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.