Who Shot Elminster? No, It's the DALLAS RPG!

In my extensive collection of old tabletop roleplaying games I've never played there shines a gem. A gem based on a television show which gripped audiences of the 1980s as wealthy oil barons feuded and the same question was on everybody's lips: who shot JR?

Of course, Dallas was on TV nearly 40 years ago. I'm sure there are plenty of folk asking 'who or what is a JR and why should I care who shot him?' And for those people, I have no answer.

Yes. There was an official Dallas tabletop RPG. It was published in the 1980s. And I have it right here. It's a boxed set, as many games were back in the 80s, containing booklets and cards for use in play.

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This is not a review, for who is truly qualified to review such a cultural artifact? Let us take it as read that this is probably the pinnacle of tabletop roleplaying game design and leave it at that. Instead, we'll just satisfy ourselves with an unboxing.

What's in the box?

No, that's not a line from the ending of Se7en. Well, it is. But it's also a vital question we must ask when confronted with the wonder that is the Dallas RPG.

The box contains three booklets -- Rules of Play (13 black-and-white pages, including the rules and three adventures); Major Characters (20 pages of stats for the main cast of the Dallas TV show, from JR Ewing to Cliff Barnes to Sue Ellen); and the Scripwriter's Guide (13 pages telling you how to design and run an adventure). Of course, don't call them 'adventures'; they're episodes.

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The main rules booklet has paper covers, a black-and-white interior, and no art except for some photos on the cover. The first page deals with the game as a whole, introduces the Director (the GM), and describes the components in the box. We then get 3 pages of rules, followed by three 3-page Episodes (adventures) -- The Great Claim, Sweet Oil, and Down Along the Coast.

The rules are simple but it takes a lot of effort to figure that out, because they're not very clearly written -- the tone is less 'breezy TTRPG rules' and more 'electronics technical manual' crossed with 'IKEA build instructions'. But once you've parsed them by rereading the same paragraphs over and over again, they're not complicated. Players use pre-generated characters (there are no character creation rules here!), each with their own victory condition and secrets. The game runs through some predetermined scenes, and then players check to see if they've fulfilled their victory conditions.

This thing reads like a boardgame rather than a roleplaying game.

When characters come into conflict, they compare their abilities, roll some dice, and see whether the Affecting character is successful vs the Resisting character. I won't explain the exact mechanic; it doesn't matter. But I did have to read it several times. Conflict resolution is divided into Persuasion, Seduction, Coercion, and Investigation. This game is a minefield. I'd recommend a very frank discussion between the players beforehand, because players rolling dice to seduce each other leaves the field wide open for problematic interactions. I was expecting cheesy 80s shenanigans when I started this article, not this!

It's presented as a PvP type endeavour -- at the end you total up points to see who has won. If you fulfill your victory conditions, you're a winner, and if there's more than one winner, they're ranked according to an accumulation of victory points. Teamwork is not really the name of the game here. Still, if you've seen Dallas the TV show, you'll be expecting that.

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Let's look at a character. And, of course, that character must be JR Ewing, because he's first, and it will require me to turn fewer pages. Also, he's the character everybody's heard of. Apparently male character can throw their weight around (so non-male characters cannot?) and JR is the most powerful character in the game. Also, he's a big meanie.

jr.jpg

So that's kinda it. Dallas the Television Role-Playing Game. Will I play it? Almost certainly not. Will I actually read it in detail? Very unlikely. Why do I have it? Who knows. Do I feel bad for writing this article? Definitely. But I will leave you with the theme music, which will probably stick in your head for days. It did mine.

No ten-gallon hats were harmed in the writing of this article.

 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


Kannik

Adventurer
Now THAT is a find! What a thing to craft an RPG from. I'd love to see this played live for a charity game or something. :D

Plus, we all know we have a -24 rating to resist the earworm of that iconic and great theme song. ;)
 

MGibster

Legend
The rules are simple. Players use pre-generated characters (there are no character creation rules here!), each with their own victory condition and secrets. The game runs through some predetermined scenes, and then players check to see if they've fulfilled their victory conditions.
I never saw this game in the wild and I don't know anyone who owned it. But, man, it's great to be reminded it existed. But the victory conditions kind of reminds me of Free League's Alien RPG. In some scenarios, each character has a specific goal, which, if met, provides them with some reward. These goals are designed to put them in conflict with others or even endanger their wellbeing.
 



Dioltach

Legend
You know, it could serve as a great template for any soap opera or telenovela. It might not find immediate appeal among ENWorld's demographic, but I could definitely see myself playing a session or two of Jane the Virgin.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
I never saw this game in the wild and I don't know anyone who owned it.
I'm wondering if most of the sales happened in the U.K. That would explain why I never heard of it. Nope, that's not true. I never heard of it because I was playing with action figures and watching cartoons when it landed at hobby stores.

What's interesting is that it looks like the game can be played with just numbers and dice, but it actually becomes fun and memorable when everyone role-plays their characters. What a concept!
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I'm also starting to wonder just how easy it would be to get a copy of TSR's All My Children board game.
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm wondering if most of the sales happened in the U.K. That would explain why I never heard of it. Nope, that's not true. I never heard of it because I was playing with action figures and watching cartoons when it landed at hobby stores.
Same here, I was four years old when the game dropped. The only reason I was aware of its existence is because I happened to spot an ad for it in a magazine. I would assume I spotted that ad in an issue of Dragon, but I can't really say.

What's interesting is that it looks like the game can be played with just numbers and dice, but it actually becomes fun and memorable when everyone role-plays their characters. What a concept!
I think the subject matter is also interesting. Not that I remember anything about Dallas, other than an entire season was retroactively written out of canon as a dream sequence and someone shot J.R., but today I think it'd be a very, very odd setting for an RPG which typically feature more fantastical elements. Plus, who was the audience for this game? In 1980, RPGs were still very new so it looks like they were taking chances with both subject matter and on who the audience might be. For those youngsters reading this (if they're not on Twitter or TikTocking), Dallas was one of the most popular television shows at the time. It was huge. For it to be an RPG while riding high on its success is an oddity in and of itself.
 

Abstruse

Legend
This game is surprisingly important in the history of the industry. I'm going to start this off by saying these are all from first, second, and third hand accounts so put the words "allegedly" and "reportedly" as appropriate.

Simulations Publications Inc. aka SPI was a pretty big deal in the 1970s wargaming area and going head-to-head with Avalon Hill when this "roleplaying" thing started to take over. They were still strong in the market because they were making several magazines that were popular including Strategy & Tactics and Ares. But they wanted to get in on the RPG market and, taking a look around, saw a hole. TSR had fantasy down with the whole Dungeons & Dragons thing while Game Designer's Workshop had sci-fi locked with Traveller...but there weren't any for drama.

So SPI licensed Dallas to make an RPG because the television show was huge and high on melodrama, which seemed a good fit for a roleplaying game trying to stand out in the market. With RPGs slowly going more mainstream, it seemed like a good idea since other companies were focused more on pulpy genres and Dallas might tap into a large market that the other companies were ignoring. So how did SPI get the money to license one of the biggest hits on television? Venture capital firms! Yes, they existed before the internet. They got investments from a couple of venture capitalists and went hugely into debt to them in order to print Dallas.

So they took out the big loans (I've heard figures ranging from $150,000 to $600,000 but most settle more around $220,000 to $400,000) and shipped their big game that was going to put them on the map for tabletop roleplaying! To say it flopped would be an understatement. They printed 80,000 copies, which the art director later said was 79,999 too many. So SPI was stuck with a bunch of unsold Dallas games and a huge amount of debt and no real way to dig themselves out of it.

That's when Gary Gygax and TSR steps in to save the day! They offer to loan SPI the money to pay back the debt owed to the venture capital firms guaranteed by SPI's product stock and intellectual property. The deal was a godsend for SPI because, while they would be flat broke after the checks cleared and ink dried on the contracts, but being broke was better than being crushed under debt with no way to print any new products that might get them out of it. It wasn't great, but it was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is just another train. It wasn't even weeks after the deal for the loan closed that TSR called in the debt. SPI had to pay them back or TSR would claim ownership of all unsold stock of all their products and rights to everything. They obviously didn't have the money - I mean that was the entire reason they took the loan from TSR - so TSR claimed all of SPI's assets.

This is also the first time TSR's business practices royally pissed off their fanbase, as TSR started printing Strategy & Tactics but refused to honor any subscriptions. They claimed they only bought the assets of SPI but did not by the company, so therefore were not responsible for any of their debts or legal obligations. Didn't matter if people paid for Strategy & Tactics years in advance, they had to buy them all over again if they wanted to get them from TSR. As you might guess, this annoyed many people. I've seen someone claim that the response to this was the first use of T$R to mockingly reference the company's greedy nature, but I haven't been able to confirm it.

TSR realized after they "bought" SPI that the wargame market was in full collapse (mostly because D&D was taking it over), so instead of getting a major company in that space so they could own both of the largest segments in hobbyist gaming, they ended up with a company whose assets were all in a style of gaming that wasn't selling anymore. TSR released a few games that were almost ready but SPI couldn't afford to print, then slowly canceled everything except Strategy & Tactics. They eventually sold everything off by the late 80s with almost everything going to Decision Games.

One final interesting note: There's debate on whether this is the first licensed tabletop RPG or whether it was the Heritage Models Star Trek game, but it mostly boils down to pedantic nitpicking over whether something was a roleplaying game that also had wargame rules or a wargame that happened to have some roleplaying elements.
 



Jer

Legend
Supporter
This has been a white whale for my gaming collection for a while. Finding a cheap copy is difficult so thanks for the overview!

The rules are simple but it takes a lot of effort to figure that out, because they're not very clearly written -- the tone is less 'breezy TTRPG rules' and more 'electronics technical manual' crossed with 'IKEA build instructions'. But once you've parsed them by rereading the same paragraphs over and over again, they're not complicated. Players use pre-generated characters (there are no character creation rules here!), each with their own victory condition and secrets. The game runs through some predetermined scenes, and then players check to see if they've fulfilled their victory conditions.

This thing reads like a boardgame rather than a roleplaying game.

An interesting approach to a narrative RPG before narrative RPG existed. The idea of having a set number of pre-determined scenes that you work through to the end of an "episode" is an interesting approach. If they're generic enough scenes it might also be replayable - it's not like those evening soap operas of the time weren't just recombinations of the same scene with different characters in different orders every episode :)

When characters come into conflict, they compare their abilities, roll some dice, and see whether the Affecting character is successful vs the Resisting character. I won't explain the exact mechanic; it doesn't matter. But I did have to read it several times. Conflict resolution is divided into Persuasion, Seduction, Coercion, and Investigation. This game is a minefield. I'd recommend a very frank discussion between the players beforehand, because players rolling dice to seduce each other leaves the field wide open for problematic interactions. I was expecting cheesy 80s shenanigans when I started this article, not this!

I'm getting a very primitive DramaSystem vibe off that description. Interesting. And those four actions make perfect sense for a game based around a soap opera like Dallas - absent some very shocking for the time events there was very little violence and a whole lot of sex on the show. I'd agree that you'd definitely want to set some ground rules in this day and age, but I bet when the game was released folks were more likely to take it more in in the "the character is a pawn for the game" rather than "the character is a character who is a person" feel (the boardgame vs. roleplaying game observation you had earlier fits with that).

An interesting divergent type of roleplaying, created by SPI no less. It's fun to look into these kinds of off-branches of RPGs into other areas - like the "How to Host A Mystery" franchise it's interesting to see how these things get approached differently.
 

Undrave

Hero
Feels like a melodrama would be a great fit for a Diplomacy style of game though, more than an actual RPG.

One final interesting note: There's debate on whether this is the first licensed tabletop RPG or whether it was the Heritage Models Star Trek game, but it mostly boils down to pedantic nitpicking over whether something was a roleplaying game that also had wargame rules or a wargame that happened to have some roleplaying elements.
I think Dallas counts as a wargame with roleplaying elements :p
 

jolt

Explorer
The 'All My Children' board game has a lot of copies available on eBay from between $6.50 to $25.00 US. There's only two copies of the 'Dallas' rpg on eBay; one at $39.99 and the other at $77.77 US. One nice screenshot of the AMC board game shows the line (in cursive) "A game of Romance and Intrigue. Be your favorite character and experience the struggles for love, power and money." I was tempted to buy it until I noticed that they left out the Oxford Comma. Epic fail.
 

Longspeak

Explorer
As a kid, I attended a local convention in Seattle. 1979 or 1980, I think. Saturday morning, the director came into the lobby of the dorm we were using, shouting "Who wants a free game???" Many hands went up and he reach into this large box and started throwing copies of... Dallas.

It turns out one of the local retailers had donated about 50 copies of this game for "prizes."

Well, many of the copies were thrown back. But some were taken. Some of those made it to the auction on Sunday morning. Some came back the next year. And the next. It developed into a tradition. For years at least one copy would make it to the auction, often the same one, as marked on the inside of the box. Often though not always, the seller would list it as proceeds to the gaming convention.

By 2000, or 2001, we'd lost all copies, but for a good 20 years you would find a copy of this game on Sunday morning at my local con.
 

Abstruse

Legend
The 'All My Children' board game has a lot of copies available on eBay from between $6.50 to $25.00 US. There's only two copies of the 'Dallas' rpg on eBay; one at $39.99 and the other at $77.77 US. One nice screenshot of the AMC board game shows the line (in cursive) "A game of Romance and Intrigue. Be your favorite character and experience the struggles for love, power and money." I was tempted to buy it until I noticed that they left out the Oxford Comma. Epic fail.
Because it was so over-printed and the lack of demand, it used to be easy to find copies of the Dallas RPG on sale dirt cheap. The last couple of years, it's shot up in price. I guess because more people are starting to realize it existed and are overwhelmed by morbid curiosity.
 

Fritterfae

Villager
This game is surprisingly important in the history of the industry. I'm going to start this off by saying these are all from first, second, and third hand accounts so put the words "allegedly" and "reportedly" as appropriate.
This was a fascinating read Abstruse. When I saw that SPI logo on there it definitely threw me for a loop. So this backstory on why a wargame company known for the Campaign for North Africa made the Dallas RPG was exactly what I wanted to know. Thank you!
 

GreyLord

Legend
I had no interest in this when it came out...

And I actually have no interest in it now.

I think it was a misjudge on who the RPG players were and what the audience was. I think most of them, like me, had no interest in something like this.
 

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