Tag Archives: Jeffro Johnson

The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

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