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

Orius

Hero
While I have no interest in playing this, I am morbidly curious as to whether or not it was actually playable. And perhaps you could adapt the system to run the other prime time soaps of the 80s, or even do a sort of original pastiche setting that has all the feel of an 80s soap.
 

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While I have no interest in playing this, I am morbidly curious as to whether or not it was actually playable. And perhaps you could adapt the system to run the other prime time soaps of the 80s, or even do a sort of original pastiche setting that has all the feel of an 80s soap.
My first thoughts are either Passions or Dark Shadows. At least those had supernatural elements.
 

Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
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.
I’d like to suggest some amendments to this long post, I remember a whole bunch of this stuff from the time (Plus I have a useful first hand link… but to that later!)

SPI was the big deal in the 1970’s wargame field because they published a LOT of games. Really good wargames. Avalon Hill where the only real competitor at the time and they were… unadventurous to say the least. SPI did a massive range of historical, modern and more experimental games (I have and enjoyed playing Outreach, Battle for the Stars, Starsoldier, War in the Ice, Freedom in the Galaxy and many others).

They took a foray into RPGs in a big way with Universe (their sci-fi RPG) and Dragonquest (their fantasy RPG). They had quite an interesting d10 based system they used for both of these.

Dallas was never a big part of their collapse from everything that I heard at the time. It may be that more information has surfaced since that time, but back then the news was
a) they were in debt
b) Gary Gygax bought up all their debt
c) because they had refused to publish his game some years earlier he crushed them

I hated Gygax for years for that, although more (first hand!) information has appeared over time that shows that SPI had run into problems with marketing, with inflation, poor cost control generally; when TSR bought them they were stunned at the liabilities they carried.

SPI was still huge, publishing 2-3 brilliant tabletop wargames every month, and then Gygax destroyed them.

Anyhow, a really full account is written up by Greg Costikyan here, and he should know SPI Died for Your Sins It’s a long read but a good one, and worth taking a look.

Cheers
 

GreyLord

Legend
Just think, in some alternate dimension, it is exactly the same as it is in this one...with one exception.

Dallas is THE RPG that took over instead of D&D.

Is it a nightmare...or your dream come true...only you can know.

All we can know is that in that dimension, there are a lot of cowboy hats at the Cons...
 

aramis erak

Legend
I remember seeing the Dallas RPG on the shelf at Long's Drugs (Benson & C, Anchorage - where B&N is last I checked). Right nexxt ot the much more interesting James Bond (which would take me 9 years to actually get)... I have, however, read the Dallas RPG.

It's simple, straightforward, and lacks physical combat. So, no shooting JR. ;)
 

aramis erak

Legend
While I have no interest in playing this, I am morbidly curious as to whether or not it was actually playable. And perhaps you could adapt the system to run the other prime time soaps of the 80s, or even do a sort of original pastiche setting that has all the feel of an 80s soap.
Playable? Yes. Exciting? probably not.
 



Kannik

Adventurer
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.
Interesting... similar to what Disney claimed later regarding royalty payments to Alan Dean Foster and others, where they stated they believed they only acquired the rights to the IP and not the contracts. Dangerous/disingenuous precedent? (At least in Disney's case it appears that the issue was mostly, finally, resolved and payments made last May, albeit perhaps less speedily or favorably for the lessor known authors.)
 



Does anyone want to add in the otherwise-obligatory 'Dallas was a TV soap opera in the 1980s about squabbling oil baron families in the US state of Texas, which produces a lot of oil'?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Does anyone want to add in the otherwise-obligatory 'Dallas was a TV soap opera in the 1980s about squabbling oil baron families in the US state of Texas, which produces a lot of oil'?
I mean it's sort of the second sentence of the article.
 


retro

Explorer
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.
Magpie Games is currently working on Pasion de las Pasiones, a PbtA- based game based on Mexican telenovelas. At the moment it's languishing in the liminal space between Kickstarter fulfillment and delivery.
 




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