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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Tabletop RPGs


Shannon Appelcline’s four-book series Designers and Dragons presents an incredibly detailed look at the history of tabletop roleplaying games, featuring profiles of more than a hundred companies, including TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and White Wolf.

“The scale of the project was obviously huge, and the only way that it possibly came about was doing one article at a time, one company at a time,” Appelcline says in Episode 369 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “If I had ever looked and said, ‘Hey, I need to put out four books’—which together were half a million words—I probably would have run in the other direction.”

For each article, Appelcline gathered as much information as he could from magazines and websites, then ran his research past people who had actually worked at the companies in question.

“Sometimes they’d send it back and say, ‘Hey, this is all great. It sounds exactly like what we did. I don’t know how you figured it out,’” Appelcline says. “And sometimes they’d say, ‘I can’t believe you got this so wrong. I’m very angry at this. I need you to fix it.’ And if anything the latter feedback was more helpful than the former, obviously.”

Along the way he discovered that the history of tabletop gaming is full of confrontations, betrayals, and scandals, which makes Designers and Dragons a surprisingly lively read. “I’ve had at least one person who read it who said that he was amazed—for such a small industry with such small margins, where there just wasn’t a lot of money involved—that there was so much drama,” he says.

Chronicling the rise and fall of so many different companies has also convinced him that he never wants to start his own roleplaying outfit.

“I think once you read Designers & Dragons, you would see how you would have to be really, really enthusiastic and optimistic—almost self-sacrificial—to want to create a roleplaying company,” he says. “I have huge respect for the people that do, because I know exactly how hard it is to do it.”

Listen to the complete interview with Shannon Appelcline in Episode 369 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Shannon Appelcline on licensed games:

“Nowadays there are very strict licenses that have very limited timespans and can be killed at any point. Or [your product] could be greatly delayed because people have to look over permissions. So I feel like licensing has a couple of dangers that can leap out and grab you. One is that you put a lot of work into really expanding and improving a property, which for example West End Games did back in the ’80s with their Star Wars game. It’s kind of weird to think of now, but after the original trilogy of movies, Star Wars was essentially dead, and the only people that were actively developing it were West End Games. They put huge amounts of work into it, and now they’re not there, and Star Wars has moved on.”

Shannon Appelcline on worldbuilding:

“One of the secrets of the roleplaying industry is that people buy a lot more books to read or put on their shelves than they will ever, ever play. … It’s kind of fun to see these worlds that you’ve read about be statistically defined, and a lot of these licensed games also do a miraculous job of developing the world, and showing it in detail that you never would have seen in the actual book. I.C.E.’s Middle-earth Role Playing was one of the first really extensive licensed lines—it was in the ’80s primarily—and they just did an amazing job putting out supplement after supplement—chunky 60- or 80-page supplements—that extensively detailed individual lands in Middle-earth, at a level that you would never see even in the very extensive Lord of the Rings books.”

Shannon Appelcline on fantasy heartbreakers:

“‘Fantasy heartbreaker’ was a term that was originated by Ron Edwards in an article that he produced. Ron Edwards basically suggested that a lot of people came up with their own versions of Dungeons & Dragons, not seeing how the rest of the industry worked, and they repeated a lot of the ideas that had already been seen by the rest of the industry. When Edwards wrote the article, one of the things he was saying was that all of these games have been dumped into the dustbin of history, but there was really great stuff in them, and really great enthusiasm, and even though they didn’t do well—because they weren’t as original as the designers thought they were—there still might be little things in them that we can find. But the term more generally has come to mean just ‘those games that are copies of D&D.’”

Shannon Appelcline on game designers:

“I think that the average designer of a tabletop game in the current market is someone who cannot not design games. They are people who are driven by their ideas and creativity, and they just can’t help themselves. They have all of these things bubbling up, and they want to make them available to other people. They love the systems they’re creating, they love the stories that those systems can tell, they love the fans who are interested in their stories. … The roleplaying industry has always had very small margins. I think a lot of people don’t understand how very, very little an average roleplaying company makes—or an average designer makes—for a lot of effort. You just put those together and you get people in there who really want to be there because they have great things that they want to do.”

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