Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five or So Questions with Shannon Appelcline on Designers & Dragons



Tell me a little bit about Designers & Dragons. What excites you about it?

Designers & Dragons is a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. It starts with TSR and runs through Posthuman Studios and along the way it provides complete histories for over 80 other roleplaying publishers. Each history focuses on the roleplaying production of one company, but also charts out all of its highs and lows, so you can learn about TSR's lawsuits, Palladium's Crisis of Treachery, the few times that Chaosium teetered on the edge, and much more.

This all excites me because it's the backstory of the industry. It's the tales of people who are remembered, the ones who were forgotten, and the great games they created — most of which are no longer on the shelves. It's about the companies that prospered (often in unexpected ways) and the companies that failed (usually in equally unexpected ways).

I started writing Designers & Dragons because I wanted to know what had happened to these companies of the past — where they'd disappeared to and what their stories were. I found that uncovering this knowledge was fascinating, and it appears that readers do as well!



What do you think are highlights of the 00s that new designers should really be aware of?
First, designers should look at the indie movement. Some of the early indie ideas like resource management and freeform attributes have already hit the bigger time in releases from larger publishers. However, indie games also contain lots of other interesting design like unconventional narratives, distributed authority, scene framing, and stake setting. Not all of it's appropriate for every game, but a designer should be aware of the entered toolbox, and that toolbox has been expanded a lot since the mid '90s.

Second, designers should look at the OSR movement. I'm not necessarily talking about the retroclones, but the newer games that have melded together modern design aesthetics with old-school design tropes. I think that Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (2012) is the game that's probably done the best job of managing this merged landscape.

If you know what made the industry appealing in its early days and if you know the newest ideas about how to develop roleplaying games, then you've probably got a pretty good handle on interesting design.


What is your favorite thing to talk about in RPG history?
I love the scope of history: the fact that the RPG industry has been around for forty years and that it traces its origins back even further; the fact that its created parallel industries like modern miniatures games, CCGs, and computer RPGs. I love how you can often trace a designer's production through multiple companies, to see where they started and where they went. I love the scope within an individual company, as you see how it rises (and sometimes falls).

However, I find it just as intriguing to talk about the reasons behind all this history: why a person started a company and why they decided to create an RPG on a specific topic. I love discussing why an abrupt change occurred at a company: why an old RPG line went away or why a certain type of product was discontinued,

So I'd say those two things: the big picture and the little reasons that underlie it.


Who do you think will benefit the most from the books, and why?
My first reaction is to say that old-time gamers will benefit from Designers & Dragons the most, because the books talk about all the old companies that they remember and the old game systems they still play. Equally, the books reveal the secrets of the smaller presses that old-time gamers might have heard of, but never investigated. However, I think that newer gamers will benefit from the books too, because they're full of everything that's gone before — the companies and games that are the foundation that modern gaming is built upon.

So I'd have to say anyone who wants to learn more about the gaming industry, the companies that made it up, and the games they've produced over the last four decades.
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What do you suggest people do, aside from reading Designers & Dragons, to learn more about RPGs and the industry?
I love the old gaming magazines for what they reveal about the industry. Wizards of the Coast's Dragon Magazine Archive is awesome for the fact that it lays out 25 years of industry growth, and you can get it on eBay for about $100. The generalist magazines were also good because they tended to be full of news, interviews, and game design notes from a wide variety of companies. I'd particularly recommend The Space Gamer, Different Worlds, White Wolf, and Shadis — which together form a nice chronology from the late '70s through the '90s.

There have also been a couple of great books. Heroic Worlds, a catalog of the games of the '70s and '80s, and Playing at the World, a dense investigation of the origins of roleplaying, are particularly interesting.

Finally, there are a number of OSR blogs which do a good job of looking at the history of the industry. Grognardia was my favorite until it fizzled out, but it's still got interesting things in its archives.