So I just finished reading all 1,672 pages of Designers & Dragons, a 4-volume history of the role-playing games industry. What most people would find ridiculously niche and boring, I found absolutely fascinating! So why did I find it so interesting? I'm writing this mostly to reflect on what I just read, but also as a kind of review.
I was born in 1974, the same year Dungeons & Dragons was released. I remember poring over my friend's brother's copy of the 1978 Player's Handbook in 1980 at the age of six, and I remember getting the original D&D red box set for Christmas in 1983 at the age of nine! The RPG hobby is more widespread and accepted today than it ever was back then. Thanks to things like Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies, and World of Warcraft, the fantasy genre has become mainstream. Today's multi-billion dollar video game industry has roots in the RPG industry.
One of the most striking things to me was just how many RPG companies there actually were! Each chapter of these books covers one of 83 different companies that made significant contributions to the development of RPGs. But there were many other companies merely mentioned, bringing the grand total to around 200! That's crazy! There were the big ones, of course--TSR, White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, etc. But I was shocked at how many smaller companies there were as well. A lot of them only lasted a few years, and many of them were licensees. I was also surprised at how many times games would change companies and/or licensees. And these books only barely touch upon fulfillment houses, cons, miniatures, fiction, and tabletop wargaming. Growing up, I would have guessed there were only around 50 companies making RPGs!
In fact, reading Designers & Dragons made me want to go look into and try a whole bunch of new games. I'm especially intrigued by some of the different game mechanics mentioned in less mainstream games. I've considered designing my own RPG, and now I want to research all the existing mechanics out there first. The whole indie RPG scene of the 00s was completely foreign to me. I barely knew it existed. Looking back, I see that my pre-internet exposure to new games was dependant on what I saw in game stores, ads inside the gaming books I purchased, and what friends or schoolmates introduced me to. The RPGs of my "formative years" include Dungeons & Dragons (in all its various settings), Star Frontiers, Car Wars, Shadowrun, BattleTech, Robotech, and even TMNT.
It was also cool seeing all the behind-the-scene elements. The RPG industry is a hard business. Most companies don't make much money or last long, and even the big companies eventually fall. It's more about creating something out of passion and exploring new ideas. Fun lies at the core of what RPG players--and designers--do. In fact, whenever a company became too large and corporate, their game lines seemed to suffer. It was interesting to see when companies figured out certain things that we now take for granted like the development of new character classes, splat books, adventure paths, etc. I like that these books spotlight such innovations and the awards that various games won for coming up with things no one had seen before.
Then there were all the huge changes that have occurred over the history of RPGs! There was the release of White Wolf's Vampire the Masquerade in 1991 and the huge industry shift to storytelling games. There was the release of Magic the Gathering in 1993 and subsequent rise of collectible card games. There was the d20 boom (and later bust) when WotC released the industry-changing d20 License and Open Game License in 2000. There was the development of things like PDFs and print on demand that made RPG creation and distribution way easier. There was the rise and quick fall of 4th edition D&D and Paizo's 2009 release of Pathfinder, which has taken over as D&D's spiritual successor. I remember all of this as it happened, and I love it!
Overall, these books were a fun, nostalgic trip down memory lane. They include pictures of the covers of the major RPG releases that came out from each company. Beyond that, these books were an education on what has been a beloved hobby to me for over three decades. I highly recommend these to other people who grew up playing and loving role-playing games like I did. The electronic versions are only $10 each, and I think I got all four as a package deal for $30. It was worth every penny, and I'm thankful that the author--Shannon Applecline--took the time to research and write these to share with the world!
[5 of 5 Stars!]