Hypothetical Fun: What If A Different Genre Was The RPG Foundation?

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
It is the 1970s. The time of the tabletop RPG has come. BUT, it isn't Gygax and Arneson and their love of pulpy sword and sorcery and wargames that start the genre, but some other nerd(s) with different preferences. What could it be? What would those early games look like? What would the modern RPG landscape look like now? Support you answers with media of the time, please!

NOTE: This is supposed to be fun If your inclination is to argue that it could only have been D&D and fantasy, that's fine, but it probably won't add much to the discussion.

I'll start with Comic Books! The 70s was a time of (relative) maturation of the medium, with the wild melodrama of the Silver Age giving over to the slightly more grounded emotional realism of the Bronze Age. It is possible that some fan obsessed with both games and comic books could have developed the first RPG and kicked off an industry.

Without the influence of wargames, I think a primordial comic book super hero RPG would lean into storytelling and might have served as an ur-PbtA or Fate style system. With that, it would have appealed to a different kind of nerd than wargames and while comic books were still largely white teenage boy media, I think the narrative aspect would invite other folks into the hobby earlier than D&D did. That is to say, the "Vampire revolution" of the early 1990s that brought a lot of women and other folks into the hobby might have happened earlier.

Also, we know that D&D changed fantasy fiction, so it is fun to consider how a D&D equivalent comic book game might have changed comic books. Would the Iron Age have happened earlier, or been avoided entirely?

Anyway, what strange situation do you posit, where some other geek media and/or activity gave rise to TTRPGs?
 

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aramis erak

Legend
There are a bunch of things that came together to get D&D caught on...
  • The rise of Fantasy literature in the late 1960's
    • This isn't just Tolkien
  • The ongoing Vietnam War
  • The rising enrollement of ROTC due to said war
  • the rise in miniatures gaming due to increased ROTC enrollment
  • the rapid decrease in cost of small press printing techniques (especially mimeography and typecasters) in the early 1970's
  • the rise of the small press magazines via the Amateur Press Association.
  • the rise of individual empowerment by 60's
  • The ongoing series of fantasy films in the 60's
    • List of fantasy films of the 1960s - Wikipedia
    • Note the Harryhousen Greek and Arabic inspired films ('58-'81)... I remember seeing Clash of the Titans in second run in about 1982... And the various Sinbad films on sat afternoon TV.
  • the rise in US disposable income
  • the decreasing relative cost of quality paper
This could easily, if Tolkien hadn't signed the deal in 1968, have resulted in the Greek and Arabian heroes being the model which Dave Arneson adopted.

And I'm not the only one to have such thoughts Ollie LeGrande's excellent pseudo-clone, Mazes and Monsters, is great satire as well as a good game.
Then there's the more recent Neoclassical Greek Revival by Zzarchov Kowolski...

The problem is that the human dominated settings of the Greek and Arabian tales don't have quite the escapism value the pseudo-Tolkienian Elves, Dwarves, Halflings have provided. But there are Satyrs, Amazons, and the angelic and demonic beings of the "Near East"...

That change would have little lasting impact on the story of RPGs, IMO... We'd likely have seen more overt caricatures of historic ethnic groups until someone nabbed onto the Nordic Alfar and Svartalfar.

And Greg Stafford's Glorantha likely would have been the instrumental setting in introducing non-humans. (The setting predates D&D by 5 years.)

Another possible source might have been the Nordic mythology, especially the Viking era.
 

pawsplay

Hero
D&D came right out of fantasy wargaming (and is, in fact, a fantasy wargame, albeit one with unconventional facets at the time), and in turn, is a "Braunstein" of fantasy wargaming, with Braunstein also being a wargame scenario.

Superhero games had no miniatures game to come out of, and there wasn't much in the way of a superhero gaming ecology in the day to come out of, so I'm not sure how superheroes could ever have been the original genre. The closest might be if you started with a "mystery game" focused on pulp adventurers, and then elaborated some kind of challenge system where the characters could fight, and then have it move from LARP to talbetop.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
D&D came right out of fantasy wargaming (and is, in fact, a fantasy wargame, albeit one with unconventional facets at the time), and in turn, is a "Braunstein" of fantasy wargaming, with Braunstein also being a wargame scenario.

Superhero games had no miniatures game to come out of, and there wasn't much in the way of a superhero gaming ecology in the day to come out of, so I'm not sure how superheroes could ever have been the original genre. The closest might be if you started with a "mystery game" focused on pulp adventurers, and then elaborated some kind of challenge system where the characters could fight, and then have it move from LARP to talbetop.
I think you may be missing the point of the thread.
 

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
Note that the 70' were 20 years before my time, so I go with my guts on this:

- I think the bad-ass cowboy cops and detectives shows/movies, coupled with all the exploitation movies and slashers movies could a been a gateway to create somekind of ur-Modern d20 where you played an A-team of hardened-yet-lovable lawmen getting rid of evil in their town. You'd also need rules for awesome cars and road chases! Or a Urban Arcana supplement for satanic threats and vampires!

- On a more ''escapist'' hand, given the popularity of sci-fi (Alien, Planet of the Apes etc) and dystopian anti-mega-corp movies (Soylent Green, Logan's Run, Mad Max) I think an ur-cyberpunk or The Expanse.

but...

I think, in the end, a game closer to space fantasy ala StarWars, merging sword battles, spaceships, martial arts, robots and magic, would probably be the big sellers, maybe with a bit of wargame touch for space battle or such.
 

It seems likely that if roleplaying didn't start off with fantasy, it would have been scifi instead - specifically, Star Wars. 1977 wasn't all that much later than OD&D, its impact was huge, and the general scifi fan base was already open to some performative cosplay that was only a cognitive leap from being a proto-LARP. There were also a few scifi wargames out already (much to the dismay of historical purists of the day) and many more post-SW. Postulating a world where someone got a license for Star Wars gaming in '77 and had the creative spark to make a TTRPG with it (as well as the inevitable wargames) a scifi-based RPG hobby is pretty plausible, especially if other IPs (Star Trek, Space 1999, Doctor Who, any of a variety of literary ones) also licensed out their gaming rights in an attempt to ride the coattails of SW the way the film industry did.

Overlapping fan bases would still have led to fantasy becoming part of the TTRPG hobby, as well as loads of homebrew original sf/f games as the cheap early licensing dried up. You might see the 3" SW toys getting used in place of miniatures at first and maybe more scifi "tabletop" toys in general, although I suspect there'd still be some metal figs (licensed or knockoffs) pretty fast. The process of producing metal figs back then had less lead time than modern 3D-sculpted plastics, and was something that could be (and was) done by garage-shop startup businesses. Whether Tolkein-esque fantasy would catch on as well as it did in our timeline is questionable, but I doubt it would go wholly ignored. Maybe you'd see more pulp RPG stuff early on as the Lucas interviews talking about their influence on SW came out - something that would no doubt show up in whatever the Appendix N equivalent of the "Star Wars Galaxy Master's Guide" looked like.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
One of the proto-RPG wargames that inspired Gygax was a UK based Old West game that had individual named heroes and ongoing storylines. An RPG industry born out of Old West tropes would be interesting, more grounded in genre but probably not that different in play. Someone would certainly eventually do Conan with it, but I imagine the initial genre branches would be Kurosawa and gangster films.
 

An RPG industry born out of Old West tropes would be interesting, more grounded in genre but probably not that different in play.
That seems the most likely origin point to me. The setting is easy to understand, the characters can move around it fairly easily, and law enforcement is patchy. However, there's a strong desire for justice, and a willingness to use violence.
 

I think the bad-ass cowboy cops and detectives shows/movies, coupled with all the exploitation movies and slashers movies could a been a gateway to create somekind of ur-Modern d20 where you played an A-team of hardened-yet-lovable lawmen getting rid of evil in their town. You'd also need rules for awesome cars and road chases! Or a Urban Arcana supplement for satanic threats and vampires!
The 70's were also rife with martial arts flicks, some imported from the Hong Kong movie industry and others crossing over with the Blaxploitation films of the early 70s. Factor both of those elements into the basis of an alternate TTRPG hobby and you might wind up with something slightly more inclusive than what we got, even if the added representation would have been pretty cringe-inducing by 2024 standards.
One of the proto-RPG wargames that inspired Gygax was a UK based Old West game that had individual named heroes and ongoing storylines.
You can see that style of game (which were often multi-year play-by-mail games in the days before you had to specify snail delivery) writ on a much smaller scale with TSR's own Divine Right wargame. That one leaned hard into making the national rulers people with personalities and the potential for death and replacement by heirs, as well as having loads of colorful independent characters and way more setting detail than traditional wargames had - or needed, really. I'm still boggled that they did all those add-on fluff articles for the Minaria setting in early Dragons but never actually did a D&D setting using any of it. It's as bizarre a decision as WotC's foot-dragging over using Magic setting for D&D for so long.
 

Celebrim

Legend
It's not an accident you end up with fantasy grounded in a past that never happened.

Running a game in a future or even modern setting is much more difficult.

The first problem is the scale of information. Setting the story before media, before even the printing press, keeps the scale of the information in the setting manageable. You want books to be rare. Books are problematic in an RPG because each one contains more content than your game. What is in the library or even what is on the bookshelf is an unmanageable question. Things get worse when you are always answering, "What is in the computer?" and "What is on the internet?" Closely related to this is the speed of travel. How far can a PC conceivably go? In a fantasy setting you are generally confined to about 20 miles until teleport comes on line and starts to create problems. In even a modern setting, anyone could conceivably be anywhere in the world in 24 hours. In a setting like Star Wars, expand that to hundreds of inhabited worlds in 24 hours. The scale of information needed by the GM to cope with this is just so much greater than in a fantasy setting.

The other problem is that RPGs really need to be set in heroic ages, whereby heroic ages I mean times in which defensive technology tends to out weight offensive technology and narrative intervention to protect a hero is rare. You want to set a game in a setting where a trained warrior with good equipment can believably defeat a dozen foes in battle - early bronze age or the Middle Ages are good. Not only can you plausibly tell that story but the literature of the period will be infused with that idea. Telling the same story in an age with 155mm artillery landing with ear shattering whoomps is a good deal harder both narratively and to game. Artillery means random death, just like the muskets do in Karasawa's Seven Samurai. If you are in any way trying to model weaponry, it's easier to imagine dodging the swing of an axe or blocking the thrust of a sword or armor turning aside an arrow other doing anything about being in range of a machine gun. Plot protection is less baked into the system and more easily overlooked (in the form of hit points) than in a system with guns - which is the reason guns have always felt awkward in D&D.

Of course, you can deal with this. Star Wars deals with this by being a fantasy with blasters working more like crossbows, military technology being both advanced and yet less effective than WWII weaponry, and wizard-warriors using magic to defy all attacks. It works fine in a don't think about it too hard manner. Even then, it creates irritation as shown by the trope that the Storm Troopers can't hit their targets. We see the plot protection and it bugs us.

But the point is that it's all easier to deal with in a vaguely medieval fantasy.
 

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