AND #2

Essay about Fantasy Role Playing Games


February 1984


by Dylan Horrocks & Roger Horrocks

Fantasy Role-Playing Games began in the early 1970s in the U.S.A., with the creation of Dungeons and Dragons. FRPG existed for some time as a minority cult interest, lying somewhere on the edges of fantasy fandom and war-gaming. In recent years the rise to popularity of FRPG is an extraordinary phenomenon – they now represent a worldwide activity and business, influencing other forms of popular culture such as movies, comics, video games and television (as illustrated by a recent episode of ‘The Greatest American Hero’). Their popularity in New Zealand has followed a similar pattern, albeit with a time lag of several years. From a handful of gamers in 1978, the interest has grown six years later to a network of fans, clubs and fanzines, with specialist shops in the main cities.

FRPG are games only in a sophisticated meaning of the word. They are concerned with the creation of realities. No props are involved, and the outside observer sees nothing but a group of people with a lot of paper, pens and dice, sitting around a table arguing. It is impossible to "win" such a game in any conventional sense, and games sometimes continue to run for years, inside both the game-reality and the player’s ‘external’ reality (game time may move at a different rate from ‘real time’). In the early years, FRPG aroused bitter controversy in some parts of the U.S.A. because of their strangeness – parents and teachers expressed fears that the games were destroying the sense of normal reality in young players, that they were obsessive, neurotic, anti-social, or even related to black magic. Today the games are so widely popular that such claims are seldom heard. But in their journey towards social acceptance, the games have been subtly diluted and compromised. As we shall see, the radical nature of their reality-making has to some extent been lost.

Assembling Reality

The classic version of the game begins with one player (the ‘games master’ or ‘referee’) designing a setting, either on a large scale (such as a continent) or something smaller such as a single town or a ruined castle. Some referees like to go to extraordinary lengths to prepare entire countries with political, social and religious histories. Others prefer to use only rough notes so that there is more scope for spontaneity. ‘Rule books’ exist but these function merely as guidelines for creating a workable reality; they provide a starting-point. Each of the players creates a character, using dice to establish a good spread of attributes. The rule books offer basic laws – the laws of nature, so to speak – but these ‘laws’ work by probability (the dice). Control and chance are equally important.

The more creative players devise for their characters a distinctive personality, with various motivations and quirks. Others treat their characters simply as extensions of themselves so that the games tend towards wish-fulfillment fantasies. The action of a game consists of the characters going about their lives within the world of the referee. What results is a story communally created by the players. Since it is impossible to ‘win’ the game, the sole object for many players is the creation of the ‘story’ and development of their characters. (Not that the ‘story’ is told – it is occurring in the present. It is often boring to hear games recounted, it is more interesting to ‘be there when it happens.’) Creative players will deliberately allow their characters to act foolishly or irrationally if they believe it is consistent with their personalities, thus adding new twists to the plot. Other players are more interested in complex problem solving, rather than in character or story. Some referees base games around themes, such as one mediaeval scenario in which a group of knights on a crusade were forced to question the validity of ‘chivalry.’

Another element some players emphasize is the fleshing-out or real-ising of an alternative world. An example of this is a game in which the characters gradually discover more of the physical and political shape of their world through their picaresque travels. In such games, players may get caught up in struggles which transcend their individual characters, a local war, say, or a cosmic conflict.

There are different ‘levels’ of ‘reality’ (or layers of ‘illusion’) within the game-reality – for example, spells which ‘deceive’ the characters such as hypnotism, charms, and phantasmal forces. Once the character is affected by such a reality, the player must suspend his or her own awareness that it ‘is an illusion.’ Because the game-reality exists purely among the players, it is necessary for them to share a common language and culture, so to speak. Players rely on common knowledge drawn from the history, legends, and literature that they have read. Hence the players and referee have compatible imaginations. This is important in the same way that compatibility is important for a jazz group, since the combined reality is created to a large extent spontaneously, without a score or a rehearsal, creating a reality for the moment which exists purely as a kind of language.

The literary nature of FRPG realities is very different from those created in much New Zealand literature and art, where creation is based on a direct encounter with ‘reality.’ Part of the literary flavour of FRPGS is the lack of local reference. The mythologies and other literature used by New Zealand players is imported, usually from Europe (though recently there has been a strong interest in Eastern history and mythology). To my knowledge no-one has ever injected any Polynesian or Maori mythology into a game. There are games with contemporary settings, but the chosen locale is usually American.

Popular Versions

Complex styles of play assume a high level of intellectual involvement in the game. With the growth in popularity of FRPGs, especially of the original game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ (D&D), the focus has shifted from the university-student type of player to a younger and less well-educated player. Gamers are no longer an avant-garde group but are now almost indistinguishable from the mass audience for fantasy and science fiction, aged from 12 or 13 up. There is a strong ‘escapist’ streak in the newer players, and their games resemble third-rate pulp adventures with an emphasis on violence and wish-fulfillment. Granted, it can be argued that all FRPGs have an element of violence – the rule books consist mostly of combat-simulation rules and weapons charts. Most gamers accept this as natural, partly because violence is the preoccupation of so much popular culture, and partly because the threat of death and the thrill of combat provide excitement. The danger to your character prevents you from feeling that you can get away with everything.

One effect of the growing number of casual players has been a shift in roles from active to passive. Gamers are relying less on their own imaginations for settings and scenarios, and are now purchasing ready-made ‘modules’ (‘Build up your collection…’ etc.). Most modules set the player the task of fighting his or her way through a labyrinth, with treasure or increased power as incentives. Thus the game looks more and more like a run-of-the-mill video game, with the aim of scoring as many points as possible.

Role-players are typically male, white and middle-class. The proportion of males appears to reflect the violence of the games and the limited roles for women in most fantasy and science fiction literature. While it is extremely rare for a male player to play a female character, females often play males.

The Future

Popular culture for teenagers has gone through considerable changes in the last decade – indeed, many adults remain largely ignorant of the new activities. There is a complex give-and-take between the various ‘media’, with a mixture of economic competition (rapid booms and slumps as new crazes emerge) and sudden alliances (‘Dungeons and Dragons’ is suddenly discovered as source material for comics, films, video games, music, etc.). In one sense, FRPG is not a ‘medium’ at all in the sense that movies, video, books, etc. are physical media – the only ‘medium’ is the mind – but there is, as I have noted, a strong drive by the business world to find ways of making the game more tangible so that the materials can be bought and sold (plans for ready-made worlds, toy figures representing characters, etc.).

Popular culture covers a very broad range from the most sophisticated types of game to the simplest and most repetitive type. Towards one end of the scale is pulp literature, the simpler video games, mass-produced comics, movies for ‘pure entertainment’ and hit-parade music. It would be interesting to trace the connections at this level which have grown out of the surge of interest in fantasy material – for example, ‘S & S’ (Sword and Sorcery) pulp literature, movies like Conan, comic books like Warlord, and the watered down forms of D & D. At the other end of the scale are (for example) the most radical FRPG and the most creative computer work by teenagers. One wonders what changes will come about as a result of a generation having grown up with this material, all of which (from basic ‘fantasy’ to sophisticated reality-construction) challenges orthodox attitudes towards realism.

(Nb: although now very out of date, I'm posting this article on the off-chance it's of interest to someone - you never know!  For more fascinating information on the history of RPGs, see The Museum of Role-Playing Games or Steve Darlington's History of Role-Playing Games in the wonderful on-line zine Places to Go, People to Be.  I'll be posting more information and links about RPGs in the future).


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Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks