Posted by: markfender | January 6, 2015

Designers & Dragons

Evil Hat continues to expand past their origins in Fate with other roleplaying products, like these books.

designersDesigners & Dragons is a history of the roleplaying industry by Shannon Appelcline. It was previously published by Mongoose Publishing, but since I have a moral hatred of Mongoose’ book quality, I did not purchase it then. Evil Hat ran a Kickstarter to expand the histories into four volumes, covering the four decades that RPGs have been around. These were recently released to the general public and so I bought them as a Christmas gift for myself.

I think a lot of roleplayers are interested in history (Why else would every new setting have a timeline as the first thing we see?) so these books should be a shoe-in. It combines your two loves – history and RPGs!

Appelcline thematically breaks the books down by decade (although many of the individual companies’ bios cross that divide, of course) and then further by company. These companies are often loosely connected into sections appropriate to their founding, thematic content, or other industry connections. Each company’s bio includes as much data as Appelcline was able to find, the principals, their games, and their publishing ups and downs. Some early companies have far less information, as you’d imagine, but Appelcline does his best to find information from other sources. It’s not an exhaustive look, as not every RPG is (or could) be mentioned, but there also “mini-histories” throughout the books for notable, but relatively smaller, publishers.

I’m not sure if I’m the target demographic for these books. After all, I was there for at least three decades of this stuff. Additionally, I’m the weird person who actually reads the credits of my RPGs, so I’ve watched designers move from company to company, even if I didn’t know the behind-the-scenes specifics. A lot of these books were just reminders to me of how things worked. As the years move on, the details get more concrete, even getting down into what certain designers were thinking at the time. This, of course, is due to the internet recording a lot more behind-the-scenes information.

Running through each company’s biography is probably the best way to present this information, as a year-to-year breakdown would have been a nightmare to follow, especially in the early days of the hobby when companies were publishing books for each others’ lines, swapping designers, and generally making the whole a convoluted mess. However, I do have some issues with the format. For one, it’s actually hard to find out about the designers themselves. For instance, there’s no index for me to find every instance of Robin Laws’ design work. Since he has freelanced for a number of companies, his history is scattered throughout the books. This seems like a weird oversight for a book with “Designer” as the first word in the title. It can actually be tough to follow designers through the history of RPGs. Now, with the subtitle “history of the roleplaying game industry” the breakdown works fine, but the title might be working at cross-purposes.

If I have another negative, it would be that there’s not enough negative in these books. The rights to certain properties transfer between companies at an accelerated rate, with many companies failing to ever produce anything with their new license. It happens so much that I began to wonder about the reasons for these apparent failures to produce anything. Yet, most times, these histories gloss over that. It might be that there’s really no story there, and I certainly don’t expect that kind of detail with every license transfer, but some more insight into when companies don’t actually produce anything would have been interesting. In addition, there’s events I clearly remember that aren’t referenced in these books. A relatively innocuous event: I mentioned earlier that I didn’t buy the early editions of this history due to it being produced by Mongoose Publishing. Appelcline talks a bit about Mongoose’s book quality, but breezes right over the other reason I never bought Mongoose stuff – the terrible editing. It was so bad that they would often produce new editions of their games within a year of the first edition, there were so many problems with their games. While Appelcline reals off the the new editions and their years of publication, he never mentions the reasoning behind these rapid editions. And yet, Mongoose was notorious for this during their heyday. That being said, Appelcline doesn’t ignore all of the negative, couching some negative flare-ups in the industry with very decorous wording. I just wanted some additional info in places. Additionally, I would have liked to see at least a mini-history for the company that produced FATAL. Not because FATAL is a great game, but because it represents a clear warning to the industry of where it can (and shouldn’t) go. From a historical perspective, FATAL can work as a strong warning. But by not mentioning it, or the ensuing controversy, Appelcline dooms the industry to repeat its mistake (If you believe George Santayana). In addition, I was a little surprised to not find a history on Lee Gold and Alurums & Excursions. As a fanzine published since the origins of the hobby (and still producing issues), it seems like a giant “hidden” part of the industry that still doesn’t receive any coverage, despite that several well-regarded designers “met” each other in its pages. I still know next to nothing about it, despite it getting quite a bit of mention in the early history of the industry.

What I learned from reading Designers & Dragons: avoid d20, avoid CCGs, and avoid fiction. CCGs and d20 were, of course, big shakeups in the industry that doomed more companies than made companies (*shakes fist at Peter Adkinson, indirectly responsible for both*). It’s really the crazy book consignment and return policies of the booksellers industry that were eye-opening. I was vaguely aware of White Wolf’s issues with the book selling industry, but this history brought it into sharp relief as I read of multiple companies hit with massive, unforeseen book returns. I now sort of want to see the book industry destroy itself, if only to see that remarkably broken system destroyed. How and why did bookstores gain so much weird power? Is there a history of the book trade I could read somewhere?

These books are cool. You should buy them if you have any interest in RPGs. Besides the games themselves, we need books like this to provide a historical lens. I’m not a “if we want to be taken seriously as an industry” sort of person because I’ve always sort of doubted the veracity of calling it an “industry,” but this is the kind of work that legitimizes our weird, little hobby.




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