Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope,
Terpsichore, Urania, & Melpomene
It is the nature of a role-playing game…to bring the world it reflects to life in an especially dynamic manner by allowing each player to assume the role of a major character of that world and permitting the players to interact…
From whence did this definition come? Well boys and girls, it came from the very first licensed role-playing game. Some of my younger readers may not realize which license was first in the RPG market; it wasn't Tolkien and it wasn't Star Trek.* That's right everybody, pull on your cowboy boots and dust off your Stetsons 'cause we're going to DALLAS !
Perhaps more incongruous than a prime-time soap opera as the basis for the first licensed RPG is the fact it was published by SPI, a company noted primarily for its wargames. Alas, with the benefit of hindsight, it's not surprising that this venture was a failure. However, to fully appreciate what SPI was trying to accomplish, we must journey back decades to a magical time called 1980, when anything was possible.
By 1980, role-playing games had been growing in popularity; as of the previous year, D&D products were “distributed to the book trade” by Random House. RPGs being accepted by the mainstream was not an absurd prospect. If RPGs were to become that popular, 1980 was the time to take action. Of course, the right vehicle was necessary; elves and wizards were fine for kids, but adults might find it easier to relate to something less fanciful. A game based on a television show was ideal – all it took was sitting in front of the boob tube to understand exactly what the game was about. Dallas was popular, so it was a good bet. In fact, it was an excellent bet; when the game was released, the show was the pinnacle of pop culture. “Who shot J.R.?” was the catchphrase for the summer of 1980. Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game could have captured a huge demographic and expanded the market for RPGs...but it didn't.
In a 1988 interview, prominent game designer and SPI executive Redmond Simonsen stated:
As to DALLAS: we didn't print 250,000 of them. More like 80,000 (in two runs). That was about 79,999 more than anyone wanted. DALLAS didn't kill SPI, but it didn't save it either (as some had vainly hoped). Essentially, anyone who is wired on DALLAS (the TV show) is not also wired on games.Yes, in hindsight, the Dallas license was an odd choice. Yet, had it been successful, we would be look back with our wonderful hindsight and say something along the lines of, “It was obvious...perhaps inevitable.” Dallas is not a bad game, but SPI learned the hard way that the (tabletop) RPG market is limited after all. Dallas occupies a sort of limbo, an area where role-playing games and the general public would have overlapped. Alas, fans of Dallas were not interested in RPGs and gamers were not interested in role-playing J.R. and his ilk.
Anyway, to continue with the Dallas definition of role-playing game:
There are two key elements to a role-playing game, which distinguish it from other types of games and imparts a sense of drama to play:
Character Roles: Each player assumes the role of one major character from the television show, Dallas, and acts the part of that character throughout the game. To help players assume their roles, the game includes Character Sheets which detail the Values assigned to each major character. These Values reflect the various strengths and weaknesses of each character in dealing with other characters.
The Director: The Director is the one player who does not assume the role of a character. The Director’s role in the game is to create the circumstances of the Episode being played, to introduce new characters and situations as the game progresses, and to act as the final authority on all rules interpretations.SPI published (the original) War of the Ring, so they had dealings with the Tolkien Enterprises. As long as we're indulging in hindsight, is it not feasible SPI could have acquired the RPG license for Middle Earth? Rather than attempting to capture the larger, uncertain market of Dallas viewers, SPI could have focused on existing role-players, many of whom were fans of Tolkien. Middle Earth could have been the first licensed role-playing game. Perhaps it would have been successful enough to keep SPI solvent.
*UPDATE (January 24, 2015)
I wrote this post prior to learning of the existence of Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier published by Heritage in 1978.