Friday, November 5, 2010

RPG Alternate Histories

No, I'm not talking about alternate histories as settings for RPG campaigns. Grognardia's post yesterday got me thinking about a little thought exercise that popped into my head several years ago: what would RPGs look like if they had developed earlier than the 1970s and in doing so gained more distance from the advent of video games?

James M. proposes in his post that RPGs might just be a sort of transitional entertainment medium to video games in the same way that the Walkman gave way to the iPod. As is pointed out in the comments, this is a somewhat weak analogy, as tabletop RPG gaming didn't necessarily lead to video games so much as influence their development. It has long been my opinion, however, that traditional RPGs suffered an inequitable trade-off in the bargain, losing much of its creative and fan base to the video game market they helped foster and influence. In effect, the RPG hobby simply suffered from a case of poor timing - coming just a few years before the Atari revolution began ushering video games in as America's premier form of home entertainment - and I've often wondered what would have become of the hobby if RPGs had had a few more decades of "lead-in time" before the advent of video games.

Of course, to imagine RPGs being developed in, say, the 1950s or even the 1930s is to ignore the very specific factors that led to the development of the medium in the 1970s, with the pulp fantasy paperback revolution and the burgeoning wargaming hobby of the 1960s being the two biggest factors. However, it's not impossible to imagine RPGs developing earlier. Wargaming's been around in some form or another since the 19th century, after all. I read somewhere that the concept of Hit Points (or Armor Class...I can't recall precisely) was lifted from Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game of the 1940s. The wargaming hobby community started to form in the 50s, making the development of RPGs as we know them theoretically possible from that point forward. It's even conceivable to imagine RPGs taking shape in the 30s in the wake of the first pulp fantasy renaissance (and publication of The Hobbit rather than Lord of the Rings).

Of course, this does give rise to an interesting thought experiment. The iconography and mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons and other first-generation RPGs was very much a product of its time that, despite mutations and permutations, continues to exert a strong influence to this day. What if RPGs had developed in the 30s, 40s, or 50s? I think it's safe to say that our picture of what an Elf looks like would be drastically different...

For that matter, RPGs might not have even developed out of the wargaming community; even if they had, popular wargames of the time weren't nearly as sophisticated as they would later become. The first popular miniatures game, Little Wars, didn't even use dice but rather spring-loaded cannons!

Castle Falkenstein engaged in a bit of this thought experiment, imagining RPGs developing during the Victorian Era and featuring cards rather than dice as the randomizer (only cads and bounders play at dice!) and featuring character journals rather than mere sheets. It's interesting to speculate on how RPGs would have developed given an extra century before the advent of computer games provided some sort of alternative for those interested in participatory fantasy escapism...
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