We arrive at the end, at the fourth book of Designers & Dragons. This book has many parts and focuses as it tries to understand recent gaming history. Close to the present it can focus on what is still continuing, still here and around, but the previous books set in earlier decades had a clearer narrative to follow, the major players and the minor players were more clearly demarcated. Once we hit the d20 period and the rise of “indie” games the marketplace becomes even larger and more complicated.
Appelcline does a great job of going through it carefully and methodically, focusing as he has previously on companies and through their products telling their story and the stories of those involved and what they achieved (and sometimes failed to accomplish). I am pleased that although space is given to Paizo and the very popular Pathfinder it doesn’t overshadow Paizo’s many competitors and the huge breadth of tabletop games in circulation. This was a good decision, although Paizo fans may feel not enough was devoted to their beloved franchise. Appelcline is not playing favourites and everyone involved in the story gets a place. This is excellent to see.
As with the first, second and third books Appelcline shares the stories and product lines of so many different gaming companies. There is a lot to follow up on here, like or. The good news is, many of these will still be print or easily procurable (unlike things from the 70s or obscure stuff from the 80s).
We also have short departures to talk about individual designers in the great game of making tabletop games. These sections are compact but definitely present. Appelcline is clearly fascinated by indie game developers and Jared Sorensen (who I have never heard of before) gets the spotlight on pages 152-167. Lumpley Games and the strange stories around D. Vincent Baker were quite entertaining, especially his release of Kill Puppies for Satan and the results: “kill puppies for satan generated tons of hate mail, much of which Baker reprinted and mocked on his website.” So we have the legendary troll making his statements with a bizarre gaming system just before the indie gaming scene takes off. These... short stories on indie developers are done again for others, and the sheer length of this volume means Appelcline can trace what notable indie game developers have done and what influences they have drawn upon over many recent years and across numerous projects.
Speaking of Baker, what we also have is a continual discussion of the many influences coming into the hobby. Whether it be religious, cultural or pop cultural, whereas Asian content was almost completely new in the 90s, in the 2000s other voices and perspectives started to come in from previous groups that had very little say or contribution. Appelcline says later in the appendix that “roleplaying became cool” and in the 2000s we see the effects of cool roleplaying attracting new influences. This leads to products like Dogs in the Vineyard (2004) where according to Appelcline: “Dogs is set in the Old West, but an Old West centered on religion. Players take on the roles of God’s Watchdogs, who travel through communities to help protect the Faith. The moral codes of the Faith are presented so authentically that you can just feel the world that they create shimmering into existence around you. This is clearly the game’s first strength.” This game, was based on Mormonism. This is just one example of how there were no limits on what came in from the indie gaming scene. If people liked it and there was interest, more would follow.
The Appendix and its points on gaming in the 00s are still relevant for today (as of 2015). The d20 bubble has had a huge influence on the industry (both positive and negative after the crash), that is still felt, roleplaying has exploded in popularity and sometimes by some people it can be seen as cool. I cannot speak for the corporate control of 4th ed, although Appelcline has much to say there, but we are still in the time of indie games, pdfs and definitely remain in a period of new and experimential mechanics. It closes with a small mention of kickstarter, but that story has not concluded and therefore remains to be yet told.
In each decade tabletop gaming has changed. Appelcline’s last book of the four isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. New editions of existing games have come, we are in the indie revival, many people are making their own games, which may start out as house rules and end up wholly different rule systems in worlds of their own making. In the future there will need to be many more like this one to chart where tabletop gaming has gone and who was involved, what were their stories and what succeeded and failed. This finishes the four-part series on the history of gaming. It has been a great ride that I will return to again as a reference to better understand the history of tabletop roleplaying.
[5 of 5 Stars!]