As the eighties progressed, one-size-fits-all patchwork “campaign worlds” fell from fashion in the RPG world. They didn’t initially lose their market dominance – most Dungeons and Dragons products, for instance, were set in its smorgasbord Forgotten Realms setting – but a minimalist approach to world-building, concentrating on helping a gamesmaster evoke particular moods or playing styles, became more common.
At the time I was concentrating on creating my own worlds (in the maximalist, old-school, style), so I mostly experienced these second-hand, through friends who bought one or other of the many box sets or games based on these new creations. I don’t think many actually got played – a setting like TSR’s Dark Sun, for instance, best described as “post-apocalypse fantasy”, seemed designed to make life as harsh for the players as possible, and was probably better experienced through lone reading of the rulebooks. My feeling actually is that the hobby as a whole was peaking, and most new games and supplements were more admired than played. A glowing review in the games press might be given to something like Skyrealms Of Jorune, which came equipped with a hugely detailed (and admirably consistent) exotic setting, but I doubt many sustained games of it were run.
Maximalist worldbuilding had been based on giving the players and referees as much freedom of choice as possible – fancy fighting Viking-style berserkers one week, and Samurai elves the next? No problem, sir! Minimalist worlds worked to limit their options instead. The “Gothic horror” of Ravenloft, a supplemental D&D setting, was based on crude physical limitations – game mechanisms simply prevented the players leaving a region before certain victory conditions were fulfilled (a throwback to D&D’s wargaming roots, this). More successful were worlds set up to limit the players’ choices by enmeshing their characters in complex social or political structures.
Ars Magica, for instance, came out at the end of the decade and became a massive indie gaming hit. It was a game about wizards in medieval Europe, and its selling points were a highly flexible magic system and the background political structures of wizarding clans and houses, which could provoke inter-player tension as well as shared motivation. It was one of the first games to build credible long-term player goals into its system, rather than just letting them increase their abstracted power levels indefinitely. An Ars Magica character would find it much harder to significantly alter their game world than an overpowered D&D equivalent, but would also have a far greater chance of doing so in credible, satisfying ways.
Pendragon was even more stringent. A game based on Arthurian chivalry and knightly quests, here the game world was small and the events within that world largely set – Camelot would, over the course of a campaign, rise and fall, with little direct involvement from the players, who had quests to fulfil, obligations to carry out, and heirs to sire. One conceit of the game was that, if a character died, the player would begin playing a relative – brother or son – with duties of honour towards the dead predecessor. This was a neat way of furthering Pendragon’s main design aim – creating a gaming environment in which most player actions and choices would have consequences.
These were both excellent games, self-consciously sophisticated products of a more established hobby. Neither were designed for beginners – the assumption, though rarely expressed, was that players would reach them through dissatisfaction with D&D. But D&D itself was becoming bloated, overburdened with supplements and settings, and threatened by the increasing quality and complexity of computer games (the first really successful computer versions of D&D started to emerge at the tail-end of the 80s, for instance). The RPG hobby needed another source of new players, people whose sense of outsiderhood could find expression in gaming. Enter the goths.