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I have been involved in roleplaying games for going on, literally, my 22nd year now.  22 years involved with roleplaying games, from my initial encounter in 6th grade with the old red boxed set of basic D&D, and about my only friend in a town I had just moved to.  He would come to my house pretty much every day after school, and we would play, right after our homework.  He ate dinner with us so much, he may as well have been a member of the family.

From that first moment, I knew I had found my niche, my hobby.  Hell, even what I have a talent for.

I have seen 5 incarnations of the Dungeons and Dragons game, three editions of GURPS, three editions of Shadowrun… the list could go on and on.  I have played a number of odd little games that never went much of anywhere, and even given my input to some game designers personally.  I have designed three games myself (two of which, my first two, were utter crap; the third which still sits, waiting), and designed at least five campaign settings (one of which I will have published a little later this winter).

But what it all comes down to is this: you can watch the trends in games.  Like watching the waves of popular culture, you can see it press through even the gaming subculture.  It all started with the first RPG, D&D.  People were so enamored with the writings of JRR Tolkien at the time, that Midwest wargamers E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson put together a set of rules for playing small groups of heroes trying to accomplish specific goals, instead of armies taking the field.

From there, we would see the rise of science fiction roleplaying games.  The Cold War hysteria would fuel such post-apocalyptic games as Gamma World, to the darkly hilarious Paranoia.  With the idea of interspace travel, exploration and commerce, closer to some ends of Star Trek and Star Wars, came Traveller.  And even from the writings of William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick rose the games Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0 and Shadowrun (which was actually a bastard mix of fantasy and sci fi, with a Gibsonian feel).

Onward we pressed through the 80s, and into the early 90s.  The underground punk rock movement had morphed into what would be called the Goth movement, and so we had the advent of authors like Anne Rice, and a sudden resurgence in interest of the paranormal.  And so, from the mind of Mark Rein*Hagen came the Storyteller series of games: Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith: The Oblivion and Changeling: The Dreaming.  They introduced in a new paradigm in gaming: story-driven, with a lot more focus on individual characters, instead of the group story on a whole.

The Storyteller system was the first true revolution in gaming since the original Dungeons and Dragons appeared in the mid-seventies.  In almost twenty years, the focus was on the group as a whole and their story.  And now, things changed.  It became about full characters with rich backgrounds, put in very depressing situations.  All of the settings were bleak, where even our heroes engaged in less than savory behavior, from time to time.  Oh, they paid the price for it; systems for the “payment” were built right into the games.  And suddenly, it became easier to create a character far more highly skilled than most other games ever let you be in the beginning.  There was still room to improve, but again, remember, the focus was on character development, instead of always improving the numbers.

That paradigm change would affect games all over.  Suddenly, players were interested less in the ROLE they played in the party, and were more interested in the ROLE they played via their character.  This type of play lent itself not to the pre-generated adventure play of the former two decades, and more to the organic home-style of play.  Stories could be modeled around the characters, and personal stakes in what was going on became the norm.  It was, some say, the adolescent stage of gaming; growing pains as it stretched its legs and discovered its new place in the world.

The downside of this became that, for the most part, cooperative play soon became a thing of the past.  That is not to say that players did not work together; far from it.  It meant, however, that the idea of achieving things as a group went by the wayside, to make space for trying to wind together the individual storylines.  Because of this, it was largely forgotten that roleplaying games started as a party of different people, playing different roles, to accomplish a single goal.  Many times, in a group, one person could do many different things, creating overlap in the party.  And so it was that people had less of a ROLE to play in the party, and more of a ROLE to play as an actor.

And so it was for over a decade.  Even the third edition of the still massively popular Dungeons and Dragons franchise would introduce game mechanics allowing this kind of play, instead of relying on the old paradigm of “Know Your Place”.  Now characters could cover a broader base.  It catered well to the new crop of gamers that grew up less on Tolkien and Lucas, and more on Doom and Quake.  Sure, you were still a member of a group, but now you could overlap on what you could do, and try to be just as good a healer as the party cleric.  You could always tell, during this time, those old school gamers (often called Old Dragons, or Grognards) by their style of play, and how it didn’t quite sync up with the other players at the table.

But with the advent of the new edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game (Fourth Edition, or 4E), the focus has been put back on the ROLE you play in the party as well as your individual character.  This is, in large part, the result of MMORPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft, who have once again placed an emphasis on cooperative play as a group.   They have streamlined their mechanic, allowing more descriptive, creative play (as encouraged by the Storyteller system, which is also in a whole new edition that still focuses on the stories of the characters and how they wind together), as well as cooperative play to accomplish goals as one entity made up of disparate parts.

During all of these times, you can see it happening.  The gloom and doom of the Storyteller system mirrored our own cultural worries of the coming millennium, as well as our sudden deep and abiding interest in the occult once more, much as it was at the turn of the last century.

So, it rather makes you wonder where we are headed now, in games and life both.  The hysteria of the millennium wore off long ago, replaced by a kind of ennui.  Hope is still there, but it exists in moments, while everyone else just plods along, more worried about making it to tomorrow, instead of what wonders tomorrow may bring.  And this, my friend, is why now, more than ever, gaming will flourish.  It offers a chance for a bit of brightness in what might be self-perceived as a bleak life.

Please, sit down.  Join me for a game.  I think you may just like it.

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