From the time I got into role-playing games, the selling point was well-established: the games allowed players to create stories in which they were the heroes. But what kind of stories? The RPG set-up requires a group of characters (4-6, on average) to work more or less together – individuals can break away from the group, but these break-outs can hardly be extended as other players are likely to get bored while one person’s storyline is furthered.
This is a fairly rare set-up in storytelling, which tends to focus on a single protagonist, or a protagonist plus a sidekick. War stories are an exception, as the focus can be on a squad. Team sports stories, too. And school stories often follow small groups of protagonists, who can’t separate too easily because of the tight setting. But pretty much no early role-playing game – and very few later ones – have focused on war, or team sports, or school as a setting. Instead they chose fantasy or science-fiction. Sci-fi novels didn’t often focus on groups, but at least Star Trek provided some kind of narrative model. And fantasy novels? In the mid-1970s they were a genre in transition from pulp-derived ‘sword and sorcery’ sagas to Tolkein-derived ‘high fantasy’, a change sparked by the enormous success of Lord Of The Rings.
Lord of the Rings provides the apparent model for the group-oriented action of RPGs. The Fellowship of the Ring is a formalised group, whose members have clear roles and motivations. Their adventures, surely, were the kind of thing you could reproduce playing D&D. Except for two things: the group operate for only a sixth of Tolkien’s novel (which in some ways is a critique of communal – as opposed to individual – action against evil). And the adventures of the Fellowship would be completely unplayable.
In the early 80s the magazine White Dwarf published a D&D adventure based on the Mines of Moria sequence from LotR. It sparked much letter column debate, mostly agreeing that the attempt had been noble but doomed. The problem was the enormous discrepancy of power and ability between the heroes of the Fellowship: a player given Pippin or Merry’s character would find themselves with almost nothing to do except hide and hope. In the meantime, Gandalf is again obviously an order of magnitude more powerful than the ‘muscle’ characters, which means only he can fight Moria’s main bad guy. But attempting to fit this into any rule system would leave the game hugely imbalanced. You could have got round this by having the hobbits and Gandalf as non-player characters, controlled by the referee. But this would take away a good chunk of the reason players had identified with the Moria story in the first place. The whole affair outlined quite starkly what anyone who played D&D knew deep down: the game was NOT designed to tell stories of heroic fantasy, or at least not that kind of story.
The stories it did tell were about problem-solving, steady progress, co-operation, in wholly artificial environments – the average D&D campaign bears more relationship to a corporate training programme than a heroic saga. The type of gameplay that came out of D&D was new, and original, and as it turned out hugely influential, but it had nothing to do with storytelling: that was spin, or less cynically, a way to sum up a thing whose creators didn’t really understand it. The problem for RPGs – and particularly for D&D – was that a host of players were lured in under precisely this false pretence, and the history of the hobby in the 80s and 90s is the history of them trying to make it real.