prove, though, was that gaming could mean big money if done right. Other players in the industry tried to follow this model, but for one reason or another, failed to achieve the same level of success.

That isn’t to say there weren’t other successes during this time; Champions, put out by Hero Games during this time, arguably remains the most popular superhero RPG to date, and TSR put out the Marvel Super Heroes system (also, as you likely have guessed, a superhero RPG) during this time, which remains one of my five favourite games. GURPS, which stands for Great Unnamed Role-Playing System and which was released by Steve Jackson Games, was also released in this time, and being a toolbox RPG that was meant to be usable for anything – any genre, any style of play – was also a huge milestone for the industry, and prompted a wave of other universal systems; a fad that would remain popular for a good decade, and which still pops up now and again. However, having gone through four editions of the rules (with a fifth just around the corner), GURPS remains the original universal system, and the most popular.

There was also the opposite trend at play during the 80’s; rather than create something that’s generic and flexible, but which can’t do any particular genre extremely well, create a game that’s designed to emulate a specific genre (theoretically with a higher degree of accuracy thanks to the heightened focus). The industry experimented with a number of ideas; novels and novel series were targeted, producing the first official RPG based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, MERP: Middle Earth Role-Playing. Likewise, Stormbringer was based on Michael Moorcock’s novels.

Wrath of Khan, of course, inevitably led to the release of a Star Trek RPG, and the Star Wars movies also gained an RPG of their own. Likewise for Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and others. Comic books were also becoming quite popular during the 80s, and the RPG industry paid attention; besides a number of Superhero systems that were released, other games were made designed to target the comic book fanbase, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG (for a while, this was a real crowd pleaser, despite an absolutely horrid rules system) by Palladium, Judge Dredd by Games Workshop, and a few others.

All in all, the idea was to create an RPG based around a single comic book, movie, or novel series’ paradigm, rather than a more encompassing RPG system. Merchandising was king. In most cases, the idea also failed pretty quickly, since what works for other mediums doesn’t always work as an RPG. Still, the idea of targeting a single genre faithfully would retain a lot of support over the years, eventually blossoming into the tight focus that is popular in RPGs today.

Far more important than experiments in genre, though, were experiments during the 80’s into the very concept of the roleplaying paradigm, the relationships between story and character, and between players and the Gamemaster. After all, the 70’s saw lots of genre experimentation, so this was nothing new by the 80’s. However, throughout it all the base idea of the RPG remained the same – players would create characters and would represent them in the fictional world created (or at least portrayed) by the Gamemaster. The Gamemaster would present events to which the players would react. Games promoted consistency by encouraging players to keep the same characters, and the Gamemaster was meant to be fair and avoid wantonly killing off all the PCs at the hands of an ogre. Generally speaking, the odds were meant to be in the players’ favour, though they weren’t necessarily supposed to know this, and the players were expected to act together most of the time in achieving common goals in the story.

Two games, in particular, challenged this idea. The first was Call of Cthulu, a game based upon the stories and worlds created by H. P. Lovecraft. Players played investigators who delved into the dark matters of the Old Ones, seeking to prevent their unfathomable (and destructive and often evil) goals from being accomplished. The thing is, while other games would encourage consistency in character (that is, players tend to play the same character over a long series of games, only changing characters when that character dies, or when the group decides to switch to another game), Call of Cthulu did exactly the opposite – it encouraged the Gamemaster to be absolutely ruthless with the players. Even if the players’ characters weren’t slain by a Shoggoth, torn apart by servants of Hastur, or even gobbled up like by the big baddy Cthulu himself, the rules system practically ensured that even the most clever, careful, and tough PC would have a limited lease on life because of the insanity rules. PCs were meant to delve into things which man was not meant to know – it was the entire point of the game, after all – but the more such things a player character discovered, the closer to gibbering insanity he or she would become. Before long, even if the character didn’t die, he or she would become unplayable and have to be locked up in a rubber room. This was a fairly new idea for the hobby, and certainly not explored to the extent it was in Call of Cthulu. The idea that some enemies were simply invincible, no matter how powerful your character is, was also fairly new, and took some adjusting to for those who had been previously playing a game where they would routinely adventure through the Abyss, seek out and slay demon princes, and then take their stuff.

The other game worthy of note went even further in this regard; it was called Paranoia, a darkly comedic game (no, seriously, it’s really funny). Set in a dystopian future where all of humanity has to live in a single, underground city run by an insane computer and an overly-laden and frequently ridiculous bureaucracy, and where most knowledge is punishable by death, players play what are called Troubleshooters – people who go around doing things for the computer and the bureaucracy, testing out new equipment, ensuring security of the city, and rooting out traitors and enemies. All this is set with a highly Big Brother-esque backdrop, where the Computer is constantly reminding you that The Computer Is Your Friend, and someone is always watching you wherever you are and whatever you do. The two greatest groups of enemies of the Computer are the evil Communists (actually, members of any of the secret societies within the city), and the evil mutants. Often, Evil Commie Mutant Traitors is used as shorthand to refer to all of the Computers enemies. As you may have already guessed, every player character – and in fact, possibly every resident of the city – is both a member of a secret society and a mutant by default.

Paranoia turned what had long been accepted as the idea of Roleplaying on its head. It actively encouraged the players to play antagonistically to the Gamemaster, treating him or her as an enemy rather than a partner in the crafting of a story. Also, while the default idea is that players generally work together to solve problems, this actively encourages the players to screw one another over – revealing each other as mutants or traitors in exchange for promotions within the Computer’s bureaucracy (since with promotions comes additional privileges and, theoretically, with privileges comes added safety). The rules system was also particularly deadly, leading to PCs dying off like flies at times. There is some character consistency, though, in that each character has five clones that are activated, one at a time, when each clone dies in the line of duty. All in all, this leads to character consistency roughly on par with that of Call of Cthulu.

The eighties also saw some innovation in diceless roleplaying, an idea that baffled people at the time. (An RPG without dice?! Is it even possible?! You’re Talking Crazy, Man!!!!) Amber and Everway were the two most famous diceless pioneers. Amber (based on the novels by Roger Zelazny) was set in a universe of shifting realities and infinite possibilities, and thus it requires a rules-light system open to interpretation. Similarly, the epic and cerebral nature of Everway's stories made the using of Tarot cards to mimic the fates very fitting.

TORG (technically a game from 1990, but I’m gonna include it here in the 80’s since it thematically continued an 80’s trend), an exciting cross-genre game, used both cards and dice in its universal system. TORGs "Drama Deck" not only offered players random play advantages like bonuses to dice rolls, but also allowed story interaction, with cards creating subplots to be added at the players' discretion.

Amid the ultra-merchandising mentality of the 80’s, there were other developments related to roleplaying – the choose-your-own-adventure style RPG novels, the board games, the computer games, MUDs, etc. These all helped boost the industry as a whole, but they were always somewhat tangential, so I won’t get into them beyond this token mention.

Tomorrow, part 3.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 4:51 PM
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Friday, June 11, 2004

Okay, at long last, my take on RPG History (part 1 of 4). Keep in mind that, although I have a number of facts that I list throughout list treatise, I also have a lot of things that are nothing more than my (admittedly educated) opinion. Take it for what it is, nothing more.

First – what is roleplaying?

The basic idea of roleplaying is that a group of people get together to play roles; most of the time, this manifests with most of the group playing a single role, or character, each, most often one which that particular player identifies with and/or creates. Also, most of the time, one member of that group will portray a myriad of roles, essentially representing the rest of the universe, and will present a sequence of events and settings with which the other players’ characters are meant to interact.

Most of the time, a player will portray the same role, or character, over several games. Often, this will correspond with a related setting or series of stories presented by that one sorry player who has to do all the work.

A Small Lexicon:

The first group of players mentioned above are called Players. Their characters are referred to as Player Characters, or PCs.

The person representing the rest of the universe in a game is called many things, from Storyteller to Hollyhock God to Judge (the most commonly-known is Dungeon Master), and since this is the person who has to do most of the work and usually has to buy most of the required gaming books, one can also refer to him or her as “sucker.” For the purposes of this treatise we’ll call this person the Gamemaster. I’ve always preferred that one, anyway.

The characters that the Gamemaster portrays are called Non-player Characters or NPCs.

A series of related games (related through story, character, setting, or any combination of the three) is usually referred to as a Campaign, as opposed to a stand-alone game which is often called a One-Shot.

A distinctive, fictional universe in which PCs live is called a Campaign Setting, or just Setting, among other things.

Overall, the entire process can be called Gaming, and participants in the overall process are frequently called Gamers.

Those are the basics, and enough to make this essay understandable. I hope.

The 1970s: Beginnings

Although Roleplaying Games (or RPGs – not to be mistaken with rocket-propelled grenades) are relatively new, they have a very rich and varied history. And, like most rich and varied histories, they begin with a rather quirky, intelligent fellow who stumbled upon a good idea.

This fellow in question was H. G. Wells, known to some as the grandfather of science fiction. In fact, he was also the grandfather of Roleplaying Games.

Actually, to be a bit more accurate, H. G. Wells was one of two grandparents for Roleplaying Games. After all, the seeds of RPGs have always been around, in the form of children’s flights of fancy in which they play games of “cops and robbers,” “cowboys and Indians,” pirates,” or what-have-you, in each case games in which the participants use their imagination and a suspension of disbelief to take on a role that is temporarily played out. The main (though not only) thing that was missing, really, was a well-defined rules structure to prevent arguments over whether participant A shot participant B, or whether participant A actually missed, no A didn’t, A shot just fine but it doesn’t matter because B was wearing a bullet-proof vest, only cowboys aren’t allowed to wear bullet-proof vests and that’s no fair, so A hates this game and declares he’s going home, etc., etc. This is where H. G. Wells’ creation comes in, to provide what one can see as a natural outgrowth, evolution if you will, from the imaginative games of childhood to provide order to disorder.

H. G. Wells’ creation was a game for use with lead army men, created for children (boys in particular) to use to simulate battles and wars, in the hopes that it would end the silly sorts of arguments mentioned above. The book was entitled “Little Wars,” published in 1915, and it laid the groundwork for the sort of game that would eventually become known as a wargame. Admittedly, this was not the first wargame ever created – it was merely the first that was designed for amateurs, rather than generals and other military-folk.

Fast-forward to the 1970’s. Wargames are now at the height of their popularity, and the little booklet that H. G. Wells published had been replaced by a myriad of different rules sets and publishers. Along with drugs, bad fashion, and disco, Wargames became a popular past-time for young people of the day, so much so that it could genuinely be called an industry with its very own subculture. And no longer were wargames about purely historical or realistic battles – ever since the 1966 publication of Lord of the Rings, The Battle of the Bulge and were often replaced by Helm’s Deep, and axis and allied soldiers would be replaced by orcs and elves. Why bother with tanks and artillery when you could wargame with balrogs, ents, and nazgul?

Enter Gary Gygax and David Arneson.

Gary Gygax had created a wargame called Chainmail designed to simulate medieval warfare, under the name of his very own publishing company Tactical Studies Rules (or TSR, as it would shortly be known). A later edition included rules on spells, giants, trolls, and other fantastic things.

This pushed the envelope somewhat, and it wasn’t long before the trend continued. David Arneson had previously experimented with playing military campaigns by giving the players different personal goals related to the fictional personalities of the different commanders, and eventually began concocting the idea of (in his words) “a big medieval campaign with half-a-dozen different people playing with little powers with fifty or sixty men, and then you’re the king or the knight or whatever.”

Inevitably, when Arneson and Gygax met, they began to combine their ideas. Somewhere between 1970-1, Arneson used the Chainmail system to play what is the first true RPG ever, in which the participants played and fought their way through the infamous Blackmoor dungeon campaign.

Over the next few years, the two experimented with the Chainmail rules engine, and eventually turned it into Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first commercial RPG, published by TSR in 1974. And Roleplaying Games were born.

Although it was a slow start (it took almost a year for them to sell the first 1000 copies), the idea began to catch on, and eventually Gygax and Arneson begam publishing their very own RPG magazine entitled The Dragon Rumbles. Later, this would be renamed The Dragon, and then much later, just Dragon – it remains the oldest and biggest RPG magazine published today.

Before long, others began trying their hand at the idea of publishing a “Roleplaying Game.” The first major competitor for D&D was a game called Tunnels and Trolls by a fellow by the name of St. Andre in 1975 – it followed the same sort of themes as D&D, but T&T took a much more light-hearted approach, and sought to leave behind much of the wargaming baggage that D&D retained in its rules.

Another noteworthy contender in the early days of D&D was a game called Empire of the Petal Throne, also published in 1975, and designed by M. A. R. Barker. This was, for me, a truly fascinating game (and one whose existence I was completely unaware of until recently) because of its premise and design. Barker was a linguist first and foremost, studying linguistics in college, and long before there was a gaming industry he had created his own fantasy world known as Tekumel, complete with its very own dominant language (called Tsolyanu). When D&D came into being twenty years later, Barker saw a wonderful opportunity to resurrect his fantasy world and, more importantly, share it with others.

Unlike D&D’s vague, pseudo-Tolkienesque, generic fantasy world on which players were expected to have their characters adventure, kill bad guys and take their treasure, Petal Throne was anything but vague or generic. Everything was well-defined, and rather than rules, it was the setting that was given the most attention by the books – religion, rituals, customs, fashions, and languages were all laid down for every culture on Tekumel, all of a distinctly non-western flavour.

Unfortunately, EotPT’s greatest weakness – its detail was not just intimidating, it also served a fairly specific style of play. To alter that style would require the GameMaster to alter Barker’s world, which detracted from the entire reason one would play Petal Throne in the first place.

Neither Tunnels and Trolls nor Empire of the Petal Throne would last very long – the former would die out in the early eighties, and the latter would not even last through the seventies, but they both helped show that D&D was not the One True Way of roleplaying. In doing so, they helped usher in the Golden Age of RPGs. To use a biological analogy, one could also call this the Cambrian age.

In fact, it wasn’t long before other genres besides Fantasy began to see representation in the blooming RPG industry. By 1980, games dealt with such varied subject matter as:

-Classical (ancient Greece)
-Espionage
-Fantasy (western, detailed and exotic non-western fantasy, and Arthurian)
-Oriental (feudal Japan)
-Medieval (historic)
-Modern (military, gangster)
-Pirate (with or without magic)
-Post-Apocalyptic (gritty, comical)
-Science Fiction (pulp, hard, space opera, star trek, planet of the apes)
-Soap Opera
-Stone Age
-Superheroic
-Swashbuckling political/social advancement
-Western (historic)

One of the Sci-Fi games during this time was notable. Mark Miller designed a game called Traveller, which boasted a very flexible and well-designed system that was easy to learn but also robust when it came to actual play. However, its rules aren’t what made it so notable – rather, it was released at roughly the same time as Star Wars. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how profoundly this affected the game, and the hobby. Traveller was a huge success right out of the gate.

Of course, not everything was wonderful, particularly when it came to game-mechanics; many of the mechanics used then are considered dated, archaic, clunky, unsophisticated and/or ineffective by today’s standards. Typesetting, illustration, and presentation were generally atrocious by today’s standards. There were plenty of stinkers when it came to games during the so-called “Golden Age.” Then again, you get this with anything, in any decade; as one RPG.net forum-goer put it, “For my tastes, the ratio is […] 9:1 in favor of the stinkers in the 1970s, drifting to 9:1 in the 1980s, and then shifting slightly to 9:1 in the 1990s. These days, we seem to be entering a new age where the ratio is roughly 9:1.”

Once RPGs had developed some level of popularity, their own particular sub-culture wasn’t too far behind. Gamers began developing their own in-jokes and slang, fanzines were produces, people began to communicate, and eventually conventions were set up for gamers to meet and communicate even more. After the first such major convention, RPGs had finally reached full-blown cult status.

In 1979, facing a great deal of competition (not to mention learning from successes of the industry), Gary Gygax revised the rules of D&D to release a second edition, called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Meanwhile, the old version of the rules were simplified and released as a game for beginners. By doing so, Gygax managed to ensure TSR’s dominance in the industry for years to come, by targeting both veterans and novices among Roleplayers at the same time.

To use a biological analogy, paraphrased from another RPG.net frequenter, "this was the Cambrian age of RPGs. Lots of diverse life-forms (in other words, games) appeared during this time. However, few of them were built for long term survival, so games eventually narrowed around a few optimized systems."

If I might wax melodramatic for a moment, ‘twas a good time to be gaming. At least, I imagine it was. Can’t say for certain, since during the late seventies I was just wee.

Coming tomorrow, part 2.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 12:53 PM
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Thursday, June 10, 2004

HASH(0x8acfac8)
Severus Snape, Potions.


Harry Potter Quiz: Which Hogwarts Professor Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Thanks to Scribblingwoman for pointing out the quiz! (I recommend the third movie, by the by. It's a good watch.)


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 8:37 PM
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Strange Day...

(I know, I know... I promised to have a boring essay about the history of RPGs up... And I will. Be up tomorrow -- promise. Not that any of you are exactly looking forward to it with great anticipation or anything... In fact, I expect it'll be a pretty dry read. And that's assuming I still have readers, which is hard to say with the few comments I've been getting lately. But enough of this aside that's fast turning into a meandering rant.)

This was a very strange day for me.

For some reason, I've been reminiscing about old times today. Going over past friends, and past times in my head. I broke out a bunch of the old comic books I used to draw in high school and flipped through them, thinking about the time when that was what I wanted to do with my life -- draw comics. Used to have a bunch of comic-drawing friends, too.

As usually happens with life, I've since drifted apart from the friends of yesteryear. Such is life, of course, but it's still kinda sad to think about. I'm still very fond of many of them, and sometimes I regret that lack of communication very much. Today was such a time.

For once, though, I decided to do something about it. I went on-line and started searching for my closest friend from High School (keep in mind, high school was 10+ years ago for me). Searched for his name (Robin White), and no go -- too many Robin Whites on the interweb. I then added Fredericton as a keyword, since that's where we went to high school -- got back an article about radio documentaries for some reason. On a hunch, I did a search for Power Joey, which was one of the satire comics he used to draw back in the day... nada. Then, Skitzoman (another of his comics), which turned back a hit on the Strange Adventures site, which led me to Skitzoman.com -- alas, a broken link, but I knew I was getting closer.

Narrowing down my search parameters, and utilizing Google's cache feature, I managed to find a current Skitzoman site -- a weekly web-comic. I went through all the archives -- most of the comics I can remember from years and years ago -- and had myself a few good laughs. Then I found his e-mail address and started writing him an e-mail.

Check out the site, btw -- I'm biased, but I think it's really funny. Twisted funny, sure, but still funny.

Here's where things get interesting. Just in the middle of writing an e-mail, another old friend just happened to stop by right out of the blue -- apparently he was in town for the day to meet his mother's fiance. So, I spent a few hours hanging out and catching up with him on the past few years; even went to Steamers and had a meal of crab, using the gift certificate Royal Bank was kind enough to give me this week.

These are two of the three best friends I've ever had in my life. I get all reminiscy all of a sudden, and I manage to get in touch with both of them within minutes of one another.

Funny how life works sometimes, isn't it?

For the sake of old times, here's an old comic book character I used to draw, redesigned in the past two weeks for the new millenium (I might end up doing a web comic, might not, who knows?)



Historically speaking, this particular line of comics featured characters that were generally based on people I knew. This one, in particular, was based on me. Flatteringly so.

Now say something witty, dammit!


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 7:37 PM
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Friday, June 04, 2004

Politico-Religious Side-Track

I know this post was supposed to be about the history of RPGs, but, well, I saw this and just had to comment.

http://edition.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/europe/06/04/bush.italy/index.html

During Bush's visit to Italy, he met with the Pope. And he awarded the Pope a freakin' medal for being a "devoted servant of God."

You've got to be kidding me.

Now, I'm not Catholic. But anyone who's spent their entire life dedicated to one of the oldest religions in the world, I think, can easily fit the "devoted" category. He doesn't need a bloody medal from some pissant cowboy prez'nit to prove it.

Next, I expect Bush is gonna give Mother Theresa a post-humous medal for "kinda helping out." Then he'll declare Gandhi to be a "swell guy," Einstein to be "purty smart," and Da Vinci to be "kinda talented."

Who the hell does he think he is?


Bush: (babbles something about Freedom/Oil/Terror)
Pope: (whispers) "Lord? Could you incinerate him with lightning now? Pretty please?"


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 11:33 AM
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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Charity, WWII Supervillains, Superhero Names, and Other Linkage

I came across a site the other day... actually a group of connected sites... which claim to support various charities by having visitors click links. This is paid for by site sponsors and the advertising money they provide. In other words, it's free for visitors to come by and help out, simply by clicking an icon.

Of course, to my cynical little ears it sounds a little too good to be true. Still, it seems legit, and if it is, that's pretty damn awesome. Even if it isn't legit, though, what's it take to click an icon once a day?

To help feed the hungry, go here.

To help fight breast cancer, click here.

This is the place you go to in order to provide health care for children.

How about the rain forest? Go here.

And to help fund animal shelters and rescue groups, this is where you want to go.

Incidentally, you can navigate from one charity to the next via the convenient tabs at the top of the site. But I'm sure that will be apparent when you visit.

In completely unrelated matters, I also came across an online comic book yesterday. Very strange. Stalin vs. Hitler (the official english translation). Despite how absurd it sounds it... Well, actually, yeah, it is as absurd as it sounds, but not nearly as silly as one might expect. Can't say I'm particularly keen on the ending, but then I was kinda hoping that both mass-murdering tyrants would die (I mean, it's not like historical accuracy is particularly important to the comic, obviously...)

A friend of mine sent me a link to a superhero name generator(thanks, Pitre!) Apparently, I'm also known as "The Late-Night Dragonwing."

Always wanted to read the Ilyad, but never had the time? Fear not! Apparently, it's now available in Messenger Speak. In fact, book two is reduced to a mere twenty-four words!

That's all for now... Next time around, I'll put up the first post of a series (probably a three-parter) of my take on the history of roleplaying games. Where and how they began, where they are now, and how they got from A to B.


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 8:28 AM
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