Two advances, one technical and one conceptual, led to computerized adventure and RPG games as we came to know them in the 1980s. The technical advance was of course the PC revolution, dating from, depending on how you prefer to look at these things, either the arrival of the first Altair kit computers in 1975 or that of the first pre-assembled consumer-grade computers, the legendary Trinity of 1977. The conceptual advance was a slightly older, subtler development, but hardly of less importance. It dates to 1974, the year that Dungeons & Dragons was published. Shortly after beginning this blog, I wrote of Dungeons & Dragons that “its impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” Much as that claim may cause many cultural gatekeepers to slam down their portcullises in horror, I stand by it more than ever today.
When it comes to computer games in particular, the noise that a bunch of tabletop gamers struck up in the 1970s just keeps on echoing. Whether you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG or not, if you play computer games today you are heir to what those folks first wrought all those decades ago. Sometimes the influence is so strong that I feel compelled to take an extended look back.
Well, readers, what can I say? We’re coming to another of those times. In the course of the next handful of articles I’ll find myself again needing to look back to the tabletop games of the 1970s to understand the computer games of the 1980s. We’ll start that journey today with a loose-knit group of friends and colleagues who quietly changed the face not only of games but also of books. And it all started because one of them arrived late to a game night.
The game night in question took place in April of 1975 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The individual in question was a shy 28-year-old librarian with the incongruously Arthurian name of Ken St. Andre. In deference to his chivalrous moniker, St. Andre had always loved adventure and fantasy fiction, right from the day he first discovered the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard as a young boy. His motivation for reading, then as always, was unabashed escapism:
I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women. I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life. Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible.
He dreamed of becoming a professional writer of similar stories, but, not being a terribly outgoing or self-confident sort, had found it easier to take a graduate degree in library science and settle into a quiet nine-to-five routine.
St. Andre’s social calendar, such as it was, was dominated by his other great love: that of games. He had learned chess at his father’s knee at the age of 6, and gone on to become president of his high school’s chess club. But as of the spring of 1975 his biggest ludic obsession was Diplomacy. Having discovered the game only a year or so before, he now played every chance he got, and was already crafting variants of his own that moved the setting from pre-World War I Europe to worlds of fantasy drawn from his imagination and the paperbacks on his bursting bookshelves. He thus had cause to be particularly disappointed tonight to find that his friends had already started playing without him: the game they were playing was Diplomacy.
Bored and made restless by the fun his friends were having without him, St. Andre started poking through the other games lying about the place. One of them couldn’t help but catch his eye, a wood-grained box lying amid the sea of cardboard with the name Dungeons & Dragons stamped on its front. Released more than a year before by a tiny garage-run company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), Dungeons & Dragons was prompting considerable discussion in gaming circles. But, with TSR’s distribution reaching little beyond the Midwest, the game was hard to come by in other parts of the country. St. Andre had heard of it, but had never seen it in the flesh. Now, thanks to a member of his gaming group who’d scored a copy somewhere and brought it along as a curiosity to show to the group, he had his chance. He opened the box to discover four rulebooks and a pile of reference cards.
St. Andre loved what he read on the first pages of the first of the rulebooks. Promising as he did to let him play the role of Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars or Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Gary Gygax could hardly have done a better job of appealing to St. Andre’s instinct for escapist adventure had he written the introduction just for him. As he read further, however, St. Andre grew more and more nonplussed. This game was complicated. When he turned to the combat rules, which were grouped together in a rulebook inexplicably titled Chainmail instead of Dungeons & Dragons, he gave up, baffled by rules that demanded miniatures and a referee willing to literally build the battlefield on a tabletop (“construct terrain on 2′ X 2′ pieces of masonite or similar material, sculpting hills, gullies, ridges, rivers, and so on with plaster and/or paper mache”). That sort of arts-and-crafts project might have sounded appealing to some, but St. Andre wasn’t among them.
It was a classic clash of expectations. Gary Gygax and TSR were steeped in the culture of hardcore miniatures wargaming, where no rule was too complicated, where physically making from scratch the battlefield and the combatants that roamed across it was half the fun. Dungeons & Dragons itself had been created not as a standalone game but as a fantasy storytelling “supplement” to TSR’s Medieval wargame Chainmail.
St. Andre, for all his love for games in general, had no particular truck with minutiae-obsessed wargames. He preferred more easygoing, social games like Diplomacy or even Monopoly. His reaction to Dungeons & Dragons was thus: “What a great concept! What a terrible execution!” He would later sum up his differences with Gygax by saying that he was interested in taking the stories he loved and turning them into games, while Gygax wanted to take his hardcore wargames and add a bit of story.
Still, the fire had been lit. Over three feverish days and nights, St. Andre laid out the basis for a new game, which he then tested and refined with his friends for the next couple of months. For most of this period they continued to call the game they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, an anecdote that provides as good a marker as any of the endeavor’s fundamental innocence as well as its sheer derivativeness. But when he started thinking about actually publishing the game, St. Andre knew that he need to give it a name of its own. He came up with Tunnels & Troglodytes, whereupon a member of his group named Dan Carver promptly shortened it to Tunnels & Trolls. Pithy, catchy, and cheeky in its willingness to riff off of its inspiration, it suited the game’s personality perfectly. A kind critic of Tunnels & Trolls might note how much faster and simpler it was to play than Dungeons & Dragons. A less kind critic might note that those qualities were not down to any unique mechanical elegance so much as a willingness to leave just about everything to the Dungeon Master — yes, Tunnels & Trolls retained the name for its own referee — to make up as the game went along. Whether you find that notion appealing says much about what sort of player you are.
St. Andre paid the print shop at Arizona State University $60 to run off the first 100 copies of his game, which now filled about 40 typewritten pages — or roughly the size of one of those four Dungeons & Dragons books. He struggled to sell more than a handful of his modest print run; he was anything but a natural salesman.
Luckily, he had among his gaming acquaintances a fellow named Rick Loomis, owner of a tiny company called Flying Buffalo that was based right there in Scottsdale. We’ve met Flying Buffalo before in the context of their main business as of 1975: a play-by-mail grand-strategy game called Starweb that was moderated by a big Raytheon 704 minicomputer. Starweb, which incredibly is still ongoing today, would become an influence on later PC games, particularly on those of the British designer Mike Singleton, creator of the 1984 classic The Lords of Midnight. Indeed, after a start like Starweb one can imagine Flying Buffalo doubling down on gaming’s digital frontier, perhaps becoming an early publisher of PC games. But instead Loomis made his big play on the tabletop, a decision that was all but foreordained by what transpired between him and Ken St. Andre in 1975.
St. Andre asked Loomis in his shy way if the latter might be able to take his remaining copies of Tunnels & Trolls with him to the first ever Origins Game Fair at Johns Hopkins University that July. Loomis agreed to do so as a favor without much enthusiasm. Once at the Fair, he stuck the plain, hand-stapled booklets on a corner of Flying Buffalo’s table, sure no one would glance at them twice. He sold every single copy.
Legend says that he did so under the evil eye of Gary Gygax, selling his Dungeons & Dragons sets for several times the cost of Tunnels & Trolls and staring daggers at Loomis all the while from TSR’s booth on the other side of the hall. Never the cuddliest of personalities, Gygax was outraged by Tunnels & Trolls, considering it nothing more than a cheap, inferior knockoff of his idea. (The name didn’t do much to help Flying Buffalo’s case…) Several times over the years TSR, which grew to be a very litigious firm under Gygax’s watch, would rattle their legal sabres at Flying Buffalo, thankfully without ever quite following through on the big lawsuit that might have buried the smaller company under lawyers’ fees.
The first RPG to be published by a company other than TSR, Tunnels & Trolls established the dynamic that has continued to rule the tabletop-RPG industry to this day. Unusually in this world of ours where pioneers so often go unrewarded, Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop RPG, has remained the most popular by a veritable order of magnitude. All other games have been forced to define themselves in relation to — and frequently in opposition to — Gygax’s vision. Of no game was this more true than Tunnels & Trolls. After all, Tunnels & Trolls prompted the comparisons before you even opened its rulebook, just as soon as you read its title. As he’s always at pains to emphasize, St. Andre may very well have had only the vaguest understanding of Dungeons & Dragons at the time he wrote Tunnels & Trolls, but his game was comprehensively a reaction to it nevertheless: “deliberately designed to be simpler in its mechanics, less expensive, faster to play, and more whimsical.”
The things that had baffled St.Andre about Dungeons & Dragons were largely the same things that would continue to baffle new players for decades to come. Why did armor make characters more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when they were hit? (St. Andre opted for the latter approach in his game.) What the hell was the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom? (Reasoning that anyone truly wise wouldn’t be spending her days chasing monsters and looting dungeons, St. Andre ditched the latter statistic, replacing it with Luck.) Was it really necessary to use a pile of weird polyhedral dice, especially given that such dice didn’t come included with Dungeons & Dragons and weren’t terribly easy to find in the mid-1970s? (St. Andre made sure that his game needed only a couple of standard six-sided dice, of the sort anyone could find by raiding that old Monopoly game in the closet.) In what kind of society did people walk around advertising that they were “lawful,” “neutral,” or “chaotic?” (St. Andre ditched the concept of alignment entirely.) Did there really need to be two entirely separate schools of magic, each with its own fiddly rules? (St. Andre ditched clerics as well, a decision that had the added upside of keeping his game from being “dominated by some pseudo-Christian religion.”) Even if a foolish consistency really was the hobgoblin of little minds, was it necessary for Dungeons & Dragons to be so consistently inconsistent, for every rule to read like it had been created in a vacuum, with no reference to or knowledge of any of the others?
Tunnels & Trolls can almost be read as a satire of Dungeons & Dragons, if it’s possible to satirize something that was itself so new and nascent. St. Andre reworked Gygax’s sturdily descriptive but humorless spell names to bring a dash of joy to their casting: “Lightning Bolt” became “Take That You Fiend!,” “Neutralize Poison” became “Too Bad Toxin.” He once aptly described Tunnels & Trolls as The Lord of the Rings filtered through the sensibility of Marvel Comics. One of the most iconic pieces of Tunnels & Trolls art is one of the earliest, a troll — who, I must say, actually looks rather like a gorilla — with an arrow through his head and a caption below saying, “HA-HA! Yah missed all my vital spots!!” It stems from one of St. Andre’s early game sessions, during which the character being run by Rob (brother of Dan) Carver shot a giant lion at point-blank range with an arbalest, only to see the beast keep right on coming and maul him. St. Andre’s response to Carver’s loudly expressed outrage was immortalized by Carver himself the following day. Crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny where Dungeons & Dragons was pedantic and serious, it captures the anarchic spirit of Tunnels & Trolls beautifully. Come to think of it, “crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny” sums up Tunnels & Trolls itself pretty well.
Had Tunnels & Trolls been merely the first non-TSR RPG or “merely” the progenitor of the countless rules-light, storytelling-heavy games of today, its place in history would be secure. Yet its influence has been still more marked than those descriptions would imply, thanks to a conversation the Flying Buffalo friends had one night after attending a Phoenix science-fiction convention.
The topic was that perennial problem of so many RPG players, then and now: the need to reconcile busy lives with getting together on a regular basis with friends to play. What if there was a way to play a solo game of Tunnels of Trolls? A fellow named Steve MacAllister suggested that it might be possible to create a sort of interactive, programmed book. The player could read a paragraph setting up the scene, then, depending on the circumstances, either choose an option from a multiple-choice list or roll dice according to the standard Tunnels & Trolls rules, then turn to the next appropriate numbered paragraph to continue the story. And so on, and so on, until the adventure ended in victory or death or some state in between. It might not capture the full flavor or offer the full freedom of a multi-player Tunnels & Trolls session with a good Dungeon Master, but for plenty of players it might just be better than nothing. Loomis himself ran with the idea, and Flying Buffalo published his Buffalo Castle, Tunnels & Trolls Solo Adventure #1, in May of 1976.
Coming three years before Bantam Books kicked off the gamebook craze of the 1980s with the first book of their Choose Your Own Adventure line, the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures were perhaps the most prescient idea of all to come out of Flying Buffalo.1 They were quite successful by the company’s modest standards, selling so much better than conventional multi-player adventures and supplements that at times Flying Buffalo seemed to publish little else. But, as would prove typical for Flying Buffalo in general and Tunnels & Trolls in particular, their influence far outstripped their sales. In the early 1980s, Steve Jackson of the British company Games Workshop had the idea of combining the programmed paragraphs and light RPG mechanics of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures with the everyday paperback-book form factor of Choose Your Own Adventure. The result was the Fighting Fantasy line, a bestselling juggernaut on both sides of the Atlantic. Sales of the first book in the line alone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982), bettered those of every Tunnels & Trolls product ever made by many multiples. Estimates are that well over 15 million Fighting Fantasy books have been sold in total.
About 1977, a newcomer named Liz Danforth arrived on the scene at Flying Buffalo as a telephone-support operator for Starweb and staff illustrator among other odd jobs. After proving herself as good with words as she was with pictures, she was given the job of editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Flying Buffalo’s equivalent to TSR’s Dragon magazine. (As ever, Flying Buffalo was still defining itself in reaction to TSR and what St. Andre liked to call That Other Game. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice will attempt to carry the T&T philosophy of FRP gaming to a wider audience,” he wrote for the first issue. “Namely that role-playing is fun. Dungeons & Dragons, despite its inherent silliness, has somehow taken on the quasi-serious aspects of a religion.”) In later years, Danforth would achieve considerable fame as a freelance illustrator of countless games and book jackets. For now, though, she applied a much-needed sheen of professionalism to the output of Flying Buffalo, whose publications at the time she arrived still looked and read like fanzines. Notably, she all but completely rewrote St. Andre’s rambling prose for a slicker, tighter new edition of Tunnels & Trolls that appeared in 1979.
In 1978, another newcomer named Michael Stackpole arrived. An avid player of Starweb who struck up an acquaintance with Loomis through that game, Stackpole first sold him a new Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure and then parlayed that into a full-time job at Flying Buffalo, something even St. Andre himself — he was, you’ll remember, not much for “high adventure” in real life — never quite dared give up his stable librarian gig to accept. Once again, had Flying Buffalo’s only claim to fame been to serve as the incubator of Michael Stackpole’s talent it would be worthy of at least a substantial footnote in the history of gaming and science-fiction fandom. Stackpole would go on to become a prolific science-fiction novelist, frequently writing books set in the universes of big ludic and cinematic properties like BattleTech, World of Warcraft, and, perhaps most notably, Star Wars. Not being terribly interested in such things, I can’t speak to his qualities as a writer, but he’s certainly been successful at it.
With the help of Danforth and Stackpole, Flying Buffalo slicked-up and professionalized just in time for the wave of success that rolled across the world of tabletop RPGs in general during the next few years. These were the years when school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice, when TSR’s annual revenues topped $20 million, and when a young Tom Hanks was starring in a terrible movie about the dangers of the craze. (The name of that movie and its titular game, Mazes and Monsters, could easily have been that of Tunnels & Trolls had St. Andre and his friends chosen another letter to alliterate on.) TSR, the flagship of the industry, pulled along a whole convoy of smaller vessels, among them Flying Buffalo, in their wake. It was a prosperity and level of mainstream attention — admittedly not always positive mainstream attention — the likes of which the tabletop-RPG industry had never known before nor would ever know again. Flying Buffalo expanded quickly, increasing both the quality and quantity of their output of both Tunnels & Trolls and other products. They were now big enough to attract names like Dave Arneson, Gygax’s less pedantic partner in crafting the original vision for Dungeons & Dragons, and Charles de Lint, another soon to be prominent novelist, to write for them.
Perhaps their most fondly remembered product of this brief halcyon period, as indelibly Flying Buffalo as any Tunnels & Trolls publication, is Grimtooth’s Traps (1981), a system-agnostic collection of hilariously lethal party killers, as introduced and annotated by the titular troll himself. Deeply unfair by any conventional standard, the traps in all their Rube Goldberg complexity are so much fun that you’d almost be willing to forgive any sadistic Dungeon Master who sprung any of them on your party. But then St. Andre has always scoffed at conventional notions of game balance, saying that if the odds were truly even then the heroes wouldn’t be heroes, now would they? Anyway, in his world the Dungeon Master is the absolute final arbiter of everything, free to fudge or ignore dice rolls and deus ex machina the players out of a jam whenever she feels it necessary to advance the real goal of entertaining, exciting cooperative storytelling.
For our purposes, Flying Buffalo’s most significant non-Tunnels & Trolls product must be an entirely new 1983 game called Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes — a game of twentieth-century adventure of all stripes, from John Rambo (mercenary) to James Bond (spy) to Sam Spade (private eye). Michael Stackpole, still a few years removed from beginning his career as a novelist, took it as an opportunity to graduate from writing adventures and supplements to crafting a whole new game system of his own — albeit a game system that owed more than a little to the mechanics of Tunnels & Trolls. His most significant addition to those mechanics was an à la carte menu of skills that took the place of Tunnels & Trolls‘s rigid character classes. Stackpole devised an ingenious and quietly influential system wherein skills could be added to a character’s core abilities to determine her chance of succeeding at something. For instance, she might use Dexterity plus her Pistol skill to shoot at something, Intelligence plus Pistol to figure out what type of pistol a given specimen is, or even Charisma plus Pistol to impress someone else with her shooting skills.
Unfortunately, the year of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes‘s publication was also the year that the bloom began to come off the tabletop rose, not least because the sorts of kids who had flocked to Dungeons & Dragons and its competitors began to discover the adventurous computer games the tabletop industry had done so much to influence. Thanks to declining sales and some unwise financial decisions of the sort that are endemic to a young industry enjoying a sudden spurt of growth — in this case the particular culprit was a too-good-to-be-true financing deal with a local printer — Flying Buffalo very nearly went under. Loomis suddenly didn’t have the resources to properly promote or support Stackpole’s game, nor to do much of anything else for that matter. Sorcerer’s Apprentice ceased publication as part of a series of heartbreaking cost-cutting measures, and Liz Danforth moved on. Michael Stackpole stuck around longer, but would eventually go freelance as well as his career as a novelist began to take off. Flying Buffalo flies on to this day, but, like Chaosium, that other tabletop survivor we met earlier, has never since enjoyed anything like the success of their brief early-1980s heyday.
And that is largely that for Flying Buffalo’s most influential period. But what an influence it was! There’s the proto-4X game and proto-MMORPG all rolled into one that was Starweb. There’s Tunnels & Trolls, the game that proved that Dungeon and Dragons need not be the be-all end-all when it comes to fantasy RPGs, and that showed in the process how much rollicking fun could be had with a rules-light, story-oriented system. There’s the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and the millions of dog-eared, pencil-smeared paperbacks they spawned. There’s the later careers of Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole. One could doubtless write several substantial articles of any of these legacies. The legacy on which I’d like to concentrate, however, is yet another one, albeit one related to all of these things.
Even as Flying Buffalo was frantically downsizing, a youthful computer-game executive was fingering his copy of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes and musing. Brian Fargo, founder and head of a little Orange County developer called Interplay, was in the process of finishing his company’s first CRPG, a Wizardry-like dungeon delver called The Bard’s Tale that had been written primarily by his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford and would soon be published by Electronic Arts. But Fargo already had grander ambitions. He loved pulpy post-apocalyptic fictions: the movies The Omega Man and Mad Max, the comic book Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. The post-apocalyptic CRPG he was dreaming of would be the first of its type, and must entail more than mapping endless mazes and slaughtering endless hordes of monsters — not that a little slaughtering would be amiss, mind you. Looking at Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a game he liked very much, he started thinking about another first: working with experienced tabletop designers to translate a set of tabletop mechanics, which even in the rules-lights form favored by Flying Buffalo were far more complex than those of the typical CRPG, to the computer.
Fargo’s first call was to Ken St. Andre, who was very receptive. (“Cross my palm with silver and I’ll be happy to work on games for any company out there,” he jokes today.) St. Andre almost immediately came up with the perfect name, one that would remain unquestioned henceforward: Wasteland. But Fargo would, St. Andre said, need to get Michael Stackpole on board if he wanted to adapt the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes rules; it was Stackpole’s game, after all.
When Fargo duly called him up, Stackpole was initially skeptical; plenty of similar feelers had never turned into anything. But when Fargo asked whether he, Fargo, could fly out to Arizona and talk to him about it in person, Stackpole started to take the idea more seriously. Soon he had officially signed on as well.
Fargo’s choice of partners proved a good one in more ways than one. St. Andre and Stackpole were both very well-acquainted with computer games and didn’t look down on them, a quality that stood them in marked contrast to many of their peers from the tabletop world. Both had become active electronic as well as tabletop gamers in recent years, and both had parlayed this new hobby, as they had their earlier, into paying gigs by writing articles, reviews, and columns for magazines like Computer Gaming World and Questbusters. St. Andre had developed a special enthusiasm for Electronic Arts’s Adventure Construction Set, a system for making simple CRPGs without programming that wasn’t all that far removed in its do-it-yourself spirit from Tunnels & Trolls. He served as head of an officially recognized Adventure Construction Set fan club.
Fiercely loyal to their old friends, St. Andre and Stackpole convinced Fargo to widen the circle yet further, first to include Liz Danforth and then Dan Carver, the very man who had given Tunnels & Trolls its name all those years ago. The new computer project missed only one key figure from the creative core of the old Flying Buffalo. Rick Loomis, busy trying to save his company, had no time for side projects.
This little group of tabletop alumni was embarking on an unprecedented project. While plenty of veterans of the tabletop had flitted over to the more lucrative world of computer games already, no single project had ever employed so many, and never with such a clear goal of bringing the vintage tabletop-RPG experience to a computer game. Whatever his little band of refugees came up with, Fargo knew as he looked on with excitement and no small trepidation, it was bound to be interesting.
(Sources: Matt Chat 90 with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo’s speech at the 2012 Unity conference; recent interviews with Ken St. Andre at Grognardia, Poplitko, Obskures, and the Tunnels & Trolls home page; a vintage St. Andre interview with Demon magazine; RPG.Net’s review of Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. Most of all, Shannon Appelcline’s superb book Designers & Dragons: The 1970s and Jon Peterson’s positively magisterial Playing at the World. The latter book does a far better job making the case for Dungeons & Dragons‘s importance than I have on this blog.)
There were other experiments with interactive books going at the same as and even before the first Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. For instance, author Edward Packard of eventual Choose Your Own Adventure fame published Sugarcane Island, a sort of prototype of the concept, through the tiny Vermont Crossroads Press the same year as Buffalo Castle. There is, however, nothing to indicate that anyone at Flying Buffalo has any awareness of this or other developments prior to Choose Your Own Adventure. ↩