Dinosaurs, Survival, and Speciation

by Lev Lafayette

This article is about how some of the earliest roleplaying games survived to contemporary times, how others became extinct, and how others, whilst becoming extinct, saw their ideas reborn in new game systems. The evolutionary metaphor is somewhat overdone of course, because when discussing products of the mind there is more development, rather than evolution with its unconscous naturalistic unfolding occuring. But the metaphor of dinosaur roleplaying games is sufficiently evocative to keep.

The initial question is, of course, what constitutes "one of the earliest" roleplaying game. It is no easy task to describe the history of roleplaying games in terms of qualitative change in game systems. Making an appeal to innovative contributions (e.g., explicitly narrativist components) will require some distinction between the game systems and actual play. For example, Ron Edwards makes reference to Tunnels and Trolls and Marvel Super Heroes as examples of narrativist play, when only the latter really provided in the system-mechanic (Karma points) for the player to take some control over the game's narrative. The other method involves selecting a particular date that is inevitably arbitrary, as it is difficult to discern industry-wide qualitative changes narrowed down to specific years.

Combining the two approaches a working definition for this essay is early roleplaying games that were built around the playability vs realism continuum, that did not have a major narrativist system mechanic, and were published prior to 1984 (i.e., the first ten years from the publication of original Dungeons & Dragons). From this list - and it is quite extensive - this would include a number of games that are still in active publication and development.

Who's In The Zoo?

Obvious examples of first generation games that have survived and sometimes prospered include Dungeons and Dragons (1974), Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Tunnels and Trolls (1975), Chivalry and Sorcery (1977), Traveller (1977), Gamma World (1978), RuneQuest (1978), Rolemaster (1980), Call of Cthulhu (1981), Champions/Hero System (1981), Dragon Warriors (1982), Palladium (1983), and Paranoia (1984). The phrase "active publication and development" is deliberately chosen; it excludes games like Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) which has the original rules available through print-on-demand, but has not been in active development for many years.

It obviously excludes games which have suffered extinction or sorts for a variety of reasons; Superhero 2044 (1977), The Fantasy Trip (1977), High Fantasy (1978), Realm of Yolmi (1978), Adventures in Fantasy (1979), Bushido (1980), DragonQuest (1980), Fringeworthy (1981), Man, Myth, and Magic (1982), Swordbearer (1982), Powers and Perils (1983), and many, many others. Some games, like Bunnies & Burrows (1976) are still played and remembered fondly, but are not in active development.

Evaluating why some games have survived and others have not requires a careful review. Obviously individuals have a pet theory on why this is the case which often equates to "my favourite (first generation) game survived and yours did not therefore my theory is right". Even a slightly more empirical analysis can do better than mere assertion. An evaluation based on some actual data is better than an evaluation based on none.

System Superiority

It is possible to evaluate games according to their game system along at least two axes. The first is the capacity of the system to show internal coherence, and the second is the flexibility in the game system, the degree that it can satisfy a variety of creative agendas from its players. A game that does not have internal coherence contains contradictory rules. A games that does not have flexibility illustrates a paupacity of design complexity. A game system becomes 'broken' when it is possible to exploit the rules in such a fashion that, as writ, the game becomes unplayable.

Even from the games listed, it should be clear that system design is not a significant factor in the survival of a game. Games with excellent game systems, such as The Fantasy Trip, DragonQuest, and Swordbearer, have fallen on the wayside, whereas the most successful game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons, is notorious among gamers for large variety of system flaws and inconsistencies; one only has to do a review of "Pun-Pun The Super Kobold", "Chain Gate Solars", "the Nanomunchkin", "A.D.D.I.C.T" (http://knights-n-knaves.com/dmprata/ADDICT.pdf), or some of the surprise rule conflicts to illustrate some well-known examples - and no, this is not a case of "all rules have flaws". They do, but not as significant as this.

This is not to entirely discount system design as a metric. All other things being equal, if game A has a better system than game B, then over time people will gravitate to it. RuneQuest survived (just) and Powers and Perils despite both receiving equal promotion from Avalon Hill, at least initially (to P&P's credit, there are still some die-hard fans). Overall however the roleplaying game market, like many others, shows very little indication of representing anything close to perfect competition.

First-Mover Advantage

First-mover advantage is a well known feature of business success. Typically it refers to a situation where a technological innovator is able to capture a large initial market and control the resources to reduce the capacity of newcomers to engage competitively. There is an argument that whilst the first mover is able to reap monopolistic profits, at least for a while, this is balanced by their requirement to engage in risky research in the first instance.

It is certainly true that Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., achieved first-mover advantage with Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Efforts from the company to promote "official" products to the exclusion of others (c.f., the admonishments in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide) or to deny even the existence of other companies (e.g., printing changes in Deities and Demigods) were a modest contribution in maintenance of this position.

What many fail to recognise however is that TSR did establish a level of cultural superiority as a first-mover. For decades after the establishment of the hobby when explaining a particular game to non-roleplayers the phrase "it's like Dungeons & Dragons" would be typical. Roleplaying games, as a whole, were synonymous with Dungeons & Dragons, and as a result, TSR could claim a first-mover advantage and, importantly, a new customer advantage.

As long as TSR retained a high market position with a production and distribution chain, this positional advantage continued. However, and this lesson applies for other industries as well, once a generation had past with this cultural experience it was no longer novel and the synonomous relationship wore off. By the mid-1990s there was no point in saying "it is like Dungeons & Dragons" - by this stage, everyone in the target market was familiar with existence of roleplaying games. It is no accident that this is the time when D&D was seriously challenged by White Wolf's games (Vampire, Werwolf, Mage, etc), which offered a significantly different rulesystem, core setting, and a play-style which tapped into subcultural mores.

Monopolistic Advantage

There are other forms of monopolistic advantage which is worthy of a quick overview. The term "monopolistic advantage" is offered in contradistinction to that of "competitive advantage" offered by Michael Porter, who willingly lumps various barriers to competiton (as well as productivity improvements) as a type of "competitive advantage", despite the damage monopolistic behaviour has to aggregate wealth. From the perspective of an individual business however, both monopolistic and competitive advantage are sources of survival, even if the former can lead to "last man standing in a wasteland" situation.

In terms of monopolistic advantage the most important in the roleplaying game market was maintanence of distribution control and cash reserved, two interrelated components. A games company required wide market reach, and enough money to continue operations whilst waiting for returns from sales. For many companies this proves to be a significant barrier to entry; either they remain a small producer, or they suffer devastating shortfall of money, the latter affecting even large companies, such as TSR in 1995.

The survival of a roleplaying game after such a corporate calamity depends on those who purchase the surviving assets of the company. Rolemaster has survived despite Iron Crown Enterprises going into bankruptcy in 2000, because the assets were purchased and the company revived. SPI's DragonQuest was not so fortunate, even though arguably it was a somewhat better game. With a small but continuing support base, Empire of the Petal Throne has been published by five different companies (TSR 1975, Gamescience 1983, Different Worlds Publications in 1987, Theatre of the Mind 1994, Guardians of Order 2005). Another very well-known example is the original RuneQuest (The Chaosium 1978, Chaosium/Avalon Hill 1984, Mongoose 2006, The Design Mechanism 2012).

Notably like first-move advantage, monopolistic advantages are very much time-dependent. Whilst a large company with monopolistic advantage can crush a smaller one in the short term (e.g., using loss leading, control of distribution lines etc), in the information goods market the arrival of the Internet has severely disrupted traditional distribution-chain management. This has proven to be advantageous for small-press publishers, and has also led to some RPG manufacturers to develop game systems that contain additional necessary components which are not easily subject to copying (e,g., Warhammer FRPG 3rd editions).


In contrast to game systems which have gone extinct attention should also be given to divergent forms of speciation which a game system may become extinct but either the system or the setting and title is taken up into a new system. This includes games which have undergone several editions of recognisable similarity, as well as systems which have combined major elements from other games. Some games such as are more understandable as a variant of a game system, a supplement, rather than an effective speciation (e.g., Monsters! Monsters! to Tunnels & Trolls).

Whilst there is no suggesting of attempting a geneology of roleplaying games (at least not at this time), there are some very obvious examples - for example how much of the The Fantasy Trip was incorporated into GURPS (1986) after the former ceased publication with the demise of Metagaming (it also included a great deal of the concepts from Champions, but that's another matter). On a different approach, a speciation of setting and game concept, examples can be given with Bunnies & Burrows which was republished as a GURPS supplement and whose rules had no similarity with the original. GURPS Traveller can also be mentioned in this context along with Traveller: The New Era. A more extreme version of this is Traveller 2300 which wasn't even in the same game-universe as Traveller - which at least partially explains why the second edition was renamed 2300AD.

New editions are a form of speciation as well, at least those which have undergone a significant rules revision. It is arguable that all roleplaying games are a speciation, to some degree, from Dungeons & Dragons. More direct lineages however are evident from the original Dungeons & Dragons, to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the D&D BECMI series, to Dungeons & Dragons third and fourth editions, although third edition also (as one of the designers noted) has a fair bit of influence from RuneQuest as well. Rolemaster has had at least one major revision; Rolemaster 1st and 2nd edition (aka "classic") to Rolemaster Standard System/Fantasy Roleplay, along with tangental developments such as MERP and HARP. Paranoia had significant rule changes in the first, second, "third" (entitled "fifth"), and fourth (entitled XP) editions; as an interesting twist current developers do not consider the "third" edition to exist; it has become a "nonperson" in the eyes of the ultraviolet.

Two notable examples exist of games that speciated and then merged (which, as far as I know, doesn't happen in biology). The first is RuneQuest, which began the development of a range of systems from Chaosium with similar mechanics entitled Basic Role-Playing ; Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Superworld, Ringworld, ElfQuest, Superworld, Hawkmoon and, arguably, Pendragon. Non-Chaosium games which can included in the list include Other Suns, and the Swedish Drakar och Demoner. An early attempt to show the commonalities of these systems occurred in the publication of the Basic Role-Playing booklet. A more advanced version was Worlds of Wonder. Almost thirty years later Deluxe Basic Role-Playing would offer a unified system in an much-expanded publication. The other is Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying, with its numerous spin-off games and eventual merger into Rifts etc.

Who Survives? Who Prospers?

A review of the various metrics involved in the survivability of first-generation roleplaying games leads to the following two major tentative conclusions. Firstly, the survival of a roleplaying system is primarily dependent on the organisation backing the production. Whether large (Dungeons & Dragons) or small scale (Chivalry & Sorcery) as long as there is a core group involved in promoting, producing, and distributing a game system with regular updates, supplements etc, its survival is ensured. Note that all components are required; a game company that simply offers reprints of an old game does not aid to survival of the game. Some games can even be resurrected as a result - the most prominent example is Dragon Warriors which saw initial release in 1985, and a new edition in 2008. The second component is the contribution of new mechanics, setting, or style to the roleplaying game market. This is as essential as the first requirement, but rather aids a continuing interest to develop a community around the game.

It is arguable that this examination also has relevance for new game systems as well as a historical review of survivors. Either a game is being developed for a short-term interest for several sessions and then to be discarded for the next innovative independent publication, or it is attempting to carve a small and continuing market share. There is an enormous range of clever and interesting mechanics and settings in a large number of more contemporary independent games, but without ongoing support it is likely that they will also fall into the category of extinction. As mentioned, system (or setting) superiority was not sufficient for the survival of first generation games. There is no reason to assume that this is not the case also for contemporary games systems.