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.

d3.jpg


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

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
An interesting piece of history. Thanks for the details!

And a business decision interestingly elided in Greg Costikyan's otherwise comprehensive tale of the rise and fall of SPI. He talks about the venture capital investment of $400,000 from Alan Patricof Associates, but doesn't mention Dallas at all.


Greg Costikyan: Another failing was inadequate attention to financial details. New management discovered that SPI's highly successful line of Capsule games -- small, limited-component products sold for $6 -- actually lost money. Given distributor discounts, $6 would about cover the cost of shipping blank, white boxes without games inside them. The Capsule games had sold very well -- and SPI lost money on every one it sold.

Alas, Dunnigan's ouster came too late. The country was in the throes of a recession, further depressing SPI's sales; the company's cash position continued to deteriorate. Even with $400,000 of venture capital money from Alan Patricof Associates, SPI was unable to make a go of it. After negotiating, unsuccessfully, with Avalon Hill, SPI entered into negotiations with TSR toward a buy-out.

TSR indicated initial interest, and SPI, desperate for cash, asked for the loan of a few thousand dollars to meet its payroll. TSR agreed, requiring that the loan be backed by SPI's assets, making it a secured creditor. Shortly after SPI paid its employees, TSR demanded repaymentment of the loan. SPI agreed to be taken over by TSR, for no cash money.
 

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Abstruse

Legend
An interesting piece of history. Thanks for the details!

And a business decision interestingly elided in Greg Costikyan's otherwise comprehensive tale of the rise and fall of SPI. He talks about the venture capital investment of $400,000 from Alan Patricof Associates, but doesn't mention Dallas at all.

Yeah, because of the subject matter, my version makes it sound like Dallas was the sole cause of everything. It was a major contributor, but it wasn't the only problem going on behind the scenes at SPI. I'm just not as well-versed in them because the whole Dallas thing and the "acquisition" by TSR are far more interesting to me than the wargaming side of things.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Yeah, because of the subject matter, my version makes it sound like Dallas was the sole cause of everything. It was a major contributor, but it wasn't the only problem going on behind the scenes at SPI. I'm just not as well-versed in them because the whole Dallas thing and the "acquisition" by TSR are far more interesting to me than the wargaming side of things.
Understandable. For me, the wargaming side is more interesting than Dallas, but if Dallas was indeed a significant portion of the need for that venture capital investment, Costikyan's choice not to mention it seems like a bit of editorial obfuscation to maximize sympathy for SPI and disdain for TSR. If SPI looks bad for making a (at least in retrospect) silly investment, they're less sympathetic as victims of T$R.
 



MGibster

Legend
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.
I don't really care a whole lot about the game itself, but the game's setting and who the expected market was is what makes it so fascinating. Apparently the early days of RPGs was the wild west.
 



Mezuka

Hero
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.

SPI was already on the RPG market before Dallas. TSR was very interested in buying the Dragonquest (1980) RPG by SPI, which was a direct competitor to D&D. We played the 2e of Dragonquest (1982).

 





Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
This is a great article.

To be honest, I'll pick up strange systems like this (on the cheap being the main requirement) and sometimes there's an interesting gameplay kernel in there somewhere... but... it's like fishing a diamond ring out of the outhouse. It takes time, it's messy and a lot of times, it's not worth the effort.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I remember seeing this game wild and of being completely mindboggled by it. Especially the complex conflict system

While I never played it, I did play a Soap opera game based on Fate that had players trying to discover the secrets of other characters - it used a bidding system to initiate and frame scenes.

our set up was the matriarch Ellie Mae Clampett-Patterson was choosing her successor, uncle Jethro was an NPC who ran the Bodean Movie Studio.
 



From what I've seen, DALLAS had some interesting mechanics and scene framing that makes it a sort of proto-narrative RPG - an extinct oddity that could have developed into a whole different branch of storygame evolution.

Would be interesting to hack DALLAS...merge the cutthroat intrigue and scheming of this game with space warfare mechanics (Lancer Battlegroup or Warbirds the Space Age).

Call it EWING COMMANDER.
 


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.
Dallas had a relaunch for a few seasons less than a decade ago (until Larry Hagman died, which not surprisingly brought the show its end shortly afterwards), so there might be some residual interest due to that...
 

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