The RPG Origins of Fallout - Part I: Tunnels & Trolls
  • The RPG Origins of Fallout - Part I: Tunnels & Trolls


    Fallout, the beloved video game franchise that mixes 50s retro-futurism with the apocalypse, has its roots in a role-playing game...and then attempted two different licensing deals with role-playing game companies before they were tripped up by legal challenges. From Tunnels & Trolls to GURPS to D20 Modern, Fallout's evolution was intertwined with both video game and tabletop gaming history.

    Tunnels & Trolls

    Game designer Ken St. Andre created Tunnels & Trolls in response to the wargaming roots so evident in Dungeons & Dragons.To St. Andre, the game was needlessly complex, took itself far too seriously, and required weird dice nobody had. St. Andre changed all that with Tunnels & Trolls and, by releasing the game quickly on the heels of D&D's debut, quickly found an audience. His partnership with Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo helped Tunnels & Trolls find its audience. This in turn led to the hiring of Mike Stackpole, who created a modernized version of Tunnels & Trolls titled Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes -- a role-playing game that moved away from classes entirely to a skill-based system that used attribute + skill to determine success rolls. That's when Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay, discovered the game as told by Jimmy Maher:
    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 rule-lights form favored by Flying Buffalo were far more complex than those of the typical CRPG, to the computer.

    Fargo contacted St. Andre, who came up with a name that will be familiar to fans of Fallout: Wasteland. Wasteland's tabletop roots were apparent in its release:
    Released in 1988 on the PC, Wasteland was a pioneering RPG. Set in a post-apocalyptic future in the aftermath of a nuclear war, the player controlled a team of soldiers sent on a mission into a...wasteland. It was one of the first games to ever boast a persistent world, and also featured a rich and flexible approach to its obstacles and combat. It even tied into the real world by including documentation in the box that had to be kept tucked away and only read when the game instructed you to. Most importantly, though, it set the tone which Fallout would follow a decade later. Wasteland was a dry, violent and smart video game. Its NPCs would sometimes bluntly refuse your requests. It revelled in the damage and pain you could inflict on your opponents, to the point where publishers EA stuck a PG-13 sticker on the box, despite the fact games didn't really need to be rated back then.

    St. Andre recruited Stackpole, who was initially skeptical, but soon joined the project along with St. Andre:
    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.

    Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes

    As it turned out, the rules translation from tabletop to video game was always part of Wasteland's development:

    As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

    Wasteland's innovations were significant: it allowed multiple approaches to any task (like smashing open a door, picking a lock, or blowing it up with explosives); featured a persistent world with persistent characters that could be revisited after the game was over; and launched the open world sandbox approach of tabletop play in the computer RPG field with limited hardware resources. The setting was a hyper-violent, anything-goes approach that might be familiar to players of games like Gamma World:

    The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

    Many of Wasteland's trademarks, including the flexibility of its skill system and its humorous, hyper-violent tone, would continue in Fallout.

    The Fallout Connection

    For reasons primarily due to ownership rights, Wasteland is not officially part of the Fallout universe, but it served as a "spiritual successor" to Fallout, with numerous callbacks to the earlier game littered throughout subsequent installments. It created many iconic characters and phrases, from the Brotherhood of Steel to Deathclaws. Most iconic of all is the above picture, which memorialized the development team -- a motley crew of tabletop game designers and coders:

    Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

    From left to right the designers pictured are: Ken St. Andre (leather vest and brown fedora), Michael Stackpole (black leather jacket), Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

    Their iconic vision would continue with another role-playing system: The Generic Universal Role-playing System known as GURPS, as we'll see in the next installment.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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    Comments 12 Comments
    1. redeemed storm -
      Great article - thanks for tying the threads together on this. Had many great memories of Wasteland, and years ago purchased MSPE just so I could deconstruct the mutant foes for my Gamma World games. (Turns about, with about only 5 stats, there wasn't much to deconstruct - so it was really a matter of fluff/flavor/reskinning to make them come alive for Gamma World.)

      Mike - here's an idea for another "follow the path" article: can you trace down the connections between Gamma World, AD&D, and Star Frontiers? Is there any evidence the Humans of Star Frontiers were aboard a long-range generation ship such as the Warden or the Morden mentioned in Metamorphosis Alpha or like the ship that crashed on Greyhawk in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the one from Temple of the Frog? Curious ideas, eh? I've long thought there was a well-hidden, sketchy, inside-joke meta story for all TSR's worlds ...
    1. Bayushi Seikuro -
      Quote Originally Posted by redeemed storm View Post
      Great article - thanks for tying the threads together on this. Had many great memories of Wasteland, and years ago purchased MSPE just so I could deconstruct the mutant foes for my Gamma World games. (Turns about, with about only 5 stats, there wasn't much to deconstruct - so it was really a matter of fluff/flavor/reskinning to make them come alive for Gamma World.)

      Mike - here's an idea for another "follow the path" article: can you trace down the connections between Gamma World, AD&D, and Star Frontiers? Is there any evidence the Humans of Star Frontiers were aboard a long-range generation ship such as the Warden or the Morden mentioned in Metamorphosis Alpha or like the ship that crashed on Greyhawk in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the one from Temple of the Frog? Curious ideas, eh? I've long thought there was a well-hidden, sketchy, inside-joke meta story for all TSR's worlds ...
      You're not wrong. There used to be old posts from Gygax's Q&As on here talking about the connection between worlds; if I remember correctly, that's how Mordenkainen picked up his love of six-shooters and root beer. He essentially became Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.
    1. ddaley's Avatar
      ddaley -
      BTW, a crowd sourcing campaign for Wasteland 3 will begin on 10/5 on fig.co. As a backer of Wasteland 2, I'll definitely be backing Wasteland 3:

      https://www.fig.co/campaigns/wasteland-3
    1. ddaley's Avatar
      ddaley -
      I think you meant that Wasteland was a spiritual predecessor to Fallout?... or that Fallout was a spiritual successor to Wasteland?
    1. Rygar's Avatar
      Rygar -
      Quote Originally Posted by ddaley View Post
      I think you meant that Wasteland was a spiritual predecessor to Fallout?... or that Fallout was a spiritual successor to Wasteland?

      Ironically, and fascinatingly, both.

      Wasteland was a C64 era RPG created by Interplay and released under the EA banner. EA came away with the rights to the setting, and since Interplay eventually became a Publisher itself, no further development with Wasteland would happen.

      Fallout was the spiritual successor to Wasteland, with some twists thrown in. Interplay released Fallout a couple decades after Wasteland, and it's easily one of the top three most influential video games of all time.

      Interplay ended up essentially folding (It still exists today but it hasn't produced anything in nearly 20 years). As part of the process they sold Fallout to Bethesda. Bethesda doesn't make RPGs, Bethesda makes Action-Adventure games they mislabel as RPG's to cater to the Millenial market that wants the geek cred of playing RPGs but actually hate pretty much everything that defines an RPG. Their market is one where there's no Character, you're the best at everything even when it makes no sense, and you don't have to read anything.

      No one knows if Bethesda ever talked with InXile, but it's safe to assume that Bethesda isn't about to let Fallout be made into an RPG. They made it very clear during Fallout 3's development that they have 0 interest in the type of game Fallout was.

      EA had just at the time come out of being awarded "Worst company in America" twice, took a lot of heat for the Dragon Age 2 debacle, and got summarily shredded for the disaster that was Mass Effect 3. They were even getting bombarded by sound-bites of their CEO proposing micro-transactions to reload your weapon in shooters. EA needed good press.

      Again, no one knows what happened with EA and InXile. What we do know is that around this time EA decided to deal with InXile for the Wasteland 2 property. InXile snapped it up, and went to kickstarter with it, describing it essentially as the spiritual successor to Fallout.

      Which makes for an extremely ironic circle. Interplay and EA makes Wasteland, EA won't deal with Interplay because they're also a Publisher so Interplay makes Fallout, Bethesda gets Fallout, EA deals with InXile to make Wasteland.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by redeemed storm View Post
      Great article - thanks for tying the threads together on this. Had many great memories of Wasteland, and years ago purchased MSPE just so I could deconstruct the mutant foes for my Gamma World games. (Turns about, with about only 5 stats, there wasn't much to deconstruct - so it was really a matter of fluff/flavor/reskinning to make them come alive for Gamma World.)

      Mike - here's an idea for another "follow the path" article: can you trace down the connections between Gamma World, AD&D, and Star Frontiers? Is there any evidence the Humans of Star Frontiers were aboard a long-range generation ship such as the Warden or the Morden mentioned in Metamorphosis Alpha or like the ship that crashed on Greyhawk in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the one from Temple of the Frog? Curious ideas, eh? I've long thought there was a well-hidden, sketchy, inside-joke meta story for all TSR's worlds ...
      Great question, I'll take a look!
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      Quote Originally Posted by redeemed storm View Post
      Mike - here's an idea for another "follow the path" article: can you trace down the connections between Gamma World, AD&D, and Star Frontiers? Is there any evidence the Humans of Star Frontiers were aboard a long-range generation ship such as the Warden or the Morden mentioned in Metamorphosis Alpha or like the ship that crashed on Greyhawk in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the one from Temple of the Frog? Curious ideas, eh? I've long thought there was a well-hidden, sketchy, inside-joke meta story for all TSR's worlds ...

      Star Frontiers has nothing to do with Gamma World or Barrier Peaks as both were published years before Star Frontiers came out. It doesn't really get into the human background in a ton of detail so you could spin it that way if you wanted to without wrecking the setting but there's nothing stated anywhere in the game that ties it.

      Gamma World 2E explicitly mentions the Starship Warden(at least the timeline article published in Dragon at the time does) and Jim Ward wrote both games so yes, there is a connection there.

      Barrier Peaks was a tournament module first. Gary stated in several places it's not directly tied to the Warden and there's nothing in the module to indicate it was but there's nothing in it that would prevent you from connecting it if you wanted to either.

      Temple of the Frog was from Blackmoor and Dave Arneson and that should tell you it's not connected. Again, no reason you couldn't but there's nothing overtly doing it either.

      Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Jim Ward, Steve Winter - all of these guys were online and talking about their games for years. I think if there was a big inside joke it would have been mentioned by now.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Ken St. Andre is definitely an (often unsung) RPG legend. Beyond just T&T, certainly.

      Never played Wasteland back in the day, but I certainly remember its ominous advertisements in Dragon magazine.
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bayushi Seikuro View Post
      You're not wrong. There used to be old posts from Gygax's Q&As on here talking about the connection between worlds; if I remember correctly, that's how Mordenkainen picked up his love of six-shooters and root beer. He essentially became Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.
      Murlynd was the Clint Eastwood-ish character with the six-shooters, not Mordenkainen.

      There were a lot of crossover adventures with other worlds and games in the early days. People weren't as wound up about playing a certain way and "canon" and that kind of stuff - they did whatever sounded cool at the time. The early issues of Dragon have stories about it-Greyhawk PC's going to the Warden from MA, to the old west in a Boot Hill crossover, to Skull Island form King Kong, fantasy vs. WW2, etc. There's a reason the AD&D DMG has a section on this kind of stuff. I know as players at the time we all thought this kind of thing was great and played through some homebrew world crossovers ourselves. I had a fighter that killed at least one refrigerator back then.

      If you're interested in this kind of thing the first 100 or so issues of Dragon are a great source of inspiration.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      Ken St. Andre is definitely an (often unsung) RPG legend. Beyond just T&T, certainly.

      Never played Wasteland back in the day, but I certainly remember its ominous advertisements in Dragon magazine.
      Read my mind, Ralif -- on the horizon is an article series about the three landmark contributions to gaming created by Flying Buffalo (and St. Andre).
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Nice!

      At Gen Con 2014, St. Andre challenged my brother and me to a planking contest. Fun dude.

      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      Read my mind, Ralif -- on the horizon is an article series about the three landmark contributions to gaming created by Flying Buffalo (and St. Andre).
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      ...and not to bury the lead after my earlier posts: Wasteland was an instant classic. I can't tell you how many times my crew used their AK-97's to blow various desert dwellers into "ground round" or make them "explode like a blood sausage". Trying to take out the Scorpitron with a LAW rocket. Gophers. Snake squeezin's. So many memories ...
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