Maa

Last Friday saw the publication of the fourth roleplaying game I’ve worked on in a major capacity. I can safely say that it’s also the most unusual game of my career so far.

Maa (that’s Earth in Finnish; the game is bilingual Finnish/English) got started last summer when the American sculptor Matthew Day Jackson began to organize an exhibition of his works at the Serlachius Museums in Mänttä, Finland. Talking with the curator Timo Valjakka, he decided that instead of an exhibition catalogue, he wanted to make a roleplaying game.

In a wonderful turn of events, both the museum and Valjakka decided to go for it.

A video commissioned by the museum about the Maa project.

The museum brought me in as a roleplaying consultant and to work with Jackson to make the game. The third core member of our team was the curator and arts writer Tom Morton who did world and story design and writing.

On Friday, Jackson’s exhibition opened in Mänttä and Maa the rolaplying game was released alongside it. The exhibition and the game are intertwined, with the exhibition existing as a prelude of sorts to the story of the game.

Maa is set a thousand years in the future, after humanity has wiped itself out. In our absence, the planet has healed and become paradise. Now, the last survivors of our species are crawling out of their antiquated bunkers, blinking into the light.

The question is, will humanity destroy the earth once again, or will we be able to evolve?

The game and related swag at the museum store.

The player characters are Scouts sent out by the Family residing in a Bunker in what used to be Finland. During the game, they can explore the new world, meet its strange inhabitants and eventually meet their destinies on the Moon.

Jackson’s exhibition represents a museum built inside the Bunker, the sculptures strange remnants brought down from the surface by previous generations of Scouts. As you walk into the exhibition, whether alone or as part of a group, you’re asked to take the role of a trainee Scout and see what you can make out of the surface based on what you see.

Although the exhibition and the game are interlinked, the game is also a wholly unique experience on its own. Indeed, we designed it to be played like a traditional roleplaying game, with players and the Seer directing the action.

The contents of the game box.

In the game box, you’ll get two hardcover books, a card deck, a map, character sheets and spherical dice handmade expressly for this game. The game’s system is based on color theory and the affinities, responses and emotions different colors create. In Maa, subjectivity is king as we each react to the colors during play.

Personally, this was a wonderful project especially because of the new ideas that resulted from this cross-pollination of the arts and roleplaying worlds, and also because as an institution the museum threw its weight behind it with such enthusiasm. It’s my hope that the story of Maa will continue, in one form or another.

If you can read Finnish, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat did a wonderful article about Maa. It was also picked up by Suomen kuvalehti and the Finnish roleplaying media Roolipelitiedotus.

Serlachius Museums are in the small rural town of Mänttä, an unusual but beautiful location for such a place.

At the moment, Maa is available as a limited edition of 200 copies signed by the artist. You can get yours from the museum’s shop for 299 €.

A Game Per Year: Ironhedge Manifesto (1989)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Ironhedge Manifesto (1989).

I’ve tried to go for variety when choosing what to read for this project. Games from publishers big and small. Ironhedge Manifesto represents the small.

It’s a tiny indie fantasy roleplaying game published as a little 40-page booklet crammed with tiny type. The 1989 version I was able to find is the 5th edition of the game. The original was published in 1979.

This is the first explicitly anti-communist roleplaying game I’ve read during this project. It says: “This game contains free thought, free trade, low taxes…”

Like in the Arduin Grimoire before it, there’s some editorializing about the state of roleplaying games:

1. In the days before Ironhedge, there were no decent Role Playing Wargames.

2. The wargames of men were overpriced, illogical, complicated, and lacked purpose, meaning, design and True Adventure.

3. The Big Corporations mated with the Media: producing Wargame Whorelords who exploited these ideas over men.

And so on.

As a game, Ironhedge Manifesto follows the classic D&D template. There are character classes, monsters, spells, etc. All the usual things. The game is set on the campaign world of Ironworld, with the attendant other planetary bodies Moonworld and Lunaworld. The booklet also mentions Afterworld and Netherworld.

Underneath the idiosyncrasies, Ironhedge Manifesto is an attempt to make an approachable, low-cost roleplaying game. Despite its anti-communist ethos, there’s something egalitarian about this goal.

A Game Per Year: Bullwinkle and Rocky Role-Playing Party Game (1988)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1988 roleplaying game Bullwinkle and Rocky.

Originally, I planned to read something else entirely for 1988, but friends wiser than me suggested I take a look at the Bullwinkle and Rocky Role-Playing Party Game. And they were right! This is an extremely interesting example of roleplaying game design, especially for its time.

American pop culture is not distributed to the rest of the world evenly. Some American cartoons were broadcast in Finland, while others were not. We got Looney Tunes and DuckTales but I don’t remember ever seeing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends on Finnish tv. I had to google it when I started reading the roleplaying game.

So, this is a licensed roleplaying game based on a cartoon, published by TSR (the company behind D&D), designed by David Cook and Warren Spector. This is already the second game from Spector I’ve read, the first being Toon (1984).

The contents of the game box itself are quite attractive. Instead of dice the game has spinners unique to each character. Thus, Bullwinkle loses much more often than Rocky. There are diplomas that you can give to players, a stack of cardboard character stands so you know who’s playing who and a deck of cards you can use for randomizing story beats.

Best of all, there are plastic hand puppets of all the major characters. They bring a pleasant air of playfulness to the proceedings.

From the left: Rocky, me and Snidely Whiplash.

Bullwinkle and Rocky is a light, chaotic game which embraces the spirit of communal storytelling. It’s more about coming up with fun cartoon antics than serious engagement with game mechanics. It has a lot of the same DNA as Toon, but it benefits greatly from a specific milieu and characters, as well as the modern design.

Among the features that predate modern storygames, Bullwinkle and Rocky has a rotating Game Master role, where each player takes on the task of the Narrator in turn. It has several game modes, the simplest of which is pure communal storytelling. The more complex ones introduce characters.

There’s even something for the Nordic Larp audience to like, with a strong focus on play to lose. After all, most of the characters are incompetent fools, so it stands to reason everything they try fails. The key is to make it fail in an entertaining way.

Retrospectively, Bullwinkle and Rocky feels like a harbinger of things to come. Its lean design throws revolutionary ideas around so casually, it demands a status as an early classic.

A Game Per Year: Miekka ja magia (1987)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Finnish 1987 roleplaying game Miekka ja magia (Sword & Sorcery).

The first Finnish roleplaying game is The Secret Treasure of Raguoc in the Acirema Dungeons, published in 1986. Miekka ja magia (Sword & Sorcery) is the second one, out in 1987, and the first to enjoy commercial release. Both were designed by Risto J. Hieta, one of the most prolific roleplaying game designers in Finland. Interestingly, the illustrations were made by Tuomas Pirinen, who later gained fame and glory at Games Workshop designing Mordheim and the 6th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

Miekka ja magia is a 60-page leaflet, an introductory fantasy game in which you make up characters and go explore a dungeon with them. You haul away treasure, gain levels and try to survive.

This is the third introductory fantasy roleplaying game I read in a row. 1985 was Dragonroar, and in 1986 Tunnels and Trolls. However, despite its modest production values, Miekka ja magia is easiest to grasp and feels most playable. Reading the book, you understand how it’s supposed to be played, not a given in the world of roleplaying games. Even introductory ones.

The mechanics of the game follow the same familiar template of D&D-lite and might be called OSR-style today. Both the Game Master and the ultimate bad guy in the dungeons is called Raguoc, but despite this, the GM is not really playing against the players.

At the end of the dungeon, you can even find the treasure of Raguoc and haul it away!

One of the more unique character classes is that of the cherub. A wizard type, the cherub has the ability to turn insubstantial. In this form, they can’t attack but also can’t be damaged and can still cast support spells.

The best thing about Miekka ja magia is the approachable, conversational tone it’s written in. Reading it feels like having a friend explain how it all works. It doesn’t assume you’re steeped in existing play culture but starts with first principles. For this reason, it’s also easy to grasp by a reader decades later.

A Game Per Year: Tunnels and Trolls (1986)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1986 Corgi edition of Tunnels and Trolls.

So far, every game I’ve written about has been a first edition. Indeed, in a young field, that’s tended to be the only option available. Now in 1986 there’s enough roleplaying history to pick a new version of an old game, in this case the British Corgi mass market paperback version of the 5th edition of the classic American game Tunnels and Trolls.

Finding copies of the games to read for this project has been difficult at times, so I admit one key reason for this choice was that I had the book sitting on my shelf.

Tunnels and Trolls is a light-weight dungeon crawl roleplaying game, like D&D except less serious. It’s famous for spell names such as “Take that, you fiend!”. The basic game provides rules for character creation and combat, as well as some Game Master tools for making dungeons.

In terms of mechanics, one unusual idea is that each side in a combat adds together the results of each character’s actions into point totals which are then compared. So player characters could get 56 and the monsters 45. The difference between these numbers is used to figure out who won that round, and how much damage must be distributed among combatants.

The standout feature of the Tunnels and Trolls book has nothing to do with the mechanics, however. It’s about the tone. The book has been written in a conversational, informal style that permeates everything right down to specific game mechanics.

Many roleplaying games suggest that the players customize the game to their needs, but Tunnels and Trolls really embraces this, practically forcing the reader to adapt the rules. A combat mechanic might be explained in three different ways, with the suggestion that the reader pick a favorite. Or there’s a note saying that an earlier edition, a specific rule was different, giving the possibility to revert back to it.

The text in Tunnels and Trolls reads less like a rulebook and more a documentation effort capturing what the play community was doing. It even makes references to the “Phoenix players”, who I assume to be the designer’s home community. The book explains how this or that GM in Phoenix used a rule.

This reaches it’s peak in the chapter on expanding the world. Tunnels and Trolls is assumed to happen in a series of dungeons with little to connect them, but the game also gives the option of creating your own fantasy setting. There’s an explanation how some folks in Phoenix did this: “When the question of a continent to put these places came up, Bear drew the dragon-shaped continent of Rhalph, almost as big as all Eurasia.”

This writing style makes the book hard to understand, but it’s also refreshing compared to the way most roleplaying game books are written.

A Game Per Year: Dragonroar (1985)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The box cover of the 1985 roleplaying game Dragonroar.

I had a lot of options for the game to read for 1985. The first edition of Pendragon. The cult classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. However, all of them paled before the allure of Dragonroar!

Dragonroar presents my reading project with a whole slew of firsts:

First non-American roleplaying game. Dragonroar is an early example of British roleplaying game design.

First game to feature WAR HEDGEHOGS, honourable and tough enemies who can savage a warrior by backing into them! See the cover, above.

FIRST GAME TO FEATURE A C-CASSETTE! Also to my knowledge the only game to ever do so.

Back cover of the box of the 1985 roleplaying game Dragonroar.

Dragonroar is an introductory fantasy roleplaying game. The basic elements are familiar: Warriors and wizards, fighting monsters, boardgame-style dungeon adventures.

The uniqueness of Dragonroar doesn’t come through in the basic system or setting. It’s in the margins, the details and the framing. The C-cassette contains an introduction to the game mechanics on one side and a solo adventure on the other. What’s more, it introduces the listener to an in-game prog band, suggesting much more about the nature of the game world than any of the textual setting material. Except maybe the mention of a character called Arkan of Disiboth, “the Textual Pervert”, so called because of his mistranslations of holy texts.

One interesting detail is the section on gender in the chapter “Creating a character”. It’s the second section in the chapter, immediately after character name. It gives players three options: Play men, women, or “hermaphrodites or asexuals”. Today, the framing comes across as transphobic, but I’d still argue that presenting such options at all, especially in an introductory fantasy game, was unusual in 1985.

Gender pops up in Dragonroar in another place as well. The game features three participant roles: The Fatemaster (the GM), the player and the Arbiter. The Arbiter is a member of the player group who’s job is to make final decisions in case the players can’t agree on a course of action. The game says that: “playtests have shown that women make the best arbiters”.

Although most of the system revolves around movement and combat, one flourish is the mechanism for knowledge. Knowledge “specialisms” are divided into categories and you get more if you’re smarter and more experienced. Some of them are typical, such as Magic and Combat. However, Humanities is also a category and features the subcategory of Sociology, with the sub-sub-category of Women.

Thus, if you really squint, in Dragonroar you could play an asexual Women’s Studies major using the core rules. Although you’d still have to decide whether you were a Warrior or a Wizard. In some respects, the binary is inescapable.

Dragonroar is a great example of how the perception of a game changes with context. According to some of the contemporary reviews I saw, Dragonroar didn’t get a great reception. I can understand why: The mechanics are a muddle and the book spends a surprising amount of time bashing players of other roleplaying games for playing wrong.

Nevertheless, when I read this in 2019, I don’t really care about the core of the game because it would have been outdated anyway. I care about unique ideas, and on that front Dragonroar delivers. The experience of listening to the C-cassette on an old cassette player I was able to scrounge up was surprisingly magical, probably more now than when the game was new.

A Game Per Year: Toon (1984)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original 1984 edition of Toon.

Toon is a famous 80’s roleplaying game for a few different reasons. Designers Greg Costikyan and Warren Spector went on to have great careers in both analog and digital games. What’s more, Toon’s subject matter of zany cartoon antics has clearly resonated with roleplaying audiences, perhaps because of its contrast to the serious and heavy systems in fashion in the Eighties.

In Toon, you play a cartoon character having cartoon adventures in the style of Looney Tunes. You live in a four-color world of mutable logic and simple gags. Violence has no lasting consequences and a pie in the face is always funny.

Like in many old roleplaying games, the most interesting ideas on Toon are on the margins, not the core of the system. Looking at the basics, Toon is a routine skill-based game. What sets it apart is framing. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the following rule:

“FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW and ACT BEFORE YOU THINK.”

I naturally love this, as someone who detests the paranoid style of roleplaying where you have to consider every move. Act before you think is great advice for many games, not just those involving cartoon characters!

Toon is the first game I’ve read during this project that clearly defines the game session. It says that you can play short and long games, with short ones being only 20 min. Long games are 30 min for each player. In most games, it seems the players are assumed to have some sort of a cultural understanding of what a session is and thus it doesn’t really need to be articulated.

The game exhorts the Game Master (or Animator, in Toon lingo) to run the game as expressively as possible, waving arms and making sound effects. It says that if your neighbors don’t complain about the noise, you’re playing it wrong. I liked this advice because it also seemed to represent something new in roleplaying, consideration of the style of social interaction the game is about.

A Game Per Year: James Bond 007 (1983)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original 1983 edition of James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first roleplaying game, was published in 1974. It’s amazing to think that by 1983, there had been so much development in the artform that it could produce the kind of quality you see in James Bond 007. In less than ten years, roleplaying games went from tentative beginnings to a modern-looking game.

I say “looking” because the first thing I noticed about 007 was that it’s the first roleplaying game I read during this project with a nice, readable layout. Most of the games I’ve read so far have been presented with the graphic vision of an antique phonebook, with endless tiny type and ugly illustrations. Not here! The spreads are attractive and they’ve clearly paid attention to how information is presented to the reader.

James Bond 007 feels like a level-up in many other ways too. It’s clearly focused on replicating the kind of action you see in the movies, with a basis in genre and not realism. James Bond goes to exotic cities, engages in car chases and flirts at casinos. Thus, the book provides the necessary systems and information for all of this.

The basic system is very Eighties in its pointless complexity, but it has some nice touches. Chase mechanisms are a common point of failure in roleplaying game design, and James Bond 007 really goes all in there. The chase system is as extensive as the combat system, designed with the idea that a chase will be intricate, exciting and full of tactical decisions.

Another fun detail concerns character appearance. You buy your appearance level with points, but the twist is that the cheapest option is where you’re the most handsome or beautiful. Being plain costs the most. The justification for this is that looking good makes the character more recognizable, but there’s a strong incentive just to make your character into a hot superspy.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly given the reputation of the James Bond franchise, the game is also more gender-inclusive than some others from this era. It consistently assumes that both players and characters can be men and women. The illustrations show women in action scenes doing cool stuff.

From a historical perspective, James Bond 007 feels like a precursor of design trends to come. If you squint a little, you can make out the beginnings of games where story and style reign supreme.

A Game Per Year: Gangbusters (1982)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the rulebook from the original 1982 edition of Gangbusters.

I didn’t know anything beyond the basic concept about Gangbusters when I decided to read it for the 1982 entry in this project. It proved to be one of the most interesting games I’ve gone through so far, alongside earlier favorites like Empire of the Petal Throne and Metamorphosis Alpha.

Gangbusters is a roleplaying game about American crime in the Twenties and Thirties. Cops and gangsters, Al Capone and Elliot Ness. As befits the early 80’s design style, it’s heavy on simulation and light on narrative elements, character immersion or mood.

One of the most interesting core ideas of the game is that players are expected to play against one another, not as a single cohesive team. For example, if the game features two cop characters and two gangster characters, they make up two sides. The wild card character type presented in the game is the reporter who can investigate actions on either side of the law.

There’s two game modes, simple scenarios and a campaign. The scenarios are all about simulating physical reality in classic genre situations. For example, two gangsters are trying to rob a jewelry store. Two cops show up. A shootout ensues. This mode is almost like a boardgame, complete with maps and cardboard figures to represent the characters.

The campaign mode is where the real action is. Its basic unit is the week. Characters make plans in weekly increments and when those plans lead to scenes or conflicts, those are played out in more detail. This is done in an adversarial fashion: If the cop characters manage to suss out the details of the proposed bank robbery, that can then be played out as a fight scene.

This means that the game features extensive rules simulating life on a societal level. There are intricate systems for running bootlegging operations, bookmaking, loansharking, etc. As characters gain levels, they get promoted. At the beginning of the game they’re small-time hoods and beat cops but by the end they run either the local police as the commissioner or a huge criminal empire.

The reporter ends up as the editor-in-chief, of course.

The characters are expected to make money. They have to pay rent and other expenses and if their source of income dries up, they end up on the street. Criminal enterprises are extremely lucrative but also risky. Cops can make money on the side by taking bribes.

There’s something very elegant and purposeful about all these systems for criminal activity. The game focuses on a clear set of actions mandated by the genre and then provides tools for how to make those things happen. There are tables for police corruption and explanations for how the economic fortunes of the country affect criminal enterprises.

This is the first game I’ve read during this project that tries to sell the fiction and the concept to the player. Before, all the game books have pretty much started with: “Here’s a bunch of rules. Make do.” This time, there’s a little fiction piece about a shootout and a foreword written by a grandson of a member of the Untouchables.

In terms of presentation, the game is a first in another way too: Reading it, it’s possible to grasp how to play it. This sounds obvious, but a lot of the early roleplaying games were so steeped in the culture they sprang from, they’re hard for an outside reader to understand. In Gangbusters, the whole setup is clean and straightforward despite the complex intricacies of the simulation.

Gangbusters was a positive surprise with a lot of interesting ideas. The week-based campaign mode is something that might actually be fun to play even now.

A Game Per Year: The Spawn of Fashan (1981)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of The Spawn of Fashan.

The Spawn of Fashan is famous for one thing: Being really bad. It’s a roleplaying game equivalent to The Room. There are a few games famous for being terrible, such as FATAL and Racial Holy War, and compared to those Fashan distinguishes itself in the sense that its crimes are largely aesthetic.

I wanted to read the game because of its cult status but I was also worried about a trap we tend to fall into whenever we’ve collectively deemed something to be bad. We look for the things that reinforce that narrative and become blind to whatever other ideas the work might have.

So the question is, what’s interesting about The Spawn of Fashan?

Fashan is a fantasy world created by the game’s designer Kirby Lee Davis. At the beginning of the book, he explains the title of the roleplaying game by noting that during play, each group would end up creating their own variation of Fashan, even if they wanted to play scrupulously close to the original.

Because of this, nobody could play on the original Fashan, as all play-Fashans were inevitably partly created by the players themselves in their own imaginations.

So the game worlds they had would not be Fashan, but the spawn of Fashan.

So things get pretty philosophical straight off the bat! After this, I was surprised to find that the book offers only very limited details about the world of Fashan. It’s a fantasy world where Warriors hold sway. Occultists are the hidden masters, opposing Swayers, who sway human minds. At the end, there’s a map of a region called Boosboodle. Apart from a few monsters, this is pretty much it.

The creative goals of the game are explicitly stated. They are to bring individuality to character creation and to make the game more realistic. Individuality is increased by adding tables where you can roll for random characteristics such as bizarre phobias or extra senses.

The main game mechanical innovation for adding realism is a fatigue system that allows for the conservation of effort: The character can decide to hit weaker or harder depending on how many points they want to spend.

I started reading this book on a lark, but in truth it was extremely tedious. It’s a hard slog of confused rules text with interesting details few and far between. For entertainment value, the best part was in the end at the example of play. It’s an amazing little nugget of game writing in that it doesn’t really try to sell the game at all.

There’s a Referee and a player. The Referee is tired and sullen while the player just wants to murder things for no reason. The main action consists of the player character trying to buy various things at the store, all of them unavailable. It reads like an intentional parody of bad roleplaying.

A Game Per Year: Top Secret (1980)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Top Secret first edition corebook.

I’m done with the Seventies! If I were to try making a broad, sweeping statement about the stylistic progression of roleplaying games, there’s two distinct phases. In the first one, that of the earliest roleplaying games, the focus is on game design and the exploration of this new creative space. Examples of this are Dungeons & Dragons and Metamorphosis Alpha.

In the second phase, which starts as the Seventies near their end and roleplaying games are starting to become an established phenomenon, the focus moves from game design to using game mechanics to simulate aspects of reality. This is often called realism, although I hesitate to use the word because the games are often highly unrealistic in many aspects of their portrayal of the world, especially with social situations and big-picture things like politics.

This shift in focus represents an interesting aesthetic concern. At least when reading these games now, it feels as if the original goals of game design (making a good, playable, functional game) are sidelined in favor of values that make the games harder to grasp. Clearly during this period, using game mechanics to model aspects of physical reality was more compelling than fun, story or playability.

I don’t necessarily mean this as a negative or snarky comment. The first game of the 80’s, Top Secret, demonstrates that although this method of design is intimidating, it can lead to interesting results.

Top Secret is a game about secret agents in a slightly more down to earth style than seen in James Bond movies. But only slightly. The core rules contain minutely detailed mechanics for things like unarmed combat and two people wrestling over the possession of an object, such as a suitcase with nuclear launch codes.

There are some interesting game design concepts. Characters have points they can use to escape certain death or other terrible fates, in an early example of a system which grants some narrative control to the players. The initial number of these points is rolled randomly and is only known by the GM, or the Admin as they’re known in Top Secret. This way, it’s always possible today is the day your luck runs out.

Another novel idea is the way the game suggests playing with multiple Admins, each acting as both a GM and the director of a spy organization. Thus, in a two-Admin game, one could lead the CIA, the other the KGB and each direct characters who would engage in intrigues against each other.

The best thing in the original Top Secret box is the sample mission module, Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. It details a neighborhood in a fictional European (maybe German?) city, full of spy activity of all kinds. The neighborhood is a highly intricate physical environment for the player characters to explore and act in. Reading it feels as if someone had tried to document the level design of a stealth-based videogame like Dishonored or Thief.

The design of the adventure presents an interesting, varied environment where you will always find something if you bother to look around. It showcases the strengths of an approach to roleplaying game design where the simulation and exploration of physical space is the main draw.

A Game Per Year: Villains and Vigilantes (1979)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

Villains and Vigilantes is a superhero roleplaying game from 1979. I read it from a facsimile edition published in 2016 with a new preface explaining some of the original context of the game. Jack Herman, one of the game’s original designers along with Jeff Dee, talks about how they started with making a superhero hack of Empire of the Petal Throne, and then gradually pared away the elements of the older game until they had their own design.

This is the first roleplaying game I’ve read during this project where the title used for the person running the game is not Referee or Judge but Game Master. This has since become pretty much standard.

Another interesting first is a genre formulation. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I encounter this in a superhero game as the tropes of the genre tend to be more artificial than in many other genres. In this game, it’s defined as following the dictates of the Comics Code, the comics industry content code which sought to limit the types of stories, images and characters you could have to forestall external censorship. The most important tenet for Villains and Vigilantes is that you can’t, in fact, play a villain.

In terms of roleplaying game design, Villains and Vigilantes has one extremely interesting idea. When the players first come together to play the game, the GM is instructed to create characters with them based on themselves but with super powers. So I would play Juhana Pettersson with powers.

The method for determining the stats of the character is that the GM assesses these based on their knowledge of the player. It even says not to be too lenient with giving high stats. So the GM would look at me and go: “Hmmm… Kind of dumb looking. Let’s say Intelligence of seven.”

After the base character has been created with this method, superpowers are then randomly rolled from a set of tables.

After the players have played one game or campaign with themselves as the base characters, the next ones are not avatar-types but completely fictional. Thus, there’s design to guide how to change the nature of the game as the players get more experience with it, another first.

The aesthetic of reality is also extended to how the GM builds adventures. The game suggests two sources of inspiration: Marvel and DC comics and the nightly news. The idea is that the GM can just pick a topical real event and insert the superhero characters there.

A Game Per Year: Gamma World (1978)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original 1978 edition of Gamma World.

For 1978, my game of choice was Gamma World. Another option would have been the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, which was a huge leap ahead in how roleplaying games were presented. However, I remember looking at all those Gamma World adverts in the 90’s in Dragon magazine and being intrigued. So Gamma World it was!

Very much based on the 1976 game Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World is a postapocalyptic roleplaying game in which civilization has regressed to a primitive state and mutants roam the earth. It’s a very pure implementation of hexcrawl-style design where the idea is that player characters explore terrain as they move about, meeting different creatures and exploring the ruins of the old world.

Gamma World lifts from its predecessor the character creation system focused on various beneficial and harmful mutations. It also has the genetically pure humans blessed with charisma although plants have now been relegated to a supporting role.

While Metamorphosis Alpha was closely tied to its setting, Gamma World is much more open-ended. The referee is advised to make a map of their own, possibly based on a real world map, and populate it with postapocalyptic things for the characters to explore. This DIY feeling pervades the game: The referee is assumed to make up new monsters, treasures, robots and so on.

Gamma World has one wonderful feature that elevates it above any game I’ve read so far: A long, involved example of play that communicates what the play experience is supposed to be like. It might literally be the best such example I’ve ever read in a roleplaying game.

Not content to just include a brief dialogue between the GM and the players, the example explains how Omar the Referee prepares for the game by coming up with terrain features and making smaller maps of buildings. It details a possible starting scenario for the game: The characters are young tribesmen sent out on a coming-of-age ritual to explore taboo territories. Finally, it has a dialogue between the Referee and the Caller, the player who speaks for the entire player group.

The example of play spells out of a lot of the play culture around these games, stuff that you usually have to infer between the lines. Because of it, it’s much easier to grasp how this is supposed to work.

A Game Per Year: The Arduin Grimoire (1977)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The covers of The Arduin Grimoire and its two successors.

The Arduin Grimoire is in many ways a watershed in my project to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they’ve been published. It’s the first I’m reading not published by TSR or its predecessors and it’s also the first to position itself against the existing field of roleplaying games.

In its preface, the Grimoire describes it self as an indie-style work of rebellion against the stultifying world of Big RPG. That’s quite amazing, considering that in 1977 roleplaying games have existed at all for just a few short years!

The Grimoire is also different from its predecessors in a more philosophical way. Every game I’ve read until this has felt like an exploration of new territory, designed to push the boundaries of what this novel artform can be. In contrast, the Grimoire very concretely concerns itself with the creative space already mapped out by Dungeons & Dragons. It doesn’t seek to expand territory but rather examine some of its characteristics in more detail.

Designed by David A. Hargrave, who’s described on Wikipedia as “one of the best Gamemasters”, The Arduin Grimoire is essentially a D&D hack. It’s impossible to understand without knowledge of D&D and some of its references go back to Chainmail. Yet I think it’s justified to call it a roleplaying game of its own because it brings a definite new sensibility and punk attitude to the game its riffing on. My feeling is that when it was published, it was usable by the community because the D&D basics it relies on were such common knowledge.

The book contains rules for combat, new character classes, monsters and spells. In short, the standard stuff of roleplaying game books. There’s a lot of commentary on how different aspects of D&D should be understood, making it almost like a series of auteuristic annotations of the common holy text of D&D.

All the games I’ve read so far have been made with the goal of creating a good, playable game. Reading D&D or Metamorphosis Alpha, this seems the basis of the design despite its anachronistic nature. The Grimoire introduces a new design goal: “realism”.

Hargrave approaches this theme with a certain commitment. He talks about watching people fight with medieval weapons at the SCA and using those insights in his game design.

The results of this approach of trying to make the game realistic tend to make it massively more clunky. For example, if the enemy attacks from the front left of a fighter holding a shield with his left hand, the fighter gains a bonus to his defense but a minus to his attack. It makes sense but when you have a thousand little rules like this, combat becomes a muddle.

I have personal experience with this: When I was maybe fourteen, I was playing AD&D 2nd Edition. Like so many of us in the early Nineties, I believed that increased complexity would make the game more “realistic”, and therefore good. Adding things like hit locations and fatigue to the game eventually slowed things down so much that one fight could take an evening to play out. The spectacle of our wizards and elves fighting purple worms on the Astral Plane must have been very realistic indeed but it was not good roleplaying.

This is the direction The Arduin Grimoire points at. It was published in 1977 and history shows that it was a harbinger of decades of adventures in game design where simulating aspects of reality is the top goal.

Here’s a post about The Grimoire that has useful historical context and perspective.

A Game Per Year: Metamorphosis Alpha (1976)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The front and back covers of the 1976 edition of Metamorphosis Alpha.

To be honest, my first choice for 1976 was the Watership Down -inspired Bunnies & Burrows, but I was unable to find a copy. Because of this, I went with my second choice, the scifi game Metamorphosis Alpha. Perhaps this was a good thing because this was a quite interesting game!

Metamorphosis Alpha differs from the games I’ve read so far in that it has a very tight, clear focus. It’s not a sprawling mass you can use to make endless campaigns but a clear package offering a definite experience.

The story of the game is that in the future, humanity sends vast colony ships to other planets. Since the voyage is so long, these ships with populations in the millions are like mini-worlds unto themselves. As always happens in these stories, something goes wrong. Radiation kills most of the people aboard and mutates many of the rest. As a result, onboard civilization collapses.

The characters are humans, mutants, animals or plants who have been born to this environment and set out to explore it. The game is a big sandbox which offers two interesting things:

1 – The ship. The game details the tools, the robots, the levels, all the things that you find as you explore the vast space vessel. Although the game is based on the classic model of exploring physical spaces, killing monsters and finding treasure, the treasure can now be an access band allowing movement from one level of the ship to the next.

2 – Character creation. The characters in Metamorphosis Alpha can be quite bizarre. A telepathic vine is a reasonable starting character, as is a hyper-intelligent armored bear. The radiation has mutated all the biological samples on board and they’re all playable. What’s more, the system takes a reckless approach to powers, throwing things like time travel around quite casually.

Like the games I’ve read so far, this one suggests one Referee (or Judge, as the game sometimes calls it) for a maximum of 24 players. (“More the merrier”, it says.) There’s a system where human characters can accumulate followers, meaning that the character group can get quite big. The example of play is between the Referee and the Caller, the leader of the player group.

Based on reading the game, it seems best suited for one-shots or short campaigns where the chaos of the setting is allowed to bloom, all the game systems and world elements interacting in sandbox-style blissful anarchy. Perhaps because of this, there’s no level system to account for experience. It doesn’t seem like the game would go on long enough to need one.

Reading this and the previous game, 1975’s Empire of the Petal Throne, I’m struck by the explosion of creativity around roleplaying games immediately after their inception. So far, it feels like there’s so many new ideas in every game.