The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Two by Jerry Whitworth
(see Part One if you haven’t already)
Role-playing games (RPGs), from its inception to even today, are fairly misunderstood. Most people observe them as being perhaps a board game or players dressing up in costume and acting out some adventure or even some group choose-your-own-adventure book (some even equate it with, of all things, devil worship). In reality, it’s an exercise in imagination, strategy, and statistics. Employing dice with a varying number of sides and pencil and paper to record player data, a party of players go on a series of adventures set up by their game master (essentially the writer and director of a collaborative effort). Originally, this meant simply describing situations verbally but, over time, maps and miniatures would be employed to offer a more visual presentation. It wouldn’t be long after the invention of role-playing games that they would be adapted into computer games (early examples like Akalabeth: World of Doom, Rogue, and Ultima). The most well-known role-playing game, as well as the first commercially available such game, was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in 1974. Growing out of wargaming (pitting tabletop armies of miniatures against each other in a similar vein to chess), Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed Dungeons and Dragons from Gygax’s wargame Chainmail and Arneson’s RPG Blackmoor. Both were heavily influenced by the fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (though Arneson would also draw inspiration from the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows). The game would become a subject of misguided ire largely in the ’80s.
In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III ran away from home to commit suicide in the utility tunnels beneath Michigan State University. When Egbert’s parents hired private investigator William Dear to find their son, Dear speculated Egbert to have gotten lost in the tunnels acting out the game Dungeons and Dragons. The press quickly picked up on the story which created criticism against the game. While Egbert turned up alive, he would later successfully commit suicide by self-inflicted gunshot. Dear would later publish the book The Dungeon Master (1984) where he admitted the RPG had nothing to do with Egbert’s disappearance and death, believing his domineering mother was more at fault. Books and films picked up on the Egbert case with fictionalized horror stories of RPG players losing touch with reality, killing/committing suicide, and/or devil worship such as Rona Jaffe’s novel Mazes and Monsters (1981) and its made-for-television film adaptation starring Tom Hanks, John Coyne’s novel Hobgoblin (1981), the film Skullduggery (1983), and Neal Stephenson’s novel The Big U (1984). In 1982, Patricia Pulling would found Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) following her son’s suicide which she blamed on a curse placed upon him by D&D. In 1985, the news program 60 Minutes would air a special on the game interviewing Gary Gygax and the parents of players who alleged killed and/or committed suicide because of D&D. North Carolina State University student Lieth Von Stein murdered his stepfather in 1988 and authorities at the college latched on to Von Stein’s involvement in a role-playing group. Authorities went so far to believe fellow players Gerald Neal Henderson and James Upchurch were involved in the plot leading to all three men being put away in prison. True crime writers Joe McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe would separately produce fictionalized novels on the murder (both of which would be adapted for television). Various organizations and government institutions have since investigated claims of D&D’s effect towards suicide and homicide finding no link whatsoever.
Despite claims of Dungeons and Dragons’ negative effect on youth, the game thrived in the ’80s (the brand, perhaps, actually benefited from all the press attention). D&D operates with campaign settings, essentially different worlds connected in various ways to each other. The earliest settings included Blackmoor and Greyhawk, the latter becoming arguably the most identified with the brand for several decades. TSR, the company behind D&D, would introduce the campaign setting Mystara in 1980. This setting would be created in a collaborative effort (as previous modules largely grew from a single author or small group), different teams of creators each established different cultures for Mystara before the various nations, empires, and societies were combined to form a complete world. Mystara is literally worlds within worlds, featuring a hollow world beneath its surface with its own sun and whose planet is encircled by two moons each with its own populace. The success of TSR and D&D would spur other gaming companies to emerge to take advantage of the growing market.
Founded in Detroit in 1981, writer/artist Kevin Siembieda formed Palladium Books with some help from friends Alex Marciniszyn, Erick Wujcik, Tony Falzon, and William Messner-Loebs. The first title published by Palladium was The Mechanoid Invasion, a science fiction RPG featuring robots. Palladium’s next entry was in the more familiar sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre with The Palladium Role-Playing Game in 1983. Following this, the company tackled superheroes in 1984’s Heroes Unlimited before moving on to licensed properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robotech. While Palladium would come to be known for its Rifts series in 1990 which visits upon virtually every genre and time period, their work with Robotech falls a close second as the company has almost single-handedly maintained interest in America in the property. The same year Palladium formed, George MacDonald and Steve Peterson created a rulebook for a superhero role-playing game called Champions, printing a thousand copies of the piece and selling it at a gaming convention in San Francisco. Doing well, the pair founded Hero Games and started selling the title commercially. The system MacDonald and Peterson devised became the skeleton of an entire line of modules. The so-called Hero System was tweaked for expansions like Danger International, Justice, Inc., Robot Warriors, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. Unfortunately, problems would plague the company and it would eventually merge in 1987 with Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE), a company founded in 1980 and publisher of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP, adapting the world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), Rolemaster, Spacemaster, and Cyberspace. In addition to Palladium and Hero Games emerging in 1981, so would Mayfair Games. Producing board, card, and role-playing games, Mayfair’s best known RPG item was its Role Aids series which was supplemental material that could be used in conjunction with D&D. Mayfair also produced Chill (horror themed), Underground (Dark Age of Comics themed), and DC Heroes (licensing properties of DC Comics). Mayfair would also merge with ICE. Also in 1981, Chaosium (a RPG developer who emerged shortly after D&D was first published) would obtain the license for the works of H. P. Lovecraft and produced the popular RPG Call of Cthulhu.
Facing competition from Chaosium, ICE, Palladium, Hero Games, and Mayfair in the booming market of role-playing games, TSR would update D&D in 1981. Previously, in 1977, the so-called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) line was released with significant differences from the original game. In 1981, the then called “Basic Set” (referencing the original version) was updated where more-or-less it maintained the same rules and simpler mechanics of the original version but expanded on higher level classes, in essence providing a product to people who still used the original system (and thus making D&D and AD&D two distinctly different product lines). This in mind, the “Expert Set” soon followed for higher level players from Basic. Within two years, this line would be expanded with Companion Rules, Master Rules, and even Immortal Rules (the latter for characters who essentially transcended levels by surpassing thirty-six character levels, more-or-less becoming minor deities). In between these advents, a new character would emerge becoming one of D&D’s most popular (and powerful) NPCs (non-playable character). Elminster Aumar was an elderly wizard in the vein of Gandalf of Lord of the Rings fame created by Ed Greenwood for Dragon magazine’s (TSR’s supplemental journal) featured article series “Pages From The Mages” in 1982. Many have argued Elminster is in some ways Greenwood’s avatar, Mary Sue, or even alter ego, a fact amusingly enough played up when Greenwood would don the attire and persona of the mage at conventions at TSR’s behest. Elminster would later spring out of the pages of Dragon into his own series of novels.
As the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons grew, the brand would branch out into other media. The first conquest was as an action figure line produced by LJN in 1982. The line would produce monsters, playsets, and characters like Warduke the Evil Fighter, Strongheart the Paladin, and Kelek the Evil Sorcerer all of whom would later be adapted in the Greyhawk campaign of D&D (most notably Quest for the Heartstone, which featured Warduke and Strongheart with statistics for all the action figures). Further, the year following the first series of toys and coinciding with the second series, an animated series was produced which also adapted the three figures. Dungeons and Dragons, co-produced with Marvel Productions with animation from studio Toei, featured six friends who on an amusement park ride were transported to the world of Dungeons and Dragons and must combat the forces of evil with magical items provided them by the Dungeon Master in order to return home. The cartoon would have its fair share of controversy, considered the most violent animated series on television at the time and, in one episode, the heroes considered slaying their nemesis Venger in order to go back to their own world. The action figure series at the time would re-release Warduke and Strongheart as well produce the monster Tiamat (a five-headed dragon employed in the D&D RPG since the beginning and a feature antagonist of the cartoon). While no figures were produced for the cartoon’s original cast in America, Spain and Portugal would produce PVC figurines of the series’ main characters available throughout Europe. The animated series would prove to be popular, running for three years with licensing for board games, puzzles, stickers, Pick a Path to Adventure books, as well as comic books published in the United Kingdom (such as Marvel’s Summer Special 1987 reprinting Comic Forum’s Dragones Y Mazmorraz #4 translated into English). The same year Dungeons and Dragons premiered on television, TSR would add another memorable world to their growing list of campaign settings.
Ravenloft was a setting unlike any other in the worlds of Dungeons and Dragons. A nexus of evil, the dreaded mists of Ravenloft could creep into any world and snatch up items, monsters, and people and transport them to that realm of horror. In the monster infested lands of Ravenloft, heroes are virtually nonexistent save those dragged from elsewhere and dropped into the realization of their worst nightmares given shape. A pocket dimension, Ravenloft is sliced up into a handful of realms each ruled, and shaped, by a powerful dark lord. Some of the most notably dark lords were pulled into Ravenloft, like mercenary captain Vlad Drakov the Hawk, lich wizards Vecna and Azalin Rex of Greyhawk, and the death knight Lord Soth of Dragonlance. However, the most notorious dark lord was born in Ravenloft in Count Strahd von Zarovich. Indeed, Ravenloft started as a campaign to combat the Dracula-inspired Strahd in his castle Ravenloft before the popularity of the module inspired its own world. The setting would go on to become one of D&D’s greatest hits spawning various novels set within the campaign’s world and attracting the aforementioned notable antagonists who competed for power against Strahd (the longest reigning dark lord of all). Also in 1983, another game developer would introduce a franchise that developed into another role-playing powerhouse.
Games Workshop (GW) is a United Kingdom-based publisher that originally produced board games before becoming the UK’s importer for Dungeons and Dragons. As part of this, GW produced a newsletter speaking on the game that evolved into the magazine White Dwarf, one of the world’s leading authorities on role-playing and tabletop wargaming. GW would bring various other RPGs into the UK before developing their own wargaming line in 1983 in Warhammer Fantasy Battle. The line proved to be extremely popular and would later incorporate Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in 1986. That following year, the developer went a step even further with Warhammer 40,000 (or, Warhammer 40K) taking the rules of the sword-and-sorcery based Warhammer and jumping into the future with aliens, space travel, and advanced technology blended with elements like magic and swordfighting for an entirely new product. Warhammer 40K would prove to be an even bigger hit for the company and continues as such.
During the height of the Cold War, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) would introduce a role-playing game to play up the country’s fears of nuclear war in 1984. Twilight 2000 deals with surviving in a world where NATO and the United States entered a war with nuclear consequences with the Soviet Union and the hardships it brought. GDW was founded a year before Dungeons and Dragons was first published as a wargame developer that branched into RPGs in 1975 with the French dueling game En Garde! before going on to produce Traveller (which was reissued in 1986 as MegaTraveller), Twilight 2000’s sequel 2300 AD in 1987, and the retro-futuristic/steampunk Space: 1889 in 1988. The same year Twilight 2000 was initially published, Marvel Comics would get in on the role-playing game trend and license its characters to TSR to develop Marvel Super Heroes in 1984. That same year, TSR would produce one of its biggest new campaign settings. Dragonlance introduced the Heroes of the Lance and their battle against Queen Takhisis (some say an alter ego of Tiamat or simply a parallel entity) bringing a new, intriguing world for Dungeons and Dragons with the Draconians (dragon-esque humanoids), Dragon Highlord of the Blue Dragonarmy Kitiara Uth Matar (half-sister to two of the main protagonists), and the death knight Lord Soth. Popular characters all, the Heroes of the Lance were the stars of the piece. Characters like Fizban the Fabulous (Gandalf-like avatar of the deity Paladine, elder brother of Takhisis and patron god of the Order of the Rose, elite knights which Soth belonged to when he was human), Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Caramon Majere, Flint Fireforge, and Tasslehoff Burrfoot became beloved characters but arguably their popularity paled in the presence of the conflicted anti-hero Raistlin Majere. Brother to Caramon and half-brother to Kitiara, Raistlin sought power as a prodigy of magic that nonetheless stuck to a strict code of conduct walking the path of evil but at some level in his soul maintained a level of righteousness. Embarking on a quest to slay Takhisis and take her place among the gods, Raistlin needed to become a wizard of the darkest order to reach her and would battle the vile deity. Though the wizard could have won, it was learned doing so would drive Raistlin to wiping out the other gods and all life on his world. So, instead, Raistlin gave his life to simply halt Takhisis’ invasion saving his world (becoming the planet’s most lauded hero while his soul was saved by Paladine). The following year, Dungeons and Dragons would follow up Dragonlance with another innovative campaign setting.
While some inkling of Eastern Asian culture would find its way into Dungeons and Dragons, in 1985 TSR would introduce a major expansion in Oriental Adventures. Adding elements like fighting monks, ninja, and samurai, the expansion added new rules emphasizing the importance of clans, families, caste, and honor. Eventually, Oriental Adventures would be folded into another campaign setting it predated by two years. This later setting would not only prove to be popular, within time it would overtake Greyhawk as the most notable world in Dungeons and Dragons. Created as a fictional world by writer Ed Greenwood in 1967 as his own fantasy setting, Forgotten Realms would gain a significant push in 1987 as an expansion for D&D which would appropriately enough become home to Greenwood’s Elminster (though, Greenwood would start describing the Realms in 1979 in Dragon). While the Realms would inherit the popular character of Elminster, it would gain who would become largely the star of Forgotten Realms, and arguably Dungeons and Dragons, in 1988 in part by accident. Author R.A. Salvatore would publish the first book in his Icewind Dale trilogy and introduce to the world the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden.
Drow, or dark elves, and their world under the surface called the Underdark were introduced in 1978 as part of Greyhawk as worshipers of the evil deity Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders. The vast majority of the drow are evil, in fact a drow of good alignment is so rare they’re considered non-existent. That is, until Drizzt Do’Urden emerged. A drow with a conscience, Drizzt was originally intended to be a sidekick to the human barbarian Wulfgar, intended hero of the Icewind Dale series. Inspired by Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings and Daryth from Darkwalker on Moonshae (the first novel in the Forgotten Realms setting), Salvatore found the complications of a good drow trying to live in a world that feared him without knowing him to work well and this turned into what many say is the best character in D&D as the character starred in many novels (eighteen of which became New York Times Best Sellers), featured in various video games, and adapted in comics. The popularity of Drizzt would even change the ranger class in D&D, where rangers generally employed the bow yet Drizzt used two scimitars (his father raising him to be a weapons master) leading to rangers developing dual sword wielding as a feat. Forgotten Realms was a large, developed world home to the Spine of the World, Icewind Dale, Waterdeep, the Sword Coast, Baldur’s Gate, Myth Drannor, Neverwinter, Shadowdale, Undermountain, Menzoberranzan, Cormyr, and many other intriguing locations. Phlan would become the focus of the first game based on Forgotten Realms in 1988 in the computer game Pool of Radiance (the first in a series). That same year, Heroes of the Lance based on Dragonlance would also be released for computers (also, the first in a series). As an aside, role-playing games would not only gain acclaim uniquely in America and England but in other parts of the world. Of note, a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in Japan grew into a media franchise in Record of Lodoss War beginning in 1986 when transcripts of a group of players were printed in the magazine Comptiq and became quite popular.
In 1988, TSR would begin a relationship with DC Comics where Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would be adapted into an ongoing comic book series set in Forgotten Realms. The following year, Forgotten Realms would become a second ongoing series and the year after that would come a third in Spelljammer. That third series was based upon a campaign setting that would finish out the decade for Dungeons and Dragons, where Spelljammer was a dynamic new direction for the franchise. In this setting, unlike what came before where new worlds would be introduced, Spelljammer instead takes place in outer space. Indeed, the title derives from a large, legendary space faring vessel named Spelljammer that is a manta ray-like creature with a city on its back. In the game, one can board spacefaring vessels and travel the stars, even visit the various worlds of Dungeons and Dragons such as Greyspace for Greyhawk, Krynnspace for Dragonlance, and Realmspace for the Forgotten Realms. Spelljammer was developed using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, a revision of AD&D premiering the same year as the new module. AD&D 2 saw a dramatic change in the rules of the game (some say to phase out founder Gary Gygax and cut him out of royalties). Taking some two years to develop, combat mechanics and character classes were overhauled while the game itself was re-engineered to appeal to teenagers (over its base audience in college-age players) and women while phasing out devils and demons to appease claims of the game being a portal for devil worship. The revised game would be the version used by TSR in the 1990s before its declaring bankruptcy and being bought by Magic: The Gathering collectible card game developer Wizards of the Coast.
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