The Golden Age of Role-playing Games

The words ‘golden age’ don’t often appear in the same sentence as ‘the 1980s’, but the decade was the golden age of role-playing games. In the 1970s, role-playing games (RPGs) were an esoteric hobby played by a select few. By the 1990s, they were already fading in popularity due to competition from computer games.

Most of the general public still use ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ as a generic term for RPGs. That’s partly because back in the eighties, D&D was one of the few RPGs that you could buy in any toy shop. Other games were mostly sold in specialist retailers, strange dens where only the brave or foolhardy would tread.

For the general user, the D&D basic set was a gateway into strange world, with its helpful manuals proclaiming ‘READ THIS BOOK FIRST!’

Following the instructions therein, nascent adventurers would soon be fighting for their lives against canine kobolds and the insectoid carrion crawler. For all its paralysing tentacles, the carrion crawler was nowhere near as scary as the rulebooks, which soon had me in tears.

Nevertheless, quickly gaining experience points, I was ready to travel further into this mysterious realm. Next up came the D&D Expert rules, and then Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Each volume contained more and more tables of numbers to generate results. A love of poring over data to no great effect obviously has parallels in the world of computer programming. In fact, many role-players did go on to become code monkeys, slaving away in the real dungeons known as the cubicles of Silicon Valley.

In those pre-Internet days, each game’s sourcebooks could only come about through the authors’ heroic quests into local libraries. One of the very best of these games was Bushido, set in medieval Japan. The research behind this game was phenomenal, coming at a time when few people in the West knew anything about Japanese legends.

Bushido was far more than a collection of adventures with ninjas and samurais. It included many utterly original fantasy monsters. One was the rojuro-kubi, an undead human whose head detached from its body and flew around at night. My personal favourite was the bizarre creature known as the kappa:

The kappa … is usually scaled over its entire body… [It] has a bowl-shaped depression on the top of its rather flat head. This depression is filled with fluid from the kappa’s home body of water… if it is all spilled … [and] it is not refilled with liquid from its home body of water, the kappa will die in three days. (Bushido Book II. The Land of Nippon by Bob Charrette and Paul Hume.)

This is not to say that all RPGs were set in a mythical past time. They covered almost any genre from science-fiction (Traveller) to Westerns (Boot Hill), from super-heroes to cartoon characters (Toon). As the RPG mania grew, there was almost no major fictional character who didn’t have their own game, with RPGs based around Conan, Elric, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Doctor Who, Judge Dredd, and many others.

The most successful RPG based on a particular writer’s work was Call of Cthulhu. It was inspired by an author whose stories were then fading into obscurity: H.P. Lovecraft. Call of Cthulhu was a 1920s-era romp where all-too vulnerable characters battled against forces beyond their comprehension.

What raised Call of Cthulhu above the level of its competitors was the existence of the ‘Sanity’ ability score. Every character began the game with a certain level of Sanity, expressed as points. The more they learned about their alien foes, the more the Sanity score was reduced. If it sunk to 0, the character fell into insane subjugation to the dark gods. You were almost doomed to failure from the start, which made a refreshing change from the superhuman warriors who populated most other games.

Call of Cthulhu was also distinctive for its monsters, which were very different from the vampires and mummies that shambled through horror games elsewhere. However, contrary to scare-mongering reports of the time, I don’t believe that any young role-players later took up the worship of Nyogtha (“the thing that should not be”).

If you missed those halycon days of gaming, don’t despair. Just remember, this was one good thing about the 1980s. There weren’t a lot of others.

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10 responses to “The Golden Age of Role-playing Games

  1. If you missed them they’re still around. RPGs don’t sell in 1980s numbers, but they still sell and there’s still a solid following. Call of Cthulhu is still in print too.

    The big thing in the ’90s was probably the game Vampire, based loosely on the Anne Rice novels and which brought in an entirely new wave of gamers.

    There’s an argument that this is the golden age for RPGs. They’re not nearly as well known as they were, nor are there as many people playing them, but the range and quality of games has never been better so for those who do still play it’s a pretty good time.

    You probably know this, but the monsters in Bushido actually were from Japanese folklore. The kappa are still often referenced in their culture, including in Murakami’s The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

    • Hi Max
      Thanks for posting – I didn’t know that the kappa cropped up in Murakami’s works. I’ve not read any of his books so they’ve passed me by. Thanks for the heads up there.
      Is today the new golden age of RPGs? I think the games are more accessible today. Although they’re expensive, they’re nowhere near as costly as they were in the 1980s. The Runequest III deluxe set was selling for £39.95 back in 1985, which was a huge amount of money back then. It was so expensive that I didn’t know anyone playing it in those days (so I didn’t mention it above).
      The thing is that in the 1980s, RPGs became mainstream and huge numbers of people played them. I think today it’s become more of a cult hobby again, although the presence of Games Workshop branches on almost every High Street might suggest otherwise…

  2. I remember all those games! Played them, too, except for Bushido. If you recall, TSR also had a SF rpg called Gamma World. Separate companies also published Boot Hill and Top Secret rpgs in the late 1970s.

    • Bushido was hard to get, if I remember correctly so I think you weren’t alone in not being a player. I knew of those others you mentioned, but I never saw them in the shops. I think I would have liked Boot Hill, although Westerns were falling a bit out of favour in those days.

  3. Golden ages are a bit in the eye of the beholder. There’s more choice in games now and they’re cheaper, but there were more players in the 1980s (and games companies as a result sold a lot more games, a successful print run now would not have been then) and the hobby was much more accessible.

    So I don’t disagree with you, I’m just accentuating the positive.

    Boot Hill always looked a good game to me, but as you note Westerns have long fallen out of favour (perhaps more restored now than then, but far from their glory days) so it’s a hard sell.

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