The RPGs That Made Us

Last week, I made a passing comment about the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us, that I would most definitely watch a similar series about tabletop role-playing games. Whether or not you liked TTTMU - those that didn't were put off by the humor, or else thought important beats were missing - it did something for toys that have long been done for movies, TV and music: It told a secret history and put the toymakers at heart of this history. We've long had interviews with film makers, actors, etc., thanks to DVD extras and talk shows. Comics have in no way been explored as much as they should, but comics-centric movies have produced comics-centric featurettes too. Toys were a largely unexplored niche despite having touched a lot of people. While role-playing games are nowhere near as omnipresent as toys, they do represent a similar niche, one I'm sure would prove fertile terrain for crazy stories, sudden innovations, and personal drama.

So what would *I* imagine as a season of The RPGs That Made Us? Lets try our hand at one...
Dungeons & Dragons. Well, obviously. This is the start of the thing we call role-playing. It's a long rich history that includes Gary Gygax wanting to do a little more with war games, Basic, Advanced, and a number of editions, a cartoon series, TSR handing the reigns over to Wizards of the Coast, the development of d20, and more. Because it is so wrapped into the origins of the hobby, I think this should even be 2 EPISODES. Dare to go where the Made Us series has never delved before.
Traveller. What D&D was to fantasy, Traveller was to space opera. And it too has gone through various editions and permutations (MegaTraveller, 2300 A.D., GURPS, T20...). Things to look at include planetary and ship creation, and of course, the profession track chargen system. A lot of the game's original innovation have inspired mechanics in other games, and as one of the grandpappies of role-playing, deserves its spotlight.
GURPS. You can't do this series without tackling Steve Jackson Games' very successful attempt at a universal system. The Generic Universal Role-Playing System has spawned 4 editions and dozens upon dozens of sourcebooks for every genre. At the very least, you'd get to hear the story of how the FBI descended on their offices because they thought GURPS Cyberpunk was going to be a manual for hackers. You can't make that stuff up.
Vampire: The Masquerade. Well, the whole World of Darkness, really. An important game with crossover appear across all genders, with lots of innovative mechanics to make playing tragic monsters - whether vampires, werewolves, mages, wraiths, etc. - really work. The mechanics of psychosis, you might say, a very interesting step away from the simplistic alignment wheel of many games, even when Masquerade came out. And this one's gonna feature a lot of dress-up, am I right?
DC Heroes / Marvel Super-Heroes. Yes, both in the same episode, as there's a bit of industrial espionage/corporate shenanigans involving the two. It would be a good episode to learn the ins and outs of licensing material for a role-playing games, with different styles, I'm sure, for Mayfair and TSR. Plus, plenty of mechanical conundrums associated with superhero play. And recognizability would help sell this little niche series of ours.
Call of Cthulhu. Chaosium's game of existential dread is another long-lived game, this one with its roots in Lovecraftian lore (again, recognizability), and the earliest attempts at horror mechanics with the Sanity Roll. CoC has gone through several editions, been adapted for various settings, and has somehow survived even though none of my gaming groups have ever managed its tone for more than a few moments. I need the inside scoop on the people who really play this!

And that's seven (with my double episode). What would fill Slot #8? I leave that up to you. Is Palladium's journey as a game company worth including? Are games like Shadowrun sufficiently large in gamers' imaginations to snag the last slot? Or should be have a less nostalgic episode that tracks the rise of New School games (and if so, which? Fate?). Do you think it should be Paranoia? Tunnels & Trolls? Top Secret? Chivalry & Sorcery? Star Wars? Hero/Champions? I'm sure everybody has an opinion...


Clinton Robison said...

I can't really argue with your list. Although I would propose for "season 2" to include:
-Palladium system
-West End Games Star Wars

Siskoid said...

All of these were on my short list!

American Hawkman said...

I think you have to have the Hero System eventually.

Siskoid said...

Not surprisingly, my choices are skewed away from what I perceive to be math-heavy games.

Mike W. said...

I agree about GURPS; it's great because there are so many different sourcebooks you can play whatever genre/era you like. My favourite is Cliffhangers ... I love that Pulp sensibility (also present in stuff like Daredevils, Spirit of the Century, etc.)

I like old school D&D (Moldvay Basic was my intro), but I'm really liking Pathfinder these days; it's a D&D clone, but the Adventure Paths are pretty cool, some more than others (Skull & Shackles ... it's all about pirates!)

I'm surprised you left out FASA's Star Trek RPG (or its successors), knowing what a big fan you are. I haven't played it but I've looked it over and it seems pretty cool; great star maps. Speaking of stuff you love, is there a Doctor Who RPG? Seems like it'd be a natural.

Jack Gulick said...

My own gaming evolution went thru T&T to Toon to Teenagers From Outer Space to discover the mechanics-light space (with some time spent at Ghostbusters and WEG Star Wars) before rumbling off into the wonderland of Amber Diceless for a long while.

So the mechanics light space space probably needs representation.

Siskoid said...

Jack: Just a question of figuring out where the best stories are.

Mike: It's less a question of preference than what would actually go in such a series. And there are indeed Doctor Who RPGs. One by FASA that clones its engine from Trek, in fact. In the 90s there was Timelord. And currently, the Cubicle 7 game is wonderful and if you click either the RPG or Doctor Who tab, you won't have far to go to see I run it and write about it A LOT. While you're perusing tabs, under MORE OF SISKOID, the "DWAITAS Project" is actually a series of fan-made sourcebooks I put together with friends covering all the Dr Who stuff from books and audios in RPG form.

Anonymous said...

FATAL? ;) No, if you had eight episodes to play with surely one would have to be devoted to the indie scene/diversification. Your article makes me think that in recent years there's been plenty of niche kickstarter computer related documentaries too, and then a series of RPG history tomes. If you teamed up with an eager filmmaker you could get in on the ground floor and at least do the most obvious documentary, the early history of D&D, TSR and the 80s moral panic. :) You might even get an opportunity to grill Tom Hanks about selling out nerds everywhere. :D

Siskoid said...

Love it!

Ah to be young, connected and about 10 people. I could do everything I've ever thought about.


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