A Brief History of Fashion in RPG Design

         This is a brief history of RPG design in terms of general style. Many authors have portrayed RPG design as being evolutionary. For example, Greg Porter outlines four generations of RPGs in his article "Where We've Been, Where We're Going" from Inter*Action #1. This projects the common view that RPGs have become more "sophisticated" over the three decades since Dungeons & Dragons was introduced. This is fundamentally a technological view of RPG design. In contrast, I wish to look at the development of RPGs as an artistic history -- where there are trends which may die out, or classic fashions which may revive.

         Typically art is characterized by having "movements" rather than "generations". This avoids the implication that there is some evolutionary improvement, which may not be the case. My concern is that perspective on back-and-forth changes may be overlooked from evolutionary thinking.

         Also, a vital piece of game design which is often overlooked is the model for adventures. For example, early D&D was defined by the keyed dungeon map and room descriptions. This is a vastly different view of play from, say, 1990's published adventures for Torg -- which detail a series of acts and scenes for play. The model for adventures has changes alongside mechanics, and is far more important for play than the type of dice rolled.

         I would distinguish nine major movements in RPG design. Of course, the same disclaimers apply to these as to any other artistic categories. Many games won't fit into any of these movements, and many games will only partly fit. I see these movements as influences, rather than rigidly defined categories. The categories I see are:

1975-1980: Explorational Wargames
D&D, Melee, et al.
1978-1988: Literary Simplicity
Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, et al.
1980-1988: Rules-Heavy Worlds
RoleMaster, HârnMaster, et al.
1984-1993: Comical Rules-Lite
Toon, Marvel Superheroes, et al.
1986-Present: Universal Problem-Solving
GURPS and its imitators.
1987-Present: Fast Cinematic Action
Star Wars, Feng Shui, et al.
1991-Present: Dark Storytelling
Vampire: The Masquerade, et al.
1991-Present: Diceless Fantasy
Amber Diceless, Everway, et al.
2000-Present: Crunchy Challenge
D&D3 / D20, Rune, et al.
Generalizing and relating these movements together.
Influential systems by year.

1975-1980: Explorational Wargames

         There is no doubt that role-playing games in general originated from Dungeons & Dragons. The early games were clearly related to wargames, but with a twist. There was an explorational component, expressed as keyed maps fully known only to the GM. This map-based approach to adventure was vital to how adventures were conceived.

         It is worth noting that this is a very player-driven approach in many ways, compared with later story-oriented adventures. While it is expected that the players stay within the bounds of the underground complex, the pace and direction of the actions is generally controlled by the players. Especially with a published module, the GM's function becomes almost marginal -- revealing the contents of the keyed description for that map location, and rolling for monsters.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1973: Dungeons & Dragons (TSR)
1975: En Garde (GDW), Tunnels & Trolls (FB)
1977: Melee (Metagaming)
1978: Gamma World (TSR)
1980: Dragonquest (SPI)

1978-1988: Literary Simplicity

         Certainly in reaction to the wargame-like approach of D&D, a more literary approach to role-playing came at first from Chaosium. It made a number of games from literary adaptations. For Chaosium, the rules were based on a percentile skill-based system originally developed for RuneQuest (RQ). However, later revisions of the core system came to be known as Basic Roleplaying (BRP), and were generally simpler than RQ.

         BRP's approach had a few key ideas:

I would call RuneQuest a precursor to this fashion. The later literary Chaosium games generally simplified the RuneQuest system, and tried to add genre-based options.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1978: RuneQuest (Chaosium)
1981: Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium), Stormbringer (Chaosium)
1983: Ringworld (Chaosium)
1985: Pendragon (Chaosium), Skyrealms of Jorune (Skyrealms Publishing)
1987: Ars Magica (Lion Rampant)
1988: Space:1889 (GDW)
What is interesting in this is the approach of GDW to their Space:1889 game. In a major change from their previous efforts in Traveller 2300 and Twilight 2000, they went with a very rules-lite approach for Space:1889. However, this turned out to be unsuccessful.

1980-1988: Rules-Heavy Worlds

         The eighties began with a move towards more extensive rules sets. The key system which began the trend was Iron Crown Enterprise's Rolemaster, which came out as a series of rules modules. This also took some inspiration from RuneQuest -- but whereas BRP simplified the RuneQuest rules, Rolemaster added more detail and complexity. Stylistically, this was a move towards a more gritty, naturalist type of game. Where D&D modules were about isolated dungeons, these modules were about regions of the world. One can see this clearly in the product lines for Space Opera, Middle Earth Role-Playing, Twilight 2000, and HârnMaster.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1978: RuneQuest (Chaosium)
1980: Rolemaster (ICE), Space Opera (FGU)
1981: Aftermath (FGU)
1983: Powers and Perils (Avalon Hill)
1984: Middle Earth Roleplaying (ICE), Twilight 2000 (GDW)
1986: HârnMaster (Columbia), Phoenix Command (Leading Edge), Space Master (ICE), Traveller 2300 (GDW)

1984-1993: Comical Rules-lite

         The competing trend in the eighties was the emergence of truly rules-lite systems -- certainly in part in reaction to the heavy rule sets. This was kicked off in 1984 with Steve Jackson Games' Toon and TSR's Marvel Superheroes. Hallmarks include:

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1984: Adventures of Indiana Jones (TSR), Chill (Pacesetter), Marvel Superheroes (TSR), Paranoia (WEG), Toon (SJG)
1986: Ghostbusters (WEG)
1987: Teenagers from Outer Space (RTG)
1988: Macho Women With Guns (BTRC)
1989: Prince Valiant (Chaosium)
1993: Amazing Engine (TSR)
This trend was very strong for a short time. Companies produced some RPGs which look quite different from previous efforts and future ones. However, the trend died out. Nineties publishing saw the end of the boxed set and the colorful 32-page booklet. Both Chaosium's Prince Valiant and TSR's Amazing Engine games were marketplace disappointments. The nineties were dominated by more crunchy, darker-toned games.

1986-Present: Universal Problem-Solving

         Steve Jackson Games grabbed a solid central market share with its game GURPS. While Chaosium had tried a similar approach with Worlds of Wonder in 1982, it was half-hearted at best. In many ways, this trend is the natural extension of the "Rules-Heavy Worlds" movement. It was impractical to develop and test a new complex rule set for each setting, so the rules were developed separately. Nearly all RPG companies developed their own house system, and many publish it in a "universal" form at some point.

         But besides being universal, there were other elements that GURPS emphasized.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1986: GURPS (SJG)
1989: The HERO System (Hero)
1990: CORPS (BTRC)
1996: The D6 System (WEG)
1999: Simply Roleplaying (Microtactix)
2002: The Action! System (GRG), EABA (BTRC)
2003: Silhouette CORE Rules (DP9), Tri-Stat DX Core System (GoO)

1987-Present: Fast Cinematic Action

         In the late eighties, as the rules-heavy and rules-light trends competed, there were two key transitional systems: West End Games' Star Wars (1987) and FASA's Shadowrun (1989). Both of these were mechanically innovative, popularizing and elaborating the dice pool concept. But they also represented a shift in genre and flavor. They were colorful and action-packed, and they introduced the concept of character templates.

         Perhaps more importantly, these games began to take movies -- and in particular action movies -- as a very strict model. Published adventures began to appear which were organized into a sequence of "scenes", often divided into "acts". Each scene had a location, often with boxed text to be read. This was highly influential even among older games. For example, many 2nd edition AD&D adventures had a similar structure.

         What is distinct about the cinematic trend is that dice pools tended to be abandoned. The mechanics varied, but the emphasis was on finding a fast-resolving but still exciting mechanic to handle the cinematic combats. The style of play emphasized speeding through any sort of slow-moving parts to get on with the next scene. This is epitomized in the approach of Feng Shui. Broadly speaking, key qualities are:

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1987: Star Wars (WEG)
1989: Shadowrun (FASA)
1990: Torg (WEG)
1993: Earthdawn (FASA)
1994: Masterbook (WEG)
1996: Feng Shui (Daedalus), Deadlands (PEG)
1997: Champions: The New Millenium (RTG)
1998: Hercules & Xena (WEG)
1999: 7th Sea (AEG)
2002: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Eden)

1991-Present: Dark Storytelling

         A parallel and related trend was the one set by White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade (1991). It was enormously popular among players and influential among designers. It solidified the trend towards dice pools started by Star Wars and Shadowrun -- and that soon became the most popular approach of the nineties.

         More important was its change in tone, layout, and approach. Key features of Vampire were:

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1991: Vampire: The Masquerade (WW)
1992: Werewolf: The Apocalypse (WW)
1993: Mage: The Ascension (WW), Kult (Metropolis)
1994: Immortal: The Invisible War (Precedence), Nephilim (Chaosium)
1994: Changeling: The Dreaming (WW)
1996: Fading Suns (Holistic), Witchcraft (Myrmidon)
1997: Legend of the Five Rings (AEG), In Nomine (SJG)
1998: Warlock: Dark Spiral (Black Gate), Tribe 8 (DP9)

An interesting offshoot of this trend has been the success of European translations/adaptations. These include Chaosium's translation of "Nephilim" from French, Metropolis' translation of the Swedish game "Kult", and SJG's adaptation of the French game "In Nomine".

1991-Present: Diceless Fantasy

         Diceless was undoubtably kicked off by Eric Wujcik's Amber Diceless Role-playing (1991). However, the influence is more than just a lack of randomizers. It was also a shift to a more rules-lite, GM-moderated approach. Stats are reduced to just a handful (like Amber's four).

         The trend also includes a shift towards a more dream-like fantasy quality of stories, which seems suited to the less mechanical approach -- like the surreal Burroughs-esque Over the Edge, the baroque fantasy of Castle Falkenstein, or the interdimensional visionary worlds of Everway.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

1991: Amber Diceless (Phage)
1992: Over the Edge (Atlas)
1993: Theatrix (Backstage)
1994: Castle Falkenstein (RTG)
1995: Everway (WotC)
1998: Dragonlance: The Fifth Age (TSR)
1999: Nobilis (Pharos)

2000-Present: Crunchy Challenge

         The new millennium has seen a revival of the explicitly crunchy, tactical approach which largely died out in the eighties. The center of this by far has been the success of WotC's 3rd edition D&D and the "D20" system. There is renewed attention paid to game balance and tactical depth, and a revival of the explorational approach of original D&D.

         I see this largely as a reaction against the limitations of the linear story-oriented approaches of both the "Fast Cinematic Action" and the "Dark Storytelling" movements. There is also reaction against the neglect of game balance in favor of speed and/or mood.

Notable RPGs influenced by this movement include:

2000: D&D 3rd edition (WotC)
2001: Exalted (WW), Hackmaster (Kenzer), Rune (Atlas), Wheel of Time (WotC)
2002: The HERO System (5th ed), Silver Age Sentinels (GoO)


         Among these nine movements, we can generalize further. From the original exploration wargame approach, the early 80's saw a divergence into more serious world-based rules-heavy and more comical rules-lite. These essentially merged in the 90's after "Vampire: The Masquerade", with rules-heavy mechanics succeeding though combined with a serious dramatic approach. The pendulum seems to be swinging back in 2000 with the success of D&D3, however.

         While the problem of "railroaded" adventures is old news to many role-players, it seems clear that the industry is still struggling with finding a solution to it. How do you provide effective support for running adventures without laying out a plot to follow? During the 90's, the approach of providing maps and background had all but disappeared in favor of chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene plots. With the revival success of D&D, though, this may be reconsidered.


I include below a short list of some of the more notable and/or influential games of RPG history. For a more complete list, see my RPG Encyclopedia.

1975: Boot Hill*
1977: Melee*; Traveller
1978: RuneQuest*
1979: Villians & Vigilantes
1980: Bushido; Rolemaster; Top Secret
1981: Aftermath; Call of Cthulhu; Champions; The Mechanoid Invasion
1982: Daredevils; Fantasy Wargaming; Star Frontiers; Swordbearer; Worlds of Wonder*
1983: Espionage; James Bond 007*; Powers and Perils; Ringworld
1984: Adventures of Indiana Jones; Chill; Marvel Superheroes; MERP; Paranoia; Toon*; Twilight 2000
1985: DC Heroes; Mekton; Pendragon; Skyrealms of Jorune; TMNT
1986: Ghostbusters*; GURPS; HarnMaster; Mechwarrior; Warhammer FRP; Phoenix Command; Space Master; Traveller 2300
1987: Ars Magica*; Star Wars; Teenagers from Outer Space
1988: Cyberpunk; Macho Women With Guns
1989: HERO System (4th ed); Prince Valiant; Shadowrun*
1990: CORPS; NightLife; Rifts; Torg
1991: Amber*; Vampire: The Masquerade
1992: Millenium's End; Over the Edge*; Werewolf: The Apocalypse
1993: Amazing Engine; Earthdawn; Mage: The Ascension; Theatrix; Whispering Vault
1994: Castle Falkenstein; Immortal: The Invisible War; Masterbook; Streetfighter; Wraith: The Oblivion
1995: Changeling: The Dreaming; Everway; FUDGE
1996: The D6 System; Deadlands; Fading Suns; Feng Shui; Witchcraft
1997: Big Eyes, Small Mouth; Champions: The New Millenium; Legend of the Five Rings
1998: Blood of Heroes; Munchausen; Hercules & Xena; MSHAG; Star Trek: The Next Generation
1999: Aberrant; 7th Sea; All Flesh Must Be Eaten; Brave New World; Ironclaw; Nobilis
2000: D&D (3rd ed); Hero Wars
2001: Exalted; Hackmaster; Rune; Wheel of Time
2002: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; HERO (5th ed); Lord of the Rings; Riddle of Steel; Silver Age Sentinels
2003: Marvel Universe

NOTE: Click here to read a Belorussian translation of this essay (provided by Webhostingrating).

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Dec 6 11:19:03 2004